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March 2021
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Not OK, Zoomer: Here's Why You Hate Videoconference Meetings -- And What To Do About It

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With much of the world in various states of lockdown, the videoconference meeting has become a routine part of many people's day, and a hated one. A fascinating paper by Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, suggests that there are specific problems with videoconference meetings that have led to what has been called "Zoom fatigue", although the issues are not limited to that platform. Bailenson believes this is caused by "nonverbal overload", present in at least four different forms. The first involves eye gaze at a close distance:

On Zoom, behavior ordinarily reserved for close relationships -- such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up -- has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, coworkers, and even strangers.
There are two aspects here. One is the size of the face on the screen, and the other is the amount of time a person is seeing a front-on view of another person's face with eye contact. Bailenson points out that in another setting where there is a similar problem -- an elevator -- people typically look down or avert their glance in order to minimize eye contact with others. That's not so easy with videoconferencing, where looking away suggests lack of attention or loss of interest. Another problem with Zoom and other platforms is that people need to send extra nonverbal cues:
Users are forced to consciously monitor nonverbal behavior and to send cues to others that are intentionally generated. Examples include centering oneself in the camera's field of view, nodding in an exaggerated way for a few extra seconds to signal agreement, or looking directly into the camera (as opposed to the faces on the screen) to try and make direct eye contact when speaking.
According to Bailenson, research shows people speak 15% louder on videoconference calls compared to face-to-face interaction. Over a day, this extra effort mounts up. Also problematic is that it's hard to read people's head and eye movements -- important for in-person communication -- in a video call. Often they are looking at something that has popped up on their screen, or to the side, and it may be unclear whether the movement is a nonverbal signal about the conversation that is taking place. Another oddity of Zoom meetings is that participants generally see themselves for hours on end -- an unnatural and unnerving experience:
Imagine in the physical workplace, for the entirety of an 8-hr workday, an assistant followed you around with a handheld mirror, and for every single task you did and every conversation you had, they made sure you could see your own face in that mirror. This sounds ridiculous, but in essence this is what happens on Zoom calls. Even though one can change the settings to "hide self view," the default is that we see our own real-time camera feed, and we stare at ourselves throughout hours of meetings per day.
Finally, Bailenson notes that the design of cameras used for videoconferencing means that people tend to remain within a fairly tight physical space (the camera's "frustrum"):
because many Zoom calls are done via computer, people tend to stay close enough to reach the keyboard, which typically means their faces are between a half-meter and a meter away from the camera (assuming the camera is embedded in the laptop or on top of the monitor). Even in situations where one is not tied to the keyboard, the cultural norms are to stay centered within the camera's view frustrum and to keep one's face large enough for others to see. In essence users are stuck in a very small physical cone, and most of the time this equates to sitting down and staring straight ahead.
That's sub-optimal, because in face-to-face meetings, people move around: "they pace, stand up, stretch, doodle on a notepad, get up to use a chalkboard, even walk over to the water cooler to refill their glass", as Bailenson writes. That's important because studies show that movements help create good meetings. The narrow physical cone that most people inhabit during videoconferences is not just tiring, but reduces efficiency.The good news is that once you analyze what the problems are with Zoom and other platforms, it's quite straightforward to tweak the software to deal with them:
For example, the default setting should be hiding the self-window instead of showing it, or at least hiding it automatically after a few seconds once users know they are framed properly. Likewise, there can simply be a limit to how large Zoom displays any given head; this problem is simple technologically given they have already figured out how to detect the outline of the head with the virtual background feature.
Other problems can be solved by changing the hardware and office culture. For example, using an external webcam and external keyboard allows more flexibility and control over various seating arrangements. It might help to make audio-only Zoom meetings the default, or to use the old-fashioned telephone as an alternative to wall-to-wall videoconferencing. Exploring these changes is particularly important since it seems likely that working from home will remain an option or perhaps a requirement for many people, even after the current pandemic is brought under control. Now would be a good time to fight the fatigue it so often engenders.Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

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posted at: 12:00am on 03-Mar-2021
path: /Policy | permalink | edit (requires password)

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Annual Reminder: You Can Probably Just Call The Super Bowl The Super Bowl

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It's that special time of year again where we here at Techdirt need to remind you that, no, the NFL cannot keep you from referring to The Super Bowl as The Super Bowl, full stop. While the NFL stomps around the entire country every year, slapping down bars and churches for hosting Super Bowl parties, all while an extremely unhelpful media plays along, the truth is that most of the bullying the NFL does isn't over actual trademark infringement. Sure, if some business advertises some association or endorsement by the NFL, that would be trademark infringement. Or if they claimed endorsement of the game or the NFL, that too would be infringing use. But a church simply hosting a Super Bowl party is not trademark infringement.And, of course, the silliest output of this confusion is people and companies using half-baked euphemisms to refer to the Super Bowl instead. Everyone knows what they're talking about and, yet, this somehow isn't infringing. So, were there any confusion, it would still exist, and yet the NFL relents. The most common of these has been "The Big Game", of course, and its use continues to this day.

Restaurants have taken to calling it the Big Game because the NFL trademarked the name "Super Bowl" and jealously defends its use. But whatever you call it, Dallas restaurants are offering a superabundance of specials and takeout options for Sunday's game. We'll just call them Super Bowl specials because we can.
And so can everyone else. Really. Go ahead. This "the Big Game" nonsense is modernity's "fire in a crowded theater." But, because trademark bullying works, and everyone is so terrified of the NFL, instead you get this...
Not to be tripped up by trademark hassles, GAPCo got creative in naming their game-day deal. The Superb Owl Sampler includes 12 garlic knots, 12 toasted ravioli (six cheese, six beef), 12 pizza poppers with large ranch and sauces for dipping. The sampler ($55) feeds up to 10 people.
How the hell do you even parody something like that?But if you really want to get yourself irritated, actual United States government agencies are getting in on this euphemistic bullshit. And the US Consumer Product Safety Commission actually made this all sillier with its own messaging on Twitter.
Why in the name of Tom Brady's sweaty jock strap would you put out a tweet that names the Super Bowl and then put out an image that uses a euphemism for it? And, related: "the Large Football Game"? I'm frankly tempted to see that graphic as an attempt to poke fun at the NFL for its protectionist nonsense, but somehow I don't think the USPSC has that much of a sense of humor.Stop. STOP. Stop giving the NFL a power it doesn't actually have. Stop acting like the league can somehow gatekeep reality. It can't. Just call the Super Bowl by its damned name. It's not Voldemort, after all.

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posted at: 12:00am on 04-Feb-2021
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Content Moderation Case Study: Social Media Upstart Parler Struggles To Moderate Pornography (2020)

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Summary: Upstart social network Parler (which is currently offline, but attempting to come back) has received plenty of attention for trying to take on Twitter -- mainly focusing on attracting many of the users who have been removed from Twitter or who are frustrated by how Twitter's content moderation policies are applied. The site may only boast a fraction of the users that the social media giants have, but its influence can't be denied.Parler promised to be the free speech playground Twitter never was. It claimed it would never "censor" speech that hadn't been found illegal by the nation's courts. When complaints about alleged bias against conservatives became mainstream news (and the subject of legislation), Parler began to gain traction.

But the company soon realized that moderating content (or not doing so) wasn't as easy as it hoped it would be. The problems began with Parler's own description of its moderation philosophy, which cited authorities that had no control over its content (the FCC), and the Supreme Court, whose 1st Amendment rulings apply to what the government may regulate regarding speech, but not private websites.Once it became clear Parler was becoming the destination for users banned from other platforms, Parler began to tighten up its moderation efforts, resulting in some backlash from users. CEO John Matze issued a statement, hoping to clarify Parler's moderation decisions.
Here are the very few basic rules we need you to follow on Parler. If these are not to your liking, we apologize, but we will enforce:- When you disagree with someone, posting pictures of your fecal matter in the comment section WILL NOT BE TOLERATED
- Your Username cannot be obscene like "CumDumpster"
- No pornography. Doesn't matter who, what, where,
Parler's hardline stance on certain content appeared to be more extreme than the platforms (Twitter especially) that Parler's early adopters decried as too restrictive. In addition to banning content allowed by other platforms, Parler claimed to pull the plug on the sharing of porn, even though it had no Supreme Court/FCC precedent justifying this act.Parler appears to be unable -- at least at this point -- to moderate pornographic content. Despite its clarification of its content limitations, Parler does not appear to have the expertise or the manpower to dedicate to removing porn from its service.A report by the Houston Chronicle (which builds on reporting by the Washington Post) notes that Parler has rolled back some of its anti-porn policies. But it still wishes to be seen as a cleaner version of Twitter -- one that caters to "conservative" users who feel other platforms engage in too much moderation.According to this report, Parler outsources its anti-porn efforts to volunteers who wade through user reports to find content forbidden by the site's policies. Despite its desires to limit the spread of pornography, Parler has become a destination for porn seekers.The Post's review found that searches for sexually explicit terms surfaced extensive troves of graphic content, including videos of sex acts that began playing automatically without any label or warning. Terms such as #porn, #naked and #sex each had hundreds or thousands of posts on Parler, many of them graphic. Some pornographic images and videos had been delivered to the feeds of users tens of thousands of times on the platform, according to totals listed on the Parler posts.Parler continues to struggle with the tension of upholding its interpretation of the First Amendment and ensuring its site isn't overrun by content it would rather not host.Decisions to be made by Parler:
  • Does forbidding porn make Parler more attractive to undecided users?
  • Do moderation efforts targeting content allowed on other platforms undermine Parler's assertions that it's a "free speech" alternative to Big Tech "censorship"?
  • Can Parler maintain a solid user base when its moderation decisions conflict with its stated goals?
Questions and policy implications to consider:
  • Does limiting content removal to unprotected speech attract unsavory core users?
  • Is it possible to limit moderation to illegal content without driving users away?
  • Does promising very little moderation of pornography create risks that the platform will also be filled with content that violates the law, including child sexual abuse material?
Resolution: Parler's Chief Operating Officer responded to these stories after they were published by insisting that its hands-off approach to pornography made sense, but also claiming that he did not want pornographic spam.
After this story was published online, Parler Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Wernick, who had not responded to repeated pre-publication requests seeking comment on the proliferation of pornography on the site, said he had little knowledge regarding the extent or nature of the nudity or sexual images that appeared on his site but would investigate the issue.I don't look for that content, so why should I know it exists?" Wernick said, but he added that some types of behavior would present a problem for Parler. We don't want to be spammed with pornographic content.
Given how Parler's stance on content moderation of pornographic material has already changed significantly in the short time the site has been around, it is likely to continue to evolve.Originally posted to the Trust & Safety Foundation website.

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posted at: 12:01am on 28-Jan-2021
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Judge Easily Rejects Parler's Demands To Have Amazon Reinstate Parler

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As was totally expected, US district court judge, Barbara Jacobs Rothstein, has handily rejected Parler's motion to force Amazon to turn Parler's digital lights back on. The order is pretty short and sweet, basically saying that Parler hasn't even remotely shown a likelihood of success in the case that would lead to having the court order Amazon to take the social media site back.On the antitrust claims, the judge points out that these appear to be a figment of Parler's imagination:

At this stage in the proceedings, Parler has failed to demonstrate that it is likely to succeed on the merits of its Sherman Act claim. While Parler has not yet had an opportunity to conduct discovery, the evidence it has submitted in support of the claim is both dwindlingly slight, and disputed by AWS. Importantly, Parler has submitted no evidence that AWS and Twitter acted together intentionallyor even at allin restraint of trade....Indeed, Parler has failed to do more than raise the specter of preferential treatment of Twitter by AWS. The sum of its allegation is that by pulling the plug on Parler but leaving Twitter alone despite identical conduct by users on both sites, AWS reveals that its expressed reasons for suspending Parler's account are but pretext.... But Parler and Twitter are not similarly situated, because AWS does not provide online hosting services to Twitter. Parler's unsupported allegation that AWS provides online hosting services to both Parler and Twitter is explicitly denied in a sworn declaration by an AWS executive.... (Twitter's principal social-media service (the Twitter Feed) does not run on AWS. . . . On December 15, 2020, AWS announced that it signed an agreement with Twitter for AWS to begin servicing the Twitter Feed for the first time. . . . We do not yet service the Twitter Feed, and I am not aware of any particular timeline for doing so.). Thus, as AWS asserts, it could not have suspended access to Twitter's content because it does not host Twitter.
For what it's worth the judge doesn't even note the other huge weakness in Parler's "antitrust claims." I had intended to write a post about this, but now that this order is out, that post may be moot: Parler's CEO in his own declaration undermined the entirety of the antitrust claim by admitting that there were at least half a dozen other "large" cloud providers beyond Amazon. It's true that none of them wanted to do business with Parler, but it sort of highlights that there's competition in the market:
Parler reached out to at least six extremely large potential providersall of which refused to host Parler for one of two reasons.
The "strongest" (and I use that term in the sense of the "tallest of the ants" meaning) of the claims was probably the breach of contract claim, in which Parler said AWS's terms require 30 days notice for termination. As we wrote, however, the terms also allow for a suspension of service in much less time, and Amazon insists that Parler's service was suspended rather than terminated. The judge, not surprisingly, did read the whole of the terms of service, rather than just the convenient bit Parler's lawyer wanted her to read:
Parler has not denied that content posted on its platform violated the terms of the CSA and the AUP; it claims only that AWS failed to provide notice to Parler that Parler was in breach, and to give Parler 30 days to cure, as Parler claims is required per Section 7.2(b)(i). However, Parler fails to acknowledge, let alone dispute, that Section 7.2(b)(ii)the provision immediately followingauthorizes AWS to terminate the Agreement immediately upon notice and without providing any opportunity to cure if [AWS has] the right to suspend under Section 6. And Section 6 provides, in turn, that AWS may suspend [Parler's or its] End User's right to access or use any portion or all of the Service Offerings immediately upon notice for a number of reasons, including if AWS determines that Parler is in breach of this Agreement. In short, the CSA gives AWS the right either to suspend or to terminate, immediately upon notice, in the event Parler is in breach.Parler has not denied that at the time AWS invoked its termination or suspension rights under Sections 4, 6 and 7, Parler was in violation of the Agreement and the AUP. It has therefore failed, at this stage in the proceedings, to demonstrate a likelihood of success on its breach of contract claim.
Then there's the intentional interference claim, which almost never flies, because it's almost always just an attempt to repeat earlier claims with a "and this is serious." Here, it's just pathetic. And the judge knows that.
Parler has failed to allege basic facts that would support several elements of this claim. Most fatally, as discussed above, it has failed to raise more than the scantest speculation that AWS's actions were taken for an improper purpose or by improper means. Conversely, AWS has denied it acted improperly, justifying its actions as a lawful exercise of rights it had pursuant to either the suspension or the termination provisions of the CSA. Further, for the reasons outlined supra, §§ III.B.(1) & (2), Parler has failed to demonstrate the likelihood that AWS breached the CSA. To the contrary, the evidence at this point suggests that AWS's termination of the CSA was in response to Parler's material breach. Parler has therefore not demonstrated a likelihood of success on this claim.
The judge does admit that Parler may be right that there are irreparable harms here, but its failure to plead a winnable case means that doesn't much matter. Finally, there's an interesting paragraph on the public interest arguments in the case:
The Court explicitly rejects any suggestion that the balance of equities or the public interest favors obligating AWS to host the kind of abusive, violent content at issue in this case, particularly in light of the recent riots at the U.S. Capitol. That event was a tragic reminder that inflammatory rhetoric canmore swiftly and easily than many of us would have hopedturn a lawful protest into a violent insurrection. The Court rejects any suggestion that the public interest favors requiring AWS to host the incendiary speech that the record shows some of Parler's users have engaged in. At this stage, on the showing made thus far, neither the public interest nor the balance of equities favors granting an injunction in this case.
Separately, it's worth noting that the judge called out the fact that this is not a case about free speech or the 1st Amendment, as some have tried to frame it:
It is important to note what this case is not about. Parler is not asserting a violation of any First Amendment rights, which exist only against a governmental entity, and not against a private company like AWS. And indeed, Parler has not disputed that at least some of the abusive and violent posts that gave rise to the issues in this case violate AWS's Acceptable Use Policy.
Overall, the ruling was basically exactly what most people were expecting. The case still moves on, for now, as this was just rejecting the request for a temporary restraining order (effectively forcing Amazon to rehost Parler). But I would imagine this does not bode well for the next step, which is likely a motion to dismiss the entire lawsuit from Amazon, which the judge seems likely to grant on similar grounds as was used for this ruling.

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posted at: 12:02am on 22-Jan-2021
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