Behind The Bullying Epidemic

I was very sad to hear that Kathy Sierra has decided to withdraw from online interactions again. Her insights into how technical communication and collaboration happen are among the finest I have read, and losing her voice again is a tragedy. But the reason she has gone hurts us all too. Reading her explanation is very depressing. Her conclusion — that what she experienced is not a one-off event but an expected outcome — would be worrying even if it was just about her.

But it’s not.

While hyperbolic and perhaps narrow in naming Linus Torvalds, there’s a seed of truth in what Lennart Poettering says about the tendency for open source communities to amplify toxic people. That’s not uniquely because they are open source communities, though. It’s because they communicate online, with the scale that permits the overwhelming numbers to drown out any residual social brakes that would normally apply to in-person interactions.

It would be easy to assume how Kathy has been treated is purely a gender issue. But I don’t believe it is. There are sometimes female attackers too and the analysis Kathy provides suggests the effect is one of a critical mass of angst being catalysed by a sociopath. There’s no doubt sexism is a frequent key factor for the catalyst — “that woman doesn’t deserve to be right” — but catalyst role is itself gender independent and so is the angst-cloud. Gender and race dominate the ways victims are tormented to be sure, but it’s a mistake to let the undeniable misogyny of the mob define the root cause.

Online Outgroups

Drawing all these threads together for me is a long, fascinating article (h/t Alec) that makes me wonder if we are seeing the formation of outgroups in these incidents. Scott Alexander’s essay talks about red, blue and grey groupings of almost-identical people differentiated by some of the details of their political ideology such as their expectations of causality. He suggests the greatest risks come not from people who are very different, but rather from those who are almost the same.

I wonder if the socipathic hordes are the result of an online outgroup reaching critical mass? They could be Alexander’s Grey Tribe, or it could be the effect he describes is an expected behaviour of large groups of humans. Just as Fowler’s Stages of Faith seem to apply to all belief systems and not just religion, so it seems likely people can belong to many different outgroups in different parts of their lives.

Kathy suggests the catalyst is privilege envy. Her tormentors seem to think she has a privileged position she does not deserve and attack her without restraint; I bet they have that view based on more than just her gender. If that’s the case, it may not much matter which perceived privilege is the trigger, whether it’s gender, race, ethnicity, orientation or music choice. This is Alexander’s point; the smaller the difference, the worse the hate.

Whatever is going on, I also agree with Natasha Lennard that it’s a mistake to let any of these sociopaths (or the growds they catalyse) be socialised. It monstrous behaviour that must not be excused. Unlike Greg Sandoval I don’t think the perpetrators develop empathy or stop wanting to harm people. One friend suggests it’s a form of the “addictive righteous indignation” that David Brin writes about.

There is an irony that the people doing the bullying appear to be a group of people who themselves might have expected to be bullied, as the characters from Big Bang Theory are wont to observe — omegas becoming alphas and betas. It’s ongoing inadequacy recast in their minds as injustice, used to justify inhuman cruelty in the name of correcting a privilege imbalance. If you doubt there’s inhuman cruelty, watch Anita Sarkeesian’s XOXO talk.

As Paulo Friere once worried, are we seeing a group from the oppressed become oppressors instead of gaining empathy from their own experiences? Which, as Alexander ends up reflecting, points the finger backwards and as Pete Warden concludes tells us our toleration of asshole behaviour — from anyone regardless of their excuse — must end. The lulz do not justify the means.

[First posted on Ello]

Is Microsoft To Blame For Malware?

Simon Phipps:

I am still writing a monthly column for Linux Voice Magazine, a new print publication that (in my view) is being done right. If you’re not a subscriber, you won’t’ve seen my article from issue 5 in which I explain why I believe Windows’ malware infestation arises from Microsoft’s technical decisions favouring marketing rather than security.

Originally posted on Meshed Insights & Knowledge:

The action law enforcement services have taken against the GameOver-Zeus malware syndicate is great news for a change. In the UK, this was communicated with typical tabloid alarmism, framed as “two weeks to save the world” instead of “unusually effective action by law enforcement”. As a result, UK publications have been posting self-preservation information for their readers.

The BBC’s instructions start with the statement “If your computer does not run Windows, stop right here.” Users of other operating systems like Linux or ChromeOS have nothing to worry about this time, even if they are increasingly likely to be targeted elsewhere. As a result, some have asked whether Microsoft is to blame for all this malware.

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Heartbleed and Lessons Learned

Simon Phipps:

Here’s my column from Issue 4 of Linux Voice magazine. Currently working on the column for issue 6.

Originally posted on Meshed Insights & Knowledge:

HeartbleedWe’ve had some time for the shock of the Heartbleed announcement to sink in and there’s a lot to consider. While the first impressions might be about the serious, exploitable bug and the repercussions of its abuse, the incident casts light on both the value and risks of open source.

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Elections In Middle Earth

The Middle Earth elections are over and there’s a new alliance of elves and men in control, but all I can find on local TV is news of Tom Bombadil crushing Bilbo in Hobbiton.

I’ve been watching the BBC, and every single item of reportage has used a local political lens. We have heard guesses about next year’s UK elections, chest-beating from leaders of local parties, cameos of local politics in other countries to show what’s happening here is just like what’s happening there. But there’s little mention and absolutely no analysis of the power shift in the actual “political parties” of the European Parliament (with names like EPP, ALDE and S&D) and no useful indication of the actual consequences to the UK of the decisions its people have taken.

This is no surprise; neither the campaigning political parties nor the pre-election media ever mentioned the real politics of the European parliament, so how could anyone vote about it? Instead, the whole election has been portrayed like a mock election at a school. All comment asks what this means for Hobbiton; no-one is asking who’s running Middle Earth.

My take from the European election results is the UK has voted to remove many of its experienced politicians from Brussels and to leave the EPP and S&D to run the show. By promoting UKIP, we now have eleven fewer elected representatives working on our behalf to improve the UK’s position as new policy evolves, and even if they did suddenly decide to represent us — instead of voting in favour of things like the ivory trade and against flood prevention “to make a point” — they have no parliamentary colleagues they are willing to work with among the other nationalist parties to produce change.

The same story in other countries means the intact set of experienced political operators is from Germany, and the dominant influence from the UK will come from Labour acting within the S&D party who came second in the election. The UK’s ability to influence has been dangerously harmed and the euro-sceptic influence has moved even further from the levers of control (the UK’s Conservatives had already quit EPP by forming a new minority party) leaving pro-europeans from EPP, ALDE, Greens and S&D in control.

Meanwhile, xenophobic parties from across Europe will be funded with millions of new euros as their no-show no-work MEPs collect default allowances and feed their party with money (assuming they don’t just keep it). There may be fewer jackboots and more smiling populists, but the mantle has been handed over.

Instead of explaining all this, the UK’s news media talk as if UKIP has “won the election”, talk about local politics elsewhere in Europe and give no indication of the actual balance of power in the European Parliament. This is the real political bias problem.

By treating the European elections in purely parochial frames, voters have been given no information about the true consequences of their votes and as a result have voted like it’s a national election. No-one is being told about the true power-brokers or the future of policy. Instead, the news media have betrayed their audience and created a situation where the UK’s influence in Europe — which will remain the market maker for our economy and jobs — is further diminished. I have complained to the BBC that their coverage has been parochial to the point of abuse; you could too…

Here are the actual results:

EU Election Results 2014

As of June 9, 2014

Steering Where You Look

Simon Phipps:

I’ve been thinking about the concept in this article for a long time. I think the “steering where you look, not where you meant to go” concept is widely applicable, not just to technology but to religion, politics and other areas. Do please send improvements!

Originally posted on Meshed Insights & Knowledge:

When I learned to drive, my instructor told me “you steer where you look” — in other words, wherever you focus your attention becomes your destination, so keep your eyes on the road ahead and don’t worry about the stores at the roadside (or even too much about the kerb and the parked vehicles).

The same principle seems applicable in other contexts. We’re moving away from a hierarchical, post-industrial society and evolving into a meshed society of peers, interacting in variable roles on their own terms. That’s challenging established institutions, but sadly they have frequently “steered where they looked” and made the wrong choices.

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More cautious excitement as Microsoft opens .Net

Originally posted on Meshed Insights & Knowledge:

The Microsoft news is coming thick and fast. A few days ago we discussed Office for iPad, Microsoft’s confession of unethical behaviour and its release of MS-DOS code under a prohibitive license. This weeks news seems even bigger: open source for .Net and $0 pricing for mobile Windows. There’s cause to be excited, yet as ever caution is required.

The excitement comes from the .Net news. The formation of the .Net Foundation and the hosting of 24 projects within it should liberate developers to innovate in a way that seemed impossible under previous leadership. This move has seemed an obvious one for the open source community for a long time, as it offers a new lease of life for .Net through contributor innovation and should help create a rich, monetisable market.

The caution relates to the news that Windows for mobile will be free of charge. Whilst unarguably a big move…

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