Strongly Emergent

What comes from combining humans, computers, and narrative

The Many Forms of Not Getting It

People are suing Craigslist again, and again I have to hide my face in my hands. Suing Craigslist because people post problematic material there is like the kids in Scream suing AT&T because the killer used a telephone.

I have to wonder what the plaintiffs' thought process is, considering how long Craigslist has been working on foiling the people who try to cheat its system in a variety of ways. A Wired article from this time last year is a far more educational look at the matter. Craigslist is an astonishing rara avis in the business world - not just a company with a commitment to not being evil that makes Google look like pikers, but with a business model that gives them a proper interest in being good stewards of their classified-ad content.

I haven’t yet seen an accusation against Craigslist that seemed to be remotely grounded in fact - they’re a great example of how successful Silicon Valley businesses seem to be lightning rods for nuisance lawsuits. Generally libertarianism is for prats, but I can’t blame startup folks for finding it appealing in the face of an appalling level of Not Getting It from the establishment business world and certain segments of the general public. No-one likes being beholden to fools.

That said, you have to keep in mind that generally power makes fools out of people. This is part of why I respect Craigslist: they’ve taken big steps to avoid becoming idiots with power. The difference between them and the established business world is sharp. Look at these memoranda from a 1970s executive, for example - anyone who’s worked in the business world probably recognizes that that attitude hasn’t gone away at all.

Those memoranda lead to another point, too: people are rarely as foolish as they are when they’re seeking complete control over others. Complete control over pretty much anything, especially other people, is a chimera, and in pursuing it, you will only harm yourself and others. Craigslist accepts that there are limits to that control, and in that acceptance, show that they’re smarter than pretty much anyone suing them.

Lawsuits actually make another good example of this: what is a suit but an attempt to control - change - another’s behavior? Yet part of the reason lawsuits are so difficult is that rarely do the plaintiffs understand what produced the behavior they seek to change. It’s not an easy task - usually the defendants don’t understand what they’re doing either, they just understand that someone is trying to make them change, and so they resist coercion with all their might, no matter whether the change is good for them or not. A cease-and-desist letter can quite reliably turn respectable businesspeople into petulant children screaming the adult equivalent of “you can’t MAKE me do anything!

So pursuing control with a blunt instrument like a lawsuit is inefficient - and so is using a blunt instrument like a law or a word-filtering software utility. What do we have that can do the job? Human social constructs and cultural constructs - and it’s not a coincidence that part of why Craigslist works well is that it has welcomed those as ways to control its community, and accepted that it can’t completely control the social and cultural norms around its site. Craigslist has cultivated a community, invested in creating a trustworthy community, and is reaping its just rewards for a long-term investment in human decency.

The lesson here for sysadmins and developers is this: programmatic limits on human behavior have harsh diminishing-returns curves. You need to know when it’s not worth your effort to implement more programmatic control, and at that point turn to social and cultural measures. Social and cultural measures remove some control from the owners of a system, but can reward them with a better system. You also need to know whether you want to work for someone who insists on chasing complete control of a system they own - they may not all be as bad as the ‘70s executive, but they’re definitely out there. I hope that when you and I find them, we have enough control over our own lives to walk away instead of uselessly burning resources trying to control the uncontrollable.