Risky Business

Risky Business

WHY I CO-FOUNDED CHANGE A VIEW

This post reflects my personal views only and is not intended to reflect the views of Change A View. My purpose is to memorialize my intent for personal accountability in the future. Note as of 4/20/2020: some of the .gif sources are no longer functional and have been removed but all else remains the same.


I. Was I just another shark in a suit?

A few years ago, I read Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class. In short, as I recall, it discusses a loss of American dynamism and diminishing optimism in society’s ability to innovate and change. It spoke to me; I’m in a profession that values precedent and discourages risk-taking. It is complacent.

Technology, particularly Internet technologies, have long gone part-and-parcel with optimism and free-thinking. There was a sense of liberation and inevitable utopia associated with Internet access. This was a place where eliminating barriers to communication would facilitate knowledge-sharing, writing, political engagement, and reduce authoritarian attempts to stop people from learning other, potentially better, ways to live their lives and run their countries.

Fast forward to 2019. We now know through shared experience that a “good” Internet is not self-executing. It takes work. We’re aware that we can build seemingly neutral tools that allow bad actors to do terrible and destructive things, ranging from individualized harassment to genocide and terrorism. We also know that the design of platforms and applications can unintentionally steer people in a direction or box them into a limited set of responses and actions. Likewise, we know that diminishing barriers to entry for communication allows lies and propaganda to flourish where we wanted truth to govern.

The response of popular platforms to these problems have been found wanting. They are complacent.


II. Mission Impossible

I’m not complacent. I’m excited. I’m taking a risk.

There’s a litany of writing about the ills of social media and other “discussion” platforms. Let’s level set: they are not discussion platforms. They are advertising platforms. The problems of other platforms are another post for another time.  I want to outline my personal take on Change A View’s vision.

I’ll do this by focusing on the questions our team has been asking ourselves. This is because I think they’re demonstrable of our approach and goals, and that people who do not ask the right questions will solve the wrong problems.

I am doing this for three reasons:

  1. Free societies require people who think critically. I think good conversations are important to the civic health of free societies and even though my political views have changed as I’ve grown, this is has been one of my bedrock first principles. If I can make it my role to create a product centered around facilitating those conversations, that’s what I want to do. I don’t think that this is something being thought about at all in the upper echelons of most technology companies and, while we will in no way be the sole purveyor of good conversations, I do think we can be a model for how to have a thoughtful and deliberate impact on broad swaths of people and institutions.
  2. We have an opportunity to be creative and thoughtful with design. I originally moderated Change My View because I felt I could do #1 on that subreddit. For a while, I could, but as you’ll see from the items below, ultimately our ambitions outgrew the tools Reddit provided. This is not a knock on Reddit. I still use Reddit. I really like Reddit sans some legitimate criticisms about how they deal with people I believe to be dangerous (another discussion for another time.) Change My View is still the best of Reddit, and its moderation team continuously raises the bar for professionalism despite being entirely volunteer. It’s simply a fact that Reddit is designed for one thing and we are designing for another. I wrote about the influence of design choices here, just as another data point that this isn’t something we conjured out of the ether.
  3. I believe in it. This means something to me. By far, the most critical comment we receive is: you’re doing this for the money 1. I helped create this because I find all of these questions important and fascinating. Yes, I would love for it to be my full time job to help answer them, but one of the risks I took in contributing to this project is that it might not succeed and therefore might not make money. Nevertheless, I earnestly think people want this experience, so I’m willing to take that risk.

III. Edge of Tomorrow

Here are some key questions we’re grappling with:

Design

  1. What design choices must we make to ensure that everyone feels safe to participate on our site? In what ways could someone manipulate or misuse a feature in a way we hadn’t intended but could have foreseen?
  2. What is the online experience for people who have a different background from us, and to what extent should that inform how we design the site?
  3. How can we incorporate this into hiring decisions without unduly burdening women and people of color with the responsibility of mindfulness and awareness?

Moderation

  1. How do we moderate at scale? How do we utilize the necessary tools of machine learning while still keeping humans-in-the-loop for grey areas?
  2. Where we do use AI and machine learning, how can we account for the biases often found in those tools? If we don’t develop them ourselves, how can we ensure that we’re cognizant of and accountable for those tools we adopt?
  3. What do we do to ensure care for the mental and physical well-being of these moderators, many of whom will be exposed to problematic, challenging, and frightening claims?

Rules and Good Faith Participation

  1. In what way(s) can we create a rule structure that incentivizes productive conversation without chilling speech?
  2. What constitutes “due process” under our moderation system such that people feel that removals are fair, consistently applied, and subject to appeal? How will this inevitably change as we grow and need to manage more posts and comments?
  3. People very rarely want benevolent views changed. How do we create a space where people can have a problematic view challenged while not creating a safe space for harmful advocacy or normalizing that harm against others?
  4. How do we maintain transparency without revealing details about people using the site and/or moderating the site?

Business

  1. What metrics matter most to us? Number of views changed? The extent to which a view has been changed? How many people post a view to be changed?
  2. With whom can we partner to make other online experiences better — encyclopedias, periodicals, newspapers, schools, businesses, governments
  3. How do we answer all of the above in vastly different social contexts, such as countries that would hurt their citizens for expressing a particular view, or inadvertently exposing they’re part of a targeted and vulnerable class of people?

There are more.

I don’t have all the answers to these questions. I know that they have real world applications of significant gravity, and they don’t exist purely for me to fiddle with and think about. They nevertheless spur a desire to figure out some solutions to these problems, even if it only moves the needle a bit.

That’s why I raised Cowen’s Complacent Class in the beginning. I could see a world where a similar opportunity presented itself and I didn’t leap at the chance. There are a lot of ways this could go wrong, or I could end up becoming part of the problems I want to solve. These are risks, but they are all risks I think are worth taking.

As a founder, I think it’s important to be candid about where I am personally starting. I am, as you’ve probably guessed, open-minded to the possibility that some of my hypotheses are wrong, but that is the point: I am building Change A View to test these assumptions. If I’m off, then I’ll owe the world a delta.


Notes all Tom Cruise movie references occurred organically as I struggled to think of headings. I don’t have any aspirations to climb buildings or do risky business stuff. Well, maybe buildings, if supervised by professionals and a trampoline is involved. Additionally, I can’t recall where I found this image of She-Hulk, but I liked it and will be happy to provide credit if someone credibly claims it or can point me in the right direction. Finally, this will eventually be on ChangeAView.com’s main site as part of a founder introduction series, at which point the disclaimer about personal views will be removed. Until then, this is just me.

1 On Monetization. I’ve seen, multiple times now, claims that CAV is, in some nefarious or underhanded way, making money off of other peoples’ content. I don’t want this post to be a devoted rebuttal, so I’ll leave my rough position at this: this isn’t about “taking” one’s content. All subreddits uses other peoples’ content. They are part of a content aggregation site leveraged for targeted advertising. Yes, when a person agrees to our Terms of Service we could (for example) quote that in a blog post or something similar, but otherwise these posts net us zero dollars. In other words, if one is concerned about people making money off of their views, then I would highly recommend leaving any comment-based website. If you looked at most pages with a comment feature, they likely make the similar claim that, by participating, the website has some license to use your words. In our Terms of Service, we worked diligently to provide plain English summaries such that people could make an informed decision about whether they agreed or not. The “legalese” itself attempts for each sentence to be < 30 words to avoid confusion.

I wrote a cooking launchpad for fitness newbies.

I wrote a cooking launchpad for fitness newbies.

Munchies for Meatheads: a Fitness Cooking Launchpad

I see a lot of threads where people want to eat better; they want to eat better because they are getting into fitness, and; they have no idea where to start in their kitchen.

You can eat better outside of your kitchen, but usually the trade-off is knowing less about your macros (protein, carbohydrates, fats) and its preparation (how much cooking oil, etc.) You don’t know how much a typical portion is or if you’re eating that typical portion. So, it’s doable, but harder, and if you’re just starting, you’re probably also guesstimating these things incorrectly.

Enter Munchies for Meatheads, a name I chose solely for the alliteration. I did my best to demystify the biggest barriers to entering the kitchen — namely, how to use MyFitnessPal to accurately track calories, which cookware you need to prepare most recipes, and some of the must-have stuff (e.g., spices) for your cupboard to create pretty tasty stuff without having to break the bank.

Leveling Up: Decade in Review.

Leveling Up: Decade in Review.

I am not usually a New Year’s Resolution person,  but even I can’t resist reviewing the past decade.

I started law school (2010), graduated law school (2013), got admitted to the NY bar (2014).

I hated law school. It was not a good time for me. I was unhappy and resented the fact that I was still in a library studying and not out in the world building new things or helping people. What can I say, except that I was in my early 20s, and didn’t like being cooped up.

I am happy to be a lawyer. Law school is the only path to that, so I can’t rightly say that I regret the decision, but it was a trial (haha – and yes, a privileged one at that), but as I will mention below, it did open up the possibility of eventually helping people. I would be lying if I wasn’t also proud about having taken that oath, and how lawyers have stood up in this current moment of Constitutional unrest and abuse of power.

Note: The Fourth Department Appellate Division of New York deemed, in its wisdom, that they will admit people to the bar only at a certain cadence. Thus I took the bar in July 2013, found out I passed in October 2013, and was admitted in January 2014, the nearest date to my passage.

I moved from New York to Seattle.

This was a big one for me. I had never lived outside the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions of the US. Mostly I was in western or central New York. I moved across the country for two reasons:

  1. Work. There was less opportunity for young attorneys in my state.
  2. LOVE. My now-husband and then-boyfriend lived in Vancouver, and this allowed us to see each other every other weekend. Ultimately it allowed us to have THE CONVERSATION and now we are married.

I love Seattle and it would take a lot to get me to leave. The weather is wonderful – it doesn’t rain nearly as much as media would have you think – and there is so much to do outside. The vibe is more my pace; I can always tell when someone is visiting from the east coast because they are wearing khakis, and the business casual world is truly one I do not miss navigating.

Further, there is an entrepreneurial spirit here. It was a bad year for tech and the start-up world looks like it will harden, at least for a bit, as venture capital realizes that sometimes companies truly do need to make money at some point. That said, moving here really was eye-opening. You use apps for everything and there is a mentality that if you can build it, and it’s useful, you should give it a whirl. There’s an experimental tone to everything that is 100% lacking where I’m from, which has ossified considerably, and while I think the rose-colored glasses are slowly coming off, I’m grateful that it’s still present.

I ran a LOT, then I took a break and lifted heavy.

Graduating law school was soon met with near-crippling, undiagnosed (at that point) anxiety. I was looking for work, and eventually found work, and desperately trying to manage my monthly student loan payments. Finding control over something became imperative. Enter crazy amounts of running.

Running Mile Totals

Year Total Miles
2015 1,980
2016 1,992
2017 1,123
2018 1,158
2019 391

Bit of a dive between 2018 and 2019. My key successes (you can, if inclined, see a tally of all my races here):

  1. Cougar Mountain Trail Run Series. I came in top 3 for every race and came in 2nd overall, i.e., a tally of the cumulative time across all races. This was HARD. Trails are simply harder to race than roads (fact. I will not dispute this. I refuse) and it was hot, I rolled my ankle, and was stung by a bee. On the final race, (bee sting race), I actually contemplated quitting around mile 8, realized I was in the middle of a mountain, and the only way to end it was to finish. I never felt better after a race, except maybe…
  2. Vancouver Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon. I met my fundraising goal and had a PB of 1:39:52 for the half marathon.
  3. Viking Trail Dash Half Marathon. I was undertrained and won 1st place, and a Viking sword (made in China). This says more about the field than me, to be honest, but hey, a sword!
  4. Spartan Beast. Truly this sucked but I did it.

I kept running – you can see a series mish-mash of trail runs in 2018, but I was burned out. Around this time last year I was running a ten miler and got caught in a snow storm (“storm”) halfway through. I returned home cold and in the dark, wondering what my training goals were, realized I had none, and decided I needed a break.

I slowly began running less, weaning myself off of running, no longer needing it to self-medicate a lot of the stress I had previously experienced (a diagnosis and actual medication for anxiety helped), and turned to lifting heavy. Progress for the past few months can be seen here.

The top was when I was running quite a lot in 2018-ish, and the bottom is now with 3 months of heavy lifting and two leg days (I weigh less on the right, interestingly enough).

Liz - SeattleRnRLiz-LegDay

I’m excited to see how much heavier I can lift in the upcoming months, but I’m definitely squatting more than my own body weight, and my deadlift has increased about 79%, which is cool.

Christian got his green card and we traveled more.

As one could imagine, it was a struggle with immigration. We had to spend money on an attorney (I was not handling this in the current legal environment) and Christian couldn’t cross the border lest he risk his pending application. This meant no visiting his family in Canada and definitely no cross-border travel. Prior to this, he couldn’t even work for a bit, which was just an unhappy experience all along, but thankfully that was resolved sooner than the green card.

It was a huge relief when he received his green card. We’re able to visit family and, for the first time since we were married, went on a real, live vacation to Quebec City. I have a Facebook photo album that I assume no one but friends and family can see (and the government, and Facebook itself, and …) but here is taste:

Let me mop up the rest here:

  • I did a lot more pro bono work. I did a few Nationalization and Citizenship workshops, two asylum cases, one veteran’s status change case, and some DACA work (my weak spot).
  • I was more politically active. I’m awful about knocking on doors and making phone calls for candidates. The past few years I’ve gotten better – not great – about that. I’m technically the POC for my legislative district and I’m awful at it but the spot was empty and I’m trying to do better this year.
  • I paid about 1/2 of my federal student loans back. The interest is killer. Anyway, I was interviewed by the WSJ about it so rather than retread old ground, you can read about it here and enjoy this picture summary.

Loans2019

  • Finally, last but not least, I started a company with some fellow moderators of the subreddit r/changemyview, called ChangeAView. I left after a little over a year because I felt like I contributed all I could in its nascent state and, truth be told, I have grown a lot in my assumptions about what dictates a good conversation and what must be done to improve how people interact online. Ultimately, I land that most of these are either (1) systemic, and can only be fixed through institutional and/or regulatory change, or; (2) about scale, and can only be self-policed by the largest companies with the biggest footprint in conversations (i.e., your twitters, Facebooks, and so on.) I actually remain more optimistic than pessimistic about this landscape today and where it’s going, but that’s another blog post for another time. You can read about our coverage here, and what my theory of the case as to what a “good founder” was here.

Goals for 2020? I don’t generally do resolutions because I find that they are good for setting one up for failure. It’s exceptionally difficult to do everything in one magnanimous, yearly push. I prefer small, bite-size chunks, and preferably at a cadence that isn’t immediately associated with failure (hahaha oh those silly resolutions I never keep!) But here are some rough contours:

  • I want a job that engages directly with issues of communication law and product law in the social media (maybe even “trust and safety”) sphere.
  • I am fine with a compliance specialist role but ultimately I’m a lawyer doing the same work streams as associate counsel at large companies, so I want my role to reflect that and become counsel;
  • Keep lifting heavy, see where it takes me;
  • Continue traveling more;
  • More pro bono;
  • More activism.
  • Complete my 12-in-12 video game list.
  • Build a wild new computer.

Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.

What I think about when I think about gaming.

What I think about when I think about gaming.

CD Projekt Red is in luke warm water (again) for the way in which it treats marginalized communities. I don’t want to relitigate for now. I will say I played the original Witcher. I’m still making my way through 2. I want to play them in order and I’m slow. I’m familiar with the way in which you can collect sexy ladies you bed. I’m not over it, but I have in some ways made my peace with the fact that overwhelmingly good games can have awful creators and problematic mechanisms. I tire of isolating myself from all the good games to send some paltry message to creators who, on balance, feel zero pain from my abstention. Instead, I pick my battles, and we’ll see where this leads, but I’m coming back to CD Projeckt Red later.

Right now I’m playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. I love it despite the fact that I have always preferred the stealth-centric goals of the original few games. I was raised on Metal Gear Solid, and I find the challenge of making my way through a sea of enemies without confronting them more fun than dealing with them outright. That said, I think Ubisoft has done a wonderful job of allowing the player to weave in and out of alertness, so I don’t feel half as encumbered by the rare occasion where I deign to take everyone out with a heavy club. Sometimes, Kassandra and I have places to be. Time is of the essence.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I love playing as Kassandra. This was sorely missing from gaming when I was younger. There’s something powerful about seeing a person like you on screen, something that you don’t quite know is missing until it’s present, and even worse when taken away. I assume the latter part is why some of the gaming community resents the so-called incursion of under-represented minorities into “their” territory — territory I had been traversing long before many of them were born, mind you.

Much has already been written about the need for representation in gaming, both in who makes games and who shows up in games. I’ve walked that road but don’t feel like hashing out the academic argument of what it means to have diversity in games

Instead, I think about what it means to be a part of a community and to build a culture. See, for me, gaming is the thing that taught me how to read. It’s how I spent Sundays with my dad when it got dark at 4:00 pm during February. We’d fire up the Super Nintendo – I remember how many frustrating wires it took to set up the thing – and play through The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. I tried, in vain, to pronounce Sahasrahla, and my dad waited patiently (kind of) while we took turns playing.

Now I see gaming friends raising kids, including a lot of daughters. It’s such an interesting flip. I met many of these now-fathers online when they were boys, usually on old VBulletin forums, before online gaming was ubiquitous and most of us were still playing Final Fantasy 7 and Silent Hill. I grew up with these guys; I can count the number of other girls on that site with one hand. I disagreed with them a lot on politics and gaming. The common refrain today is that the intersection of the two is novel. It’s not, though the sophistication, scale, and intentionality of the merger has upgraded.

I was raised in a Republican house and most of my peers were young liberals (I don’t want to speak to party identification because not everyone was American and these are loose affiliations at a young age.) Nevertheless, when it came to race and gender in games, we flipped. Suddenly I was contending that games needed more people, especially women, on screen, and that this made sense from a practical and artistic perspective. The guys handwaved the issue as a nice-to-have but that’s about it. I was questioning the value of an implied sexual assault scene in Silent Hill (note: I don’t enjoy horror games so I didn’t belabor this argument much as I didn’t have first hand experience with the specific scene.) Again, hand-waving.

This was before 4chan became the whole of gaming, so they were never trolling or threatening. This was not the ethos of the forum and proto-social networks were partitioned enough to avoid sub-cultural brigading. They simply didn’t think it was a big deal or a priority, which is almost peaceful and quaint compared to the energy gamers devote to gatekeeping today.

Anyone reading this might be wondering what all this has to do with CD Projekt Red. Here it is: I’m part of this community, and the people in it mean something to me. I’ve invested in the gaming sub-culture as much as, if not more, than the gamer standing next to me. More important, I respect a lot of people in it already, and I would like to respect more, but I don’t feel like they respect me.

When we talk about why people are upset about lack of representation, I don’t actually think it has much to do with the academic arguments we all make, and to which I subscribe. I think those arguments matter, but it’s not the thing that truly galvanizes me to speak up. Rather, these people are supposed to be peers with whom I have fun, and it is a profound mark of disrespect to dismiss out of hand what concerns your peers. More like it says “You’re not my peer,” and not in a good way.

That’s what grinds my gears. It’s not the exclusion per se, but the acute hurt that this is a space where I made friends and now the space we helped cultivate and grow summarily tossed me out. It tossed me out because a decent portrayal of women is seen as an affront to groups of people who, despite feeling marginalized by other groups, cannot step in the shoes of other truly marginalized groups, and welcome them into the fold.

I think a lot about the daughters my friends are raising. I wonder if they’ll go online in a few years and make friends and start playing games, much like I did. This whole ecosystem is vast and storied compared to what it looked like when I arrived on scene. There’s so much to be built and created, so many imaginative paths to walk down and pretend to be someone different or someone you dreamt up on your own (if the game includes you, anyway.) Will they be besieged by unwelcome messages and pictures? Will they tell their dads? Will their dads care, and will they appreciate that the culture we built is, at the least, enabling the mistreatment of their kids? Have their minds, like mine, changed?

The joke is that all roads lead to Gamergate – the internecine game magazine dispute that launched a thousand tweets and many, many bomb threats – but it’s not far off. My dad subsists on a steady diet of Fox News, PragerU, and Pajamas Media. He knows about Gamergate. I don’t talk to my dad much unless my mom asks me to. We’ve come a long way from playing Zelda together.

So I’ve leveled up a bit.

So I’ve leveled up a bit.

I started this blog two years ago. Many of the posts are private self-reflection, but it’s time to recap publicly.

I got married:

Married

If you’d like to know how long it takes for one’s spouse to get a green card, think about how long I’ve had this blog, and there you go.


I got my haircut.

Hair

I look way cooler now.


I started a business.

CAV

It’s launching beta this month. I had to learn the tax implications of paying people in Bitcoin. It’s a thing.


I went viral. Kinda.

Reddit redesigned its site and the Change My View team had thoughts. Hacker News took an interest.


I was interviewed by the Atlantic.

Our team has been interviewed a lot, actually.


I improved my pro bono footprint.

No links here, just glad that I’ve taken part in more pro bono work and happy to be part of a team that values and encourages racking up volunteer hours.

Change A View / Change My View Projects, Media and Research.

Projects

CMV and CAV have partnered with Jigsaw’s Perspective API for moderation tools research.

Media

This is a compilation of media in which Change A View and Change My View have been mentioned.

  1. BBC, “Change A View: One Scottish man’s idea to fix the broken world of online debate,” June 2019.
  2. BoingBoing.net, “Reddit’s wonderful “Change My View” forum launches its own independent website,” April 2019.
  3. Engadget, “Reddit’s ‘Change My View’ community becomes a dedicated site (It even has the backing of Alphabet’s tech incubator),” April 2019.
  4. Wired Magazine, “‘Change My View’ Reddit Community Launches Its Own Website,” April 2019.
  5. Buzzfeed News, “After The Proliferation Of The New Zealand Shooting Video, Reddit Has Banned Two Channels Showing Human Death,” March 2019. (note: CMV was not one of the banned subreddits.)
  6. PC Magazine, “Jigsaw Chrome Extension Tunes Out Internet Toxicity,” March 2019.
  7. The Atlantic, “Civil Discourse Exists in This Small Corner of the Internet,” December 2018.
  8. New York Times, “How to Be More Empathetic,” January 2019.
  9. Rationally Speaking Podcast, “Kal Turnbull on Change My View,” April 2018.
  10. Wired Magazine, “Our Best Hope for Civil Discourse Online Is on … Reddit,” January 2018.
  11. NPR, “Change My View On Reddit Helps People Challenge Their Own Opinions,” January 2017.
  12. Washington Post, “How to change someone’s mind, according to science,” February 2016
  13. You Are Not So Smart Podcast, “The Backfire Effect,” June 2011.

Research

The subreddit has a Wiki for all research mentioning CMV.