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About the Tragedy of the Digital Commons: RaceAhead

June 12, 2019, 9:38 PM UTC

RaceAhead has been enjoying a spate of new readers and subscribers of late, for which we are very grateful. As a result, I’ve decided to occasionally re-run an updated version of some of our foundational columns, to give everyone a sense of the work and each other.

This one, The Tragedy of the Digital Commons, explores the idea that we the people can find a way to stop hate speech online.


The tragedy of the commons is a social science theory that attempts to predict the outcome when humans use a public, unregulated space. And yes, it is profoundly tragic.

It sounds simple, at first. Let’s say you own some cows and a pasture. Chances are you’d manage your cow business carefully. You wouldn’t put too many animals on your patch of land, and you’d make sure there was enough water and food for the cows you did have. But on public lands, you might observe that lots of people just drag all their damn cows onto it because it’s free to use and nobody controls it. Ultimately your pasture thrives while the public pasture is quickly destroyed. It’s short-term self-interest at scale.

This was the theory put forth by the economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833 (yes, it involved cows and pastures) and was later revived as a popular 1968 treatise about sustainable development by ecologist Garrett Hardin. The tragedy of the commons describes the phenomenon when individuals within a shared system end up depleting a common resource because they use it without regard for the long-term health of the broader environment. The precepts have been applied to everything from overfishing to nuclear brinksmanship, and most recently, climate change.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this theory lately, and the tragic mess that social media, the commons of the digital age, has become.

The data points are everywhere.

Consider this manifesto from Kelly Marie Tran. The Star Wars actor fled from Instagram in2018 after being subjected to a steady stream of racist and misogynist messages. She’s back and ready to talk. “It wasn’t their words, it’s that I started to believe them,” she began. “Their words seemed to confirm what growing up as a woman and a person of color already taught me: that I belonged in margins and spaces, valid only as a minor character in their lives and stories.”

Tran is just one of many, many, many people, often women and women of color, who have been driven from the online commons due to unrepentant harassment on social platforms. Even parents who are grieving murdered children aren’t safe in the digital public square.

This can’t be the pasture that the smartest minds in tech and venture capital had in mind, right?

Online spaces have been deftly hijacked by prankster trolls and true believers alike, driving hate speech into the mainstream. Even examining the phenomenon gives it oxygen. “Hate groups ha[ve] gamed the media,” says Clive Thompson in Wired, talking about the rise of alt-right memes and dangerous conspiracy theories that make their way to the real world mindsets.“They did it energetically and successfully. Now it may be time to invoke the wisdom of WarGames—where the only way to win is not to play.”

Sure, except the pasture just fills up elsewhere.

Writer Zeynep Tufekci cites “dark posts,” the non-public, targeted messages used by the Trump campaign to discourage African American voter turnout as an example. Unexamined, manipulative and dangerous speech is a feature, not a bug of digital life. “It’s important to realize that, in using these dark posts, the Trump campaign wasn’t deviantly weaponizing an innocent tool,” she says. “It was simply using Facebook exactly as it was designed to be used.”

Digital tragedies influence more than just voting behavior.

Facebook has been blamed for fomenting deadly violence against the Rohingya people and other Muslims in Myanmar. A Reuters investigation found over 1,000 recent examples of hate speech, some of which had been on the site for over six years. “The poisonous posts call the Rohingya or other Muslims dogs, maggots and rapists, suggest they be fed to pigs, and urge they be shot or exterminated,” they found.

And then there is the tragic case of YouTube, which can’t seem to shake white supremacist content or radicalizing young minds, no matter how hard they try.

The digital commons analogy is not a perfect one. The spaces are not fully public, nor are they entirely unmanaged. Though we pay a high price (our data) in terms of admission to them, we have no say in their governance. And the monstrous behavior that they enable, whether by design or neglect, have complex and deeply human origins. Small gestures like sort of banning Infowars’s Alex Jones was nice, but it’s no substitute for the deep thinking required to revive the early promise of these online spaces.

In search of comfort, I turned to Elinor Ostrum, the late Nobel Prize-winning professor of political science at Indiana University at Bloomington. Her research proved that the tragedy of the commons is not inevitable. It was both a revolutionary idea and a bold flip of the bird to entrenched economic thinking.

Ostrum won the 2009 Nobel in Economic Sciences for her profound belief in you and me: Her work showed that ordinary people working together are capable of creating the kinds of rules that can help preserve and equitably manage shared resources.

She died in 2012, but you can get a sense of her in this charming short video from Big Think.

She describes her theory of “polycentricity” as a “complex nested system,” of markets, governments, community groups and individuals working to create a workable governance system. “In many instances but not all, people have found ways of agreeing on their own rules, and extracting themselves from the problem,” she says. (You can find more about why she was such a revolutionary economist here. It’s well worth your time.)

It will be hard work, however.

“It ain’t pretty in the sense that it’s nice and neat,” she says. And most people tend to dismiss creative solutions that are complex. “But society is complex. People are complex,” she says.

But it’s our only hope. “Simple solutions to complex problems? Not a good idea.”

On Point

Staying safe on TwitterFor some people, particularly women of color, the targeted harassment on Twitter is so severe, that they’ve had to hire people to help them de-troll their accounts, or post behind a paywall, on sites like Patreon. The problem, of course, is in the design. Twitter lists were supposed to be an easy-to-use-tool to create a public or private feed of accounts of interest to you. Instead, they’re now a tool for attackers. Trolls add unsuspecting Twitter users to specialized lists, and use them to trigger a controlled swarm of abuse. But one smart tactic (and one I use constantly) is to check the lists you’re on and block the list creator. “If I end up on a list … and all I see is the first 30 to 40 people are my friends but specifically my friends of color, specifically my black women friends, and that person’s account is less than two months old and they don’t have any content, that’s a bot or a hostile account. I don’t even have to think about it,” says Sydette Harry, an editor at the web browser company Mozilla.CNBC

Black executives on the ‘intersection of race and gender’ for mothers in the workplace
As Dia Simms, president of Combs Enterprises, told Fast Company: “We’re in this first generation of minority women who are figuring out how to run the PTA, run a multimillion-dollar budget, and be great partners and daughters.” And with that, come specific challenges: The career penalties for choosing motherhood are exacerbated when it comes to black women (who already face higher maternal mortality and infertility rates in the U.S.). Maya Watson Banks, currently Netflix’s director of brand and editorial, described how after losing an early career opportunity for being a single mom, she kept her child a secret for “the first three years” when she moved to a new job. Ultimately, though, Porsha Ellis, an experiential marketing executive, said “People either see you as this successful black career woman or a black mother, but they don’t see you as both.” And part of the problem is the lack of role models for other women. “I don’t think that it’s fair that we don’t have more examples,” emphasized Banks.
Fast Company

Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness: "I identify as nonbinary"
Jonathan Van Ness told Out that he identifies as “nonbinary,” “genderqueer,” “nonconforming,” which he didn’t realized he “was allowed to be.” He said: “I was just always like ‘a gay man’ because that’s just the label I thought I had to be.” In the interview, Van Ness, who prefers he/him pronouns but does not identify as a man, spoke about experiencing bullying growing up and trying out outfits (and Beyoncé routines) hidden in his basement—and how he really “busted out of that” as an adult. And on self-expression: The _Queer Eye_ cast member recently partnered with essie for a rainbow-themed nail polish palette with the aim to “celebrate Pride and celebrate diversity.” Speaking on what Pride means to him, Van Ness described it as “a great opportunity for all of us to like, not only celebrate ourselves but also bring new people into the fold of allyship and into the fold of awareness.”



On Background

The lost history of the Confederate Flag
Harvard professor Sarah Lewis shares her research with the team at Race/Related. Turns out the Stars and Bars we’re so familiar with were the efforts of two years of work by Confederate leaders, trying to find an emblem that best represented their values of freedom for whites and slavery for blacks. The other designs, often hung is gallery rooms provided by secessionist newspapers; they were explicitly pro-white and attempted to ennoble slavery. “This rarely discussed history emerges from the work of Raphael P. Thian (1830-1911), who was in charge of transcribing Confederate records from the seized rebel archives in Richmond, Va., after the Confederacy’s surrender,” she writes. A must read.
New York Times

On learning to be an ally
I’ve spent a bit of time at The Bitter Southerner, a thoughtful online journal dedicated to giving cultural shape to the “new South.” To do that well, it seems, means to wrestle with the old one, and the scars of Jim Crow. I found many wonderful examples of white writers struggling to articulate the cognitive dissonance of being both from and of a place as complex as the American South, but start with Greenville, South Carolina’s Brad Willis. A moment in a candy store and a conversation about Charlottesville triggered an epiphany. “For all the ways I’d convinced myself that I was too privileged to speak, for all the ways I’d convinced myself that I couldn’t write words that mattered to the most important of causes, for all the ways I’d decided my silence would let others be better heard, I’d gone too far. I’d disengaged.”
Bitter Southerner

Making flexible schedules work for professional track employees
For anyone growing a family, living with a disability or caring for aging relatives, a flexible schedule – even a no-travel option - that would help you manage your life while keeping you in the talent pipeline would be a godsend. Anna Auerbach of three-year-old Werk Enterprises Inc. is building a business helping employees find the career moves that work for them, while training hiring managers to better understand how to create an environment that is conducive to remote employees.“I couldn’t quite understand why there were so few women in leadership,” she says. “It’s so obvious and in your face.”
The Globe and Mail

Tamara El-Waylly helps produce raceAhead and assisted in the preparation of today's summaries.


It takes no compromise to give people their rights…it takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression.
—Harvey Milk