danah boyd: ““Move fast and break things” is an abomination if your goal is to create a healthy society.”

danah boyd (yes, in lowercase) is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research whose research examines the intersection between technology and society.

She probably doesn’t remember me, but way, way back in late 2003 and early 2004 (in those halcyon pre-Facebook days when social networks still seemed fresh and new and exciting), I wrote a blog about my (mis)adventures on a new social network called Friendster.

Warning: I was young and ignorant and I used some language on that blog back then, that absolutely makes me cringe today. I’m truly sorry. I can’t go back and edit those posts, and frankly that old blog is a historical document that shouldn’t be edited after the fact. So please consider yourself warned, and forgive me if the 2003/2004 Ryan Schultz causes any offense. I would like to think I am becoming a better person over time, as I learn from others.

danah asked me to run some statistics on the Friendster network I had amassed of 3 million people, to get a better sense of who was using Friendster and why (she has done a fair bit of research on teenagers’ use of the various social networks). I had data, and I was happy to help out. (I wrote more about my crazy Friendster days here.)

Here’s a link from her then-blog, reporting on some of my Friendster statistics. And, for example, here’s an entry from my then-blog, dated Feb. 2nd, 2004 (about the middle of the page, you’ll have to scroll down to find it):

danah boyd asked me to check how many friendsters gave their (underage) ages reversed: “61” (16) and “71” (17). The answer: surprisingly few (I bet most of them just lie and say they’re 18):

61: only 821 out of a total of 2,809,843
71: just 665 out of 2,836,990

(I did the samples at different times whenever Gallery stayed up long enough to give a result 🙂

You see, Friendster had a feature called the Gallery, where you could search for various things (like those profiles that said they were male or female, married or single, etc.), and it would pull up a list of profiles in your Friendster network that matched, with a count of the total number of matches. The Gallery went up and down like a yo-yo, especially in the later days of Friendster when it buckled under the sheer onslaught of people using it, but when it was working, I would search for various things, either on my own initiative or at danah’s request.

All of this is a very roundabout way of getting to the point of this blogpost, which is the fact that danah recently received an award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and she gave a speech that you will definitely want to read.

She tweeted:

Last night, I was honored by the EFF. As I reflected on what got me to this place, I realized I needed to reckon with how I have benefited from men whose actions have helped uphold a patriarchal system that has hurt so many.

She gave an absolutely must-read acceptance speech. And she posted the whole speech to Medium, for those who were not in attendance last night.

Here’s just an excerpt (you’ll want to go over and read the whole thing for yourself, trust me, it’s worth it):

The story of how I got to be standing here is rife with pain and I need to expose part of my story in order to make visible why we need to have a Great Reckoning in the tech industry. This award may be about me, but it’s also not. It should be about all of the women and other minorities who have been excluded from tech by people who thought they were helping.

The first blog post I ever wrote was about my own sexual assault. It was 1997 and my audience was two people. I didn’t even know what I was doing would be called blogging. Years later, when many more people started reading my blog, I erased many of those early blog posts because I didn’t want strangers to have to respond to those vulnerable posts. I obfuscated my history to make others more comfortable.

I was at the MIT Media Lab from 1999 to 2002. At the incoming student orientation dinner, an older faculty member sat down next to me. He looked at me and asked if love existed. I raised my eyebrow as he talked about how love was a mirage, but that sex and pleasure were real. That was my introduction to Marvin Minsky and to my new institutional home.

And so, if my recognition means anything, I need it to be a call to arms. We need to all stand up together and challenge the status quo. The tech industry must start to face The Great Reckoning head-on.

My experiences are all too common for women and other marginalized peoples in tech. It’s also all too common for well-meaning guys to do shitty things that make it worse for those that they believe they’re trying to support.

If change is going to happen, values and ethics need to have a seat in the boardroom. Corporate governance goes beyond protecting the interests of capitalism. Change also means that the ideas and concerns of all people need to be a part of the design phase and the auditing of systems, even if this slows down the process. We need to bring back and reinvigorate the profession of quality assurance so that products are not launched without systematic consideration of the harms that might occur. Call it security or call it safety, but it requires focusing on inclusion. After all, whether we like it or not, the tech industry is now in the business of global governance.
“Move fast and break things” is an abomination if your goal is to create a healthy society.

Taking shortcuts may be financially profitable in the short-term, but the cost to society is too great to be justified. In a healthy society, we accommodate differently-abled people through accessibility standards, not because it’s financially prudent but because it’s the right thing to do. In a healthy society, we make certain that the vulnerable amongst us are not harassed into silence because that is not the value behind free speech. In a healthy society, we strategically design to increase social cohesion because binaries are machine logic not human logic.

Bravo to danah for speaking her truth, and using her acceptance speech to point out that we still have a long, long way to go to make things better for women, for minorities, for everyone, who works in tech.

The Great Reckoning is in front of us. How we respond to the calls for justice will shape the future of technology and society. We must hold accountable all who perpetuate, amplify, and enable hate, harm, and cruelty. But accountability without transformation is simply spectacle. We owe it to ourselves and to all of those who have been hurt to focus on the root of the problem. We also owe it to them to actively seek to notbuild certain technologies because the human cost is too great.

My ask of you is to honor me and my story by stepping back and reckoning with your own contributions to the current state of affairs. No one in tech — not you, not me — is an innocent bystander. We have all enabled this current state of affairs in one way or another. Thus, it is our responsibility to take action. How can you personally amplify underrepresented voices? How can you intentionally take time to listen to those who have been injured and understand their perspective? How can you personally stand up to injustice so that structural inequities aren’t further calcified? The goal shouldn’t be to avoid being evil; it should be to actively do good. But it’s not enough to say that we’re going to do good; we need to collectively define — and hold each other to — shared values and standards.

People can change. Institutions can change. But doing so requires all who harmed — and all who benefited from harm — to come forward, admit their mistakes, and actively take steps to change the power dynamics. It requires everyone to hold each other accountable, but also to aim for reconciliation not simply retribution. So as we leave here tonight, let’s stop designing the technologies envisioned in dystopian novels. We need to heed the warnings of artists, not race head-on into their nightmares. Let’s focus on hearing the voices and experiences of those who have been harmed because of the technologies that made this industry so powerful. And let’s collaborate with and design alongside those communities to fix these wrongs, to build just and empowering technologies rather than those that reify the status quo.

I don’t have a huge audience for this blog, but I wanted to use what little platform I do have to amplify danah’s message. Thank you, danah, for speaking up and speaking out!

Liked it? Then please consider supporting Ryan Schultz on Patreon! Even as little as US$1 a month unlocks exclusive patron benefits. Thank you!
Become a patron at Patreon!