Welcome to the Internet

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Perhaps you are new here. Perhaps you are new to social media entirely. Perhaps not. Regardless of the path you’ve taken to arrive, here we are. And there are some things I’d like to share with you now that you’re here: some Rules of Engagement for Social Media.

Social media can be a wonderful way to keep in touch with old friends, make new friends, and get exposure to ideas and lifestyles that differ from your own. It can be a means for sharing important information, swapping recipes, or soliciting cute cat photos. Social media has a myriad uses, and all of them involve engaging with other humans, some of whom may already be overwhelmed by the volume of interaction to which they are subject, or even beleaguered by harassment from trolls. So how can you keep from adding to this existing burden?

A great place to start is to remember that strangers on the internet do not have the same social obligations to you that your family and close friends do. You are certainly free to initiate a conversation with anyone you’d like, but if you do not have an existing relationship with the person you’re trying to engage, they do not have any real obligation to be responsive. Failure to engage with a stranger on the internet is in no way a social transgression, it is simply maintenance of one’s personal boundaries.

Another thing to keep in mind is that while social media CAN be a great place to learn new things from friends and strangers alike, no one is obligated to hold your hand through understanding these things. The people with whom you are interacting on the internet are (generally) your peers, not your professors. This means that they are not required to explain their statements, or answer questions put to them, simply because you ask. This also doesn’t mean you cannot or should not ask questions, but rather that you should understand that their time is valuable and important to them, and they don’t owe you anything.

So what should you do if you have questions about something a stranger has said on social media? Put in a little investigative work! Your first step should be to check and see what else, if anything, that person has said about the subject in question. Make sure that you’re not responding to part of a multi-piece statement as though it were a standalone comment. Look to see if they’ve posted links to pieces written on the subject, and if so, click those links and read the content.

Your next step should be to consult a search engine. Type your question into a search bar, and spend a little time doing some background reading before going back and asking questions. If, rather than asking basic questions about the subject at hand, you’re asking specific questions about details you’d like clarified, it goes a long way towards showing the person you’re asking that you cared enough to do a little legwork before asking them to put time and effort into helping you understand. Additionally, asking for a person to recommend resources to you rather than asking them to explain things outright is far more likely to elicit a positive response, as it is another line of questioning that demonstrates that you recognize that person’s time and energy as valuable. And of course, as mentioned previously, strangers still don’t owe you a response to your questions.

Another helpful hint for engaging on social media is to make sure you’re respecting the boundaries of others, and only interacting with people who are receptive. If a person asks you to leave them alone, you stand to gain nothing from pushing the issue. If a person isn’t responding to a conversation in which they are tagged, it may be polite to refrain from continuing to tag them into it. If they are interested in participating, and the conversation is public, they’ll check into it and respond accordingly when they’re ready, whether or not they’ve been tagged in each installment. In many cases, non-responsiveness is a way people indicate a disinterest in participating in a given conversation, or in engaging with a person, and respecting that unspoken boundary can go a long way towards demonstrating that you respect them as a person.

As previously mentioned, social media can be a fantastic medium for the sharing of ideas. That said, the things that people say on social media, and the thoughts that they share, are their own. If you’d like to reprint those thoughts and ideas in a different context, especially one for which you are being paid, it is a good idea to first reach out to that person and ask for permission. Taking a person’s statements out of context and sharing them with an entirely different audience than was originally intended can open that person up to a lot of harassment from others and they may not want the exposure. Rather than treating people’s public statements on social media as if they were engaged in an interview with you, reach out and ask if they’ll grant you an interview. Give them the opportunity to opt into or out of exposure, and respect the decision they make.

Social media has the potential to open doors for us all, and as long as we use it responsibly and respectfully, it can be a resource that benefits us all rather than a burden only a few must shoulder.

Cheers, and welcome to the internet!

The Inconvenience of Civil Disobedience

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The memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. is often honored with acts of civil disobedience in the days surrounding the anniversary of his birth. His legacy of righteousness and refusal to obey unjust laws has carried on to younger generations who still engage in civil disobedience in an effort to address the same struggles Dr. King fought, and who often still hear the same criticisms leveled against Dr. King by his detractors, often invoking the name of MLK himself in an effort to shame his contemporaries into the respectability he so eloquently rejected in his actions and in his Letter from Birmingham Jail.

We constantly hear complaints that people are being “inconvenienced” by protests, by acts of civil disobedience. We consistently hear criticisms that these political actions are impacting the ability of people who do not care about the issues being protested in going about their business as usual, and we frequently even hear that civil disobedience alienates people from the causes it seeks to further. If a riot is the language of the unheard, then civil disobedience is the language of the ignored. If a riot is shouting loud enough to be heard, then civil disobedience is pointed discourse too disruptive to be simply ignored in the way that the polite requests and gentle pleas favored by liberal moderate society so often are. Civil disobedience is a firm, unwavering demand to have the humanity of the disenfranchised recognized and acknowledged, and a refusal to allow business as usual to continue until that goal is realized, because for the marginalized, business as usual is simply not sustainable.

What those who complain about the inconvenience of civil disobedience fail to grasp is, not only is it inconvenient by design, but it is not so inconvenient for anyone as it is for those who engage in it. As frustrating as it may be to be stuck in traffic, to have a city council meeting disrupted, to be unable to do one’s grocery shopping, or impeded in one’s daily errands, it is far more inconvenient still to engage in an act of civil disobedience. The organizing of such an undertaking is disruptive to the lives of those involved long before the action itself ever takes place. The action is, of course, inconvenient for everyone present, whether participant or bystander, and the aftermath often involves time spent in jail as well as months worth of legal proceedings that continue to disrupt the lives of those engaged for their duration. Civil disobedience IS inconvenient, and that is the whole point.

People who engage in acts of civil disobedience are doing so because the alternative is infinitely worse. The alternative is suffering in silence while the injustices of the world wreak havoc on their daily lives. The alternative to civil disobedience is waiting patiently while hoping the world will choose to combat systemic inequality on its own, despite clear indications that this will never happen. The alternative is for parents to watch their children continue to be slain by racism, by poverty, by ableism, by a whole host of oppressive institutions who will not be overturned simply because it is asked of them. People engage in civil disobedience, because to do otherwise is to suffer in silence, hoping for change and knowing it will never come. Civil disobedience is inconvenient, but the absence of civil disobedience is fatal.

It is particularly reprehensible to insinuate that civil disobedience and the inconvenience associated with it alienate people from causes they might otherwise support. Not only do people have every opportunity to support those causes in their every day lives, but the idea that someone would have been a staunch proponent of equality, and willing to fight to achieve it, if not for being swayed to opposition by being late to work, or yoga class, or wherever else they were headed is actually ludicrous and insulting. One cannot be a staunch proponent of equality in the face of structural injustice, yet be swayed to abandon it by inconvenience, because to exist within the struggle is to abandon convenience in favor of liberation, whether for one’s self or for others. To engage in a struggle against the status quo is to accept the inconvenience of doing so, so to pretend that people might embrace this major inconvenience if not dissuaded by another, relatively minor inconvenience, is disingenuous.

Civil disobedience absolutely is inconvenient. It is disruptive, it is illegal, it impedes the ability of people to go about their daily business, and that is the entire point.

Your Threat Model is Not My Threat Model

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While this is something I’ve thought about quite a bit, for quite a while, the abundance of attention my blog has gotten recently has made it apparent that this needs to be said:

Your threat model is not my threat model.

I know that with regards to privacy and security, the threat at the front of many minds is a certain three-letter agency whose dragnet surveillance was exposed publicly in 2013.

The Snowden revelations have changed mainstream public discourse around privacy and security, bringing these importance of these issues to light for many who have lead lives of safety and complacency. The problem is, for many of us, privacy and safety have been concerns for a very long time, and dragnet surveillance is the least of our worries.

I know many of you are worried about your communications being stored in a database, accessible to the state in the event that you ever become a person of interest, deserving of further scrutiny. I will not tell you that it is an invalid concern. I WILL tell you that there are other guides out there for you, your concern is not MY primary concern, and my writing (aside from this piece) will probably never center you.

Many others of you are concerned with corporations like Google and Facebook collecting data to sell to third parties for purposes of targeted advertising. Again, I will not tell you that your concerns are not valid concerns. Again, I am unlikely to center those concerns.

Still others of you are savvy enough to be interested in using technical tools to keep yourselves safe from spying, regardless of its source. There are many guides out there relevant to your interests. I believe in advocating the skills and tools that the least savvy among us can use, because I believe that being non-technical shouldn’t mean being insecure.

I will always center the non-technical. I will always center those facing real, physical threat from unsophisticated attackers; adversaries who have no resources but time and malice ARE an advanced persistent threat, they are worthy of being addressed, and those who need to defend against them are underserved by the security community.

If your threat model identifies your primary adversaries as Google and the NSA, I will not tell you you’re wrong, but I will say that you’re extremely lucky. I would trade my adversaries for yours in a heartbeat. That said, I am here to help those who face threats like stalking, like abusive exes, like overbearing parents who cannot accept who they are. I am here to protect those who have snooping employers and prying frenemies. I am here to prioritize the people for whom extensive privacy guides are not written, and for whom a lack of privacy will have a very real, very detrimental affect.

I’m here for the people like me, for the people whose threat model mirrors my own, and because we deserve to be safe.

Sex, Drugs, and Alcohol: In Defense of Ada Lovelace

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day when we celebrate women in science and mathematics fields, and congratulate them on their continued struggle against the sexist notion that women do not belong in those roles.

Ada Lovelace, a Victorian-era mathematician and writer, is credited with being the first-ever computer programmer, due to her work with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine. Modern society being what it is, we seem to be incapable of celebrating the achievements of a woman in STEM without calling into question her character, and dismissing her on the basis of what is perceived to have been socially-unacceptable behavior. Two hundred years after her birth, we are still hung up on the fact that Ada Lovelace was… unladylike.

Research into Ada’s past indicates that she drank alcohol, gambled to excess, and was addicted to drugs. In addition, she cursed profusely, and is believed to have committed adultery. These revelations call to question whether Ada Lovelace was, in fact, a role model for scientists and mathematicians everywhere.

Several people have voiced the opinion that in spite of her perceived flaws, Lovelace remains a role model. I contend that Ada is a role model in part BECAUSE of her failure to conform to societal norms. Ada is a perfect example of the fact that shortcomings and a lack of respectability do not need to be barriers to achieving greatness. She is proof that people should not be dismissed on the basis of addiction, proof that there is more to life than clinging to the concept of respectability.

In addition to her drinking, gambling, swearing, alleged adultery, and opium abuse, Ada Lovelace struggled with mental health issues for most of her tragically short life. In an age where we still struggle to accept neurodiversity, Lovelace also serves as a reminder of why we should not dismiss people simply because they do not think or behave the way society has mandated they should.

The legacy of Ada Lovelace is a perfect example of what we stand to lose if we continue to hold role models to impossible standards of respectability, if we diminish the achievements of women based on their failure to conform to an ideal of femininity. Ada Lovelace is an excellent role model, because she reminds us not only of what we can achieve, but also of the fact that we do not need to focus our energy on striving to fit into a societal mold of perfect womanhood. It is shameful to attempt to erase her accomplishments simply because she was unladylike. Instead, she deserves to be celebrated twofold: on the basis of her achievements in the field of mathematics, as well as on her refusal to conform to a patriarchal notion of who she ought to have been, and how she ought to behave.