A precedent of subjectivity

Mike Montiero recently posted an essay to Medium “One person’s history of Twitter, from beginning to end“. It’s a good piece, but what really struck me was this referenced Tweet from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone:

Tweet by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, reading: 'Mike, this is the hardest time to stick to principles. The easy way out would be to ban. That sets a precedence of subjectivity.'

This is one of the saddest tweets I’ve ever read.

Stone talks about setting “a precedent of subjectivity” as though subjectivity is something that can possibly be avoided. Everything is subjective; the relevant questions are how much and in what way.

Usually I give people a pass for over-simplifying things on Twitter, but if Stone has trouble expressing himself in 140 characters he has only himself to blame. More seriously, this over-simplification is the source of so many problems that sites like Twitter, Google, and Facebook have been having. They want to be content-neutral, a platform rather than a publisher, a (non-regulated!) utility – in other words, objective.

They know their platforms aren’t actually neutral or objective, not entirely. They know that their abuse teams are staffed by subjective humans and their algorithms are steered by subjective humans and learn from subjective, human-created data. It is impossible to design an open platform that does any kind of data filtering or prioritization without having to make judgment calls. Stone knows. They all know.

So why deny it? My guess is that it’s an avoidance mechanism. As long as we’re debating ‘Should social media sites make subjective decisions about content?’ we’re not getting to ‘What kinds of subjective decisions should social media sites make?’ and ‘To what degree should social media sites be subjective?’ And so the sites can continue to make their subjective decisions in private, without formal or informal oversight.

I want to be clear: there’s real value in the way Google and Facebook and Twitter have prioritized objectivity. I’m pretty sure platforms which didn’t even try for objectivity would be even more alienating and frustrating to use. But ‘better than terrible’ is not enough.  When your sites are changing the course of history you have a moral obligation to tackle the really hard stuff, and to do so openly and accountably.

The precedent of subjectivity was set a very long time ago. It’s about time we got into the details.