My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

Relevant links:

Archive

techno-ethics (what is “evil”?)

We can all come up with ways to justify even our worst behavior. This is why i’m always a bit wary of “don’t be evil”-esque mantras. Evil on what terms?

When i heard about WordPress’ questionable practices, i couldn’t help but sigh. I totally agree with Waxy’s request that we not engage in angry mob justice. That said, i’m very concerned that folks are justifying, defending or explaining Matt’s decision (ex: 1 2). He is a nice guy – i totally agree. And perhaps we should all be very defensive of nice guys who are friends or friend-of-friends. But he did fuck up. And he did use our collective social capital for his personal gains.

I don’t want to talk about should’ves but i want to talk about what ethics we are promoting and what happens when we drag companies/enemies through the coals for similar behavior.

There is a value in our community that transparency rules. Of course, few of us live up to that value either professionally or personally. We protect our own interests regularly. Yet, we yell and scream when others do the same… unless they are our friends. This has a name – it’s called “team face” (see Erving Goffman). Yet, when team face occurs, the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ get clearly defined. It’s not such an open community when we are engaging in team face. This is an ethic that we must consider.

We all want to make a living (and some of us want to get rich). A mouse-over Erving Goffman’s name makes it very clear that i will make some small amount of money if you purchase his book. Explicit advertisements on blogs lets you know that others are making money off of this practice. I consult and i don’t tell you (my blog readers) everything that i tell certain companies. Of course, we begrudge people for this. And we lynch companies for asking users to pay for currently free things (think of the Six Apart fiasco). There is selfishness and self-interest all-around. Yet, what’s the balance?

The problem that i have with Matt’s decision is that he used community resources (reputation) to engage in a practice that i find despicable for his own gain under the justification that it would be good for the community in the long run if WordPress grew. There’s no doubt that WordPress is a great product but it’s a product built on open source and that’s why the community likes it. They like it for its transparency, for its code of honor that flies in the face of big companies. What upsets me is not that he simply engaged in selfish behavior (because we all do) but that he used the community’s reputation to do so. We had no ability to say “not in my name.” This is the “benevolent” dictatorship problem.

What’s worse is that we all pay for it. Social technology works because of social norms to be honorable. Pagerank works because most people do their best to be honest. And those who don’t are considered spammers. What does our community have to gain from any effort to usurp pagerank? I would argue that we have much to lose. Folks may not like Google’s pagerank system but do you remember what search was like 5 years ago? Google changed most of our lives and perhaps a new iteration is necessary but it should not be done through foul play. That’s a terrible way to innovate.

I think that this situation requires some deep reflection on all of our parts because i suspect that our defensive reactions make us look hypocritical as hell. What kind of community of technologists do we want to build? What ethics do we want to hold onto? Do we have collective values? How are we going to collectively encourage those ethics? How are we going to react when social contracts regarding our collective ethics are broken? I hope that we can get out of our defensiveness and really think about what this implies for all of our endeavors. We all fuck up and i’ll be the first to forgive Matt. That said, i think that we should all take this situation as a lesson and really think about and discuss what does it really mean to be ethical and socially responsible in a technological environment. Let’s learn from our mistakes and that of our peers.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

6 comments to techno-ethics (what is “evil”?)

  • Good to have your perspective on this.

    I keep wondering about PageRank™ and it’s lack of transparency in relation to the community values of the web–and, whether it should be considered how this is a corrupting influence upon folks like Matt and their obligations to the community around their sites.

    So, just to be clear: I am not at all saying that this influence relieved Matt of his choices or should relieve him of responsibility for his choices.

    But, maybe what’s happening with Matt is also a sign of a deeper issue with the way search engines (and, it seems, Google’s PageRank concept in particular) unaccountably assign consolidated power/worth to individual web sites and/or pages.

    In other words, there is a complex, distributed, web-like value the WordPress site gets from WordPress users linking to it. But, there is a somewhat predictable but not truly transparent, centralized, consolidated (not-web-like?) value the WordPress site gets from Google and, in a similar manner, from other search engines.

    So, I wonder if this centralized influence suggests a different set of values than those suggested by the decentralized community. Did Matt not live up to the values of the community-universe around WordPress, or did he just try to live up to the commerical? centralized? values offered him by the universe of search engines–where he found his site to have a different kind of worth?

    (I don’t know if this makes sense–I haven’t really figured out what exactly about PageRank style measures is the issue. But, I keep imagining what this situation with Matt might be like if PageRank weren’t part of it–it would be very different. Also, it seems like this is like a flip side of the rel=nofollow ethic many bloggers have embraced.)

  • joe

    I’m of the mind to hesitate to forgive Matt so easily. That is, I don’t think we can characterize this as simply a “fuck up”. This wasn’t a mistake. It was a calculated move on his part drawn off of the design of his very popular tool. Granted, he couldn’t come out and admit it because he knew it would be seen as shady by the WordPress community and he knew that Google would thwart the rankgaming as soon as they found out.

  • WordPress’s Googlegate and the Politics of Open Source

    Danah Boyd, in discussing WordPress’s Googlegate, raises some very interesting questions about friendship, ethics, and the politics of ‘community’ and commercialisation in relation to FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) and other ‘user-led’ onl…

  • WordPress’s Googlegate and the Politics of Open Source

    Danah Boyd, in discussing WordPress’s Googlegate, raises some very interesting questions about friendship, ethics, and the politics of ‘community’ and commercialisation in relation to FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) and other ‘user-led’ onl…

  • A wordpress gambit

    In the last three days there’s been a fast and furious conversation on the blogosphere following the WordPress Website Search Engines’ Spam post on Waxi.org. Go there if you’re looking for the whole story. To cut it short, a batch of articles were host…

  • “The problem that i have with Matt’s decision is that he used community resources (reputation) to engage in a practice that i find despicable for his own gain under the justification that it would be good for the community in the long run if WordPress grew.”

    I imagine the intent before the action was his own gain and the justification only came after he was criticized. He should have just been honest and said that he did it to get paid.