I don't think we computer geeks appreciate how profoundly the rise of the smartphone, and Facebook, has changed the Internet audience. It's something that really only happened in the last five years, as smartphones and data plans dropped radically in price and became accessible – and addictive – to huge segments of the population.
People may have regularly used computers in 2007, sure, but that is a very different thing than having your computer in your pocket, 24/7, with you every step of every day, integrated into your life. As Jerry Seinfeld noted in 2014:
But I know you got your phone. Everybody here's got their phone. There's not one person here who doesn't have it. You better have it … you gotta have it. Because there is no safety, there is no comfort, there is no security for you in this life any more … unless when you're walking down the street you can feel a hard rectangle in your pants.
It's an addiction that is new to millions – but eerily familiar to us.
From "only nerds will use the Internet" to "everyone stares at their smartphones all day long!" in 20 years. Not bad, team :-).
The good news is that, at this moment, every human being is far more connected to their fellow humans than any human has ever been in the entirety of recorded history.
Spoiler alert: that's also the bad news.
Nextdoor is a Facebook-alike focused on specific neighborhoods. The idea is that you and everyone else on your block would join, and you can privately discuss local events, block parties, and generally hang out like neighbors do. It's a good idea, and my wife started using it a fair amount in the last few years. We feel more connected to our neighbors through the service. But one unfortunate thing you'll find out when using Nextdoor is that your neighbors are probably a little bit racist.
I don't use Nextdoor myself, but I remember Betsy specifically complaining about the casual racism she saw there, and I've also seen it mentioned several times on Twitter by people I follow. They're not the only ones. It became so epidemic that Nextdoor got a reputation for being a racial profiling hub. Which is obviously not good.
Social networking historically trends young, with the early adopters. Facebook launched as a site for college students. But as those networks grow, they inevitably age. They begin to include older people. And those older people will, statistically speaking, be more racist. I apologize if this sounds ageist, but let me ask you something: do you consider your parents a little racist? I will personally admit that one of my parents is definitely someone I would label a little bit racist. It's … not awesome.
The older the person, the more likely they are to have these "old fashioned" notions that the mere presence of differently-colored people on your block is inherently suspicious, and marriage should probably be defined as between a man and a woman.
In one meta-analysis by Jeffrey Lax and Justin Phillips of Columbia University, a majority of 18–29 year old Americans in 38 states support same sex marriage while in only 6 states do less than 45% of 18–29 year olds support same-sex marriage. At the same time not a single state shows support for same-sex marriage greater than 35% amongst those 64 and older
The idea that regressive social opinions correlate with age isn't an opinion; it's a statistical fact.
Support for same-sex marriage in the U.S.
18 - 29 years old 65%
30 - 49 years old 54%
50 - 64 years old 45%
65+ years old 39%
Are there progressive septuagenarians? Sure there are. But not many.
To me, failure to support same-sex marriage is as inconceivable as failing to support interracial marriage. Which was not that long ago, to the tune of the late 60s and early 70s. If you want some truly hair-raising reading, try Loving v. Virginia on for size. Because Virginia is for lovers. Just not those kind of lovers, 49 years ago. In the interests of full disclosure, I am 45 years old, and I graduated from the University of Virginia.
With Nextdoor, you're more connected with your neighbors than ever before. But through that connection you may also find out some regressive things about your neighbors that you'd never have discovered in years of the traditional daily routine of polite waves, hellos from the driveway, and casual sidewalk conversations.
To their immense credit, rather than accepting this status quo, Nextdoor did what any self-respecting computer geek would do: they changed their software. Now, when you attempt to post about a crime or suspicious activity …
Nextdoor claims this new multi-step system has, so far, reduced instances of racial profiling by 75%. It’s also decreased considerably the number of notes about crime and safety. During testing, the number of crime and safety issue reports abandoned before being published rose by 50%. “It’s a fairly significant dropoff,” said Tolia, “but we believe that, for Nextdoor, quality is more important than quantity.”
I'm a huge fan of designing software to help nudge people, at exactly the right time, to be their better selves. And this is a textbook example of doing it right.
Would using Nextdoor and encountering these dialogs make my aforementioned parent a little bit less racist? Probably not. But I like to think they would stop for at least a moment and consider the importance of focusing on the behavior that is problematic, rather than the individual person. This is a philosophy I promoted on Stack Overflow, I continue to promote with Discourse, and I reinforce daily with our three kids. You never, ever judge someone by what they look like. Look at what they do instead.
If you were getting excited about the prospect of validating Betteridge's Law yet again, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I truly do believe software, properly designed software, can not only help us be more civil to each other, but can also help people – maybe even people you love – behave a bit less like racists online.
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I shit you not: just now the "community lead" in my Nextdoor neighborhood made a post about making police and firefighters a protected class for hate crimes. Figures this blue lives matter shit gets spewed from the same guy who deleted multiple posts of people saying they were uncomfortable with a pretty racist OPD press release a few months back.
Yesterday, I linked to the story of police officer Jason Short, who attempted to rescue an inanimate doll. Since reading about it, I haven’t been able to get this sequence out of my mind.
He smashed the window with his baton to save the infant. The CPR, however, did not work. He checked for an obstructed airway and called for an ambulance.
“And I went to put my finger in its mouth and it was all resistance,” he said to WMUR-TV. “And I’m like, ‘This is a doll.’”
Picture Lieutenant Short, as he speeds into the Walmart parking lot in response to a 911 call. He’s responding to an anonymous tip of an infant in peril, suffering inside a hot vehicle. Though no one has stuck around at the scene, Short quickly spots the car in question as he circles the lot. He throws it into park, but even as he exits his cruiser, he’s boarding a rollercoaster of emotions
The officer’s adrenaline rockets up as he tries the door handle. It’s locked, of course, so he must resort to smashing the car’s window with his baton. Even with the loud crash, the baby is non-responsive. Once Short has the car door open, he follows his training. He cradles the child gently and attempts mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Alas, the CPR is terrifyingly ineffective, and he screams into his radio for an ambulance.
In desperation, Short attempts to poke his finger into the newborn’s mouth to clear whatever obstruction might be there. Suddenly, he realizes he’s holding a doll and feels like a complete and utter moron.
Now Short is standing dumbfounded, as the broken glass sprinkled on the ground glints in the sun. All gentleness is gone as he holds the “baby” by a single arm and jerks it up to his face for a closer inspection. His head swivels around, scanning the parking lot as he attempts to find someone with whom he can share a “Can you believe this shit?” look. And yet, there’s no one nearby, no one who has seen what just happened.
“Maybe I can just drive away,” Short thinks. “Otherwise, I’ll never hear the end of this back at headquarters.”
Before he can act on his devious plan, his radio comes to life. The voice of Cheryl Heins crackles through.
“Lieutenant Short, what’s the status on that call?” the dispatcher asks.
“You can cancel that ambulance. It’s…it’s a doll,” Short replies.
“Say again, Jason?” Heins says, incredulous.
“A doll, a doll, it’s a goddamned doll, Cheryl!” Short yells.
After a long pause, the single word response comes back.
Absolutely - I didn't mean to imply that I thought he was an idiot, I think it's crappy for people to be making fun of him. Imagine what people would have said if he thought it was a doll but it was a real kid. Better safe than sorry.
I used to work in a lab in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington U, therefore I am (extremely) tangentially related to this xkcd and feeling very pleased with myself. (also I wonder if they've figured out why their site is crashing this morning...)