Prepared for the discussion in Berlin at HAU1 on the Wannaplay project, Grindr and it's impact on the Gay community.
I was asked to speak tonight, as a hacker and activist, concerning the assumptions we place over online environments. But I feel i need to start with something personal first.
Last Sunday, at the last public discussion at HAU2, the first 15 minutes were consumed by one individual that could not help himself but demand that his concerns be heard. And while the audience booed or begged for a more ordered discussion I realised that this person was exposing a vulnerability that went well beyond the Wannaplay incident. It also reminded me, with a strength that I have not felt for a very long time, that one can never assume that their own experiences are enough to understand the experiences of others. Something I felt with a certain experience from my childhood.
I grew up in a religious home. At 16 years old while riding in the car with my mother and a friend of hers I made a homophobic joke. My parents never condoned this way of behaving but I picked this up through my environment. Later that day my mother told me in private that I have no idea what her friend may have gone through in her life and no matter my beliefs that I should be aware and treat everyone with utmost respect. This had a heavy impact on me. So I would like to thank that individual from last week for reminding me of this event.
Concerning the vulnerability he exposed... Living in Berlin it is easy to assume a commonly shared understanding of equality and freedom for the Gay community. We benefit from this, and we celebrate it. But this beautiful city also makes it easy to forget that just 3 weeks ago the Gay Pride parade in Belgrade was quarantined for blocks. I witnessed the exact same scenario a few years ago in Budapest. Our experience of equality here does not translate outside of Berlin and many living here here may be more aware of this than we are.
Actually I need to stop here and correct myself. Early today I asked a close friend to review my text and he reminded me that my description of Berlin as some bastion of liberty and understanding is completely off. Minority groups in Berlin, the Gay community included, are continuously burdened with acts of bigotry. I've developed this misplaced assumption because I spend most of my time within the confines of environments that celebrate this community, Hebbel Am Ufer being one of them. But my isolated understanding illustrates how easy it is to assume common understanding from ones own limited experiences.
Understanding the limits of our own experience is so essential to this topic because the virtual world lacks the physical cues and hints that allow us to obtain common understanding and common respect. As an example consider the cruising culture which Grindr has largely domesticated. I am not a member of the Gay community but I, and I'm sure many here, have had the experience of visiting such a park. There is no Terms Of Service and no End User License Agreement that one signs when entering. Despite this it does not take long to adapt to the common behaviour and show the level of respect this environment deserves. We pick this up both through physical and unphysical cues.
The Internet lacks such cues entirely. The best we have to emulating them are emoticons and the Emoji icon set. It is easy online, logarithmically easier that in the physical world, to assume that ones own understanding of a virtual community is shared by most. This is very common and I think this can be seen in the Wannaplay project. But this can also be seen in how we use such environments.
In august of this year someone documented, anonymously, how anyone in the Grindr community can be physically tracked. This capability has existed since its inception. The same issue was exposed in Tindr in February. Tindr responded by adding a certain level of entropy, or randomness, to the distance readings for individuals. In Tindr you still know if someone is in your neighborhood but you will not know who is the closest. Grindr has responded by giving their users the option to remove accurate location readings for their profile. However, knowing if another Grindr user is in the same building as you is an important function utilised extensively by the community. So by default accurate tracking remains. Despite this we still use such services.
When we use them we sign agreements that we hardly understand. We behave as if virtual spaces were controlled by the commons when in fact our interaction happens instead within the private property of corporations. And there is no Terms Of Service or End User License Agreement that can prevent these misplaced assumptions. Assumptions on etiquette or how we are supposed to behave with each other. But more importantly we lack the physical tools to protect each other. And this brings me to what I feel is one of the more import points of discussion. That of the Internet mob and the hate directed against the Artist, and in some cases against HAU, and I was astonished to learn the amount of hate directed against the victim.
To explain why I find this so important we should compare how we handle hate offline.
Berlin is still challenged with fractions of hate that reveal themselves in sporadic moments. As residents we have become used to attending Anti Fascist rallies when NPD or AFD would speak publicly. We create a buffer between the hate and the hated. Our physical presence sends a message to the public, to the victims and the perpetrators all at once. This action, the physicality of it, is an essential function even when laws exist that prohibit hate speech.
And even though many countries have enacted anti-internet-bullying laws we still have no way to create this buffer online. For all of human nature that the Internet has and continues to liberate this will remain a concerning problem.
It is responsibility of everyone to be aware of this problem and ask themselves if they are helping enable it.
The lack of physical cues to educate each other of common etiquette online gives me a way to understand how Dries thought his project would be received differently, as well as explain why part of the community has responded so clearly in difference to this assumption... It does not help me understand some of the journalists and writers online that appear to benefit from the emancipation of hate that is provided online. The writers that suggest that the victim responded in a manner for personal gain are in fact they themselves the ones whose personal gain should be examined. Because suggesting this is only as absurd as suggesting Dries built his project with intent to harm.
Amendment Oct 16 2014
Someone from the audience at HAU1 on Oct 15 read a statement from the CEO of Gindr concerning features added in a recent update and noted that the software would now allow for location "tribes". He found this interesting as a Gay man of color living in an environment that accepts him partially but leaves him and others dealing with different forms of segregation. While the features added to Grindr do lead to interesting discussions around inclusion and segregation within communities it also brings us to the topic of social engineering through code.
When I describe the false safety we place on Grindr and other location based digital communities, illustrated by the example of recent disclosures on how to track members in the Grindr community, I've been asked if I'm blaming the users. While this does serve as a warning if there is any indictment it lay with developers and not the users.
We are slowly moving the responsibility for the construction of social behaviour and good citizenry from the hands of policy makers to the hands of engineers. Where city planners build parks and rebuild roads engineers devise UI models, reputation schemes and collectives. In this environment ethics and concerns of morality are left to market will. A place where corrections are made only after injustice has been served. This can be seen in Grindr's response to the Wannaplay project, in Tindr and Grindr's response to the tracking issue. This can also be seen in the foundational protocols of the Internet itself where, for example, the same feature used to prevent Germans from hearing GEMA licensed music on Youtube is also utilised to oppress people around the world, with life threatening consequences. The engineers that build these protocols have yet to address this injustice.
In an increasingly digital world, one built by mostly male engineers, the question of capitalist drive of social structures seems mute. With digital neoliberalism a given, rather than discussing post-privacy we should be defining post-existentialism.
(c) This work by Nathan Andrew Fain is licensed under the Non-White-Heterosexual-Male License http://nonwhiteheterosexualmalelicense.org/.