Recently, I was invited to speak at the local Code for America brigade in Albuquerque, Code4ABQ. The presentation I put together with the help of R. Foxtale was the first public articulation of the development methodology we have been using for some time in projects like the Predator Alert Tool, the WordPress SeedBank plugin, and other, newer projects still under development. It’s also a term we’ve coined to distinguish between common misconceptions of “hacktivism,” which seem to primarily invoke ideas of digital breaking and entering (cracking), or leaking.

Although “software development as direct action” can legitimately be called a form of hacktivism, its focus is explicitly productive: building new stuff. My presentation told the story of the Predator Alert Tool as a way to showcase what we mean when we say “direct action software development.”

A video of the presentation, along with a transcript, is below. As per usual, all of my presentation materials for “Software Development as Direct Action” are Creative Commons licensed; you are encouraged to download and remix this work for non-commercial purposes. :)

Okay, so we’re here to talk about Software Development as Direct Action, and we don’t have much time. There are big problems out there and they need solving today. In the next ten minutes, I’m going to show you how you can solve them.

But first, I want to introduce you to Professor_Oni. And to Mabus. And John Black. And GamerGeekGuy. And all of these people….

These people have been accused by numerous different women of repeated sadomasochistic rapes. We know who they are because of this tool, a tiny browser extension called the Predator Alert Tool. These two-hundred and sixty or so lines of JavaScript—the entire source fits on this one slide—sparked years of debate and has catalyzed hundreds of thousands of lines of criticism, praise, ridicule, panic, relief, and hope across the blogosphere and in corporate board rooms alike.

The Predator Alert Tool is one example of what we’ve come to call “direct action software development.” The purpose is simple: maximum social impact. The method, simpler: Minimum lines of code.

What is direct action software development?

First, I’m going to assume that you already know a bit about what “software development” is. This is a pretty familiar idea: writing code to build apps, websites, or other technology products for use by people with laptops or smartphones. Writing code is the basic act required to produce software. No code? No software.

But what is “Direct Action”? We’ve found that what people think “Direct Action” really is varies based on, bluntly, how much brainwashing they’ve been subjected to. So let me take a moment to quickly describe what we mean when we say direct action.

When we talk about “Direct Action” we mean:

Any action that immediately addresses the root cause of a problem.

That sounds rather obvious. You may even be asking yourself, “Why would people waste time taking actions that don’t immediately address the root cause of a problem?” Well, there are several reasons:

  • Maybe certain actions aren’t permitted by an authority. Some people will limit themselves only to actions that they have permission to take.
  • Maybe they don’t understand, or they misunderstand, the root cause of a problem. In this case, people will often take actions they think will help, even if those actions don’t make much of a difference.
  • Maybe they don’t have some resource they need; they lack the skills, knowledge, or other materials to take immediate action.

Here are some examples of direct action in the physical world:

In most cases, tackling a problem with the direct action approach provides the most immediate solution. It’s also often dangerous, maybe illegal, and definitely disruptive. If successful, it will piss someone off. But at the end of the day, direct action is the single most effective and efficient thing you can do to make meaningful positive change. Historically, no lasting social change has ever been accomplished without a direct action component. Not once. Not ever.

Back to software. “Direct action software development” is a translation of direct action to the digital realm. It is:

Any code that immediately addresses the root cause of a problem.

Code is action. Remember Professor_Oni? He is a member of a fetish dating website called FetLife. In January 2012, a controversy that had been brewing amongst the FetLife community for years finally rose to national prominence when women came forward to accuse numerous prominent FetLife members of sexual assault. In response, the FetLife management deleted the survivor’s postings and threatened to ban them for violating the site’s Terms of Use. This went about as well as you’d expect: word of the heavy-handed censorship spread like wildfire and within a few weeks, many more women had come forward with similar stories, including some who accused the site’s founder, John Baku, of sexual assault. Once again, FetLife’s response was to delete or edit the new postings.

But by June of that year, the topic of sexual assault within the supposedly “safe, sane, and consensual” BDSM subculture was flashing across headlines of Salon.com, the New York Observer, and other high-profile media outlets. Activists from within the BDSM community had been organizing “Consent Culture” working groups for some time, and their membership numbers swelled.

Rape is exceedingly common in the BDSM scene. In fact, even the community’s own lobbying groups such as the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom—one of their board members doubled as FetLife’s community manager, by the way—admit to a 50% higher occurrence of consent violations among BDSM practitioners than the general populace. That’s nearly as bad as police officers, who statistically speaking are also twice as likely to be perpetrators of domestic violence. The BDSM scene has a self-delusional belief that they are “all about consent,” but in reality, they are at least as bad with sexual consent as everybody else, and likely a lot worse given their penchant for eroticizing abuse. Many women and Submissive-identified people within that community, including myself, had been saying this for a long time, but had been routinely ignored.

Even during the height of these national debates about “the BDSM community’s consent crisis,” the Consent Culture working groups were pitifully meek. They had collectively decided that “something must be done,” but what they chose to “do” was make a petition calling for the removal of the clause in FetLife’s Terms of Use that the site’s management was using as justification for censoring rape survivors. But as is often the case, when you must beg for something from a master, you find that they will not grant your request. Three years later, FetLife has still refused to change their policy and is still censoring rape survivors—unless those survivors use the Predator Alert Tool.

In October 2012, I realized that the root cause of the FetLife problem was simply that site management got to control what users saw when they browsed the site. But the Internet, which was made famous by mashups, allowed a unique opportunity to route around FetLife’s censorship in a way FetLife could not control. I wrote a simple mashup between a public Google Spreadsheet and FetLife that enabled anyone to report a negative experience with a FetLife member. With a mere 260 lines of JavaScript, that information could then be overlaid directly on FetLife.com.

With Predator Alert Tool for FetLife, the problem of FetLife’s censorship all but vanished: FetLife users could now warn other FetLife users about predatory behavior, and FetLife’s site management was powerless to stop it. Just a few weeks ago, we met a woman right here in Albuquerque who had used the tool to alert others about a local “Master” violating her consent.

Users of the tool then began asking for a similar capability on other sites, like OkCupid and Facebook. There are now seven variations of the Predator Alert Tool browser add-on, each designed to work with a particular social network or dating site. Importantly, none of these tools has been developed in collaboration with the social network in question. Most sites have refused to acknowledge the tool, despite inquiries from journalists and community members. Some sites are actively hostile, sending DMCA takedown notices and even threatening to ban Predator Alert Tool users. Meanwhile, the already overwhelming positive response from the user community continues to grow.

Predator Alert Tool arose directly from the needs of the community that it serves. It enabled the user community to do exactly what the authorities at FetLife didn’t want done, or what OkCupid and Facebook don’t want users thinking too critically about. And it accomplished this by just implementing that capability rather than waiting for permission to do so. Its impact was immediate and disruptive—on purpose. These characteristics are indicative of all direct action software development projects.

Today in 2015 the petition proposed by the “Consent Culture” working groups has still not achieved its goal of stopping FetLife from silencing rape survivors. Predator Alert Tool was able to accomplish that goal in one night of coding, with these 260 lines of code, three years ago.

In 2014, Creative Commons creator Larry Lessig appealed to technologists, to you, to take up this cause of immediate, direct action software development:

[T]here is a movement out there that has ENORMOUS needs which you, uniquely, can provide. The obvious ones, the technical needs. This is a movement that will only succeed if we find a way to knit together people in a different model from the television advertising model of politics today. […] This movement is STARVED for people with your skill who can figure out how to make this work. It desperately needs this type of skill offered by people who genuinely believe in the cause as opposed to people who are just trying to get rich.

If you want to change the world, but you don’t want to make a lot of money doing it, let’s talk. We’ve been doing direct action software development since before we knew what to call it, and we’re going to keep doing it. It would be wonderful to find other people who are excited about working with us. There are big problems out there. And they need solving.

Today.

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