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The revolution will have structured content

graphic of gender symbols inside speech bubble

Here’s a little-known fact. Until 1986, the New York Times prohibited the use of “Ms.” as an honorific for women. Think about that. For the majority of its history, whenever a woman was referred to in the pages of the New York Times, her marital status had to be included. This was not so (and never has been) for men.

This is important because the way we structure content says a lot about the values we share. If we require Mr., which says nothing about marital status, before a man’s name but either Miss or Mrs. before a woman’s name, we are saying that the most important thing to know about that woman is her marital status. All other information can wait in the visual hierarchy of that sentence.

To be fair, the first mention of the name would include none of that information (e.g. Harry Potter or Hermoine Granger) but each subsequent mention of the name (e.g. Mr. Potter or Miss Granger) would not only foreground marital status, but repeat it again and again until it becomes one of the few truly memorable aspects of the person.

Never mind the fact that requiring either Mr. or Miss. or Mrs. (or Ms. even) before a name forces gender norms that don’t apply to everyone.

It was actually quite a long battle to get Ms. into common usage, a fact drawn into sharp relief by the fact that at no point was there a fight to create honorifics that identified male marital status in any way. The structure of the usage suggested a very simple thing: We, as a society, consider male marital status irrelevant, and female marital status of the utmost importance.

The content decisions we make, consciously or unconsciously, inherited or created from scratch, dictate value. If we wanted to foreground eye color as the most important thing to know about a person, we would create a convention where you would always refer to it in their name. “Blue-Eyed Granger proceeded to finish the test in record time. When asked about it later, Blue-Eyed Granger claimed the test was not very hard.” This seems weird because we do not actually care that much about eye color.

And here’s the thing, even if we don’t especially care whether or not the woman we’re reading about is married, we’re made acutely aware of it anyway because the convention normalizes it, turning it into a reasonable thing to not only want to know, but expect to know. That’s the power of content structure. That’s especially the power of standardizing content structure. Because if we truly believe that a woman’s marital status is none of our damned business, then we shouldn’t make it necessary to foreground upon every subsequent mention of her name. Because the message that sends is that her identity doesn’t exist without her name. You literally can’t decouple the two.

Even having the convention of an honorific enforces gender norms that may not apply. After the first mention of the name, there’s no law that says just giving the last name is going to somehow confuse the reader. “Potter captured the Snitch. Granger completed the test.” Not including certain pieces of metadata is also a choice, and one that speaks to our values as a society, or an organization’s values when they produce content.

But this goes beyond honorifics and into the names themselves. For a time the most important thing to know about someone was what family they belonged to, so you would get surnames like Gunderson or Olafson. For other cultures in other times your family occupation was the most important thing so you would get names like Baker or Smith. And then you have even more troubling examples…

From How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston:

My full name is Baratunde Rafiq Thurston. It’s got a nice flow. It’s global. I like to joke that “Baratunde” is a Nigerian name that means “one with no nickname.” “Rafiq is Arabic for “really no nickname,” and “Thurston” is a British name that means “property of Massa Thurston.”

And those conventions persist. Many African Americans still carry surnames that speak to their ancestors being considered property.

Content structure matters.

But we can use those structures to enforce more positive values. One of the great crises we face in content today is veracity. How do we know what we read is true?

One of the things standing in our way is, of course, the rise of echo chambers and fake news and other consequences of how we distribute and consume content. But something deeper has been standing in our way since long before any of that technology existed. It’s a much older technology called the English language.

Some languages, such as Tuyuca, have a feature called “evidentiality” which prevents the speaker from saying anything without also saying how they know it. It’s embedded in the grammar. And there are different verb tenses for “I saw it” versus “I heard it” versus “Someone else told me” versus “I see evidence for it” versus “It is reasonable to assume so” versus “I saw it on the internet” (well, that last one might be a paraphrase).

So in those languages you can’t say “Bob went to the store” without also saying how you know that Bob went to the store. You’re on the hook for your source. Think about how powerful that is. How that would change what you choose to say or post. How that would change how much you believe what you read on the internet. Because all of it — unless the speaker were lying, which is a fair point—would expose how the speaker knows what they claim to be true.

Alas, English lacks this feature, but there are things we can do with the technology we have that might make up the difference.

What if we started using different font or typographical treatments to indicate the veracity of statements? What if “Bob went to the store” meant I actually witnessed Bob going to the store firsthand whereas “Bob went to the store” meant I heard from a third party that Bob went to the store and “Bob went to the store” meant I read somewhere on the internet that Bob went to the store and oh, by the way, since it’s the internet, here’s the link?

Obviously italics and bold are kind of taken, but if we could come up with equivalent conventions you could see the direction this might take.

But this is why the revolution—whatever steps we take to make a more open and free society—will have structured content, because if it doesn’t it’ll be really hard to make those changes stick.

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