How I set up private email hosting for my family

Here's how I actually set up my own private email hosting—sanger.io! I already finished choosing a private email hosting provider. So what was the next step?

I still had to choose a plan with my chosen provider (InMotion Hosting, which didn't pay me anything for this) and pay for it. The details are uninteresting; anybody could do this.

Now the hard work (such as it was) began. I...

(1) Read over the domain host's getting-started guide for email. InMotion's is here, and if you have a different host, they're bound to have some instructions as well. If you get confused, their excellent customer service department can hold your hand a lot.

(2) Created a sanger.io email address, since that's what they said to do first. In case you want to email me, my username is 'larry'. (Noice and simple, ey?) InMotion let me create an email address, and I was rather confused about how this could possibly work since I hadn't pointed any DNS, hosted by NameCheap, to InMotion.

(3) Chose one of the domain hosts's web app options. For a webmail app (InMotion gave me a choice of three), I went with Horde, which is, not surprisingly, a little bit clunky compared to Gmail, but so far not worse than ZohoMail; we'll see. Unsurprisingly, when I tried to send an email from my old gmail account to my new @sanger.io account, the latter didn't receive it. Definitely need to do some DNS work first...

(4) Pointed my domain name to the right mail server. In technical jargon, I created an MX record on my DNS host. This was surprisingly simple. I just created an MXE Record on NameCheap, my DNS host for sanger.io, and pointed it to an IP address I found on InMotion. So basically, I just found the right place to paste in the IP address, and it was done. Now I can send and receive email via sanger.io (at least via webmail).

(5) Created email addresses for my other family members. Very easy.

(6) Installed a desktop email client. Why? I wasn't using one before because I just used Gmail in a browser and Apple's mail app on my phone. I could keep using webmail (on InMotion) but a desktop client is apt to be nicer. I'd tell you which one I used, but I'm not confident it's particularly good.

(7) Installed a new email client for my phone. As I no longer trust or want to support Apple if I can at all help it, I wanted to stop using their email client. I paid $10 for a privacy-touting mail client which is quite good so far: Canary Mail.

(8) Change the mail address registered with the big, consequential apps and services. This is the most labor-intensive step, and the step I most dreaded. Sure, it was a pain. But it turns out it was tremendously satisfying to be able to tell them to stop using my wretched Gmail address and instead to start using my slick new permanent and personalized address. Was that fun? Heck yeah it was! Anyway, such apps and services include (click on the links for useful privacy tips):

  • The massive Internet and tech services: Google, Microsoft, Apple.
  • The big social media/community accounts: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Quora, Medium, LinkedIn.
  • Companies I pay money to: Amazon, Netflix, PayPal, Patreon, InMotion, GoDaddy, NameCheap, Heroku, LifeLock, The Great Courses, any other bills.
  • Important stuff: my employer, the bank, medical info systems/apps, dentist, Coinbase.
  • Family, friends, and work and business people. Send them the message three times spread over a month or two, because if they're like me, they ignore such emails or don't act on them right away, and some old aunt of mine will keep sending mail to my gmail address for years and years. (I haven't actually done this one yet, but will soon. Gmail makes exporting of all your relevant contact info surprisingly difficult.)

(9) Create a Gmail forwarder! Buh-bye, Google! No need even to visit your crappy, biased, would-be totalitarian service for email any longer.

(10) Clean up and consolidation. There are a zillion little consequences when you change your email on all these big services, and I expect I'll be dealing with the consequences (nothing major!) for a few days or weeks to come. Among the things I know I'll have to do: (a) Install and configure mail clients on my laptop and iPad, and in other ways get those other devices working as expected again. (b) Update various email clients with address book information, as needed. (c) Actually collect my contacts from Google and Apple (harder than it sounds). (d) Change entries in my password manager from @gmail.com to @sanger.io. (e) Actually, get a new password manager...but that's a whole nuther thang. (f) Get Microsoft and Google and whatever else to forget my contacts...ditto.

This was installment three in my series on how I'm locking down my cyber-life.


How I chose an email hosting service to replace Gmail

I want to lock down my cyber-life. One basic constraint is that I want to replace Gmail, and when I do so, I never want to change my email address again. My biggest concern is that I never again want to be beholden to any major Internet corporation that has shown its contempt for privacy and censorship concerns. But if I can get "the last email address I'll ever need" while I'm at it, all the better.

The natural solution is to own my own domain name and seek out email hosting. This is not as difficult as it might sound, but it isn’t as easy as registering a new Google account. But then, that is exactly what Google is counting on: your laziness.

My new address will live at the newly-registered sanger.io domain. I and my family members can have unique and easy to remember email addresses for all the rest of our lives. After purchasing sanger.io (from NameCheap), I listed a number of features I knew I wanted: reasonable price, unlimited (or more than I could reasonably need) email storage space, IMAP support, a webmail app built in to the hosting provider (or else software that they make it easy for me to install on my new domain), and finally, enough email addresses for my purposes.

I ended up weeding out a fair few on grounds that they were too expensive (e.g., ProtonMail) or didn't offer enough storage space or accounts (e.g., NameCheap). I also weeded many out because their Alexa ranking was above 10,000, and while that isn't a make-or-break deal, I didn't want to have to deal with a fly-by-night operation and maybe have to move operations again.


Private email hosting comparison (Jan. 2019)

 PriceSpace limitIMAP supportWebmail app# of addressesWeb Hosting Geeks.com ratingIncludes web hosting
BlueHost Plus$5.95/moUnlimitedYesYesUnlimited2.5Yes
InMotion Hosting$6.39/moUnlimitedYesYesUnlimited4.5Yes
Rackspace Email$2/user/mo (so for me, $6/mo)25GB/ accountYesYes1/$2 accountnot reviewedNo
Zoho$3/user/mo (so for me, $9/mo)30GB/ accountYesYes1/$3 accountnot reviewedNo

I also discovered that some competitive email hosting (in the case of BlueHost and InMotionHosting) comes packaged with shared web hosting, which would be handy. I mean, then I could finally ditch GoDaddy, which I've used since time immemorial. (I dislike their upselling and bait-and-switch tactics, and detest their clunky user interface.)

I use Zoho Mail for work, and it's quite decent, but it costs half again as much and doesn't bundle shared web hosting. RackSpace email hosting seems high-quality, but it fails by comparison with BlueHost and InMotionHosting, in that those two offer unlimited email addresses and unlimited email storage space. And between the latter two, InMotionHosting seems to be the better reviewed by WebHostingGeeks.com and in other reviews. Besides, it supports Ruby; I could host my Rails projects there.

I looked at a number of other reviews of InMotionHosting, and it does indeed look good. It also has spam protection (which I didn't think to check on at first), lots of PostgreSQL databases if I want them, and free website data migration from GoDaddy.

I understand that this is not a route that most people will take. Paying for email seems unnecessary, many people would say. And certainly most people don't need their own domain name for email, they think. But just think: you can have the same, perfectly appropriate email address for the rest of your life. And you no longer have to feel beholden to the privacy practices of an Internet giant like Google.

Look, you don't have to be an uber-geek to do this. If you can't do it yourself, and you can get a geeky friend to set this up for you—it's not that expensive, and then you'd have your own address forever.

And you'd no longer have to support the growing monster that is Google. Gmail is admittedly a pretty awesome web app, but frankly I find I haven't missed it much when using ZohoMail for work, and I don't even use the Google email client on my phone. So the slightly slicker quality of the Gmail web app really doesn't make that much difference after all.

Next: how I set up my new private email hosting.

This was the second installment in my report about how I'm locking down my cyber-life.


Social media stupidifies and radicalizes us

Back when the buzzword switched from "Web 2.0" to "social media," I started to get quite suspicious. When I was participating in online communities, I wasn't propagating "media." That is something that boring corporate media types did.

What would those boring corporate media types, or rather their Silicon Valley equivalents, do with once-unconstrained, lively, frequently long-form debate communities? Make the conversations shorter, more vapid, more appealing to the masses, and more addictive. In short, more of a really dumb waste of time.

The Zucks and Dorseys of the world did this in order to hook people more and more. What they probably didn't realize at first is that they had built tools for stupidification and radicalization. I don't think "dumb down" is quite the right phrase: dumbing down means making something complex simpler, easier to understand, but also less accurate. To "stupidify" focuses on the effects on us; in social media mobs, we are truly stupid herd animals, and when enraged, rather frighteningly stupid mobs. What we are fed and say is dumbed down; consequently, we are stupidified.

That degraded quality of social relationship--that is these fools' legacy. I have no respect for what Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey achieved. (This isn't a personal slam; I don't have that much respect for Wikipedia, either, which is something I built.)

If you had set out to reduce human Internet interactions to a subhuman, irrational, emotional level, an excellent strategy would be to replace long mailing list and Usenet newsgroup posts and rambling blog posts like this one with tweets (whether 140 or 280 characters--at that tiny length, it doesn't matter), propaganda memes, and emotion-driven comments that are cut short and sent by default if you try to write more than one paragraph.

To make the medium of social interaction briefer and more visual is to convey that intelligence, which is almost always long-form, is not valued. We live in a tl;dr world, the world that Zuck and Jack built. They must be very proud. If Marshall McLuhan was right that the medium is the message, social media's message is that your intelligence and individuality are worth little; your emotions and loyalty to your tribe are everything.

I will go farther than that. I lay the ongoing destruction of democratic institutions squarely at their feet. That's a dramatic and indeed emotional-sounding claim, but just look at what has happened and what is going on right now. It's a disaster. We increasingly distrust our institutions insofar as they are co-governed by our ideological opponents. That didn't used to be the case; what changed? That we are constantly presented with idiotic and easily-refuted versions of our opponents' social and political views. Consequently, we have lost all respect for each other. Staggering percentages of the American people want to split up the country and predict civil war. Long-term friendships and even family relationships have been broken up by relentlessly stupid arguments on social media.

It isn't just that increased familiarity with, or constant exposure to, our opponents' points of view has led to mutual contempt. Sure, familiarity might breed contempt; but through social media we do not project our most genuine, nuanced, intelligent, sensitive, and human selves. Social media makes us, rather, into partisan, tribal drones. We are not really more familiar with each other. We are familiar with stupidified versions of each other. And that is making society insane.

It certainly looks as if the combination of short, visual messages and simplified reactions to them--"hearting," upvoting and downvoting, or choosing from an extremely limited menu of emotional reactions--is enough to dumb down, to stupidify, the versions of ourselves we portray to each other. And that is, again, wreaking havoc on our society. With social media absolutely dominant as the locus of modern socialization, how could this fail to have a profound impact on our broader societal and political mood?

It is Zuck's and Dorsey's fault. They built the medium. The medium stupidifies us. Stupid people are particularly bad at democracy, as our Founding Fathers knew. The leadership of republican institutions must be wisely chosen by a sober citizenry using good sense improved by education. What we have now, thanks to social media, is a citizenry made punch-drunk by meaningless but addictive endorphins awarded them by reinforcing their tribal alliances, stupidly incapable of trusting "the Other" and, therefore, of reaching anything like a reasonable, democratic consensus.

This is one of the main reasons why I quit social media cold turkey over a month ago. I don't miss or regret it. I will continue to use it only for work purposes, i.e., essentially for advertising, which I hope is a reasonable use for it.

I sincerely, fervently hope that in five or ten years' time this is the conventional wisdom about social media. What comes next, I don't know. But we can't survive as a democratic society under these conditions.


I'm quitting social media cold turkey

"Yet another public resolution to leave Facebook or Twitter," you say with a laugh. "Only soon to be given up like so many others, no doubt." That's a reasonable reaction. But go ahead, check up on me: here are my Twitter account and my Facebook account. My last posts were Sept. 11 and Sept. 12. I promise to leave this blog post up forever--that'll shame me if I get back to it.

I've critiqued social media philosophically and even threatened to abandon it before, and I've advised people not to use it during work time (I admit I've later completely ignored this advice myself). But I've never really quit social media for any length of time.

Until now. As of earlier today, I've quit cold turkey. I've made my last posts on Twitter and Facebook, period. I'm not even going to say goodbye or explain or link to this blog post on social media, which I'll let others link to (or not). Friends and family will have to either call or email me or make their way here to get an explanation. I'll be happy to explain further and maybe engage in some debate in the comment section below.

I thought I'd explain what has led to this decision. You'll probably think it's my sniffy political stance against social media's threats to free speech and privacy, but you'd be wrong--although I'm glad I'll no longer be supporting these arrogant, vicious companies.

This resolution didn't really start as a reaction to social media at all. It began as a realization about my failings and about some important principles of ethics and psychology.

1. Socrates was right: we're not weak, we just undervalue rationality.

We are a remarkably irrational species.

Recently I began giving thought to the fact that we so rarely think long-term. If we were driven by the balance of long-term consequences, there are so many things we would do differently. If you think about this long enough, you can get quite depressed about your life and society. Perhaps I should only speak for myself--this is true of me, for sure--but I think it is a common human failing. Not exercising, overeating, wasting time in various ways, indulging in harmful addictions, allowing ourselves to believe all sorts of absurd things without thinking, following an obviously irrational crowd--man might be the rational animal, as Aristotle thought, but that doesn't stop him from also being a profoundly irrational animal.

I'm not going to share my admittedly half-baked thoughts on rationality in too much detail. You might expect me to, since I'm a Ph.D. philosopher who was once a specialist in epistemology, who has spent a great deal of time thinking about the ethical requirements of practical rationality, and who has done some training and reading in psychology. I'm not going to pretend that my thoughts on these things are more sophisticated than yours; I know they're probably not. I'm not an expert.

I will say this, just to explain where my head is at these days. I have always taken Socrates' theory of weakness of will (akrasia) very seriously. He thought that if we do something that we believe we shouldn't--have an extra cookie or a third glass of wine, say--then the problem is not precisely that our will is weak. No, he said, the problem is that we are actually ignorant of what is good, at least in this situation.

This sounds ridiculously wrong to most philosophers and students who encounter this view for the first time (and, for most of us, on repeated encounters). Of course there is such a thing as weakness of will. Of course we sometimes do things that we know are wrong. That's the human condition, after all.

But I can think of a sense in which Socrates was right. Let's suppose you have a rule that says, "No more than one cookie after dinner," and you end up eating two. Even as you bite into the second, you think, "I really shouldn't be eating this. I'm so weak!" How, we ask Socrates, do you lack knowledge that you shouldn't eat the second cookie? But there is a straightforward answer: you don't believe you shouldn't, and belief is necessary for knowledge. We can concede that you have some information or insight--but it is quite questionable whether, on a certain level, you actually believe that you shouldn't eat the cookie. I maintain that you don't believe it. You might say you believe it; but you're not being honest with yourself. You're not being sincere. The fact is that your rule just isn't important to you, not as important as that tasty second cookie. You don't really believe you shouldn't have it. In a certain sense, you actually think you should have it. You value the taste more than your principle.

From long experience--see if you agree with me here--I have believed that our desires carry with them certain assumptions, certain premises. New information can make our desires turn on a dime. I think there are a number false premises that generally underpin weakness of will. I'm not saying that, if we persuade ourselves that these premises are false, we will thereafter be wonderfully self-disciplined. I am saying, however, that certain false beliefs do make it much easier for us to discount sober, rational principles, naturally tuned to our long-term advantage, in favor of irrational indulgence that will hurt us in the long run.

Here, then, are two very general premises that underpin weakness of will.

(a) Sometimes, it's too strict and unreasonable to be guided by what are only apparently rational, long-term considerations.

There are many variations on this: being too persnickety about your principles means you're being a hard-ass, or uncool, or abnormal, or unsociable, or positively neurotic (surely the opposite of rational!). And that might be true--depending on your principles. But it is not true when it comes to eating healthy and exercising daily, for example: in the moment, it might seem too strict to stick by a reasonable diet, so it might seem unreasonable. But it really isn't unreasonable. It is merely difficult. It is absolutely reasonable because you'll benefit and be happier in the long run if you stick to your guns. It will get easier to do so with time, besides.

(b) Avoiding pain and seeking pleasure are, sometimes, simply better than being guided by rational, long-term considerations.

This is reflected, at least somewhat, in the enduring popularity of hedonism, ethical and otherwise. The aesthete who takes the third glass of wine doesn't want narrow principles to stand in the way of pleasure (it's such good wine! I don't want to be a buzzkill to my awesome friends!); instead, he will also congratulate himself on his nuance and openness to experience. The same sort of thinking is used to justify infidelity.

Such considerations are why I think it is plausible to say that, no, indeed, in our moments of weakness, we have actually abandoned our decent principles for cynical ones. You might object, "But surely not. I'm merely rationalizing. I don't really take such stuff seriously; I take my principles seriously. I know I'm doing wrong. I'm just being weak."

Well, maybe that's right. But it's also quite reasonable to think that, at least in that moment, you actually are quite deliberately and sincerely choosing the path of the cool, of the sociable friend, of the aesthete; you are shrugging with a self-deprecating smile as you admit to yourself that, yes, your more decent principles are not all that. You might even congratulate yourself on being a complex, subtle mensch, and not an unyielding, unemotional robot. This is why, frankly, it strikes me as more plausible that you're not merely rationalizing: you are, at least temporarily, embracing different (less rational, more cynical) principles.

But as it turns out, there are good reasons to reject (a) and (b). Recently, I was talking myself out of them, or trying to, anyway. I told myself this:

Consider (a) again, that sometimes, rationality is too strict. When we avoid strict rationality, the things we allow ourselves are frequently insipid and spoiled by the fact that they are, after all, the wrong things to do. Take staying up late: it's so greatly overrated. Overindulgence in general is a great example. Playing a game and watching another episode of a television program are simply not very rewarding; just think of the more gainful ways you could be spending your time instead. Having one cookie too many is hardly an orgasmic experience, and it is absolutely foolish, considering that the consequences of breaking a necessary diet can be so unpleasant.

Indeed, most Americans need to be on a diet (or to exercise a lot more), and that is an excellent example of our inability to think long term. It is hard to imagine the advantages of being healthy and thin. But those advantages are very real. They can spell the difference of years of a longer life, and considerably greater activity and, indeed, comfort in life. That is only one example of the advantages of rationality. The simple but profoundly beneficial activity of going to bed early enough and getting up early enough can make you much more alert, active, happy, and healthy. Why do so many people not do that every night? I think the reason is, at least in part, that we literally cannot imagine—not without help or creative effort—what that better life would be like. We are stuck in our own moment, and it seems all right to us.

In short, the requirements of a rational human life seem unreasonably "strict" only because we lack the imagination to consider a better sort of life.

Consider (b) now. Pain, and especially discomfort, are not all that awful. They are an important part of life, and if you attempt to avoid all pain, you ultimately invite even more. There is nothing particularly degrading about discomfort. Especially if it is unavoidable, and if working or fighting or playing through it results in some great achievement, then doing so can even be heroic. I’m not meaning to suggest that pain for its own sake is somehow desirable. It isn’t, of course. But being able to put up with discomfort in order to achieve something worthwhile is part of the virtue of courage.

2. It is irrational to use social media.

I want to be fair. So if I'm going to examine whether indulgence in social media is rational or not, I'll begin with some purported advantages and see how solid they are.

Social media seems to benefit the careers of a few people. This seems true of people with a lot of followers; but my guess is that most people with a lot of followers already have successful careers, which is why they have a lot of followers. (Models on Instagram and popular video makers on YouTube might be an exception, in that they can make their career via the platform itself.) People with fewer than, say, 10,000 Twitter followers don't really reach enough people to have a very interesting platform. I have about 3,000 Twitter followers, and I've deliberately kept my Facebook numbers smaller just because I use Facebook in a more personal way. Frankly, my career doesn't seem to be helped all that much by my presence on social media. Besides, that's not why I do it.

My Everipedia colleagues might be a little upset with me that I won't be sharing Everipedia stuff on Twitter and Facebook anymore (which I won't--because I know that even that little bit would pull me back in). But I can assure them that I'll get more substantive and impactful work done as a result of all the time freed up from social media. I will continue to use communication platforms like Telegram and Messenger, by the way, and Reddit, in the Everipedia group, will also be OK. I'll also keep using LinkedIn to connect to people for work purposes. But Quora and Medium are out. Those are too much like blogging anyway. My time is better spent writing here on this blog, or for publication, if I'm going to do long-form writing.

Social media also seems to be a way for us to make a political impact. We can talk back against our political opponents. We can share propaganda for our side. Now this, I was surprised to learn, does seem to have some effect in my case. I've heard from one person that she actually became a libertarian mostly because of my posts on Facebook. (I could hardly believe it.) Others say they love my posts, and I think I do probably move the needle some miniscule distance in the direction of Truth and Goodness. But I'm only writing to a few hundred people on Facebook, at most. My reach on Twitter is larger, but I almost certainly do not persuade anyone 280 characters at a time.

This isn't to say that, in the aggregate, social media doesn't have a great deal of impact on society. It clearly does. But I think its total impact is negative, not positive. Perhaps the way I use it is positive, although I doubt it. I am more given to long-form comments than most people on Facebook and Twitter. I like to think that my comments model good reasoning and other intellectual virtues. But are they my best? Hell no. Does my influence matter, on the whole? Of course not. I am participating in a system that does, on my account and on most people's, lower the level of discourse.

On balance, I'm not proud of the political impact of my social media participation. I don't think many of us, if any, have the right to be proud of theirs.

Social media is kind of fun. Sure, it's fun to butt heads with clueless adversaries and get an endorphin boost from likes and other evidence of public visibility. But political debate is more frustrating than interesting, and the endorphin boosts are meaningless artifacts of how the system is designed. Nobody really thinks otherwise, and yet we do it anyway. It's pathetically, absurdly irrational.

Facebook keeps me in touch with my friends and family. Admittedly, there is very little downside to this one. I frankly love hearing from old high school friends that otherwise I might not hear from for years. Facebook keeps me a little closer to my extended family. That's a great thing. A common response to this is that the quality of our interactions is much worse than it would have been otherwise. But if I'm going to be honest with myself, I just don't see this. I mean, Facebook lets me see remarks from my funny and nice old friends from high school, and I probably wouldn't talk to them at all if it weren't for Facebook (sorry, friends, but I think you understand! There isn't enough time in the day to keep up with all the friends I've ever made in my life!). There's no downside there. And no, I don't think it makes my relationship with my family any worse. I think it makes it a little better.

So what about the disadvantages of social media?

We are driven by algorithms. Facebook, Twitter, and the rest carefully design algorithms that highlight the posts our friends make to fit their purposes, which are not ours. The whole system has been designed by psychologists to hook us to participate as much as we can, which it frequently does.

Social media companies spy on us. And they make it easier for other companies, organizations, and (most concerning to me) potentially repressive governments to do so. And by participating, we endorse that behavior. That seems extremely irrational.

Social media companies have started to openly censor their political opponents. And again, if you participate, you're endorsing that behavior. Continuing to participate under those circumstances is irrational for conservatives and libertarians.

I sometimes get kind of addicted. I go through phases where I use social media a lot, and that can be a pretty awful waste of time, at least when I have many other things I should be doing. This is the main reason I think the right strategies are "cold turkey" and "you won't see me again"--like it or not. In short, I want to minimize temptation.

We indulge in petty debates that are beneath us. This bothers me. I don't like dignifying disgusting propaganda with a response, but I seem not to be able to restrain myself when I come across it in my feeds. Often, a proper response would require an essay; but I'd be writing an essay in response to an idiotic meme (say), which is kind of pathetic. I'd much rather have long-form debates on my blog (or between blogs that reply to each other, as we used to do).

It takes time away from more serious writing. I can write for publication. So why should I waste my time writing long Facebook posts that only a few people see? For things not quite worthy of publication, at least if I focus on my blog, I can write at a longer length and develop an argument more completely. Did you used to have a blog on which you had longer, better things to say?

So it's a waste of time, on balance. The opportunity cost is too high. I can and should be spending my time in better ways--work, programming study, helping to homeschool my boys, and doing more serious writing. That's the bottom line. Apart from keeping me in touch with family and friends on Facebook, the advantages of social media are pretty minimal, while the disadvantages are huge and growing.

Why don't I just limit my social media use to personal interactions with family and friends on Facebook, you ask? Because I don't want to take the risk of falling back into bad old habits. My friends can visit my blog and interact with me here, if they want. My family I'll call and visit every so often.

So I'm turning the page. I don't expect this to be big news for anybody. But it's going to change the way I interact online. If you want to keep seeing me online, start following my blog.

3. Can I really do this?

I suppose I've given a reasonably good analysis of why using social media is irrational. I've said similar things before, and many others have as well. And yet we keep using social media. Obviously, human beings are often not guided by rationality; much would be different in our crazy old world if we always were.

It is remarkable, though, just how much we acknowledge all the irrationalities about social media, and yet we indulge in it anyway. There's something deeply cynical about this. It can't be good for the soul.

The big question in my own mind is whether I will really be able to stay away from social media as I say I will. My use of social media is irrational, sure. But I don't pretend that the mere fact that  is, all by itself, enough to motivate me; indeed, I'm not sure who it's rational for, apart from the very few people who make a career out of it.

But I want to try. And as I said at the start of this post, it's not just about social media. It's about making my life more rational. So at the same time, I want to start eating more healthily and exercising more regularly, going to bed earlier, etc. Doing all that at once seems very ambitious. It might even seem silly and naive for me to say all this. But the insights I've reported on in part 1 above have really stuck in my mind, and they don't seem to be going away. So we'll see.


I am informed; you are misinformed; and the government should do something about this problem

Poynter, the famous journalism thinktank, has published "A guide to anti-misinformation actions around the world." This sort of thing is mostly interesting not just for the particular facts it gathers but also for the assumptions and categories it takes for granted. The word "misinformation" is thrown around, as are "hate speech" and "fake news." The European Commission, it seems, published a report on "misinformation" (the report itself says "disinformation") in order to "help the European Union figure out what to do about fake news." Not only does this trade on a ridiculously broad definition of "disinformation," it assumes that disinformation is somehow a newly pronounced or important problem, that it is the role of a supernational body (the E.U.) to figure out what to do about this problem, and that it is also the role of that body to "do something." Mind you, there might be some government "actions" that strike me as being possibly defensible; but the majority that I reviewed looked awful.

For example, look at what Italy has done:

A little more than a month before the general election, the Italian government announced Jan. 18 that it had set up an online portal where citizens could report fake news to the police.

The service, which prompts users for their email addresses, a link to the fake news and any social media networks they saw it on, ferries reports to the Polizia Postale, a unit of the state police that investigates cyber crime. The department will fact-check them and — if laws were broken — pursue legal action. At the very least, the service will draw upon official sources to deny false or misleading information.

That plan came amid a national frenzy over fake news leading into the March 4 election and suffered from the same vagueness as the ones in Brazil, Croatia and France: a lacking definition of what constitutes "fake news."

Poynter, which I think it's safe to say is an Establishment thinktank, mostly just dutifully reports on these developments. In their introduction, they do eventually (in the fourth paragraph) get around to pointing out some minor problems with these government efforts: the difficulty of defining "fake news" and, of course, that pesky free speech thing.

That different countries are suddenly engaging in press censorship is only part of the news. The other part is that Poynter, representing the journalistic Establishment, apparently does not find it greatly alarming about "governments" that are "taking action." Well, I do. Just consider the EU report's definition of "disinformation":

Disinformation as defined in this Report includes all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit.

This implies that if in the opinion of some government authority, some claim is merely false and, like most professional publishing operations it is published for profit, then it counts as disinformation. This means that (with an exception made for non-profit publishers, apparently) the E.U. considers anything false to be an item of disinformation, and thus presumably ripe for some sort of regulation or sanction.

Well, of course this sounds ridiculous, but I am just reading. It's not my fault if that's what the report says. I mean, I'm sorry, but it certainly does look as if the E.U. wants to determine what's false and to then to ban it (or something). Of course, the definition does first say that disinformation is designed to intentionally cause public harm, but anybody who reads legalistic texts needs to bear in mind that, as far as the law is concerned, the parts that come after "or" and "and" are just as important as the parts that come before. The text does say "or for profit." Is that because in the E.U., seeking profit is as suspect as intentionally causing public harm?

The difficulty about texts like this, aside from the fact that they are insufferably dull, is that they are so completely chock-full of bad writing, bad reasoning, false assumptions, and so forth, that it would take several volumes to say everything that needs saying about the E.U. report and Poynter's run-down of government actions. What about all the important issues associated with what looks like a worldwide crackdown on free speech? They have been solved, apparently.

Poynter at least has the good sense to acknowledge difficulties, as they do at the end of the discussion of Italy's regulatory scheme. The government positions are appalling, as if they were saying: "We know what fake news and disinformation and misinformation are, more or less. Sure, there's a small intellectual matter of defining them, but no big deal there. It's just a matter of deciding what needs to be done. Free speech, well, that's just another factor to be weighed."

Just imagine reading this page just twenty years ago. It would have been regarded as an implausible horrorshow. I imagine how someone might have responded to a glimpse 20 years into the future:

What are you saying--in 2018, countries all around the world will decide that it's time to start seriously cracking down on "misinformation" because it's too easy to publish false stuff online, and free speech and freedom of the press? That's ridiculous. It's one thing to get upset about "political incorrectness," but it's another thing altogether for the freedom-loving West, and especially for journalists (for crying out loud!) to so bemoan "hate speech" and "fake news" (really?) that they'll give up free speech and start calling on their governments to exert control. That's just...ridiculous. Do you think we'll forget everything we know about free speech and press freedom in 20 years?

Well, it would have been ridiculous in 1998. Twenty years later, it still should be, but apparently it isn't for so many sophisticated, morally enlightened leaders who can identify what is true and what is misinformation.

It's time to push back.


Is it time to move from social media to blogs?

This began as a Twitter thread.

I've finally put my finger on a thing that annoys me—probably, all of us—about social media. When we check in on our friends and colleagues and what they're sharing, we are constantly bombarded with simplistic attacks on our core beliefs, especially political beliefs. "This cannot stand," we say. So we respond. But it's impossible to respond in the brief and fast-paced media of Twitter and Facebook without being simplistic or glib. So the cycle of simplistic glibness never stops.

There are propagandists (and social media people...but I repeat myself) who love and thrive on this simplicity. Their messages are more plausible and easier to get upset about when stated simply and briefly. They love that. That's a feature, not a bug (they think)!

I feel like telling Tweeps and FB friends "Be more reasonable!" and "Use your brain!" and "Chill!" But again—everything seems sooooo important, because our core beliefs are under attack. How can most people be expected to be calm and reasonable? People who take high standards of politeness and methodology seriously naturally feel like quitting. But social media has become important for socializing, PR, career advancement, and (let's face it) the joy of partisanship. "I can't quit you!" we moan. But, to quote a different movie, this aggression will not stand, man. Our betters at Twitter and Facebook agree, and so they have decided to force the worst actors to play nice. But they can't be trusted to identify "the worst actors" fairly. They're choosing the winners.

What's the solution for those of us who care about truth, nuance, and decency—and free speech? I don't know, but I have an idea. Rather than letting Facebook and Twitter (and their creeping censorship) control things, I'm going to try putting content updates on my blog. I'll still use Twitter and Facebook for Everipedia announcements and talk, and I'll link to blog updates from both places. But you'll have to visit my blog to actually read my more personal content. Anyway, I'm going to give that a try.


On the Purposes of the Internet

SISCTI 34
February 28, 2009
Monterrey, Mexico

Introduction

I am going to begin by asking a philosophical question about the Internet. But I can hear some of you saying, “Philosophy? What does that have to do with the Internet? Maybe I will have a siesta.” Well, before you close your eyes, let me assure you that the question is deeply important to some recent debates about the future of the Internet.

The question is: what is the purpose of the Internet? What is the Internet good for? Perhaps you had never thought that something as vast and diverse as the Internet might have a single purpose. In fact, I am going to argue that it has at least two main purposes.

To begin with, think about what the Internet is: a giant global information network. To ask what the Internet is for is about the same as asking what makes information valuable to us, and what basic reasons there might be for networking computers and their information together.

 

The two purposes of the Internet: communication and information

I think the Internet has at least two main purposes: first, communication and socialization, and second, finding the information we need in order to learn and to live our daily lives. In short, the Internet is for both communication and information.

Let me explain this in a simple way. On the one hand, we use the Internet for e-mail, for online forum discussions, for putting our personalities out there on social networking sites, and for sharing our personal creativity. These are all ways we have of communicating and socializing with others.

On the other hand, we are constantly looking things up on the Internet. We might check a news website, look up the meaning of a word in an online dictionary, or do some background reading on a topic in Wikipedia. These are all ways of finding information.

I want to explain an important difference between communication and information. Communication is, we might say, creator-oriented. It’s all about you, your personal needs and circumstances, and your need for engagement and recognition. So communication is essentially about the people who are doing the communicating. If we have no interest in some people, we probably have no interest in their communications. This is why, for example, I have zero interest in most MySpace pages. Almost nobody I know uses MySpace. MySpace is mainly about communication and socialization, and since I’m not actually communicating or socializing with anybody on that website, I don’t care about it.

Information, on the other hand, is not about the person giving the information but about the contents of the information. In a certain way, it really does not matter who gives the information; all that matters is that the information is valid and is of interest to me. And the same information might be just as interesting to another person. So, we might say, communication is essentially personal, and information is essentially impersonal.

I say, then, that the Internet’s purposes are communication and information. In fact, the Internet has famously revolutionized both.

The Internet is addictive largely because it gives us so many more people to talk to, and we can talk to them so efficiently. It allows us to compare our opinions with others’, to get feedback about our own thinking and creative work. In some ways, the Internet does this more efficiently than face-to-face conversation. If we are interested in a specific topic, we do not need to find a friend or a colleague who is interested in the topic; we just join a group online that has huge numbers of people already interested, and ready to talk about the topic endlessly.

Online discussions of serious topics are often a simplistic review of research, with a lot of confused amateur speculation thrown in. We could, if we wanted to, simply read the research—go to the source material. But often we don’t. We often prefer to debate about our own opinions, even when we have the modesty to admit that our opinions aren’t worth very much. Discussion is preferred by many people; they prefer active discussion over passive absorption. Who can blame them? You can’t talk back to a scientific paper, and a scientific paper can’t respond intelligently to your own thoughts. The testing or evaluation of our own beliefs is ultimately what interests us, and this is what we human beings use conversation to do.

But the Internet is also wonderfully efficient at delivering impersonal information. Search engines like Google make information findable with an efficiency we have never seen before. You can now get fairly trustworthy answers to trivial factual questions in seconds. With a little more time and skilled digging, you can get at least plausible answers to more many complex questions online. The Internet has become one of the greatest tools for both research and education that has ever been devised by human beings.

So far I doubt I have told you anything you didn’t already know. But I am not here to say how great the Internet is. I wanted simply to illustrate that the Internet does have these two purposes, and that the purposes are different—they are distinguishable.

How the Internet confuses communication and information

Next, let me introduce a certain problem. It might sound at first like a purely conceptual, abstract, philosophical problem, but let me assure you that it is actually a practical problem.

The problem is that, as purposes, communication and information are inherently confusable. They are very easy to mix up. In fact, I am sure some of you were confused earlier, when I was saying that there are these two purposes, communication and information. Aren’t those just the same thing, or two aspects of the same thing? After all, when people record information, they obviously intend to communicate something to other people. And when people communicate, they must convey some information. So information and communication go hand-in-hand.

Well, that is true, they do. But that doesn’t mean that one can’t draw a useful distinction fairly clearly. Here’s a way to think about the distinction. In 1950, a researcher would walk into a library and read volumes of information. If you wanted to communicate with someone, you might walk up to a librarian and ask a question. These actions—reading and talking—were very different. Information was something formal, edited, static, and contained in books. Communication was informal, unmediated, dynamic, and occurred in face-to-face conversation.

Still, I have to agree that communication and information are indeed very easy to confuse. And the Internet in particular confuses them deeply. What gives rise to the confusion is this. On the Internet, if you have a conversation, your communication becomes information for others. It is often saved indefinitely, and made searchable, so that others can benefit from it. What was for you a personal transaction becomes, for others, an information resource. This happens on mailing lists and Web forums. I myself have searched through the public archives of some mailing lists for answers to very specialized questions. I was using other people’s discussions as an information resource. So, should we say that a mailing list archive is communication, or is it information? Well, it is both.

This illustrates how the Internet confuses communication and information, but many other examples can be given. The Blogosphere has confused journalism, which used to be strictly an information function, with sharing with friends, which is a communication function. When you write a commentary about the news, or when you report about something you saw at a conference, you’re behaving like a journalist. You invite anyone and everyone to benefit from your news and opinion. Perhaps you don’t initially care who your readers are. But when you write about other blog posts, other people write about yours, and you invite comments on your blog, you’re communicating. Personalities then begin to matter, and who is talking can become more important to us than what is said. Information, as it were, begins to take a back seat.

Moreover, when news websites allow commenting on stories, this transforms what was once a relatively impersonal information resource into a lively discussion, full of colorful personalities. And, of course, online newspapers have added blogs of their own. I have often wondered whether there is a meaningful difference between a newspaper story, a blog by a journalist, and a well-written blog written by a non-journalist. That precisely illustrates what I mean. The Internet breaks down the distinction between information and communication—in this case, the distinction between journalism and conversation.

Why is the distinction between communication and information important?

I’ll explore more examples later, but now I want to return to my main argument. I say that the communication and information purposes of the Internet have become mixed up.

But—you might wonder—why is it so important that we distinguish communication and information, and treat them differently, as I’m suggesting? Is having a conversation about free trade, for example, really all that different from reading a news article online about free trade? To anyone who writes about the topic online, they certainly feel similar. The journalist seems like just another participant in a big conversation, and you are receiving his communication, and you could reply online if you wanted to.

I think the difference between information and communication is important because they have different purposes and therefore different standards of value. When we communicate, we want to interface with other living, active minds and dynamic personalities. The aim of communication, whatever else we might say about it, is genuine, beneficial engagement with other human beings. Communication in this sense is essential to such good things as socialization, friendship, romance, and business. That, of course, is why it is so popular.

Consider this: successful communication doesn’t have to be particularly informative. I can just use a smiley face or say “I totally agree!” and I might have added something to a conversation. By contrast, finding good information does not mean a significant communication between individuals has taken place. When we seek information, we are not trying to build a relationship. Rather, we want knowledge. The aim of information-seeking is reliable, relevant knowledge. This is associated with learning, scholarship, and simply keeping up with the latest developments in the news or in your field.

Good communication is very different from good information. Online communication is free and easy. There are rarely any editors to check every word you write, before you post it. That is not necessary, because these websites are not about creating information, they are about friendly, or at least interesting, communication. No editors are needed for that.

These communities, and blogs, and much else online, produce a huge amount of searchable content. But a lot of this content isn’t very useful as information. Indeed, it is very popular to complain about the low quality of information on the Internet. The Internet is full of junk, we say. But to say that the Internet is full of junk is to say that most conversations are completely useless to most other people. That’s obviously true, but it is irrelevant. Those who complain that the Internet is full of junk are ignoring the fact that the purpose of the Internet is as much communication as it is information.

Personally, I have no objection whatsoever to the communicative function of the Internet. In fact, it is one of my favorite things about the Internet. I have had fascinating conversations with people from around the world, made online friendships, and cultivated interests I share with others, and I could not possibly have done all this without the communicative medium that is the Internet.

But, as I will argue next, in making communication so convenient, we have made the Internet much less convenient as an information resource.

Communicative signal is informational noise

You are probably familiar with how the concept of the signal-to-noise ratio has been used to talk about the quality of online information and communication. A clear radio transmission is one that has high signal and low noise. Well, I’d like to propose that the Internet’s two purposes are like two signals: the communication signal and the information signal. The problem is that the two signal are sharing the same channel. So I now come to perhaps the most important point of this paper, which I will sum up in a slogan: communicative signal is informational noise. That is at least often the case.

Let me explain. The Internet’s two purposes are not merely confusable. In fact, we might say that the communicative function of the Internet has deeply changed and interfered with the informative function of the Internet. The Internet has become so vigorously communicative that it has become more difficult to get reliable and relevant information on the Internet.

I must admit that this claim is still very vague, and it might seem implausible, so let me clarify and support the claim further.

The basic idea is that what works well as communication does not work so well as information. What might seem to be weird and frustrating as information starts to make perfect sense when we think of it as communication.

Let me take a few examples—to begin with, Digg.com. In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a website in which people submit links for everyone else in the community to rate by a simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” This description makes it look like a straightforward information resource: here are Internet pages that many people find interesting, useful, amusing, or whatever. Anyone can create an account, and all votes are worth the same. It’s the wisdom of the crowd at work. That, I assume, is the methodology behind the website.

But only the most naïve would actually say that the news item that gets the most “Diggs” is the most important, most interesting, or most worthwhile. Being at the top of Digg.com means only one thing: popularity among Digg participants. I am sure most Digg users know that the front page of Digg.com is little more than the outcome of an elaborate game. It can be interesting, to be sure. But the point is that Digg is essentially a tool for communication and socialization masquerading as an information resource.

YouTube is another example. On its face, it looks like a broadcast medium. By allowing anyone to have a YouTube account, carefully recording the number of video views and giving everyone an equal vote, it looks like the wisdom of the crowd is harnessed. But the fact of the matter is that YouTube is mainly a communication medium. Its ratings represent little more than popularity, or the ability to play the YouTube game. When people make their own videos (as opposed to copying stuff from DVDs), they’re frequently conversational videos. They are trying to provoke thought, or get a laugh, or earn praise for their latest song. They want others to respond, and others do respond, by watching videos, rating videos, and leaving comments. I suspect that YouTube contributors are not interested, first and foremost, in building a useful resource for the world in general. They are glad, I am sure, that they are doing that too. But what YouTube contributors want above all is to be highly watched and highly rated, and in short a success within the YouTube community. This is evidence that they have been heard and understood—in short, that they have communicated successfully.

I could add examples, but I think you probably already believe that most of the best-known Web 2.0 websites are set up as media of communication and socialization—not primarily as impersonal information sources.

But what about Wikipedia and Google Search? These are two of the most-used websites online, and they seem to be more strictly information resources.

Well, yes and no. Even Wikipedia breaks down the difference between a communication medium and an information resource. There has been a debate, going back to the very first year of Wikipedia, about whether Wikipedia is first and foremost a content-production project or a community. You might want to say that it is both, of course. That is true, but the relevant question is whether Wikipedia’s requirements as a community are actually more or less important than its requirements as a project. For example, one might look at many Wikipedia articles and say, “These badly need the attention of a professional editor.” One might look at Wikipedia’s many libel scandals and say, “This community needs real people, not anonymous administrators, to take responsibility so that rules can be enforced.” Wikipedia’s answer to that is to say, “We are all editors. No expert or professional is going to be given any special rights. That is the nature of our community, and we are not going to change it.” The needs of Wikipedia’s community outweigh the common-sense requirements of Wikipedia as an information resource.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that Wikipedia is useless as an information resource. Of course it is extremely useful as an information resource. I am also not saying that it is merely a medium of collaborative communication. It clearly is very informational, and it is intended to be, as well.

Indeed, most users treat Wikipedia first and foremost as an information resource. But, and this is my point, for the Wikipedians themselves, it is much more than that: it is their collaborative communication, which has become extremely personal for them, and this is communication they care passionately about. The personal requirements of the Wikipedians have dampened much of the support for policy changes that would make Wikipedia much more valuable as an information resource.

Why do we settle for so much informational noise?

Let me step back and try to understand what is going on here. I say that Web 2.0 communities masquerade as information resources, but they are really little more than tools for communication and socialization. Or, in the case of Wikipedia, the community’s requirements overrule common-sense informational requirements. So, why do we allow this to happen?

Well, that’s very simple. People deeply enjoy and appreciate the fact that they can share their thoughts and productions without the intermediation of editors or anything else that might make their resources more useful as information resources. And why is it so important to so many people that there be no editors? Because editors are irrelevant and get in the way of communication.

The fact that Web 2.0 communities are set up for communication, more than as information resources, explains why they have adopted a certain set of policies. Consider some policies that Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, and the many smaller Web 2.0 websites have in common.

First, on these websites, anyone can participate anonymously. Not only that, but you can make as many accounts as you want. Second, when submissions are rated, anyone can vote, and votes are (at least initially, and in many systems always) counted equally. Third, if there is any authority or special rights in the system, it is always internally determined. Your authority to do something or other never depends on some external credentials or qualification. University degrees, for example, are worth nothing on YouTube.

The result is that, on a website like Wikipedia, a person is associated with one or more accounts, and the performance of the accounts against all other accounts is all that the system really cares about.

To Internet community participants, this seems very rational. A person is judged based on his words and creations alone, and on his behavior within the system. This seems meritocratic. People also sometimes persuade themselves, based on a misinterpretation of James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds, that ratings are an excellent indicator of quality.

But these systems are not especially meritocratic. It is not quality, but instead popularity and the ability to game the system that wins success in Web 2.0 communities. High ratings and high watch counts are obviously not excellent indicators of quality, for the simple reason that so much garbage rises to the top. There is no mystery why there is so much time-wasting content on the front page of YouTube, Digg.com, and many of the rest: it’s because the content is amusing, titillating, or outrageous. Being amusing, titillating, and outrageous is not a standard of good information, but it can be a sign of successful communication.

The less naïve participants, and of course the owners of these websites, know that Internet community ratings are largely a popularity contest or measure the ability to play the game. They don’t especially care that the websites do not highlight or highly rank the most important, relevant, or reliable information. The reason for this is perfectly clear: the purpose of these websites is, first and foremost, communication, socialization, and community-building. Building an information resource is just a very attractive side-benefit, but still only a side-benefit, of the main event of playing the game.

The attraction, in fact, is very similar to that of American Idol—I understand you have something similar called “Latin American Idol,” is that correct? Well, I have been known to watch American Idol. It is a television competition in which ordinary people compete to become the next Idol, who earns a record contract, not to mention the attention of tens of millions of television viewers. The singing on American Idol, especially in the early weeks, is often quite bad. But that is part of its entertainment value. We do not watch the program to be entertained with great singing—that is, of course, nice when it happens. Instead, we watch the program mainly because the drama of the competition is fascinating. Even though the quality of the singing is supposed to be what the program is about, in fact quality is secondary. The program’s attraction stems from the human element—from the fact that real people are putting themselves in front of a mass audience, and the audience can respond by voting for their favorites. The whole game is quite addictive, in a way not unlike the way Internet communities are addictive.

But let’s get back to the Internet. I want to suggest that the information resource most used online, Google Search itself, is also a popularity contest. Google’s PageRank technology is reputed to be very complex, and its details are secret. But the baseline methodology is well-known: Google ranks a web page more highly if it is linked to by other pages, which are themselves linked to by popular pages, and so forth. The assumption behind this ranking algorithm is somewhat plausible: the more that popular websites link to a given website, the more relevant and high-quality the website probably is. The fact that Google is as useful and dominant as it is shows that there is some validity to this assumption.

All that admitted, I want to make a simple point. Google Search is essentially a popularity contest, and frequently, the best and most relevant page is not even close to being a popular page. That is a straightforward failure. But just as annoying, perhaps, is the prevalence of false positives. I mean the pages that rank not because they are relevant or high-quality, but because they are popular or (even worse) because someone knows how to game the Google system.

Does this sound familiar? It should. I do not claim that Google is a medium of communication. Clearly, it is an information resource. But I want to point out that Google follows in the same policies of anonymity, egalitarianism, and merit determined internally through linkings and algorithms that machines can process. As far as we know, Google does not seed its rankings with data from experts. Its data is rarely edited at all. Google dutifully spiders all content without any prejudice of any sort, applies its algorithm, and delivers the results to us very efficiently.

I speculate—I can only speculate here—that Google does not edit its results much, for two reasons. First, I am sure that Google is deeply devoted the same values, values that favor a fair playing field for communication games that many Web 2.0 websites play. But, you might say, this is a little puzzling. Why doesn’t Google seek out ways to include the services of editors and experts, and improve its results? An even better idea, actually, would be to allow everyone to rate whatever websites they want, then publish their web ratings according to a standard syndication format, and then Google might use ratings from millions of people creatively to seed its results. In fairness to Google, it may do just this with the Google SearchWiki, which was launched last November. But as far as I know, SearchWiki does not aggregate search results; each individual can edit only the results that are displayed to that user.

So there is, I think, a second and more obvious reason that Google does not adjust its results with the help of editors or by aggregating syndicated ratings. Namely, its current, apparently impersonal search algorithm seems fair, and it is easy to sell it as fair. However much Google might be criticized because its results are not always the best, or because the results are gamable or influenced by blogs, at least it has the reputation of indeed being mostly fair, largely because PageRank is determined by features internal to the Internet itself—in other words, link data.

Google’s reputation for fairness is one of its most important assets. But why is such a reputation so important? Here I can finally return to the thread of my argument. Fairness is important to us because we want communication to be fair. In a certain way, the entire Internet is a communicative game. Eyeballs are the prize, and Google plays a sort of moderator or referee of the game. If that’s right, then we certainly want the referee to be fair, not to prefer one website over another simply because, for example, some expert happens to say the one is better. When it comes to conversations, fairness means equal consideration, equal time, an equal shot at impressing everyone in the room, so to speak. Communication per se is not the sort of thing over which editors should have any control, except sometimes to keep people polite.

The fact that Google has an impersonal search algorithm really means that it conceives of itself as a fair moderator of communication, not as a careful chooser of relevant, reliable content. And a lot of people are perfectly happy with this state of affairs.

Conclusion

In this paper I have developed an argument, and I hope I haven’t taken too long to explain it. I have argued that the Internet is devoted both to communication and information. I went on to say that communication and information are easily confused, and the Internet makes it even easier to confuse them, since what serves as mere communication for one person can be viewed later as useful information for another person. But what makes matters difficult is that we expect communication, and the websites that support online communication, to be as unconstrained and egalitarian as possible. As a result, however, the Internet serves rather well as a communication medium, as a means to socialize and build communities, but not nearly as well as an information resource.

I can imagine a reply to this, which would say: this is all a good thing. Information is about control. Communication is about freedom. Viva communication! Should our alleged betters—professors, top-ranked journalists, research foundations, and the like—enjoy more control over what we all see online, than the average person? The fact is that in the past, they have enjoyed such control. But the egalitarian policies of the Internet have largely removed their control. In the past, what those experts and editors have happened to say enjoyed a sort of status as impersonal information. But all information is personal. The Internet merely recognizes this fact when it treats allegedly impersonal information as personal communication.

This is the common analysis. But I think it is completely wrong.[1] First, the elites still exert control in many ways, and there is little reason to think the Internet will change this. Second, the radical egalitarianism of Internet policies does not disempower the elites so much as it disempowers intelligence, and empowers those with the time on their hands to create and enjoy popular opinion, and also those who care enough to game the system.

If more people were to emphasize the informative purpose of the Internet more, this would not empower elites; it would, rather, empower everyone who uses the Internet to learn and do research. We would have to spend less time sorting through the by-products of online communication, and could spend more time getting solid knowledge.

In fact, I think most people enjoy the Internet greatly as an information resource—at least as much as they enjoy it as a communication medium. But most of the people who create websites and Internet standards—the many people responsible for today’s Internet—have not had this distinction in mind. But I think it is very fruitful and interesting way to think about the Internet and its purposes, and—who knows?—perhaps it will inspire someone to think about how to improve the informational features of the Internet.

In fact, if my fondest hope for this paper were to come true, it would be that those building the Internet would begin to think of it a little bit more as a serious information resource, and a little bit less as just a fun medium of communication.

[1] As I have argued in a recent paper: “The Future of Expertise after Wikipedia,” Episteme (2009).


Is it time to establish Internet user unions?

Since everybody and his grandma have gotten on the Internet in a big way in the last few years, the social influence of giant Internet companies has skyrocketed. Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Amazon, Twitter, and many more wield enormous power over us.

We have given them that power. Their success is built on participation, and we willingly participate.

For those of us who have watched the Internet grow from the time we had to dial in to local bulletin boards, or log onto big mainframes, these are somewhat troubling developments. Facebook makes decisions that are deeply consequential to all of us, but without consulting us. They violate our privacy expectations and too readily share our information with people who might abuse it. Another example is Wikipedia. People who find lies about themselves on Wikipedia pages, who otherwise might have recourse to libel law, are often forced to participate in an arcane and often unfair system. Wikipedia also lacks any filter for their enormous porn holdings, while its representatives continue to tout it as a great resource for school children.

I could go on, but this is not just about Facebook or Wikipedia, or any one website. This is about participatory Internet companies that are so huge that their users--and the broader public affected by them--essentially have no meaningful input in their governance. But shouldn't they? We live in a democratic age. If we participate in a community, we expect to have a say in how that community operates; the community becomes, in a real sense, ours.

The patriots of the American Revolution said, "No taxation without representation." Now, participation and use are not exactly taxes, but they are obviously very valuable to Internet companies, and those companies are now in a position to abuse what is so freely given to them. Why shouldn't we say: no participation without representation!

I don't propose an online revolution. These are issues that must not be left in the hands of the state, wielding "the blunt instrument of the law." If the state were to address these issues, it would be making itself into an editor, and the state cannot edit without censorship. Rather, these issues should be left in the hands of civil society--in free associations of free people.

But civil society lacks effective institutions and mechanisms to deal with these problems. Let me propose one: Internet user unions.

In the 19th century, when economic influence consolidated in the hands of factory owners, the union movement sought to give a voice to workers who, individually, had no way to negotiate with their employers.

In the 21st century, we find social influence consolidating in the hands of website owners. Shouldn't there be corresponding unions of Internet users to negotiate with the websites that they participate in and use?

A Facebook User Union might call Facebook executives to the negotiating table about any significant changes to policy, or else face days of boycotts. That union's nuclear option would be, after an open, transparent process, to recommend that masses of users abandon Facebook for any number of competitors.

A Wikipedia User Union might represent the voices of Wikipedia's users, which have never been represented within Wikipedia's insular decisionmaking processes. They might influence Wikipedia to install a porn filter--or to admit that they have an "adult" website.

In addition to unions for participating websites, there could be unions for special issues. There might be an Internet User Union of Families, which represents the interests of children online. There could be scholarly unions, which blow the whistle on media companies and others online, who get facts wrong and who organize their users' collective influence to engage in their essential role of teaching. There could even be, simply, an Internet User Union, although they would have to think hard about what their goals are, precisely.

But let's be careful about what we wish for. These would be inherently political organizations. The consequences, at least in some cases, could be as troubling as companies acting on behalf of users without adequate user input. One can imagine a "rogue" union--like Anonymous, but bigger--coordinating cyber-attacks. One can also imagine openly political unions that use their influence to flood ideological opponents' forums with hostile comments.

To my mind, however, the best effect that Internet User Unions might have is to organize people to build things that are useful to everyone. I have been thinking about the enormous untapped potential of people working together online since before I spearheaded Wikipedia in 2001. The Big Problem, not really solved by Wikipedia itself, is getting enormous numbers of people to agree upon a well-designed system. Wikipedia would be dwarfed by a system that I imagine is really possible, one that is appealing to a much broader cross-section of the public than Wikipedia itself is. An Internet User Union might develop the idea for such an organization, launch it with many thousands of people ready and raring to go, as well as find enough funding to keep it independent and non-profit.

If you're interested in this idea, let's start talking about the philosophical, social, and broadly technical issues. This is something new. We do not want to go off half-cocked.


An assortment of things that should exist

Occasionally I wish I had time to write a book to explain these ideas in detail. (Some of these are actually book ideas. Some of them are project ideas.)

1. A tutorial system, independent of any university, managed via a neutral online database; and an expanded system of degrees by examination.

2. Textop! I love this idea whenever I think about it!

3. A medium-sized secular (but not anti-religious) chapter book explaining for elementary-aged children, in non-condescending but easy language, why various virtues are virtues and their corresponding vices are vices. It should also explain why moral relativism is silly, which of course it is. I've looked for such a book, hard. I've started to write such a book, but never find enough time to finish. I truly believe such a book would be an enormous best-seller.

4. A system of non-fiction e-books, roughly similar to what you can find here, but which have more intelligently-written scripts, like some of these videos and these powerpoints. I hope to start such a system using the ReadingBear.org software as a platform.

5. This is going to be very hard to explain briefly, and it will sound half-baked, but since when did that ever stop me? Actually, the rough idea (not my version, but something vaguely like it) comes from a Heinlein novel (I forget what Heinlein calls them and where--maybe someone will tell me) combined with my original idea for neutrality on Wikipedia (and before that, Nupedia). I think that civilization could use a society of people who are meticulously and publicly committed to neutrality. Somewhat like judges, but who operate in the public sphere, they do not make any public judgments on controversial issues of any sort. Their role in society would be, rather, to summarize "what is known"--or what various people take themselves to know--about this and that, according to some clear and deeply studied rules of scholarship and neutrality. If someone, or a group, required a neutral, expert analysis of a question, a field, or a situation, they would provide it. These people would have to be experts in ideology, logic, and the arts of communication, understanding when a statement is the slightest bit tendentious, and be able to quickly formulate a more neutral one. These people would be perfect candidates to write neutral Congressional reports as well as serve as expert witnesses in trials. There would have to be a fairly elaborate system of professional ethics for this group, and members would no doubt have to be regularly evaluated by their peers. Among other things, they would not be able to serve in politics, as attorneys or judges, or as corporate executives. They could serve as journalists and scholars, but under stringent rules that do not apply to most journalists and scholars. -- Why such a profession? Because the world has gone insane, and it desperately needs people who are professionally committed to explaining obvious things to crazy people. Do you really think that people well-qualified and publicly committed in the way I've described would lack for work? They'd be extremely well employed as consultants, internal and external.

6. A website+app with spaced repetition questions that teach basic facts school students (preK and up).

I've had quite a few more. I'll make another post later, perhaps, with more of the same.

Feel free to swipe any of these ideas and do a world of good by bringing them to fruition. You might or might not get rich, but if well-executed, you certainly could help a lot of people.


Why online conversation cannot be the focus of a new pedagogy

One of the most commonly touted features of a new, digitally-enhanced pedagogy, championed by many plugged-in education theorists, is that education in the digital age can and should be transformed into online conversation. This seems possible and relevant because of online tools like wikis and blogs.  There has been a whole cottage industry of papers and blogs touting such notions.  Frankly, I'm not interested in grappling with a lot of this stuff.  Actually, I wish I had time, because it's kind of fun to expose nonsense to the harsh light of reason.  But for now, let's just say that I've read and skimmed a fair bit of it, and I find it decidedly half-baked, like a lot of the older educational theories that hoped for various educational "reforms."  Some reference points would include fuzzy buzzwords like connectivism, constructivism, conversation, the social view of learning, participatory learning, and many more.

I am interested in briefly discussing a very basic question that, I imagine, underlies a lot of this discussion: can online conversation serve as the focus of a new pedagogy?  I've already written a bit about this in "Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age," but I wanted to return to the topic briefly.

A lot of educators are--not surprisingly--very much struck by the fact that we can learn a lot from each other online.  This is something I've been aware of since the mid-90s, when I ran some mailing lists and indeed did learn a lot from my fellow early adopters.  I continue to learn a lot from people online.  Quora is a great way to learn (albeit it's mostly light intellectual entertainment); so are many blogs and forums.  And of course, wikis can be a useful source of learning both for writers and readers.  These all involve an element of online community, so it of course makes sense that educators might wonder how these new tools could be used as educational tools.  I've developed a few myself and actively participate in other online communities.

But when we, adults, use these tools and participate in these forums, we are building upon our school (and sometimes college) education.  We have learned to write.  We have (hopefully) read reasonably widely, and studied many subjects, giving us the background we absolutely require to understand and build upon common cultural references in our online lives.  But these are not attainments that school children share.  (My focus here will be K-12 education, not college-level education.)  You are making a very dubious assumption if you want to conclude that children can learn the basics of various subjects by online participation modeled after the way adults use online tools.  Namely, you are assuming that children can efficiently learn the basics of science, history, geography, and other academic subjects through online tools and communities that are built by and for educated people.

Of course they can't, and the reason is plain: they usually have to be told new information in order to learn it, and taught and corrected to learn new skills.  These are not "participatory" features.  They require that a teacher or expert be set up to help, in a way that does not correspond to the more egalitarian modes of interaction online.  Moreover, except in some fields that are highly interpretive such as literature or philosophy, the relevant information cannot be arrived at via reflection on what they know--because most children are quite ignorant and much in need of education.  To be able to reflect, they need input.  They need content.  They need food for thought.  They need training and modeling.  They need correction.  We adults don't experience these needs (at least, not so much) when we are surfing away.  We're mostly done learning the concepts, vocabulary, and facts that we need to make sense of conversation in the forums that interest us.

So the reason online conversation cannot be the focus of a new pedagogy is that online conversation, as used by adults for learning, requires prior education.

I have nothing whatsoever against K-12 classes putting their essays or journals on blogs, or co-writing things using wikis, or in other ways using online tools to practice research, writing, and computer skills.  But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that when children do these things, they are doing what we adults do, or that they're learning in the ways we do when we use blogs, wikis, etc.  They aren't.  They're using these as alternative media for getting basic knowledge and practicing skills.  We adults mainly use these media to expand our knowledge of current events and our special interests.  The way we use them is radically different from proper pedagogical uses precisely because our uses require a general education.

Are you skeptical?  Well, I expect that if you're reading this sentence right now, you're pretty well educated.  So consider, please.  What would it be like to read a science blog, or Quora answer on a scientific question, without having studied high school mathematics and science?  Pretty confusing.  What would it be like to read any of the bettter blogs out there--the ones in your own blogrolls or feeds--if you had not read a lot of literature and in other ways learned a lot of college-level vocabulary?  Difficult and boring.  What would it be like if you had to read the news, or political blogs or Wikipedia's current affairs articles, having only minimal knowledge of geography and civics?  Puzzling at best.  Could you really hold your own in a blog discussion about politics if you had an elementary student's grasp of history and politics?  Would you find it easy to write a forum post coherently, clearly, and with good mechanics and spelling, even just to ask a question, if you had not practiced and studied academic writing and grammar as much as you did?  I could go on, but you get the idea.  You can't do these various things that make you an effective, articulate, plugged-in netizen without already having a reasonably good liberal arts education.

I imagine it's sort of possible, but conversation online among your fellow students would be an incredibly inefficient way for you to learn these things in the first place.  Why spend your time trying to glean facts from the bizarre misunderstandings of your fellow 10-year-olds when you can get an entertaining, authoritative presentation of the information in a book or video?  And I'll tell you one thing--someone in your online study community, the teacher or the class nerd, will have to have read such "authoritative" media, and reveal the secrets to everyone, or you'll be "learning" in a very empty echo chamber.

At this point, someone is bound to point out that they don't really oppose "mere facts" (which can just be looked up), declarative knowledge, or "elitist" academics, or books, or content, or all the other boo-hiss villains of this mindset.  They just want there to be less emphasis on content (memorization is so 20th century!), and more on conversation and hands-on projects.  Why is that so hard to understand?  But this is where they inevitably get vague.  If books and academic knowledge are part of the curriculum after all, then in what way is online conversation the "focus" of the curriculum?  How are academics, really, supposed to figure in education--in practice?

My guess is that when it comes down to implementation, the sadly misled teacher-in-the-trenches will sacrifice a few more of the preciously scarce books in the curriculum and use the time for still more stupid projects and silly groupwork assignments, now moved online using "cutting edge" tools because that's what all the clever people say where "the future" lies.  As a result, the students will learn little more about computers and online communities than they would learn through their own use of things like Facebook, and they'll get something that barely resembles a "reasonably good liberal arts education."

EDIT: I greatly enjoyed this literature review/analysis article:

Kirschner, Paul A., John Sweller, and Richard E. Clark, "Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching," Educational Psychologist 41 (2), 75-86: http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf