2017 Year-Ender

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Categories: Modern, Not an expert
This picture combines deer, hockey, and a snowless New Year … what could be more Victoria than that?

Another year ends in the manner of the one which ended Xenophon’s Hellenica: after terrible battles and startling results, there is not peace but confusion and disorder. Xenophon’s perplexity lead to a Sacred War, 300 dead lions on the plain of Chaeronea, and the King dead in an abandoned carriage as his conqueror bent down and took his seal with clean white hands. As for me, I am getting to know the local deer and my old library.

Late in this year, scienceblogs.com shut down. But scienceblogs.de is still full of posts about cipher mysteries, astronomy, and whether “don’t feed the trolls” is a good strategy, and while dead humans go where no-one returns, dead blogs can be summoned with a simple incantation and enthusiastically babble about what went wrong until you hastily perform the ritual to dismiss them. After a decade of watching the science blogging community, Andy Extance finds that the number of active blogs has stayed more or less the same.

While in previous years traffic on this blog doubled, in 2017 the numbers were about the same as last year. When I look at the traffic by country, I wonder if this is because my American and British readers have other things to worry about. The five most popular posts included two of my projects, namely Armour in Texts and Fashion in the Age of Datini, as well as my comments on the largest armies in world history (thanks Flipboard!), my farewell to the historical fencers from 2016, and “Learning Sumerian is Hard.”

This year I have focused on writing my thesis and organizing things with friends, while behind me in the window the lamps on the Internet go out one by one: this site becomes blank unless you enable Javascript, that one stops letting people share photos unless they pay ransom, a third moves some accounts from the publicly visible section into the members-only if they have the wrong keywords in their names. Those are not my values, but if the last year has taught me anything, it is that not as many people share my values as I thought. Yet there are forces stirring in the dimness, and I don’t think that they will do what those who called them up expect.

Some Garry oaks with suspicious vines, December 2017

The Internet is a Garry Oak of communication and creativity swathed in the ivy of spying and advertising. Internet companies provide ‘free’ services so they can better track what you are doing and influence your behaviour with advertising and propaganda, and the problem is that the kinds of things which are most useful to advertisers are not the things which most of us want to read, watch, and hear. Like the ivy which starves the tree of light and water, this surveillance and censorship is killing the life which supports it. Journalists have begun to admit that for the Internet versions of their papers, they focus on opinionated clickbait which has a chance of going viral, because longer reads and local news do not pay for themselves with advertising, but this means that readers learn not to trust what they say. (Quinn Norton, The Hypocrisy of the Internet Journalist, Sean Blanda, Medium and the Reason You Can’t Stand the News Anymore).

Because it has been like this for 20 years, this can feel like this is just the way the Internet works. But in fact, it is an accident: the early Internet was dominated by the USA and by financial systems built on the old Visa and Mastercard networks, and the USA has very weak privacy laws and a financial system built to keep some people on top and other people on the bottom. For a long time, nobody could figure out a way to pay website owners a few dollars a month without the credit card companies eating most of those payments. But many people already pay a few dimes every time they open a large webpage on their smart phone, and it is not hard to envision a world where the US passed federal privacy legislation in the 1970s and the Google-equivalent had to limit itself to showing ads based on the contents of a search query or webpage and nothing else. People around the world can see this, and they are organizing to build an alternative.

Companies like Liberapay in France are building systems to make small monthly donations to half a dozen creators, and spread the credit-card fees across all of these donations. Right now Patreon is the most successful, but they show signs of losing their nerve: they tried to kick back greatly increased fees to the donors in December, and after years of urging creators of sexy webcomics and bondage videos to join, in October they reclassified many of these projects from acceptable ‘adult content’ to forbidden ‘pornography.’ (If you want to hear what the people affected have to say, a good place to start is the Open Letter to Patreon and the Patreon Reference Sheet by Liara Roux; a good journalist to follow is Violet Blue). And in the last few weeks, I watched the Internet boil in confusion, decide that they were not misunderstanding something and that the new fees would really make small donations much more expensive, and start organizing to find or build a replacement. It felt like the Internet ten years ago, or Maciej Ceglowski’s description of the time that the fanfiction community decided that they could no longer work with Delicious and wrote a 52-page specification of what his company would have to do to meet their needs.

Patreon has backed down on the fees, but still seem to be discriminating against adult content which can’t pay as well as HBO, so I do not know what the future of the company will be. But millions of people have seen that it is possible to support free podcasts, blogs, webcomics, and videos with monthly donations not ads and spying. They won’t forget that, and if one company backs away or succumbs to pressure, they will create another. In the immortal words of Rich Burlew:

“Why should I care how many people I have to kill? I can just make MORE in my TUMMY!” Rich Burlew, Order of the Stick #587

5 thoughts on “2017 Year-Ender

  1. a says:

    >a third moves some accounts from the publicly visible section into the members-only
    … if they have the wrong keywords in their names.
    >
    Huh? “wrong” ???

    1. Sean Manning says:

      A few years ago, some of my reenactor friends introduced me to a tumblr full of happy reenactors with nice clothing called “The Reenactor’s Porn.” Sometime last year that went behind a mandatory login, presumably because it had the wrong keyword in the title (they did have some shameless Ionians whose tunics didn’t cover their knees, and some 18th century hussies showing a bit of ankle, but it is a wide world full of all kinds of people, and I am pretty sure that neither of those is the kind of photo tumblr thought it was putting behind a login). I have heard many similar stories from Facebook.

  2. a says:

    Oh. Sounded to me like the site was doing something to _people_ who had the wrong sort of user name. Excluding them or hiding their presence.

    Well, we do need to keep children away from things, and the word “porn” is a valid flag for that. “Responsible” porn producers insert such keywords into their HTML.

    People who use words sarcastically or ironically are going to get caught by the system.

    Dunno how to solve the conflict between open information for adults WITH privacy of access, and protecting children from material they are not yet cognitively able to handle, and which can cause them harm.

    Interesting article on how tech industry & product marketers are learning how to create overtly addictive products — learning from the gambling industry. There are a couple of how-to books as well:

    https://www.theverge.com/2015/5/6/8544303/casino-slot-machine-gambling-addiction-psychology-mobile-games

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi a,

      you might think so, but in fact content and spam filters based on simple keywords were already a laughingstock in the 1990s, because they blocked anatomy textbooks and the homepages of English towns and Austrian Dörfer while leaving gaps that plenty of enterprising 14 year olds could find their way through.

      Moreover, there is a general principle. People who like power love to invent a constantly changing set of rules, demand that people follow them, and pretend that they have always been the rules. You can’t satisfy them by self-censorship because they will just invent a new rule to make you dance. If you look at the history of these sites, you find that quite a few of them depended on the kind of content they are banning or hiding when they were new, and only turn against them when they are big (so early on a key market for the Kindle was people who wanted to read romance novels on the bus or at the cafe without everyone seeing the sexy sheikh on the cover, and Amazon spent a lot of time and money recruiting people to write them, until one day those authors discovered that their works were no longer turning up in search results … and the authors who were hurt the most were the authors who had done the most business through Amazon and encouraged the most people to buy a Kindle). That is base treachery and entrapment.

      One of the problems with the advertising model is that it rewards sites which keep people clicking, not sites which give them what they want and send them away from the computer.

  3. Thanks to the University of Victoria | Book and Sword says:

    […] is a hard and confusing time. My values and my ways of thinking are not nearly as common as I thought they were as an undergraduate chatting about ideas on his walks home and making his first posts on the […]

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