312 stories
·
5 followers

Why Does a Librarian Own a Social Media Site That's Been Around for Longer Than Facebook? - Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure

3 Shares
Reimagining the Internet
Why Does a Librarian Own a Social Media Site That's Been Around for Longer Than Facebook?

Jessamyn West is not just one of the web’s favorite librarians, but the new owner of Metafilter, an incredibly long-running social network that dates back to a very different Internet. In the first part of our interview with Jessamyn, she tells us just how Metafilter has kept going and stayed healthy since 1999.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hey everybody. Welcome back to Reimagining The Internet. I’m Ethan Zuckerman. I am here today with one of the Internet’s very coolest librarians and one of the internet coolest people in general, Jessamyn West. Jessamyn is a librarian in Randolph, Vermont, where she leads the Randolph Technical Career Center. She’s a frequent speaker and writer. She wrote the 2011 book Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide. She blogs at <a href="http://librarian.net" rel="nofollow">librarian.net</a>. One of the things we’re going to be talking to her about today is the MetaFilter community where she used to be the community manager and director of operations, is now the co-host of the MetaFilter Podcast and as of very recently, the owner of MetaFilter. Jessamyn welcome. Good to have you here.

Jessamyn West:

Hey, good to see you. Thanks for having me.

Ethan Zuckerman:

You have been highly, highly online and really visible in sort of technology circles, particularly connecting the librarian world to the larger digital world. You’re also very much a rural New England person. And of course you are now CEO, owner, director of one of the Internet’s longest lived and most beloved online communities. What is MetaFilter and how did you end up owning it Jessamyn?

Jessamyn West:

Well, MetaFilter is I think Matt Haughey, who’s the guy who created it, had the best description of MetaFilter, which is a social network for non friends. It’s essentially an online community blog. So back in the early days of blogs, a blog was just a thing that one person did before kind of everybody had one and before you stopped calling it a blog, because it was just what the web was. It was started in late 1999 and it was basically anybody could make a post to the front page about a neat thing you found on the internet that you wanted to talk to other people about. Other people had accounts also, and people could talk in a very text based environment. There were images for a while, but then there stopped being images and it’s grown over time. There’s now the most popular part of the site is Ask MetaFilter, which is like Q&A about, you got a relationship question, you got a cat question, you got a vacation question, ask the community.

And so it’s a longstanding community where it ebbs and flows of who’s there and what they’re doing. But there’s some people who have been a part of this particular online community for over 20 years. Right. And so you get to know people. You have people who have been married and they have kids and then their kids get accounts on MetaFilter like it’s boggling, honestly. And I started out there just as a friend of Matt’s and then over time being kind of a super fan, Matt ran it by himself for a long time. I became kind of the first employee after just Matt and the dev guy, PB, Paul Bausch, and slowly that turned into a little bit of a job.

And then as kind of the great glory days of blogs happened, it was advertiser supported. The ad money was good back in the day. And the site had a team of full time round the clock, 24/7 moderators. We did stuff, spent money on it. And I worked there from 2005 to 2014. When I stepped down to really spend a little bit more time doing libraries, Josh Millard, who was kind of the guy who was hired after me, once Matt stepped away. I mean, it’s all God soap opera-y. Right. Matt stepped away to get a job at Slack. Josh stepped in as kind of the owner and also the guy who ran day to day, did that for four or five years during Trump, during COVID like, oh my God. So hard. It was so hard then. And really it was a lot, it was too much. Right.

And so he had to really pull back and the site has been kind of reconceptualized so that I’m the one who does kind of in the UK, they call it just admin, right, paperwork, legal, vision stuff. But we also have one of the longstanding moderators there who’s really in charge of day to day. Right. So as much as I’m, I guess the CEO, I’m also not the person whose day to day, like we should delete that comment. This is how we should handle this community issue. I’m there as kind of a long time person who understands the community, who has vision, but we’re really hoping to shift to more of a steering committee model where the people who use the site are the ones who really get to help run the site. And it’s hard because it’s been a long time where it’s been not that.

So it’s been like that guy. He’s in charge. This is his fault. I’m mad. Moving on to, okay, well MetaFilter is us. How do we want to handle this difficult conversation? How do we want to handle this weird topic? And that’s kind of where we are now. This all just started as far as my kind of weird return, and we’re still trying to figure out how it’s going to happen. Right now we have a transition team helping ease Josh out, ease this new model in, and then we’re going to move to a steering committee, which is going to hopefully be the legislative body that helps determine what MetaFilter is going to be.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So let’s remind people or introduce people who don’t know Metafilter to a couple of things that are peculiar about it. One is that MetaFilter has been around for 22 years at this point. If you are a logged in user, as I course am, you can click a button showing you what MetaFilter looked like 20 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago. MetaFilter has multiple different sections, but one of them is generally referred to as the blue and these are moderated, but user written short blog posts really just long bookmarks. One today, for instance, is pointing people towards a website that lets you generate Brian Eno’s music for airports or something similar by layering pieces of choral music and sound sort of put together. So these are of delightful links across the internet that MetaFilter’s community is finding and putting up there for each other and for the web as a whole. Who are the MetaFilter people Jessamyn? How many are there? What’s the sort of person who uses MetaFilter and what’s up with the $5?

Jessamyn West:

Good. Let’s address those in order. MetaFilter people in general tend to be people who like myself are extremely online. I mean sometimes in order to put it in context that other people understand, it’s kind of like Reddit if there were only one of them and there were no threaded comments. Right. And there were moderators who got to do that as a job, not as volunteers, et cetera. Right. And maybe a little less of a commitment to all free speech all the time. Right. Not that we’re against free speech, but we believe that in a community you have to balance the needs of one person against the needs of a general community. Right. And so because I mean our user numbers, you get kind of an incremental user number whenever you sign up. Matt was user number one, I’m user 292. My boyfriend is 61170. We don’t refer to each other that way.

But a lot of times your kind of aware of it because it does let you know when somebody signed up. Our user numbers now are in the 300000s. Realistically though we probably have a couple thousand people that are commenting in a given month maybe. I haven’t honestly looked at the stats recently and maybe 10, 15,000 sort of users that comment kind of ever in sort of the current environment. Right. A lot of people just sign up and leave. A lot of people left because the site changed and they didn’t, or they changed and the site didn’t, that kind of thing. Users have a tendency to be extremely online. They have a tendency to be from Western countries, though certainly not for all. And we’d like to work on that, but it’s challenging. Right. It’s almost exclusively conversation in English, just because again, mostly sort of Western countries, we do have a lot of non-English speakers, but they participate in English.

People skew older. Although you do find younger people for whom the site works for them. Often there’s a reason they’re extremely online, which is the thing I always brought to my moderation. Maybe it’s just a kind of reason like, oh, I work on the internet. And so I also hang out and talk on the internet, or it could be a reason like, oh, I’m time shifted from everybody I would hang out with in real life. Or oh, I’m taking care of a family member, which means I don’t get to get out and about. Or maybe I have a disability that keeps me that gives me communication issues if I was talking or interacting in real life that I don’t have when I’m typing into a box on the internet. Or maybe all sorts of things, maybe I’ve got an attitude problem that makes it difficult for me to interact with people in real life.

I think for me, I stay up late and my community doesn’t. So I really like being able to talk to people. And I like people who get my jokes. Right. It’s almost an outcropping of sort of Usenet conversation, very text, very nerdy, very interested in things in that nerdy way. And people who like to share. Right. There’s a huge amount of librarians on MetaFilter.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It definitely feels, so I’ve been on MetaFilter for a long time. I certainly don’t have a number as low as yours, but mine is in the 15000s. I’ve been there for a while. And I remember the internet being a lot more like MetaFilter and there actually being dozens of different sites out there whose primary occupations seem to be to document index and celebrate the supreme weirdness of the world that we are jointly living in. And it is worth reminding people that the first weblog Jorn Barger Robot Wisdom was basically single line descriptions of websites with links to them. MetaFilter in some ways isn’t all that different from that, except that it has a rich commenting culture. And it’s now got communities like Ask MetaFilter that are, I think, warmer and friendlier than just the link exchange piece of it.

Two things I would say about MetaFilter that seem really worth calling out, one is that it’s remained remarkably friendly and unspammy, which has something to do with moderation and something to do with the five bucks. And then the second is that there was a long period of time during which MetaFilter was almost like the secret backdoor into Google. So I’m wondering maybe if I can get you to talk about both of those, the very unusual subscription system and then the relationship between the mass of comments that is MetaFilter and the way that search engines have dealt with it over the years.

Jessamyn West:

Sure. Well, the $5 that you’ve referred to is basically it costs $5 to join. If you don’t have $5, drop us a note, you can probably join anyhow. We don’t want it to keep people out who, especially if you come from somewhere where $5 is an awful lot of money, or maybe you’re in circumstances where $5 is a lot of money, but it costs $5 to sign up. And originally that was literally because, and this is joint with your other question, right, you posted something to the front page of MetaFilter, MetaFilter was a popular website before there were as many popular websites. Think about the early [inaudible 00:13:33]. You post something to the front page of MetaFilter Google would pick that up. That would suddenly become more findable because not only it existed, but it got pointed to because Google used to be all about inbound links with text being the things that Google used in its were not quite smart, but we have a smart idea way so that Google would understand what a page was about. Right.

But so spammers figure that out and they’re like, oh, if I can get my vacuum cleaners on the front page of MetaFilter, my vacuum cleaners are going to shoot way up in Google page results. And that was true, like page ranking. And so people would just constantly be linking their vacuum cleaners and you can see them coming a mile away, right, but it wastes moderator time to have to figure this out each time. And one of the things we know about spammers is, oh my God, they fight, they fight when you ban them. And you’re like, no, and they’re like, I’m just a vacuum cleaner salesman and it’s exhausting.

So we just had this sort of $5 thing and that had a tendency to keep spammers out. Right. Because it’s one thing to spam when it doesn’t cost anything. It’s another, that it’s going to cost you five bucks. Maybe you’re not going to get your five bucks back. One thing I really do need to mention about MetaFilter specifically is it is bespoke, which is also another way of saying rickety and built on PHP and cold fusion. But we built all the tools, which means our tools are the ones we need to do our job, which I think is really an important distinction.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I feel compelled to put in a Jedi GIF at this point here and say cold fusion. Now that’s the name that I haven’t heard in a very long time.

Jessamyn West:

I know. I know.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It is fascinating. I mean, one thing I will say is as someone who’s been part of the community for some years, it is really carefully, thoughtfully and politely moderated. I have had you turn me down on posts that I wanted to put on the blue because they were promoting a paper that I’d written or something along those lines. There was a sort of Wikipedi-ish don’t use this for self-promotion rule for a while. But I think one thing to sort of say about MetaFilter is that it’s not only bespoke, but it feels handmade and handcrafted and deeply personal. My guess is that those spammers that you’ve told to buzz off, it was probably the politest and kindest buzz off that they’ve gotten in the last year or so of spamming. Any thoughts on sort of the community aspect of this Jessamyn? Because it feels very consciously constructed to be welcoming and inclusive in a very particular sort of way. And one that again, feels a little bit old fashioned and a little bit unfamiliar these days.

Jessamyn West:

Well, I will say that we try. I will also say for the people MetaFilter of course has tons of detractors and I’ll be the first to say, we don’t always get it right. But what we hope is that we are in the process of making it better together. And the whole idea about moderation in a paid moderators who don’t have to do things at scale, who can really do it at a human, what I perceive to be a human scale can really take a little bit of time. And if somebody’s irate about something that got deleted, or if somebody’s just having a really bad day, you can maybe understand that through sort of a compassionate lens, even if you don’t agree with somebody or even if they broke the rules. I certainly don’t think I’m an assholes on the internet. I think most people who are assholes on the internet don’t think they’re assholes.

I mean, obviously there’s like trolls and spammers and a whole bunch of bad actors, but one of the things I think that the sincerity in at least more or less kindness from MetaFilter, I mean, there’s definitely some people who are like it’s community of assholes, move on. Right. And I think compared to some other communities where people don’t talk about politics, or they don’t talk about racism, or they don’t talk about difficult issues where reasonable people agree and disagree and fight is that we’re able to come to it with, this is how I would like to be treated. This is how we can work on treating you.

And for trolls, it’s almost not worth it because after a while, they’re like, nah, I’m doing this to provoke a reaction. And it’s like, sounds like you’re having a really bad day. That sounds difficult. And as a community, again, not for everyone and it could be better, but it’s good. We don’t rise to the bait like that. And so you kind of can’t get a rise out of the community in the way that trolls, I think feel rewarded by. And so as a result, it’s just a bunch of kind of dopey, sincere people trying to have legitimate communications and interactions with each other.

Ethan Zuckerman:

The internet is a place where pseudonymous user participation communities go off the rails really quickly. My guess is that roughly 10,000 times as many people know about 4Chan as know about Metafilter. I’m looking at the blue right now, and I’m seeing posts from Rock Lobster, Zamboni, Abe Hammer Lincoln and Ursula Hitler. Somehow the fact that people are named Ursula Hitler doesn’t seem to get in the way of having thoughtful and respectful conversations.

Jessamyn West:

Ursula Hitler is a surprisingly nice person actually. I see them in a lot of Saturday Night Live threads. We’ve also got fanfare, which is for talking about TV and movies. Anybody who still misses television without pity, please come by. It’s not the same, but it’s a place. And one of the things we’ve always talked about at MetaFilter is there’s nothing wrong with pseudonymity. In fact, there’s many good reasons why you might want to be pseudonymous on the internet, but on the back end, again are bespoke nonsense. We kind of know who people are. One of the things we are able to do is we can tell if people have sock puppets, because we can kind of check IPs and that kind of stuff. We don’t use that stuff for anything except ferreting out bad actors.

And to be honest, the $5, which is often payable with PayPal gives us or Stripe or other processing platforms gives us a little bit more information about a person in the event that there might be a problem either with them about them like, oh God, this person’s making kind of suicidal comments. Does anybody know who that person is? It’s a terrible aspect of online community moderation, but one you should be prepared to deal with. And so that helps us kind of steer identity. We basically tell people, you don’t have to tell us who you really are, but you have to just be one person or you have to be one person. And then you could have a sock puppet account for embarrassing questions, but really you got to keep it on the level. And my username is Jessamyn. I have no alter ego on the internet, which is very strange and very true.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So MetaFilter is now 22 years into this project. You’ve been part of it essentially all of that time. Let me ask a question that is perhaps complex and multilayered. Is MetaFilter sustainable?

Jessamyn West:

Oh, that’s it?

Ethan Zuckerman:

Yeah. Well sustainable is a question that has layers. It’s got fiscal sustainability, it’s got community sustainability, it’s got staff sustainability. I’m curious about the interlocking of all those different answers.

Jessamyn West:

I mean my answer in short is yes. And my longer answer is, but not the way it’s been. Right. Because it used to be, we were raking in money, hands over fist. There was a brief period of time I was making six figures as a community moderator on MetaFilter and that wasn’t recently, you know what I mean? It was a long time ago when Google brought in more money than we knew what to do with. And Matt made decisions that we would all get paid really well and have health insurance. And that was great. Those days are in the past. The moderators now get paid decently, but they don’t get health insurance. We have some hours that are currently not staffed that we determine through statistics just have a really low amount of people there. More of the money that goes to support MetaFilter comes in from community donations and not Google.

Right. Google is a fraction now and a smallish fraction of where the money comes from. MetaFilter has some fixed costs in terms of just what it costs to run a server with this stuff on it. I’d be lying if I said I was 100% sure we’d be able to continue with paid staff at this level moving forward. But also one of the things that kind of a change in ownership offers an option for is there were a lot of people who were dissatisfied in what they felt to be a single point of failure person who was in charge. And I don’t think Josh would deny this. I don’t think this is me telling tales out of school. You’d ask for things and they wouldn’t happen. And you’d feel frustrated because you felt like you were participating and helping strategize ways to work on problems.

And then you felt like you hit a brick wall. Right. I mean, especially during Trump and early COVID, right, everybody was exhausted. And that included the staff, which meant the developer who was dealing with challenges in their home didn’t have as much free time for development. And that meant all the staff were like, don’t ask for development stuff because the developers busy and the guy who ran the site was having his own challenges that made sort of executive functioning a little bit challenging. And so a lot of people were like, I don’t know how I feel about giving you money. You’re not a nonprofit. This is going to pay for this. And I don’t know how I feel about that. And what we’re hoping is we can be a little bit more transparent. We can be a lot more responsive. We can have community members who are helping do some of the work, which takes the load off of paid staff.

I don’t know if we’ll ever have community moderators, unpaid kind of the way Reddit does, but it’s on the table. I mean, I think the important thing is the community stays the community, but also honestly, one of the reasons I’m here is to kind of assess what’s the plan and to talk to the community. Look, if we want to stay together the way we are, we need to have a plan for that. I mean, we’re now at the point, which we weren’t six months ago or a year ago where the money coming in is slightly more than the money going out. When I took over, what I was told is it loses money slowly. That’s probably good for your taxes, but not good for other stuff. And we’ve fixed that.

Ethan Zuckerman:

You had this wonderful Quip before we started recording. I was congratulating you on becoming the owner of MetaFilter. And you were explaining that it was more analogous to adopting a puppy, which is to say a lot of work, a lot of late nights, a lot of cost that you’re taking on, not necessarily the best decision for financial success, for instance.

Jessamyn West:

Yeah. More like an elderly shelter dog that needs medicine. Like a puppy is like the world’s your oyster, who knows what’s going to happen. You can make this the way you want to. Shelter dog’s got some stuff in them already, some stuff you’re able to fix and a medicine habit that you need to pay for. But yeah, I mean, I’m interested in it and up for it. MetaFilter’s where I go on the internet, right? It’s not like I was away and now I came back. I never left. I just stopped working there for reasons. But it’s where I like to be. And I believe there are other people who also like to be there and maybe together we can work on a plan. Right. We’re all grownups. A lot of us have jobs now. We didn’t before. We can do things. Right.

Read the whole story
CrystalDave
27 days ago
reply
Seattle, WA
Share this story
Delete

New project! Nutshell: make expandable explanations

1 Share

After 2 years of procrastinating on this project... it's finally out! My first post-burnout-hiatus interactive thingy:

🥜 Nutshell: make expandable explanations 🥜
👉 https://ncase.me/nutshell/ 👈

This is a tool for writers, to let their readers dive into details. Not shown in the above .gif, are two other "killer features": 1) you can embed snippets of text from other authors & websites, even stuff written years ago! And 2) you can embed interactives, YouTube videos, and the intros of Wikipedia articles.

If you're writing a blog, news articles, code documentation, educational material, etc... I hope Nutshell helps you help your readers.

(See you next month... for explainers written with Nutshell!)

P.S: Testing, testing... let's see if this blog post can :embed itself...

Read the whole story
CrystalDave
48 days ago
reply
Seattle, WA
Share this story
Delete

Flying Kites with Simone de Beauvoir

2 Comments and 11 Shares
PERSON:
Read the whole story
popular
148 days ago
reply
CrystalDave
148 days ago
reply
Seattle, WA
jepler
148 days ago
reply
Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm
Share this story
Delete
2 public comments
sness
147 days ago
reply
less than 3
milky way
tante
148 days ago
reply
Flying Kites with Simone De Beauvoir
Berlin/Germany

Letter of Recommendation: Get a Vasectomy

6 Comments and 11 Shares

Men in the US typically do not talk about or worry about birth control that much, to the detriment of the health and safety of women. In the spirit of trying to change that a little, I’m going to talk to you about my experience. About a decade ago, knowing that I did not want to have any more children, I had a vasectomy. And let me tell you, it’s been great. Quickly, here’s what a vasectomy is, via the Mayo Clinic:

Vasectomy is a form of male birth control that cuts the supply of sperm to your semen. It’s done by cutting and sealing the tubes that carry sperm. Vasectomy has a low risk of problems and can usually be performed in an outpatient setting under local anesthesia.

Whether you’re in a committed relationship or a more casual one, knowing that you’re rolling up to sexual encounters with the birth control handled is a really good feeling for everyone concerned.1 Women have typically (and unfairly) had to be the responsible ones about birth control, in large part because it’s ultimately their body, health, and well-being that’s on the line if a sexual act results in pregnancy, but there are benefits of birth control that accrue to both parties (and to society) and taking over that important responsibility from your sexual partner is way more than equitable.

(Here’s the part where I need to come clean: getting a vasectomy was not my idea. I had to be talked into it. It seemed scary and birth control was not something I thought about as much as I should have. I’m ashamed of this; I wish I’d been more proactive and taken more responsibility about it. Guys, we should be talking about and thinking about this shit just as much as women do! I hope you’ve figured this out earlier than I did. Ok, back to the matter at hand.)

Vasectomies are often covered by health insurance and are (somewhat) reversible. These issues can be legitimate dealbreakers for some people. Some folks cannot afford the cost of the procedure or can’t take the necessary time off of work to recover (heavy lifting is verboten for a few days afterwards). And if you get a vasectomy in your 20s for the purpose of 10-15 years of birth control before deciding to start a family, the lack of guarantee around reversal might be unappealing. Talk to your doctor, insurance company, and place of employment about these concerns!

Does the procedure hurt? This is a concern that many men have and the answer is yes: it hurts a little bit during and for a few days afterwards. For most people, you’re in and out in an hour or two, you ice your crotch, pop some Advil, take it easy for a few days, and you’re good to go.1 It’s a small price to pay and honestly if you don’t want to get a vasectomy because you’re worried about your balls aching for 48 hours, I’m going to suggest that you are a whiny little baby — and I’m telling you this as someone who is quite uncomfortable and sometimes faints during even routine medical procedures.

So, if you’re a sperm-producing person who has sex with people who can get pregnant and do not wish for pregnancy to occur, you should consider getting a vasectomy. It’s a minor procedure with few side effects that results in an almost iron-clad guarantee against unwanted pregnancy. At the very least, know that this is an option you have and that you can talk to your partner and doctor about it. Good luck!

  1. Just to be clear, you still have to worry about sexually transmitted infections — a vasectomy obviously does not provide any protection against that.

  2. There also is a follow-up about 6-12 weeks later to make sure the procedure worked. You masturbate into a cup and they check to see that there’s no sperm in the sample. Part of this follow-up, if my experience is any guide, includes checking that the doctor’s office bathroom door is locked about 50 times while watching very outdated porn on a small TV mounted up in the corner of the tiny room. It’s fine though! And you have a fun story to tell later.

Tags: medicine
Read the whole story
CrystalDave
151 days ago
reply
10/10, would do again
Seattle, WA
jepler
151 days ago
reply
My own vasectomy is 25+ years ago and it must have more than paid for itself by now. Consider it, yo.
Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm
jepler
151 days ago
Oh, and, I was allowed to 'produce' my sample at home. phew.
popular
151 days ago
reply
angelchrys
151 days ago
reply
Overland Park, KS
Share this story
Delete
4 public comments
trevorjackson
149 days ago
reply
I thought I would have to abstain from sex for a very long time, months, during recovery. It’s about a week!
Start, Not Having Passed Go
acdha
151 days ago
reply
“It’s a small price to pay and honestly if you don’t want to get a vasectomy because you’re worried about your balls aching for 48 hours, I’m going to suggest that you are a whiny little baby — and I’m telling you this as someone who is quite uncomfortable and sometimes faints during even routine medical procedures.”

“Ache” was only warranted for the first day, too. I’ve stubbed my toe worse.
Washington, DC
deezil
151 days ago
reply
I think I'm going to call the doc next week.
Shelbyville, Kentucky
cjheinz
152 days ago
reply
Ditto this.
I was vasectomized almost 40 years ago. No problems, no change in functionality (except for no pregnancy).

Legitimizing Blockchain

1 Comment and 4 Shares

Yesterday, 1Password made the following announcement:

I am very unhappy about this.

As of this writing, the replies to this announcement are, by my count, roughly 95% paying customers who are furious with them for doing this, 3% scammers who are jubilant that this is popularizing their scamming tool of choice, and about 2% blockchain-enthusiasts expressing confusion as to why everyone is so mad.

Scanning through that 2%’s twitter bios and timelines, I could see content other than memes and shilling, so it seemed at least plausible to me that these people are scam victims who haven’t gotten to the blow-off yet, and their confusion is genuine. Given that “why is everyone so mad” is a much less intense reaction than fury or jubilation, I assume that many others read through some of the vitriol and had this reaction, but then didn’t post anything themselves.

This post is for two audiences: that 2%, genuinely wondering what the big deal is, and also those who have a vague feeling that cryptocurrency is bad, but don’t see the point of making much of a fuss about it.

This is why we should make a fuss about it.


The objection most often raised in the comments went something like this:

This is just a feature that you don’t like; if it’s not for you, just don’t use it. Why yell at 1Password just for making a feature that makes someone else happy?

To begin with, the actual technical feature appears to be something related to auto-filling in browser-extension UI, which is fine. I don’t object to the feature. I don’t even object to features which explicitly help people store cryptocurrency more securely, as a harm reduction measure.

Also, to get this out of the way now: cryptocurrency is a scam. I’m not going to argue the case for that here. Others have made the argument far more exhaustively, and you can read literally hundreds of pages and watch hours of video explaining why by clicking here.

The issue is with the co-marketing effort: the fact that 1Password is using their well-respected brand to help advertise and legitimize scam-facilitation technology like Solana and Phantom.

Even if we were to accept all this, it’s a scam, 1Password is marketing it, etc, my hypothetical blockchain-curious interlocutor here might further object:

What’s the big deal about legitimizing these things, even if they are fraud? Surely you can just not get defrauded, and ignore the marketing?

That’s true, but it also misses the point: legitimizing and promoting these things does various kinds of harm.

More broadly, although I’m writing about 1Password’s specific announcement here, and a small amount of the reasoning will be specific to password management tools, most of the concerns I’ll describe are fairly general to any company promoting or co-marketing with cryptocurrency, and thus hopefully this post will serve for future instances where we should tell some other company to stop supporting blockchains as well.

So with all that out of the way, here are some of the harms that one might be concerned about, from the least selfish concern to the most.


Concern #1: the well-being of others

I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people, but if you do care about other people, this could hurt them.

First and foremost, the entire scam of cryptocurrency rests upon making people believe that the assets are worth something. Most people are not steeped in the technical minutiae of blockchains, and tend to trust things based on institutional reputation. 1Password has a strong brand, related to information security, and they’re saying that cryptocurrencies are good, so it’s likely to convince a nonzero number of people to put their money into this technology that has enormous non-obvious risks. They could easily lose everything.

Advertising 1Password in this way additionally encourages users to maintain custody of their own blockchain assets on their own devices. Doing so with 1Password is considerably less risky than it might be otherwise, so if this were to only reach people who were already planning to store their wallets on their own computers, then great.

However, this might encourage users who had not previously thought to look at cryptocurrency at all to do so, and if they found it via 1Password they might start using 1Password to store their first few secrets. Storing them in this way, although less risky, is still unreasonably risky, given the lack of any kind of safety mechanisms on blockchain-backed transactions. Even if they’re savvy enough not to get scammed, nobody is savvy enough not to get hacked, particularly by sophisticated technical attacks which are worth leveraging against high-value targets like people with expensive crypto wallets on their computers.

To be clear, crypto exchanges are, on average, extremely bad at the job of not getting their users money stolen, but individual users are likely to be even worse at that job.

Concern #2: economic damage

If you don’t care about other people much, but you still care about living in a functioning society, then the promotion of blockchain based financial instruments is a huge destabilization risk. As Dan Olson explains in the devastating video essay / documentary Line Goes Up, blockchain-based financial instruments share a lot of extremely concerning properties that made mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations so financially toxic in the 2008 crash. Large-scale adoption of these things could lead to a similar crisis, or even worse, a global deflationary spiral in the style of the one that caused the great depression, setting off the kind of economic damage that could result in mass famine and mass death.

Of course, any individual company or celebrity advertising crypto is not going to trigger an immediate economic collapse. Each of these is a snowflake in an avalanche. I have no illusions that convincing just 1Password to stop this is going to turn the tide of the entire blockchain catastrophe that is unfolding all around us, or indeed that my one little post here is going to make the decisive difference between, 1Password stopping vs. not.

But that’s exactly why I’m trying to persuade you, dear reader, that this is a big deal and we should all try to work together to stop it.

Concern #3: environmental damage

While this specific blockchain is “greener” than others, but given the huge proportion of cryptocurrency generally that is backed by electrical waste, and the cultural and technical incentives that make trading one blockchain asset for another more common than cashing out to dollars, it’s still a legitimate concern that promoting blockchain in general will promote environmental destruction indirectly.

Furthermore, the way that Solana is less energy-intensive than other blockchains is by using proof-of-stake, so there’s a sliding scale here between economic and environmental damage, given that proof-of-stake is designed to accelerate wealth accumulation among non-productive participants, and thereby encourages hoarding. So the reduction in environmental damage just makes the previous point even worse.

Concern #4: increased targeting risk

Even if you’re a full blown sociopath with no concern for others and an iron-clad confidence that you can navigate the collapse of the financial system without any harm to you personally, there is still a pretty big negative here: increased risk from threat actors. Even if you like and use blockchain, and want to use this feature, this risk still affects you.

If 1Password happened to have some features that blockchain nerds could use to store their secrets, then attackers might have some interest in breaking in to 1Password, and could possibly work on tools to do so. That’s the risk of existing on the Internet at all. But if 1Password loudly advertises, repeatedly, that they are will be integrating with a variety of cryptocurrency providers, then this will let attackers know that 1Password is the preferred cryptocurrency storage mechanism.

This further means that attackers will start trying to figure out ways to target 1Password users, on the assumption that we’re more likely to have crypto assets lying around on our filesystems; not only developing tools to break in to 1Password but developing tools to fingerprint users who have the extension installed, who have accounts on the service, whose emails show up on the forum, etc.

Now, of course, 1Password users keep plenty of high-value information inside 1Password already; that’s the whole point. But cryptocurrency is special because of the irreversible nature of transactions, and the immediacy of the benefit to cybercriminals specifically.

If you steal all of someone’s bank passwords, you could potentially get a bunch of their money, but it is expensive and risky for the criminals. The transactions can be traced directly to actual human account holders immediately; anti-money-laundering regulations mean that this can usually be accomplished even across international borders. Transfers can be reversed.

This discrepancy between real money and cryptocurrency is exactly why ransomware was created by cryptocurrency. It makes cryptocurrency attractive specifically to the kinds of people who have expertise and resources to mount wide-spectrum digital attacks against whole populations.

Of course, if they develop tools to fingerprint and hack 1Password users, but they don’t luck out and find easy-to-steal crypto on your computer, they might as well try to steal other things of value, like your identity, credit information, and so on. These are higher-risk, but now that they’ve built all that infrastructure and hacked all these machines, there’s a big sunk cost that makes it more worthwhile.

Please Stop

I really hope that 1Password abandons this destructive scheme. Even if they fully walk this back, I will still find it much harder to recommend their product in the future; there will need to be some active effort to repair trust with their user community. If I’ve convinced you of the problems here, please let them know as a reply to the tweet, the email linked from their blog post, their community forum, or the Reddit post of the announcement, so that they can get a clear signal that this is unacceptable.

Read the whole story
CrystalDave
219 days ago
reply
Seattle, WA
jepler
220 days ago
reply
Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm
Share this story
Delete
1 public comment
bronzehedwick
219 days ago
reply
Shame on 1Password for piling on the #CryptoDisaster. Your reputation is your brand. Don’t ruin it.
Jersey City, NJ

Zeus, 2008 – 2022

2 Shares

A kitten came to us in January 2008, on what was one of the coldest nights of the year, in a manner that we would later learn was indicative of his personality: He snuck into our garage, walked up to the door to our kitchen, and meowed loudly to be let in. Athena was the first to hear him meow; she told Krissy, who did an inventory of our resident cats, all of whom were accounted for. The two of them opened the door, and there was the kitten, hungry and cold and indignant about both of those facts.

I found out about all of this when I was called downstairs and saw the two of them staring at the kitten, which they had placed on our kitchen table, along with a bowl of kibble, into which he was avidly snorkeling, purring as he did so. It was made clear to me we had a new pet. I didn’t fight the decision. What I did do was put him into my office for the night, along with a cat box, to see if he know how to use one. I stayed with him, sleeping on the office floor (much to the disapproval of my back), waking up every now and then to check on his progress. Turned out he could use a cat box just fine. A few days later, after inquires to neighbors to see if anyone was missing a cat, and a trip to the vet, the kitten, who we had been calling Temp Cat™, became permanent, and given an official name: Zeus.

Zeus was, in a word, rambunctious. He’d jump up on the fridge and patrol the top of the upper kitchen shelves; he’d tear around the house; he’d try to drink my hot chocolate and then get deeply offended when I’d tell him that hot chocolate was not for cats. He enjoyed burrowing under the covers to bite the toes he’d find there; on one memorable occasion he got more ambitious than that and bit my ass. He quickly learned that there were some body parts one should not bite, for all sorts of reasons. In time he stopped burrowing under the sheets, but he never stopped pawing me awake at 3 am to be let out of the house on inscrutable cat business: paw, paw, and then, if the pawing didn’t work, a single scrape of a claw between the shoulder blades. He was kind a jerk, Zeus was.

With the arrival of Zeus, we had what we thought of as the original trio of Scalzi Bradford Cats: Lopsided Cat, who arrived first by coming out of woods and hopping on the back of a toddler Athena, Ghlaghghee, who arrived when our neighbor came by, said “here’s your cat,” and give me a tiny kitten, and then Zeus (Rex, who came with us when we arrived in Bradford, stood aloof from the other cats and passed before Zeus came on the scene). The three of them made a good team: Lopsided Cat was the no-nonsense father figure of the cats, Ghlaghghgee the dainty princess cat, and Zeus the furry chaos engine. The three of their personalities are so memorable, in fact, that I immortalized them in my novel Fuzzy Nation, where Lopsided Cat became Papa Fuzzy, Ghlaghghee was Baby Fuzzy, and Zeus was Pinto. If you read that book, you’ve met this trio of cats.

Time passes, as it does, and both Ghlaghghee and Lopsided Cat went away, and in their place currently are Sugar and Spice and Smudge, a new trio in our minds. Zeus, no longer the chaos cat (Smudge fills that role, amply), found himself in the role of the Senior Cat, keeping the younger trio in line. I think at first he was annoyed that the job fell to him — it was not, shall we say, his natural métier — but in time he warmed to it, particularly in regard to Smudge, who like him was a tuxedo cat, and who he enjoyed smacking around. It was fun to watch the two of them go after each other; we called them the “Tusslin’ Tuxedo Brothers” and would occasionally capture their battles on video.

Athena also noted to me that Zeus was the only cat who knew all three of our dogs: Kodi, Daisy and now Charlie. Zeus liked Kodi the best, I think, and would cuddle up to her from time to time. He treated Daisy as a respected colleague the firm of Scalzi Pets, LLC. He tolerated Charlie, and was not above reminding her of her place in the pet hierarchy (i.e., the new hire) with an occasional bat of the nose.

All of which is to say that of all the Scalzi pets, Zeus spanned eras in the bottle universe of the Scalzis, not just of pets but of people as well. In the fourteen years that Zeus stayed with us, so much changed for us, and he walked through it all, doing his thing, being his particular brand of cat. Which was: Kind of a pain in the ass (sometimes literally, as noted above), but always in the middle of everything, the constant black and white thread in the Scalzi family tapestry.

Over the last few months age had been catching up to Zeus, and he’d become slower and quieter, and — this was a surprise — more affectionate. Most of his life, Zeus would tolerate being petted only in certain ways (scritching behind the ears) and only by certain people (Krissy and occasionally me). Everything and everyone else would be met with loud and indignant protest that his personhood was being violated so. But in the last few months he would come up to all three of the Scalzi humans and plop right down and accept being petted, and not just in one or two specific places, or for very short durations. We enjoyed this. We also knew it was one of several indications that Zeus’ time with us was shortening and would soon end.

Which it did, in the small hours of this morning. Last night Athena heard Zeus meowing lowly in the other room. Like we did fourteen years ago, we all came to him to be with him and to watch him. Like I did fourteen years ago, I stayed the night with him, lying with him on the floor so he wouldn’t be alone. This morning, we took him to his final resting place, underneath the same backyard tree where Lopsided Cat and Ghlaghghee lay, their trio finally and forever reunited.

Another era has passed in the Scalzi family timeline. Athena noted that Zeus was the last of her childhood pets, and that it made her sad. I agreed, it was sad, here in the moment. I also told her that Zeus’ life was a success story, and that success was because of her. He lived a whole life, loved and safe and cared for, and all of that was because, on one cold night in January, she had heard him call, and opened our door.

Another era has passed, with a circularity that I can’t feel is coincidence. Zeus called to us in the beginning, to let him in. He called to us at the end, to let him move on. We answered him both times. What was in between was everything.

— JS

Read the whole story
CrystalDave
236 days ago
reply
Seattle, WA
Share this story
Delete
Next Page of Stories