To my colleagues in the Hypertext, Social Media, and Web Science Research Communities

A few days ago, a kid killed 17 people in a Florida school.

A number of surviving classmates spoke forcefully about the need for sensible gun laws. The right-wing loons, now so influential, denounced them and invented a story: the eloquent survivors, they said, were actually actors, outside agitators recruited and paid by George Soros. (This means, for those in the know, that they’re part of the international Jewish conspiracy.) Within hours, a YouTube video of this fantasy, heavily promoted by bot farms and right-wing punditry, was trending on Facebook. It became the top-viewed video before it was pulled.

Does our research make this possible? Every year, we embrace papers on automated sentiment detection. That research informs social media platforms, and it equally informs the exploitation of those platforms by liars and trolls, some of whose staffing and funding dwarfs the research budgets of even our best-funded investigators.

Our we making tools for Nazis? For years, the common wisdom, endlessly repeated, held that the Internet routes around outages. This clearly is untrue: many countries effectively censor the Internet. Nonetheless, any call for steps to rein in resurgent Internet fascism or to make trolls responsible for their actions is immediately met with the objection that these steps might also limit access by marginalized voices. If we don’t meet the threat from Internet fascism , then victorious Internet fascism will have its own solution for marginalized voices.

The other firehose. Much research focuses on analysis of big data from big social platforms, scanning automatically to detect particularly interesting expressions or to measure interesting sentiments. Could that research be use for nefarious purposes?

  • To identify Twitter users who most profitably could be harassed or intimidated into promoting a cause?
  • To identify Facebook users who are secretly members of a target group? For example, to identify young women who are likely to seek an abortion next month? To compile a list of closeted gay people of Jewish descent? To locate immigrant families who are vulnerable to ICE?
  • To create simulacra and personae that appear to be citizens and voters, and to use those constructs to sway opinion or to pressure businesses, universities, charities, or government agencies?

We should take a moment to reflect on the lessons of Cable Street. Right wing extremism has discovered a technique to move the Overton window at its whim. The scientific community should slam that window now; if we wait, the right may push us through it.

Our community may share some responsibility for making the St. Petersburg troll farm possible and successful. Moving forward, I suggest we consider these concerns when evaluating papers and planning new research.

by Madeline L’Engle

This 1962 novel, arguably the origin of the modern YA novel, was a hole-filler for me. It’s very good.

by Megan Abbott

This is an inspiring book, in the sense that the shortcomings of this early novel are so well overcome in Abbott’s You Will Know Me and Dare Me. As in these later novels, The End Of Everything is a story of a family that is other than happy, but here the unhappiness — actually the unhappiness of two or perhaps three unremarkable suburban families — is so slight that it’s hard for Lizzie, Abbott’s thirteen-year-old narrator, to explain what’s wrong. Characteristically, Lizzie explains what she doesn’t understand at great length.

Lizzie copes with the abduction of her inseparable friend and next-door neighbor, Evie Verver, by trying on theory after theory, each less plausible than the last. Meanwhile, she’s also trying to help her divorced mother cope with everything while trying to repair the pain of the kidnapped girl’s desolate father.

At the heart of this novel, there’s a terrific short story struggling to emerge.

by Michael McGarrity

The first volume of a multi-generation family saga of New Mexico, Hard Country examines the ancestors of McGarrity’s mystery hero, Sherrif Kevin Kerney, starting with the founding of McGarrity’s beloved ancestral ranch in the aftermath of the American Civil War. In New Mexico, the ancient past can often be surprisingly recent, and the 1880s are nearly Paleolithic.

Terrible news that Adrian Miles, the brilliant Australian scholar of film and new media, died suddenly yesterday while bicycling in the countryside. In hypertext and new media circles, Miles is best known for his brilliant insight that the hypertext link functions as a cinematic cut. “While Michael Joyce once, rather famously, commented that ‘hypertext is the word's revenge on TV’,” Miles wrote, “I'd like to suggest that hypertext is in fact cinema's revenge on the word.” His 2001 paper on “Hypertext Structure as the Event of Connection,” which won the third Ted Nelson Award, is one of the great hypertext papers of all time. It springs from a remarkable insight:

Links generate what I’d like to characterise as an ‘anxiety’ within hypertext. This anxiety is evident in relation to writer’s and their use of hypertext, a reader’s ability to derive pleasure from reading hypertext, and is present in most theories of hypertext and linking which seek to provide rules for the application, role, or relevance of links in hypertext.

Miles’s anxiety does much to explain the subsequent technical, rhetorical, and political history of hypertext writing. An early proponent of Web video and a tireless advocate of personal expression — even and especially by students — on the Web, Miles coined the term vlog and did much to popularize the practice.

As a critic, he was a bold and a generous reader, always focused on the work without much care for the writer’s fame or following, and always placing the work ahead of the theory. No one was better at finding common sense in the airy realms of critical theory; I’ll never forget his application, one warm afternoon in Melbourne, of Bataille’s construction of excess to the biological roles of the nest of the Bowerbird and the tail of the Superb Lyrebird.

Feb 18 3 2018

Since We Fell

by Dennis Lehane

This skillful, puzzling, deceptive book about deceptive people starts with a clever feint. We’re trying to locate our absent father. Mother never wanted us to know anything about him, but she’s gone now. The clues are scarce. We hire a private investigator, but even the expert urges us to give up. The story, it turns out, has nothing at all to do with our missing father, but we’re going to see a lot of that shamus.

by Antony Beevor

What’s hard to imagine about the aftermath of the Occupation, and what Beevor captures wonderfully, is the extent to which everything seems to have been improvised at the last minute. Everyone was terrified that they’d be accused of collaborating; everyone who stayed, after all, had in some sense collaborated. No one knew whether the Occupation would be replaced by a new Allied Occupation or by something else — and if the latter, whether something else would be a new republic or the old one.

Someday, Trump will be gone. It makes sense to think about how we can restore our damaged land.

The other fascinating argument this close look at Paris after the war makes is that these years were necessarily a response to the failure that became Vichy, and that the response itself was a failure. Rather than address the legacy of the war, France (after some years of toying with Communism and related dithering) chose to adopt a comforting myth, and to adhere to that myth until it collapsed in the wake of 1968. Beevor thinks 1968, too, was a failure. Most people do. But 1968 transformed the way way think; the triumph of rock and irony, the rise of postmodernism, liberation theology are all built on the foundation of 1968.

1968 gave us, in the end, the collapse of the Iron Curtain. It also gave us truthiness and Trump. We’re still living in the ruins.