We lost our beloved hound Rocket after a period of illness and infirmity. I was very shaken up by all the crying. I soon learned that crying is something I do in a case like this one, despite any persona I may have as a technically trained, rigorous, uncompromising, strong, dominant male. I should have known better in the first place because of my oversensitive side, since you can’t have one without the other. I should have known I would crumple.

I was very very concerned at all times that somehow my opponents would discover what was happening and see this period of vulnerability as the perfect time to strike. They’ve done it before. Over a decade ago, my orange tabbycat died, and a few years later a leather-bar habitué and minor local gay novelist took the time to send me a recriminatory E-mail about my cat. He had carefully catalogued a moment of weakness for later offensive use.

In our hound’s case, I had endless mental images of that one-eyed, one-eared developer, now a U.S. citizen due in large part to the kindness of a grey lady, and of that millionaire cottage-leveller, whose disabled wife cannot actually climb the 20 feet to the front door of his Modernist dream house. I imagined they would somehow find out this was a great time to hurt me – and actually do it. They’d done it before! Both had entire systems set up to facilitate harassment, bullying, and defamation.

The three men I have mentioned have psychopathic tendencies and they can and will hurt you if they think you deserve it. (Don’t bother asking if you’re on their list. Nobody isn’t.) But this isn’t a personality contest. It’s structural.

The systems they, and we, use

Nobody has a harder time living up to my standards than I do, but I have put a great deal of effort, over a period of many years, into insulating myself from people who want to do me harm. Furthermore, I try to avoid hypocrisy. I may have erred on rare occasion, and I have corrected and will correct those errors, but if you comb through my 4,000 or more Web pages and my hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles and two books, you will find essentially no criticisms of people that are not actually criticisms of their work.

With rare deviations that I will unreservedly correct and apologize for if located, I stay on topic and I refuse to attack people. I have to keep people from attacking me; it stands to reason I cannot attack them, only their work.

I relentlessly campaign against online comment systems and any technology whose typical use is to abuse other people. Your site doesn’t need comments because your site doesn’t need comments (QED) and because, with exceptions so rare they actually can be counted, the comments you enable will hurt real people. When you allow that to happen, you are a joint cause of that harm.

Online comment systems are so structurally flawed that I now believe the problem cannot be solved. (I have believed this for ten years and am tired of keeping it to myself.) The problem hasn’t even been solved on that community Weblog of which I have been a member nearly since its inception more than a decade ago. I have now terminated (in fact recanted) what was a steadfast defence of its approach. I now realize that the weak link in even that system is the administrators themselves. If you let one moderatrix in who has no empathy whatsoever, is tough as nails, and keeps a mental hitlist of suspect members, the system falls down because it was compromised from the inside.

Structurally, online commenting cannot be set up so it protects people from harm

How you deal with people online is not a simple case of innate personality and exercise of free will. Tools and defaults predispose behaviour. Any “commenting guidelines” you write out in plain text have no effect at all; only the tools have an effect.

We know from experience that mild-mannered people hide behind anonymity and pseudonymity to attack each other online. They do so because the system induces that behaviour, not because, as common myth holds, these perpetrators would naturally do so anyway in any forum, including a private meeting face to face. Situations trigger behaviours. Situations are designed.

I can say without hyperbole that your online commenting system almost certainly will hurt people in the long run and, in typical cases like newspapers’, will do so many times a day. (It drove an editor to quit.) Commenting systems, which not only don’t earn you a cent but, for large sites, cost an arm and a leg to ineffectually police, are a way to profit off the human misery the systems themselves trigger.

The entire culture of online vituperation, which now includes essentially the entire online culture, is so insidious that the first thing that hit me when our dog got sick was that people who hate me were going to find out our dog was sick and use it against me. That’s how bad things are.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that people insistently manufacture online personæ that make them seem upbeat, bubbly, blithe, and of course endlessly successful in career and business. (Everyone you follow always has enough money to live on, don’t they?) Our systems are built to squelch and suppress truth. People do not feel safe to fully and truthfully talk about their lives – because people who would never so much as say boo in real life are prompted to hurt us just by the design of the system.

How, then, do we design systems for kindness?

  • The most obvious method is the one barely anybody has the balls to actually carry out: Turn off comments (if not, turn off anonymous comments), and provide a way to fire administrators who turn out to be bullies themselves.

    The undisputed facts of Danah Boyd’s research notwithstanding, use of real names for commenting does help, but the solution is eliminating comments. And we both know you don’t have the integrity to do that.

  • Keep the legions of male autistics who dominate computer programming, technology blogging, the fraud that is “SEO” consulting, and newspaper automation far away from any kind of site that could possibly hurt people, which by my definition includes any site that contemplates including comments. I am arguing that male autistics should never be allowed to design software people use in order to talk to each other. Neurotypicals write better software; discriminate in favour of neurotypicals in hiring.

    Autistic male computer programmers, who are by far the most influential group in that field and who hire each other, cannot be made to understand how their design decisions hurt people. Even if you can halfway get it across to them, they think the solution is a slightly better algorithm.

But get this straight: This is a problem that can only be eliminated, not fixed. If you aren’t designing a system that prevents personal harm, you are a cause of it.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2011.09.11 16:07. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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