App.net isn't racist - but it does have a privilege problem

by @edent | # # # # | 12 comments | Read ~418 times.

tl;dr - Excluding people, even with a "nominal" fee is exclusionary, and that can be a problem.

Before reading this post, you may want to understand what I mean be "privilege".
You should also understand where you are on The Global Rich List.

The heavy-handed schmaltz that is Aaron Sorkin's Newsroom made an excellent point on its final episode.
Voter registration which requires a driving licence is a racist policy.

For a privileged guy like myself, it seems like the simplest thing in the world. Just get a fucking driving licence. What's the big deal?

However, for a large section of society (usually poor people which often mean "ethnic minority") the issues are threefold:

  1. I can't afford a car - or I have no need for one.
  2. I can't afford driving lessons, or the fee to take a driving test.
  3. Regardless of ethnicity, or wealth, I may not have the aptitude to pass a driving test.

Having a driving licence has no relationship to whether you're a citizen and eligible to vote. Why should you spend money you don't have in order to exercise your rights?

So, with one fell swoop, Governments have disenfranchised a large section of society. Co-incidentally, the same section of society unlikely to vote for them.

Let's take a look at App.net. There was an interesting (but flawed) argument put forward by The Grio that ADN represents "The White Flight" from social media.

(White Flight is the idea that once a certain number of ethnic minorities move into an area, the white community will begin to move out.)

App.net requires $50 to get in. $100 if you want to be a developer.

That represents a huge problem.

For a privileged guy like myself, it seems like the simplest thing in the world. Just pay the fifty fucking bucks. What's the big deal? Skip buying a few DVDs if you have to.

However, for a large section of society (usually poor people which often mean "ethnic minority") the issues are threefold:

  1. I don't have disposable income. I need that money for food, shelter, medicine.
  2. I do have disposable income. But it's a dollar a day. That's enough for a little luxury in, say, Kenya, but it's not enough to play on ADN.
  3. I don't have a credit card, or my country doesn't have the infrastructure to make payments.

Take a look at The Global Rich List. If you have $100 to spare, you are probably part of the 1%.

So, what does that mean for App.net? There are a few problems which I think could hurt App.net in the long term.

  • Does ADN work in different languages? It doesn't work for internationalised domain names - so it's fairly English focused at the moment.
  • Are there developers in, say, Indonesia who need a specific feature? If they can't afford $100 to play with the API, they can't submit knowledgeable feedback.
  • Are the Terms & Conditions sufficiently easy to read for those with a low educational level?
  • Can abused people feel safe without private accounts? They can't make their voices heard on a change request if they can't afford to make a (traceable) payment.
  • There are no doubt dozens more issues of which I can't even conceive.

I don't say this is a massive problem now - but I think it's storing up problems for the future.

Low income disproportionately affects women, ethnic minorities, they young, and the educationally disadvantaged.

ADN is in alpha. It's a private company. They can do what they want. But the current status, I think, is problematic.

12 thoughts on “App.net isn't racist - but it does have a privilege problem

  1. simon gray says:

    You make a good point overall - but presumably you didn't mean to undermine it by suggesting black / asian people 'lack the aptitude' to pass a driving test?

    1. As I am a massive racist, that's exactly what I meant 😉

      I've updated the text to make it clearer. Anyone - regardless of their background - can lack the ability to pass a driving test. My point is, being able to pass a driving test doesn't have anything to do with your ability to vote.

      On a side note, some US states used to require literacy tests in order to be able to vote.

  2. simon gray says:

    Thanks - I of course assumed that isn't what you meant, but the original wording of the text could have been interpreted as such.

    As a side note, I've always said that the difference between somebody who is actually a racist (or a whatever-ist) and somebody who has just been a bit careless with their wording (or genuinely trying to be edgy / provocative when it comes to humour), is that the racist will always get all defensive when pulled up on it, whereas the non-racist accepts the possibility of misinterpretation and apologises / modifies!

  3. Liz Eden says:

    The comment about not having the aptitude to pass a driving test is actually a dig at me, reasonably so as I failed 4 times and then quit. However as I understood it you don't specifically need a driving licence to vote, you just need photo ID. In order to obtain the majority of photo IDs you are not required to demonstrate any kind of skill, but there is likely to be a cost involved, which I would have thought is the more relevent factor here. Incidentally, does anyone know if they have provisional driving licences with photos in the US like we do in the UK, and is that accepted as a form of ID? If so, then surely the cost, use and ability to drive a car is a total red herring?

    1. I don't know. I get all of my information from the TV 🙂

    2. dinosaursinsocks says:

      A provisional is still £30 + photos (£5?)

  4. I think there are a number of services where you could highlight inequality of access to services based on wealth – using high-speed broadband, hosting your own website, attending conferences, etc. etc.

    I think App.net is getting an unfair share of sour grapes due to the "I have $50" meme -- in my opinion - it's not paying for exclusive access to a members club – it's about supporting a fledgling service where the odds are stacked against it.

    It's more of an ongoing continuation of Kickstarter funding than "pay to play"

    1. Hey Kai,

      Good points. Firstly, I don't have sour grapes. I paid $100 for a dev account and I think it's great value for money.

      You'll notice that most conferences have a student rate, or a grant for people who genuinely can't afford it. I agree it's too early for all that to be available now.

      Re the website issue. I know plenty of businesses whose website is Facebook. That's free to set up. And there's free access to the Internet in your local library.

      Again, I'm not saying these things *have* to be free, or freemium, or anything else.

      T

  5. "But the current status, I think, is problematic."

    For whom, exactly? I guess it's problematic for people who can't afford to pay for the service, but this is true for any given service or product which one or more people may be unable to afford. However, there are many things which even wealthy people cannot "afford" - a house on the moon, say - and we don't regard that as problematic because such things are not regarded as essential. Food, water, shelter and so on are essential. As humanity becomes wealthier, access to communication networks such as the internet is becoming essential. But access to app.net specifically? I'm not so sure.

    It's not really clear what app.net could do here. They could address your issues around internationalisation, rewrite their terms and conditions, and set up a system of anonymous payments. But doing this costs money, and the only way to offset that cost would be to increase the price of an app.net account, thus excluding even more people. They certainly can't address all of those issues *and* reduce or eliminate their pricing, without compromising on the fundamental principle of app.net - that it's funded by the users rather than by advertisers.

    The problem here isn't that app.net's prices are too high, it's that there are some people who don't have enough money to pay those prices. The solution is to enlarge the wealth and prosperity of those people (and once it's clear that there's a large number of paying customers who want a localised version of app.net, you can bet that the app.net developers will start catering to that market). This is a problem which is probably outside the scope of the app.net project.

    1. Hey Rob,

      Thanks for the comment. I think it's problematic for App.net. In the early days of Facebook, you could only join if you went to the same school as Zuck. Then it expanded to other top tier universities. When I joined, you still had to prove you were either at university or had graduated (I think - so long ago!).

      That's left Facebook with a lot of legacy issues around how it treats and presents information. At its heart is a tool for college students to see what's happening.

      I'm not saying that ADN *has* to change or *must* do anything. I'm trying to point out that excluding people at an early stage can lead to problems in the future for the service.

      I really doesn't matter if the barrier to entry is based on money, education, language, or whether you like Star Wars.

      T

  6. Liz Eden says:

    I think there are 2 seperate issues here which are getting conflated. The first is a general issue around barriers to entry. If you charge for something you automatically exclude anyone who can't afford it. Given the various complex statistical relationships between gender, ethnicities and income, this is going to affect the demographic of your users. I'm not making a value statement about this.
    The second slightly seperate point is that a shiny new tool still in development, actively seeking people to contribute to it and guide its direction should get input from as wide a range of users as is practical. The privileged westerner is unlikely to be able to predict the usability issues that non privileged westerners will have further down the line as well as the non privileged westerners could have done, had they had the opportunity to contribute.

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