Hey, Snapchat: What about #metoo?

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Unless you've been living under a rock this week, you've almost certainly encountered the hashtag "#metoo" somewhere on social media, or heard people talking in real life about the topic.

Due to the gross negligence -- or perhaps the willing blindness -- of a truly dismaying number of people in Hollywood, it has come to light that a lot of actors -- especially women -- have suffered harassment or outright abuse at the hands of powerful people who took the worst of the "casting couch" trope and turned it into something very real and frankly very oppressive to those who have worked in the entertainment industry.

Partly in reaction to the revelations surrounding Harvey Weinstein, but also just because it seems like the dam is starting to break on this subject in general, women (and even some men) began to share their own testimony under that #metoo hashtag. Many of them simply asked that the rest of us -- men and women alike -- take heed that sexual harassment and abuse aren't abstract things that happen to people far away, but rather very real and very present in the lives of people close to us.

Many of my own friends participated. Some acknowledged only that it had happened. Others gave details. In every case I was saddened. I knew this kind of thing was widespread. I didn't know just how depraved had been some of the behavior directed at people very close to me.

I didn't want to know the gory details -- not any more than any of us might want to get a bad diagnosis at the doctor's office -- but this wasn't about what I wanted. This was about needing to know just how colossal the problem is, and about getting it out in the open. We need to know that this kind of awful behavior is out there, and just like an infectious disease, it's something that can be made better or worse by the choices that are made by the people who don't think they're infected (whether they're right about that or not).

My friend Katie Packer Beeson wrote about this in a piece published in US News and World Report. Katie is an experienced and respected political operative. In her piece, she recalls a positively outrageous incident of explicit abuse by a state senator in her home state of Michigan. An incident at her very first job out of school -- a job working for colleagues of that same senator at the state capitol. Katie's account is, based on what I read from others, far from unusual -- even though it's repulsive. And the notion that she then had to weigh the cost-benefit analysis of whether to expose the attack is, again, far from unusual -- even though the idea of being intimidated into silence is again repulsive.

Katie's conclusion, as a political matter, is worth sharing: "If we are serious about respecting women, we must be serious about condemning leaders who refuse to, even if it means losing elections."

In fact, though, it's too easy to think this is just a political problem that has a political solution. It is, and it does, but it goes well beyond that.

In the course of this week, I happen to have checked on Snapchat a couple of times. I came to wish that I hadn't, because what I saw there was appalling, too.

 
 

In a week when so many people are bravely addressing experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, Snapchat doesn't look like it's helping. I'm not saying that there's a deliberate campaign to drench everything in a lurid sauce of sexualization, though one could be forgiven for looking at the Snapchat homepage and drawing that conclusion.

But I do think that social media create and abide by incentive structures -- unwritten rules that guide what gets created by determining what gets rewarded. And if what gets rewarded most is titillating pictures of young women, then that's what's going to be supplied.

And I think it ought to be called out, especially during a week like this when so many people have been saying "#metoo".

Because it doesn't have to be a deliberate policy of a social-media service to make things bad. It can happen strictly because the incentives reward the bad, and nobody is taking responsibility for fixing the incentive structure. As I've quoted many a time before, every system is perfectly designed to create the results that come from it. That means that if the results aren't what we want (and I hope the Snapchat results, just for instance, are not what we want), then the system needs to be redesigned so it doesn't produce the undesirable outcomes.

As another friend of mine pointed out, it gets out of hand easily -- turning into a weird and disgusting dance between exploitation and celebrity slut shaming.

What's wrong to do to another person in private life is wrong to do to strangers for money, even when those strangers are "celebrities". This is where I think it's a mistake to talk about "business ethics" as though they're any different from regular ethics. What is good and right to do is what's ethical, whether it's between friends or between buyers and sellers.

And at some point -- one we've long ago passed, in my view -- the social media services have a duty to act ethically. They're not simply pass-through entities, to steal a phrase from the tax debate. They offer rewards. They highlight. They promote. They pay for content. They establish rewards. And that means they're making decisions about what to create more of, and what to discourage or downplay or overlook.

Whether the people in charge of those services acknowledge it or not (I'm looking at you, Mark Zuckerberg and his wannabe-clones), they're making choices by the way they create their reward systems. And if the results don't look right, then it's about time they got around to fixing the systems.

Because it's not just about Snapchat making its bones off lurid pictures of women in bikini tops. And it's not just about Twitter rewarding people for creating bots that inflate the follower counts for people like the President. And it's not just about Facebook making money selling ads to hostile foreign governments -- governments intent on influencing our elections.

It's about all of these things and it's about the things we haven't thought about or haven't noticed yet. And it's about the commoditization of "friendship" in a way that social-media sites use to get us to lower our guard and transfer the feelings we have about our real friends and family to the apps that tell us they're helping us stay connected to those friends and family.

These services don't have a legal obligation -- at least not yet -- to do the right thing. But capitalism and free markets aren't meant to operate in a vacuum free of virtue and ethics. They, too, are systems with incentive structures and they require conscientious attention to the outcomes.

As Charlie Munger once said about greed and ethics: "Somebody in America has to be the exemplar for not trying to grab everything you can." I would never cast shade on innovators and entrepreneurs for coming up with great new ideas, social-media sites included. But somebody in America has to be an exemplar -- and that includes being an exemplar for knowing when to say that some incremental profit isn't worth cheapening our souls.

With #metoo on so many minds, now would be a very good time for everyone in the tech universe to pause and reflect, if only just long enough to ask: Are we doing enough to reward good things so that we get more of them?

Technology itself is almost always value-neutral. What's good or bad about it is in how we use it. But Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, and everyone else in that universe of "connecting people" need to come to terms with a vital point: They can't be value-neutral, so they need to decide whose side they are on, and set up their rewards and incentives accordingly. It's not enough to profess indifference or neutrality, any more than it would be enough to hand out tanks or guns or bombs and profess the same.

 
Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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