Code as Law: Air-L and Twitter @Replies

Speaking of Lessig, two interesting cases emerged this week that help illustrate Lessig’s position that, when thinking about the architecture of cyberspace,  “code is law.”

In Code, Lessig argues that all of the rules, tendencies, affordances, and constraints of/in cyberspace are the result of human decisions, actions, and, ultimately, code. What we can and cannot do there is governed by the underlying code of all of the programs and protocols that make up the Internet, which can, alternatively or simultaneously, permit and restrict certain human actions:

In real space recognize how laws regulate – through constitutions, statues, and other legal codes. In cyberspace we must understand how code regulates – how the software and hardware that make cyberspace what it is regulate cyberspace as it is. (1999, p. 6)

For Lessig, “how a system is designed will affect the freedoms and control the system enables” (Lessig, 2001, p. 35); the very architecture of the Internet dictates its politics and ideology. He argues that it is the architecture of cyberspace that constitutes its culture, its community, and its freedom; and as the architecture is threatened or changed, so is the culture, community, and freedom it enables.

To see this in action, consider two recent examples: a change to the default reply settings on the Association of Internet Researchers discussion list, and a similar change implemented by the microblogging service Twitter.

:: Air-L ::

The Association of Internet Researchers hosts a quite active discussion list (air-l) on all things related to Internet studies. This past Sunday evening, the list manager sent out the following message:

Up until now on air-l, replies to messages posted to the list went, by default, to air-l. The default reply setting for air-l has been changed. As of now, replies to list posts will go privately to the message poster and not to air-l. If you would like people on the list to see your reply, you will need to manually insert the air-l address into the To: field of your reply.

Within minutes, this change was strongly criticized:

I think this is very detrimental to the community. This change fundamentally destroys the conversation construed as a group, and forces it to be between individuals, unless they consciously choose otherwise. …Air-l should be about collegiality and sharing, not about replying to individuals…. (source)

A lengthy discussion ensued, which included more detailed explanations of the motivation behind the change (centering on a concern over the inability to remove personal/confidential/harmful information that might be mistakenly sent to the entire list given the original default reply setting — a motivation that has been questioned by myself and others). Some also found the nature of the change quite surprising considering we’re an organization who studies Internet-based communication and culture; while others criticized the lack of community feedback, participation, or notice about the change.

The debate continues, but what it reveals is how the architecture of a system can impacts not only the mode of communication, but also the members’ sense of community, dialogue and sociability. As one commenter put it: “Even small technological changes can have immense social and political repercussions.”

As Lessig states, code is law, and as the reaction to the change in settings on the Air-L list reveals, many fear that this new code will regulate their experience in new — and detrimental — ways.

:: Twitter @Replies ::

At just about the same time as the Air-L debate, Twitter announced a similar change to how it would treat replies on its microblogging platform:

We’ve updated the Notices section of Settings to better reflect how folks are using Twitter regarding replies. Based on usage patterns and feedback, we’ve learned most people want to see when someone they follow replies to another person they follow—it’s a good way to stay in the loop. However, receiving one-sided fragments via replies sent to folks you don’t follow in your timeline is undesirable. Today’s update removes this undesirable and confusing option.

Translation: If I follow certain people, I can see their tweets, including those they send in reply to people I don’t follow. Twitter states their data shows this is “undesirable,” so, with this global change in place, I no longer see replies from friends to people I myself don’t follow.

Again, the reaction was swift, with the hash tag #fixreplies quickly emerging as a means of following the chatter.

And again, we are reminded of Lessig’s warning that the way a system is designed regulates our experiences within it. Consider this commenter’s reaction:

The new policy isn’t something you have to opt-in to. It’s not something you can opt-out of. It’s true for people who use 3rd party Twitter clients to read their Tweets. It’s more fundamentally closed than Facebook is; on that site I may not be able to view the profiles of strangers talking to my friends, but I can see that the conversations are happening and I can read the comments. This new Twitter policy breaks one of the fundamental rules of social activity streams: that I can discover new people by seeing who is conversing with the people I already know.

As with the Air-L issue, this is an ongoing debate with arguments from both sides (and Twitter appears to be making changes their original tweaks).

The point of both these cases is that architecture matters; especially architecture that is hidden, controlled by others, and set globally. The way a system is designed is constitutive of its culture, its community, and its freedoms; and as Lessig argues, when the architecture of a system is threatened or changed, so is the culture, community, and freedom it enables.

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