Faustian Bargain

This post is more than a year old. The information, claims or views in this post may be out of date.

I had an interesting encounter on Twitter a few days ago, the implications of which have been stirring in the back of my mind since.

I rejoined the fray about a month ago, with the intention of using Twitter very differently than I had before. For one, I only follow news organizations and people that I know well outside of Twitter. Secondly, I try not to get engaged in hot-button social or political issues, since there’s generally not much benefit that comes out of those conversations.

Mostly though, I had intended to keep more of my posting activity focused on useful things – like the stuff I’m building, or how my journey as a freelancer is progressing. On balance I don’t think I’ve really achieved that so far, and I do honestly lament that fact.

And then something interesting happened. In another thread, I was commenting on Gwen Ngwenya’s resignation as the DA policy head (a big deal in liberal politics), and as usual, I tried to see it from perspectives everybody else was ignoring.

Like how she’s a young, bright, capable black woman who just burned a male-dominated organization for being incapable and disorganized, and what if most of the blowback is just a bunch of insecure men lashing out?

Between that observation and the former tweet, somebody actually took issue with me. Apparently, by both commenting on a political issue in a way they disagreed with, and expressing a desire to talk about things other than politics, I had somehow personally disappointed them.

I didn’t even finish reading the tweet before blocking that person, so I couldn’t tell you what the rest of it said, and my life is not served in any way by knowing it. But it did remind me of Ben Hunt’s mirror engagement theory – an idea that more people should really be familiar with.

I hadn’t realized it up until that point, but apparently I’ve become something of a celebrity to a few people on Twitter. I don’t say that in a self-aggrandizing way – what I mean to say is: I’ve said enough things that enough people want to hear, and by following/liking/retweeting the things I say, some of them feel like they’ve entered into a contract with me.

In that contract (which I’m completely unaware of), I need to provide them with the snippets and hot takes that aligns with their existing beliefs, which they will then boost to their own audiences – in return, I get additional exposure and influence.

For as long as I give them what they want, (they think) they’re giving me what I want – and the moment I break that contract by saying something they disagree with, it becomes my fault.

It’s analogous to sports fans – another concept I don’t really go for. I’ve known fans who get really amped up over their favorite teams and players, then take it deeply personally when these celebrities let them down. Of course, these players have absolutely no idea who their fans are – they’re just playing the game.

Twitter flips that on its head in two ways: It makes it possible for anyone to achieve celebrity status (just tell people what they want to hear), and it makes it possible for anyone to provide realtime feedback when they feel like you’ve violated their implicit contract.

The reason any of this is relevant: I’ve been on Twitter for a long, long time. I joined in 2008, back when there were so few people locally, you could count them by hand.

Twitter back then was an absolute treasure. A network full of early adopters that weathered service outages because it meant connecting with other early adopters. Twitter was the counter-culture, an “underground” network where we could be vulnerable and honest, and find empathy and common ground with people all around the world.

And then it started going mainstream. The Obama campaign used social media to take the White House, setting a precedent in US politics. Over time, here in South Africa, as the uptake grew, so did the potential for political warfare.

It’s a great deal for failing news organizations: Twitter is a constant source of drama, easily repackaged as engaging news segments. With political parties joining the fray, it’s now a battleground of ideas. When Bell Pottinger rolled out their social media offensives as part of the Gupta PR campaign, they were playing from a well-established handbook.

Today, Twitter is basically a toxic hivemind. Give it what it wants, and it rewards you with completely undue social influence – a rapid conduit to getting your message out via established and credible news organizations.

There’s every benefit to being a crowd-pleasing hack. Roll out the hottest takes, never apologize for getting things wrong, never back down, never stop making your fans feel like they made the right choice in defending you to their friends.

Create and maintain a caricature of yourself that appeals to people that would rather not put any thought into their own arguments, and will instead impulsively agree with anything that feels right to them – even if completely illogical. Do this, and you’ll end up famous (and possibly, wealthy).

But it’s a Faustian bargain: You can never be your honest self, and you must always please the crowds that give you power. Displease the hivemind, and it will literally ruin your life.

You’ll get harassed off the platform, then your personal information will be dug up and routed to people that take absolute pleasure in making your life miserable. It’ll kill your brand, your business, and in some cases, may even drive you to kill yourself.

Given the way those incentives are set up, it’s no surprise that South African Twitter is slowly becoming more toxic as it enters into the mainstream. It’s old-school pedagogy reinvented for modern technology. A true flattening of the hierarchy that never stopped to question if the hierarchy had any merit – if there was a reason we only let certain people have major platforms and massive social influence.

In any case, this is what we have to deal with. For my part, while I will occasionally apologize for not meeting my own goals, I’ll never apologize for having complex opinions, or being honest in their expression.

This means I’ll never be popular, but I’m 100% okay with being myself. At the end of the day, that’s far more important to me.

I’m in favor of Article 13

This post is more than a year old. The information, claims or views in this post may be out of date.

There’s a very neat trick when it comes to obscuring discourse: conflating unrelated-yet-confusingly-similar issues to make them seem bigger than they really are, and to steal support from otherwise-legitimate causes.

This is an ongoing example (link):

Hillary Clinton is facing backlash for arguing that European leaders should try to assuage the concerns of a growing right-wing populism across the continent by refusing to offer “refuge and support” to migrants.

… politicians expressed shock and concern with Clinton’s comments, which some said appeared to contradict her 2016 campaign position on welcoming immigrants and refugees.

Eliza Relman, Business Insider US

Immigrants and refugees.

There’s a world of difference between the two. Personally, I’m in favor of more open borders and a greater flow of immigrants: people who explicitly and voluntarily decide how and where they want to live, and are prepared to put in the work to contribute positively and assimilate into the culture are all right in my book.

Refugees are very different. They’re not moving by choice, but by necessity. Being coerced out of the land they chose to live in means they’ll hang on to their culture and traditions (as they should, by their own volition).

When this issue is reported though, immigrants and refugees are routinely conflated, to the point where they’re treated as synonyms for eachother – when they clearly are not. So now, even though I completely support as much voluntary, legal immigration as countries can bear, I’m also expected to support the unmitigated flow of refugees to systems that cannot integrate them at all.

I feel the exact same thing happening with this Article 13 issue.

At its core, the EU leans in favor of human rights. The regulations handed down are more often for the protection of citizens than not – GDPR being a stellar recent example.

Article 13 protects rightsholders by preventing unauthorized use of their work. The initial draft of the bill proposed some truly terrible mitigations (requiring automated content filtering on all uploads to catch violations), but the final bill has watered that down quite a lot.

When Article 13 is reported on though, it’s usually with a message like this:

the EU’s new copyright directive have stoked fears that memes will effectively be banned

platforms will have to pay a fee to share a link to a news article and have to start filtering and removing memes.

they will arbitrarily remove content based on their terms and conditions. As a result, many creators will see their content get blocked

Only platforms with deep pockets will be able to comply with the Article 13 requirements

It’s all horseshit, reasoned from a faulty premise that legitimizes theft under the banner of “user-generated content”. The internet that anti-Article 13 activists are fighting to protect was largely built on wide-scale infringement, with the inability to enforce existing laws taken as tacit permission to break them all.

But every wild west is eventually tamed, and the internet is long overdue for this. The truth (especially in Facebook and YouTube’s case) is that copyright-infringed content has been the biggest driver of their success. While they’ll fight Article 13 and sell it as the platforms “standing up for the creators” (and we’ll come back to “creators”), in reality they desperately need the freely-generated content to keep flowing – that’s all that keeps eyeballs on the site, and ad dollars flowing.

As platforms, between DMCA, Fair Use and Safe Harbor, they effectively have a license to print money (or in this case, monetizable attention). They can provide platforms that permit millions of people to violate copyright, then simply take their time to remove infringing content, while never having to compensate the victim.

While they claim to be acting in the best interests of “creators”, they’ve managed to come up with a very narrow, self-serving definition of “creator”: anyone who uploads anything. Truly independent creators are suffering the most under the current regime, illustrated beautifully by Kurzgesagt:

It’s that “immigrants and refugees” trickery all over again: conflating the independent artists who put their backs into creating original content, with the vampires who cut and re-share it without attribution (or fair compensation) to build their own profiles. To the platforms, these are both considered “creators”, which is why this statement from YouTube’s CEO should come as no surprise:

Article 13 as written threatens to shut down the ability of millions of people — from creators like you to everyday users — to upload content to platforms like YouTube. And it threatens to block users in the EU from viewing content that is already live on the channels of creators everywhere. This includes YouTube’s incredible video library of educational content, such as language classes, physics tutorials and other how-to’s.

Susan Wojcicki

(I wonder if Susan’s “educational content” includes these horror shows aimed at young children.)

There’s a whole lot of very subtle trickery in that paragraph. For one, and this is probably the most important point in the whole debacle:

People are rightsholders too.

Most of the criticism about Article 13 sets up this dystopian scenario where a few large companies (Disney, FOX, etc) will end up being the only ones who can publish anything, since Article 13 protects copyright and copyright is evil.

Except, it’s not. In most common-law countries, copyright is actually very simple: You make it, you own it. And if you own it, you should have some say in how it gets used – including permitting people to use your stuff for free, which is what Creative Commons is all about.

Copyright is only evil in a world where you can’t create new things, and the reality here is that a lot of this outrage is coming from people who have built businesses, careers and social standing off the work of others. They’re the ones with the most to lose if laws like Article 13 pass, which is why “copyright” is routinely cast as this benefit that only applies to large companies with expensive lawyers. 

Copyright is a thing we’ve had since 1886, ratified at the Berne Convention and adopted by pretty much every country on Earth. 

You could go (right now) and outline a story about a high school for wizards. Apply some creativity, take on a new angle, mix in your own experiences, draw from a large array of influences and produce something unique – and by default, you’ll have the copyright on it.

That’s creation. That’s what authorship is supposed to look like. Taking a three-second clip from a movie and dubbing a different voice over it is, at best, imitation.

But it’s that imitation that’s now being heralded as “creation”, defended by companies that desperately need large volumes of content to monetize but cannot (or will not) invest in producing it themselves.

Of course, there are more arguments against Article 13, for instance:

Only large companies will be able to afford compliance! Only big platforms like Facebook and YouTube could possibly do this!

Garbage. Setting up your own website comes with a cost of $free, and you have full control over what goes up on there. The only reason these large companies are the “only ones who can afford compliance” is that their business model depends on large-scale, unmonitored, unchecked user-generated content that can be monetized – with bonus points for presenting all of that as a defense of free speech.

This will kill creativity! Nobody will be able to make anything new! Copyrights prevent people from experimenting!

More garbage. The thing about copyright (other than it being a basic human right, globally enforced and freely available) is that the rightsholder can do whatever they want with the rights, including making it available for adaptation.

It’s as if everyone’s taken crazy pills and forgotten that CC-BY-SA exists.

Even in a world where that experimentation/remixing/adaptation is universally good for business, rightsholders (everyone from Disney to neighbour Dorothy) should have some say over how their work is used. If they decide to prevent remixes, that’s their business. Everyone that takes a more relaxed approach will benefit, and the free market will sort itself out.

Ultimately, that’s why I’m in favor of legislation that tries to protect rightsholders from unauthorized use of their work, while still giving them the option of making their work available for adaptation and re-use: Because people are rightsholders too.

South Africa is burning

This post is more than a year old. The information, claims or views in this post may be out of date.

I usually keep my political and social views to myself, but I felt it necessary to share three brief clips from recent news articles that I found interesting. They paint a picture (hopefully!) of imminent change.


the situation at Rhodes University has escalated to the point where students are being arrested and shot at with rubber bullets.


Student protests turned to student riots this week, and it shows little chance of slowing down this time. Several universities have already shut down (exactly what Gwede Mantashe said he would do, incidentally), and if it goes on for much longer, the ripple effect into 2017 is going to be scary.

Last year the ANC was able to resolve the crisis in the short-term by mandating a 0% increase, but they don’t seem to have the same resolve this time around.

Hlaudi Motsoeneng

Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s “unlawful” appointment as SABC group executive of corporate affairs is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back, the ANC in Parliament said on Wednesday


Honest to god, this one surprised me. People have always accused the SABC of being the mouthpiece of the ANC, and Hlaudi worked really hard to turn it into that – but to now have the ANC itself take issue with it?

I’m sure there’s a far more astute political analyst out there who can point out how this is showing up the cracks in the ANC’s unified stance, but honestly, that started showing right after the municipal elections. This just makes the bleeding obvious.

Jacob Zuma

but it struck me that the ANC caucus was simply not defending their president. He was on his own and it seemed that he felt it.


This one might be the biggest news of all.

The one thing that all the opposition has accused the ANC of is twisting itself into contortions to protect one man, eroding all of the country along with it. And that’s been the case – slowly and systematically over many years, Zuma and his patronage network have bullied state institutions and SOEs into compliance.

But somehow, maybe, quietly, that ended. I thought it was a bit odd that after Treasury announced Zuma owed R7.8m for Nkandla, that the solution came from a Venda bank. I would have expected a Gupta-affiliated bank, like the Bank of Baroda, to come to his rescue. And what about the Friends of Jacob Zuma trust? The Big Four banks?  The President is a strategic client, after all, no?

But the Guptas seem to have vanished. Zuma’s source of finance might be gone, and so too might his ability to feed his network of patrons. Could it be the case that he’s starting to lose control of his tribe, that he’s being hung out to dry?

Interesting times, indeed.

First-World Offense

This post is more than a year old. The information, claims or views in this post may be out of date.

So there’s this asshole – Pastor Steven Anderson. He’s been making the news lately.

I choose that word carefully. Like most assholes, he has opinions, and cares very little for criticism. His positions are largely Neanderthal in their intellectual complexity.

For example, he believes that South Africa is a demonic “stronghold”, whatever that is. I’ve heard the same things said about the US, China and Australia, so it’s anyone’s guess where he’s getting his data from.

He also believes that all homosexuals should be executed. Between this opinion and his general outlook on life, he might be more welcome in a few other African nations than here, in South Africa – despite how badly our Executive flaunts the Constitution, we don’t really take kindly to that sort of bigotry.

And in something of a stunner, the Department of Home Affairs announced on Tuesday that Anderson was barred from getting a visa: http://mg.co.za/article/2016-09-13-pastor-of-hate-not-welcome-in-sa-says-home-affairs-minister-malusi-gigaba

Cue the victory cheer from GaySA, SAHRC, and social media. It certainly feels like a victory – Anderson was judged in the court of public opinion, his message was deemed hateful and destructive, and he was refused entry into South Africa on those grounds.

It seems that everyone overlooked a couple of really scary precedents that were just set, and some factors that were totally overlooked.

sfwmAkieTSyeToJZqfKV_IMG_9840 BW.jpg

Anderson was barred from entering the country based more or less solely on his speech. Lobbyists found it offensive, and DHA took that as sufficient cause to bar him from entering the country. What worries me now is – who sets the bar for what is considered “hate speech” or “social violence”?

If an activist from Rwanda wanted to come to SA to speak out against corruption in the ANC, and try to incite positive, democratic change, would that not be considered “social violence”? Remember that we do have a ruling party that’s friends with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF, a regime that continues to blame “Western Imperialism” for all their own failures, twisting the meaning of words to suit their own ends.

The second thing that was overlooked: Anderson had an audience here. Had he come to South Africa, groups like GaySA, SAHRC and others could have staged peaceful protests at all his venues, and try to reach out to some of Anderson’s “flock”, maybe try changing their minds about homosexuals and black folk.

That opportunity for engagement has now been shut down by the government, and it will be totally ineffective. Why? Anderson, and people like him, spread their messages online. They barred Anderson, but barred none of his ideas or his speech.

Which leads me to the most worrying part of this: If the government feels justified in taking steps to ban people from entering the country based on their ideas, and those ideas can still enter regardless through the internet, then logically the next step is to start cleaning up the internet.

By banning Anderson for his speech, I think the lobbies just handed a lot more ammunition and justification to the FPB. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the FPB will start considering stronger regulations, having now been given a mandate by civil society to protect designated groups from “harmful” foreign influence.

It really would have been better to let Anderson tour the country and expose the rot to the full glare of public view. It would have been a shot of social disinfectant that we could really have used.