Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

06 Jul 2023, 12:07 p.m.

Recently Emitted Elsewhere

A few things I recently wrote in other places, in response to questions and claims by others, and would like to preserve and share here.

In-person events

In response to a claim about why "online-only conferences won’t be allowed to work", I wrote down some thoughts on "the people or activities for whom or for which teleconference mediums do not currently work":

I do genuinely want to talk about this stuff as a motivator for reflection and change.

I am thinking back to the in-person and remote conferences and collaborations I've experienced, facilitated, and organized over the past decades. Several benefits of in-person events that are often hard to get online I listed in the "benefits" section of "How I Thought About an In-Person Conference Choice" when I decided not to attend PyCon in person last year.

At this year's PyCon, I had probably 15 to 25 in-depth one-on-one conversations with other people, and in three of them, the other person cried, and I was able to give them a tissue and (if appropriate) hug them.

At a conference many years ago, during the post-workday drinks, I found the vulnerability to tell my boss something I was scared to admit, and he gave me more support than I could have conceived was possible.

Similar examples that come to mind center on trust & vulnerability.

I have experienced other problems with online conferences -- discovering/mingling with people who aren't already in my circles; visual fatigue; greater difficulty committing to the event and getting away from everyday distractions to focus on the convening; miscellaneous tech difficulties, etc. I think all of those are soluble, given sufficient structural support and investment in genuinely addressing them.

I'm not as sure re: the trust and vulnerability stuff.

At conferences where an acquaintance and I took a walk away from the venue and had a private chat about someone we both knew, swapping incident histories, we felt secure from the risk of surveillance. Even if someone running the conference was friends with that person, the acquaintance and I could easily step away and share info pretty securely.

I don't know of a remote conference platform that I would feel comfortable whisper-networking on.

[I paused here and may or may not come back to the thread. Christie Koehler wrote a response in a different thread.]

The value of obliviousness to subtle hostility

In a MetaFilter discussion of how the site treats and has treated trans people and related issues, a trans person had written, "I feel safe and happy here, but maybe I shouldn't, or at least there was a time when I shouldn't have?" and I replied:

I MeMailed that member about a similar experience in case it would be helpful, and she said it was helpful to her, and would be helpful if I posted it in the thread so others could read it.

I am a person of color -- I'm an Indian-American woman. I have not felt that this part of my identity made me unsafe or unhappy on MetaFilter, and though other people have experienced racism on MetaFilter and found it decreased their interest in participating, I've never felt that.

I think part of what's happened is that, if I saw something gross, I flagged it and assumed the mods would take care of it, which, in my experience, they mostly did and do. Other MeFites have had different experiences with the mods, or simply don't flag things....[MetaFilter-specific bit about flagging elided here from my original comment].

But also, I may have been oblivious. Somewhat similarly, in much of my in-person life I've been oblivious to subtly hostile social cues; a friend once walked beside me on a city street and told me that I'd been street-harassed, yet I hadn't noticed.

I consider this an asset. My obliviousness to hostility that's directed at me makes it easier for me to do what I want, enjoy public life, rise in my career, and -- if other people mention that they need help -- have the energy to help them (such as serving on the BIPOC Board). I've evidently been situationally aware and cautious enough to avoid getting injured, and although I do look back at one very bad on-the-job experience and retroactively understand "oh that was sexism!!" and it would have been good to recognize that earlier, I'm fine now, careerwise.

So I think it's fine for me to have been safe and happy on MetaFilter even when other people weren't; it doesn't mean I was complicit in racism. You are welcome to disagree, of course!

Comparing usability across different domains

I had a few Fediverse conversations recently about usability. Some people have criticized Mastodon and other Fediverse applications for poor usability. In response, some people have suggested, sometimes in a joking manner, that it is legitimate to expect new users to put in some effort. One argument holds that they are accustomed to other convenient but harmful environments and that it is beneficial for them to put in work in order to take better control of their social media experience. I responded:

But what proportion of this required effort is wasteful toil and what proportion is useful labor?

When we are trying to help people join us in some collaborative activity, some of the things we are doing will be hard for them to initially grasp. And within those new skills or habits we ask them to learn, some are completely necessary, because they are deeply tied to our goals. But some are in-jokes, idiosyncrasies: UNnecessary. "Inessential weirdnesses."

Your joke implies that none of the work is toil, that all the weirdnesses are essential and deeply connected to the Fediverse's shared goals and values. I am not so sure.

Many years ago, when the only way to edit English Wikipedia pages was to use the wiki syntax, some folks objected to the possibility of introducing a what-you-see-is-what-you-get editing interface. They argued that this idiosyncratic markup language was a good gatekeeping device, that anyone who didn't want to learn it was thereby demonstrating that they were unfit to contribute to the encyclopedia.

(Look up the "VisualEditor" controversy for more on this argument.)

But just because something is hard doesn't mean it's worthwhile. Just because there is currently a peculiar skill newcomers need to learn to participate doesn't mean that requirement is benefiting us. And I haven't seen evidence that the Fediverse has hit the right balance in our new user scaffolding.

In another conversation, I responded to one person asking, "Anyone who says mastodon is too hard for normal people should be asked to explain how 78% of Americans use online banking. Have you ever tried to use your bank’s website/app? Is mastodon really harder than that?" and another complaining that journalists and opiners write pieces saying that Mastodon is hard to sign up for:

... the many, many infrastructural reasons that a person choosing a bank and onboarding has far more of a supported experience than a person choosing a Fediverse instance and onboarding. Like, you can get an account in person, and there are paid tech support people you can call, and they send you "how to sign up for online banking and use it" print pieces along with your monthly bank statement.

... you do recognize that it is, actually, genuinely difficult for an ordinary person to choose an instance, right?

Also that it is absurd to compare rates of signing up for something very voluntary with zero staffed tech support, such as this social media platform, to rates of usage for something vital to people's finances with significant staffed tech support, such as online banking?

In my writing that is positioned to face a general audience I have said "here's how" rather than "it's hard" and I believe where I agree with you is that if a writer for the general public is going to say the latter then they ought to also say the former.

My interlocutor reminded me of the 78% figure, replying: "it’s about as hard as choosing a bank and signing up for their online banking. Which 78% of adult Americans seem to be capable of." and mentioned that Bluesky, another microblogging-based social network, is more confusing on a particular dimension than Mastodon is. My reply:

Banks have:

* marketing departments that help individuals figure out their specific offerings, including in-person sign-up at local events
* physical offices where people can get accounts
* documentation written by paid tech writers and designed by professional designers, including print pieces physically mailed to users
* paid tech support that one can phone up for help
* an infrastructurally crucial role in people's financial lives
* government regulations that facilitate user trust

* geographic specificity such that an individual has a fairly limited number of banks to choose from
* differentiation based on advertised and well-understood features such as interest rates or particular kinds of accounts
* onboarding help via financial literacy classes in schools + "how to do online stuff" in libraries + senior centers
* early lock-in; many adults choose a bank early on, based on where their families banked

The Fediverse as a whole, and individual Mastodon instances, have approximately none of those features. I haven't tried Bluesky yet and I am totally willing to believe that it also is confusing; it has nearly none of these features as well.

But the super key bit as far as I am concerned is: people usually need to be able to do online banking much more than they need to join a new social media platform. So of course they'll overcome UX obstacles to do the former.

In further private discussion following this conversation, one friend shared a concern that focusing on the many overlapping supports available in the banking realm might lead us to assume that it's necessary for a comparable endeavor to scale commensurately. I replied:

I understand your worry about "so we must scale like that too". Possibly not! But also let's be real about the tradeoffs.... like, if we choose not to use an approach where we have the money for [specific kind of support], then there are people we won't be serving, or we have to find another way to meet their needs. And maybe that tradeoff is fine! But let's be real about it.

As I reflect on these conversations: I would be interested in user research on what people, in aggregate, have trouble with when considering or joining the Fediverse. What discourages them, on a logistical or cultural level, and what social, policy, marketing, or software experiments have empirically helped? Without that data, we're all speculating. At the Wikimedia Foundation a decade ago, people defined a participant lifecycle and systematically listed out the barriers that keep people from realizing they could contribute, making their first contribution, and sticking around to contribute again. The WMF then made plans to embark on strategic work to improve retention before increasing inflow. Is anyone doing this kind of research on the Fediverse?