I wasn’t going to write this but then Witcher 2 made a period joke so

I spent my early teenage years on an online forum dedicated to video games. It was predominantly male, and I very rarely felt unwanted or uncomfortable. When I did, it was usually from a new poster, not the friends I had made.

I remember having several conversations about gender and video games. This was one of the areas where I felt least likely to find common ground. However, I never felt my disagreement was met with anything more than further debate. No one called me an unkind name or failed to play games with me afterwards. I’ve stayed in contact with these people — most of them, anyway- – and it’s been interesting to see how we’ve all evolved on this issue as we’ve grown older.

I’m bringing it up in lieu of a Wired.com piece by Patton Oswalt. It’s an old piece, but one I’ve only recently seen, though I think it unintentionally demonstrates an attitude that, when adopted by people who are not as nice or thoughtful as Oswalt, are problematic. I want to be clear that Oswalt is and always has been an ally re: Gamergate and other hurdles. His piece struck me in large part because the strand that runs through it tracks a great deal to the sense of geek culture ownership that, in my experience, spurs a lot of resentment toward allegedly non-traditional gamers.

This article is not about video games and gender — it’s barely even about video games — but it is about nerd culture writ large. I don’t want to put words in Oswalt’s mouth, but I would categorize it as an articulate evaluation of how this sub-culture has become less of a sub-culture at all and more of mainstream experience. I would say it discusses the “democratization” of nerd culture, and how that can have negative impacts on those who spent early years marinating in the minutiae of a medium or lore or whatever else.

I come a bit later to this seen than Oswalt, so perhaps I feel this change less acutely. What struck me most was not the lamentation about this change in experience, but rather the sense of ownership Oswalt seemingly feels over the culture, and I find it difficult to sympathize because it is this ownership that has contributed to toxification of nerd culture, generally, and gaming culture, specifically.

I am not imputing this on Oswalt; I think he is making a fair point but the origin of it has also led to less well stated, sympathetic views. That feeling of ownership, for example, has popped up when we talk about objectification of women in video games, and how women are purportedly ruining gaming. It comes up when we talk about toxic masculinity in gaming, as the gold standard for heroism the traditional male power fantasy, and any attempt to fiddle with that is viewed as an infringement on one’s desired simulation. Its relevance is magnified when you view video games as the bridge between would-be trash talk and “lighthearted” trolling to legitimate threats and online harassment.

The word “entitlement” comes to mind. I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to live in a world where you get to feel as though something as ethereal and limitless as a culture should exist in stasis. Where is the property right in a sub-culture?

Oswalt’s exploration is benign, but for the bad actors out there, the belief that nerd culture is theirs is an animating force behind the hate and vitriol they spew at those outside their preferred norm. It’s the reason why they will grief or troll. I honestly wonder if Oswalt’s daughter, whom he cites towards the end of his piece, would be better off if that ownership remained. More likely, I suspect she would be shut out by her peers in this culture.

I’m not sure I can say that because obviously my experience prior to women being viewed as a threat to nerd culture was a good one; it wasn’t until boys and men in this sub-culture felt challenged that they really owned lashing out. But I also wonder how many women wanted to be part of that culture and felt shut out and turned off — the opportunity cost of narrow cultural participation and ownership.

I personally sign onto the thesis that the newfound large appeal of previously minority pastimes has led to a ton of sub-par creations. It’s becoming clear in comics, video games, and other nerdy hobbies that the possibility of larger scale endeavors like movies are a driving force in the creative process. On the flip side, broad swaths of people clamoring for super heroes and playable characters that look like them is a product of this democratization — Black Panther is a testament to this.

Ultimately, it seems as though the sense of sub-cultural ownership results in, at best, interesting internecine disputes. At worst, as we’re witnessing now, it results in a vituperative rebuff by those who feel as though they are losing something. In the middle is a sense of stagnation. Yes, the trade-off to scaling nerdiness is that we get a lot more shitty works out there and nowhere near proportional debate over small details that we might see at a smaller level. But the pay-off is that we get a lot more creatives feeling emboldened to explore with these newer markets who maybe aren’t the same guys speaking code to each other at a bar table, you know?

An impromptu primer on how to deal with YouTube tosspots.

Listen to Kara Swisher’s interview with Susan Wojcicki (CEO of YouTube). There is a portion regarding rules/codes of conduct/community guidelines. I want to memorialize my thoughts here.

I’m not going to put words in Wojcicki’s mouth, but there’s an interaction where she tries to put contours around what it means to create community guidelines and rules. What she’s talking about, at least as I hear it, is due process. That word is tossed around a lot but it has meaning: namely, that we have a set of rules created before anything happens, process we use to enforce those rules, and we use that process for everybody.

Due process is important because it creates a sense of fair play and justice. This is more important when we’re talking about laws dealing with peoples’ lives and liberties, but it can be just as meaningful in cultivating a sense of community – a community that people buy into and of which they want to be a part.

Businesses that have poor communities often have poor user experiences, so your service better be exclusive or so exceptional that people eat the cost of having a bad experience with others. Tech companies should take note, in my opinion, that people are being offered more alternatives and developing higher expectations in this area, so I wouldn’t hang my hat on riding this out. Get community moderators, folks. /end self-promotion

In law – the “codifying” to which Wojcicki refers – due process can be boiled down to two core components:

  1. Notice – have you told people how they’re supposed to behave before you enforce that standard of behavior?
  2. Hearing – is there an opportunity to make their case to whomever is enforcing that standard of behavior?

When talk about how to enforce a law, we apply the code to a specific set of facts. Let’s make our use case Logan Paul, who I believe is, at best, an irresponsible and juvenile opportunist who needs to grow up and, at worst, an utterly insensitive knuckledragger with no understanding of common decency towards other people.

Nevertheless, he was a user of YouTube and presumably agreed to abide by their Terms of Service (TOS) which outlined an assortment of rules to which he is bound, including a three-strikes rule, which is exactly what it sounds like. Swisher asks (paraphrase): why don’t you just get rid of him? You make the rules, change the rules.

Agreed, but that doesn’t solve our Logan Paul problem, at least not right away. Paul was bound to a set of rules that, in my opinion, exposed a gap in behavioral expectations for the YouTube platform. It behooves YouTube to change the rules, capture this behavior and close the gap.

What it doesn’t mean is that it’s a good idea to retroactively apply this rule. Remember “notice”: you want to tell people before they act what the expectation is. Removing content that is abhorrent without a codified rationale undermines this principle. There are always going to be exceptions such as an imminent and credible threat to a person’s life, or something so grossly vulgar that the better risk calculation is to take it down and eat the cost of dealing with the aftermath. But, these are exceptions, and we don’t make rules based on exceptional behavior. We make rules based on things that are commonplace and easily understood such that most people find it possible to comply with them.

Additionally, we don’t create rules to target a specific person. It would be dubious to create a rule that seems neutral but, in application, only results in the removal of Logan Paul. Sure, it’s Youtube’s prerogative to remove whomever they want, but I’m coming from a place that assumes YouTube wants to (1) create a consistent user experience; (2) brand as a media platform that doesn’t pick favorites, and; (3) provide a cogent rationale to its stakeholders and users such that they don’t come off as frivolous or erratic.

I’m losing steam since I need to prepare for a meeting, but my roadmap would essentially boil down to the following:

  • Do a gap assessment on YouTube’s rules as of the date of the Logan Paul suicide forest controversy. He may have engaged in questionable behavior in the past but this is the clear marker of what crossed the line in such a way as to enter the cultural zeitgeist and create national controversy.
  • Once you’ve discovered the gap, ask yourself if a rule would have captured this. Sometimes the behavior is so extraordinary that you could make a rule but it wouldn’t, in practice, police anything because it was such a one off. Other times it’s behavior that defies codification. This doesn’t preclude policing it, but it does probably mean you need to preserve in your ToS a level of discretion for content moderators (which you should have) and training for those moderators to spot red flags, etc.
  • Amend the ToS as needed. Make Logan Paul and others click “agree” to participate on your not-a-media-service platform.
  • Penalize all users for non-compliance, including Logan Paul should he run afoul after the new ToS have been socialized.

I don’t have much to say about hearings here. This is something that is a lot more important in traditional legal situations. From what I hear, you can appeal after three strikes and so forth and this is, frankly, a marketplace. You have options to go elsewhere even if they’re shitty options, YouTube isn’t a basic human necessity to which you have some inherent claim.

I can spell “Wojcicki” off-hand now. Boom.

Anatomy of a lie.

President Trump claims millions of people committed voter fraud. We’ve been told he plans to launch an investigation into this alleged fraud. Here’s what we know: this is false. There is no proof. No one has corroborated this investigation.

(Maybe I should say few people have corroborated; a golfer friend of President Trump’s is the origin of the claim.)

Under normal circumstances, this is a lie. Journalists understandably have to take a more cautionary approach. There’s risk in publishing something so strongly worded. For starters, it’s so concrete a statement and rooted as a factual allegation that it would trigger libel concerns. No worries in this specific situation because a defense to libel is truth and the bar for a public figure is malice, but it’s still part of a publication’s calculus.

Another hurdle is the integrity of reporting. There’s always the usual concern over due diligence and corroboration, but there’s the additional risk of political reporting where truth exists on a spectrum. By this I mean not every statement exists on a binary scale where we can measure its validity and determine in an absolute sense if something is exactly true or exactly false.

There’s virtually no argument over the falsity of this Trump’s claim. Rather, the hand-wringing that has occurred is the severity of language publications should use. The New York Times decided to use the word “lie.” NPR used “falsehood.” NPR justifies its use by way of the dictionary, which requires intent and, they argue, they cannot know what goes on in the president’s mind:

“A false statement made with intent to deceive,” Kelly says. “Intent being the key word there. Without the ability to peer into Donald Trump’s head, I can’t tell you what his intent was. I can tell you what he said and how that squares, or doesn’t, with facts.”

I disagree. Now, they’re journalists, and I’m a lawyer, so our problem-solving mechanisms are likely quite different. Plausible deniability is something with which us law-folk are quite familiar. Many people like to believe the law is read so literally that you can be vindicated under the most technical reading of the law.

Not so. People do not act literally; we do not bind ourselves to linear readings of behavior. We speak casually and we contort. Sometimes we act deliberately, but nonetheless rashly. The law captures this and, when determining liability or culpability, will frequently impute knowledge and intent. Thus the standard for “intent” is would a reasonably prudent person or should a reasonably prudent person have known X, where “X” is an act that would happen.

I think that should be the standard here. No, I’m not arguing for legal culpability or anything of that sort. I do want to argue that this is a useful framework, especially when writing about someone who is potentially very well-practiced in deception (“truthful hyperbole.”)

If President Trump did not already know that his claim was false, he should have known. This information is readily available. As president, he has ample resources at his disposal to uncover the truth. The bare minimum of due diligence on his part would have revealed that voter fraud is sparse, let alone rising to the threshold of millions of people.

Moreover, this standard can ramp up. A reasonable person – human buzzkill, the kind of person who always looks both ways, runs against traffic, and uses his blinkers – could have accomplished the above. President Trump is President of the United States. Our bar for the presidency is high regardless of our thoughts on the outcome of the election. No one would claim that idiocy is the standard by design, all joking aside. In a car accident, I would be held to the standard of a reasonably prudent person because I’m an average driving adult. A professional driver, in contrast, would be held to the standard of a reasonably prudent professional driver, complete with his or her entire sophisticated and practiced driving skill set. President Trump should be held to the standard of a reasonably prudent President.

Likewise, when it comes to public claims made to the American people and have shocking implications about the state and integrity of American democracy, the President is not held to the standard of the average twitter user. He should be held to the standard of the Commander and Chief of the United States – doubly so when he requires his press secretary, official representative of the White House, to evangelize these claims.

Finally, this is a pattern. Trump’s claims predate his inauguration. People, including presidents, make mistakes, speak quickly, and sometimes casually. Even if we were to be forgiving about the above standard and argue this was a passing comment, that is contravened by the fact that he has repeated this argument. There is no ambiguity in his intent to spread what is frankly disinformation.

I understand the hesitancy. A peril of political reporting is that politicians make spurious statements all the time. One also doesn’t want the potency of “lie” to be entirely loss. Tossing strong language around is a way to completely undermine the power of those words, and thus we want it reserved for the most egregious acts.

By way of contrast, President Trump’s claim that Mexico will pay for the wall is specious at best. The proposed 20% tariff will foreseeably land on the American consumer. However, it’s not false. Mexico will pay that tariff. We can argue that Mexico’s decision to pass that along to the consumer is independent and out of the hands of the administration, and that they’ve fulfilled their obligation by attempting to hold Mexico to account. It’s dubious and arguable, but it’s precisely because it occupies such a gray area that we need to provide some benefit of the doubt to politicians operating in an imperfect world with fallible human institutions.

That’s not the case here. The repetitious nature of President Trump’s claims, coupled with his utter lack of due diligence and failure to corroborate or otherwise provide some prima facie (face value) case for his claim has every indication that he knows he’s wrong. Even if he’s completely bubbled, he absolutely should know and it’s fair for publications to impute that intent on him for the aforementioned reasons – namely that he had ample opportunity and resource to uncover the veracity of his claim and either didn’t or chose to act contrary to it.

I’m frankly not sure of any other situation where “lie” might appropriately be used. Publications presumably think that the word is acceptable in some circumstances or else we wouldn’t be having this debate at all. The mind reader standard completely precludes this ever happening, though. Short of walking out on stage and prefacing his statement with “Okay, I’m going to lie now,” we’ll never know the inner motivations of President Trump or any other human beings. We do not possess the capacity to meet NPR’s hurdle.

To conclude, the Prudent President standard illustrates the level of disregard for proof that is palpable and within the realm of actual human faculties, and therefore this is one of those rare occasions where a judicious use of “lie” is wholly appropriate.

Ethics in journalism – no, for real this time.

Tons of thoughts swirling about Buzzfeed’s decision to post the unverified dossier on alleged Trump actions while in Russia.

Pardon my sarcasm: but I’m sure many of you can take a hint with words like “unverified” and alleged.”

My sarcasm stems from the rather patronizing admonishments towards Buzzfeed, which seemingly revolve around the understanding that readers are going to be misled by its publication — a publication Buzzfeed took great pains to explicitly note had not been corroborated.

If it’s not verified, why publish? Because the newsworthiness of this publication was primarily in that it existed; that politicians and journalists alike knew of its existence; that politicians and journalists were talking about it; that Trump and Obama were both briefed on its existence; that John McCain had passed this to the FBI prior to Election Day; that there are facts consistent with the allegation that Trump (either directly or through his campaign staff) have some connection with Russia, and; this connection could range anywhere from deliberate and nefarious to incidental and potentially reckless.

Even if this turns out to be false – and I suspect a lot of it probably is – few people (if any) are defending this on the basis of absurdity. There’s enough of a brick wall of concern regarding Trump’s business and potential Russian ties that keeps this within the realm of plausibility. That’s not just newsworthy; that should get over the hump for official inquiries and investigation.

It’s frankly absurd that the political and media class get to blanketly gatekeep information highly relevant to the American people both as voters and as citizens. For the latter, this should increase demand for Congress to require some kind of disclosure on behalf of Trump with respect to his international business ties, including, potentially, Russian ones. Likewise, the allegation that his staffers, some of whom have a direct working relationship with powerful Russians, visited Prague, is especially disconcerting in light of confirmed intelligence reports of Russian interference with our election. All of this makes the mere existence of this publication material to our interests.

Moreover, it begs into question why James Comey made the unprecedented decision to release two letters on the cusp of the election regarding Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, but not with respect to the existence of this rough report. Comey made this release before warrant with any kind of specific request was made; there was no concrete knowledge of what those recently found emails entailed (it ended up being nothing) but it was nonetheless deemed important for voters to know.

I understand the concern about feeding the right wing narrative that the media is out to get them. I also get that now the right has co-opted the fake news concerns, framing themselves as the victim. These are bad, yes, but given a call between free information for democratic readership and the continued attempt to discredit the media, the former wins.

It’s important that news media play their hand carefully with respect to maintaining and rebuilding their credibility, but that was lost in a separate conversation about false equivalencies and disproportionate critique of candidates. The narrative that the media is part of some vast left wing conspiracy to harm Republican interests is, however, not new, and the attempts by many outlets to assuage their fears by cow-towing to them is what got us to that coverage issue in the first place. Moreover, while this is an important conversation to have, it’s more about reputation-building and narrative-crafting. Ethics are not dictated by how well those ethics are received. They simply are, and let’s not conflate the “Was this ethical?” conversation with machinations.

As a reader, I’m personally glad Buzzfeed published the report. Knowing it was unverified, I took the substantive part of it with a grain of salt. My main takeaway was that someone considered credible had this information, passed it to his contacts, and my government sat on it. Meanwhile, they were bending over backwards to accommodate and, arguably, fan an e-mail scandal close to election day where there was a heightened potential of influencing its outcome. (Update: boom.)

The publication hammered home not just that some amorphous report was out there, yet another intelligence report on the Russians lost in a sea of intelligence reports about the Russians and Trump. Armed with this information, it only bolsters my concerns and suspicions about the tie between my president-elect and a nation hostile not just to our government, but the ideals upon which that government was formed. That goes a lot farther than “salacious.”

I don’t begrudge other outlets for their timidity. Media ethics have long told reporters that they’re gatekeepers in the sense that publishing unverified information without context can be misleading and fraudulent. However, I think whether something is misleading turns an awful lot on the circumstances and the information provided. If everybody part of a special class gets to talk about unclassified reports and it can be clearly published as an unverified, uncorroborated report, I’d respectfully request that they give readers some benefit of the doubt that they know what those words mean.

The value of print media.

On the whole, I have heard a lot of journalists wax poetic about print media. I think there’s a lot of romanticism going on here, but there is one thing of value I’ve been mulling over, and that’s the value of having limited real estate.

By “real estate,” I mean the physical space on which words are printed. There are only so many pages one can use, and only so much space on that page. This creates an increased imperative of prioritization that doesn’t exist in digital media.

Prioritization exists in both print and digital media, but I think the increased amount comes from the limitation of finite space. With digital media, you can (theoretically) put every bit of information on your site and prioritize therein. With print media, you need to decide which information even gets to the paper and prioritize from there. The result is that there is a likely cut of stories that have a de minimis political, social or cultural value.

Another way to put it would be like having an open-book test that lets you bring a one-sided notecard. Maybe you’d be tempted to lug around your textbook or thirty pages of notes if given the chance, but the physical space forces you to only include the most important information. From there, you probably put the most likely to be tested information at the top and prioritize in descending order.

What spurred this thought was a conversation about why I don’t care much about cable news. If I have it on, it’s probably to have noise in the background, not because I think it really gives me a lot of necessary information. There have always been twenty-four hours in the day but has there always been twenty four hours worth of news? While we can certainly argue about the news value of some lighter stories, if CNN et al. didn’t have the objective of filling in that time, a lot of stories probably wouldn’t make the cut. In fact, some of these stories probably wouldn’t be proposed, as I think there’s a high likelihood that a lot of non-news is dramatized to fill that space.

Likewise with websites that, I feel, don’t have any nefarious intent or machinations to mislead or distract, but nonetheless try to occupy the space given to them, which is a lot. It’s possible we’re, as a journalism-heavy society, woefully out of practice when it comes to sifting through all the news in a given day and deciding which stories are of consequence and which are not. Perhaps if journalists and readers alike had to revive this exercise, we’d not only be less saturated in “light,” irrelevant, dramatized, or clickbait stories, but we’d also be better practiced at deciding which stories are worth consuming and which are merely placeholders.

Too simple? Low hanging fruit? Let me know. I’m curious to hear others’ perspectives.