How The Dude Was Duped By Big Tech

A website with The Big Lebowski quotes was blocked for no reason by Facebook. Looking for justice at a tech company that has automated the enforcement of its rules. Written by Reinier Kist.

Cult film The Big Lebowski (1998, directed by the Coen Brothers) tells the story of The Dude: a former hippie minding his own business, who fails prey to powers that are bigger than himself. The Dude happily fills his days bowling, smoking joints, bathing and drinking White Russians. But the easy life of this Californian Oblomov — on flip flops, wearing a bath robe, and brilliantly portrayed by Jeff Bridges — is roughly upended one day when two thugs kick in his door, threaten him, and pee on his rug. That act drags The Dude into a plot full of misunderstandings and colorful characters. An at the end, after his weird adventures, it turns out that all of it — spoiler alert — was for nothing.

This story is not about The Big Lebowski, but about thebiglebow.ski, a search engine for quotes from the film. A film which, more than 20 years after being released, still has a large number of loyal fans. Like The Dude in the film, the website and its founder Hans de Zwart became beholden to bigger powers. And just as in the film, the whole plot turns out to be based on a misunderstanding. But before that becomes clear, De Zwart has to go on a monthslong odyssey full of frustration and wondrous twists and turns.

Abusive?

The story begins when thebiglebow.ski is blocked by Facebook. Hans de Zwart, like The Dude a former activist who is taking it easy, has launched the site in the middle of May. The former director of dutch digital rights organization Bits of Freedom is a fan of The Big Lebowski. He has noticed that there isn’t a good search engine for quotes from the film. “Even though about every single sentence from the script is eminently quotable,” says De Zwart. So he builds the search engine in a week, including the possibility to share the quote on social media.

This is where Facebook says: no. Users who want to share their favorite quotes on the social network get the following message: “Your message couldn’t be sent because it includes content that other people on Facebook have reported as abusive.” Facebook subsidiary Instagram also blocks the site. Who has reported him? And Why? These questions put De Zwart on a search for justice.

All the dude ever wanted… was his rug back…

De Zwart wants to complain to Facebook, but that is only possible if he has a Facebook account. As a digital rights activist he doesn’t participate in social media, mainly because he doesn’t want to add to the surveillance economy. Still, he decides to create an account.

He immediately gets angry at Facebook messing up his name. The company changes his name to ‘Hans De Zwart’, with a capitalized D. A small annoyance, but for De Zwart it signifies something bigger: “It is the arrogance of a giant American corporation which considers the correct spelling of the names of millions of Dutch people an edge case.”

Then it turns out that Facebook doesn’t see De Zwart’s complaint as a complaint, but as an “experience”. The chance that Facebook will look at it is small. At the top of the complaint form is the following message: “While we aren’t able to review individual reports, the feedback you provide will help us improve the ways we keep Facebook safe.” When he hands in his complaint he gets a message: “Thank you for your experience.”

After a few weeks of waiting, it becomes clear to De Zwart that no one at Facebook will look at his complaint. He still has no idea what part of his website is “abusive” and why he is being blocked.

Automated decisions

Facebook and Instagram have grown into essential communication platforms with billions of people sharing information and news. And for many (online) businesses these sites are the only way to reach their customers. That is why it is important that the information on Facebook and its subsidiaries find their way to users in a transparant and honest way. And that there is an equitable complaints procedure for people whose website has been blocked for whatever reason.

The power of the large internet platforms, and the responsibility that comes with that power, was the subject of a historical antitrust hearing at the US House of Representatives this year. Being a digital rights activist, De Zwart knows this discussion very well, so he starts to meticulously log his attempts to get clarity.

Don't run away from this dude! Goddamnit, this affects all of us! Our basic freedoms.

Halfway June, De Zwart tries to buy a Facebook ad for his website. He has read that Facebook might be willing to listen to your complaints if you are spending advertising dollars with the company. He creates a completely innocent advertisement and pays 5 euro to distribute it to the users of the network.

The advert is rejected, “this ad contains or refers to content that has been blocked by our security systems (#1885260)”, notes Facebook. De Zwart has no idea what the error code means and to complain about this, he first needs to agree to four sets of legal terms. Which he does, without reading them. But after reporting the problem, he again gets no indication whether Facebook is planning to do anything with his complaint. “Thanks for helping us improve!” is the happy message from the platform.

Writing in his log book he notes that he now has another problem: “I want my 5 euro back, but I can’t find any way of doing that.”

He thinks about just letting it all go. Of course he doesn’t really care about the 5 euro, it is the principle that matters. All the while he is clicking himself into an RSI injury, trying to keep all the settings on his Facebook account as privacy friendly as possible.

This whole fucking thing—I could be sitting here with just pee-stains on my rug.

Why does he worry himself so much over this? De Zwart sees “the arbitrary (not to say totalitarian) decisions of the company” as a serious limitation on our freedoms, he emails to the author of this article. Especially since so many people have become very dependent on Facebook.

He considers the block to be “ridiculously disproportional”. Pages of the website which evidently don’t violate any of the ‘community standards’ and also don’t have any potential copyright issues, can’t be shared either. De Zwart doesn’t understand why it is completely impossible to get some form of due process at Facebook. He believes that there should be a working complaints procedure for website owners. A procedure that can also be used by people who don’t have a Facebook account.

Prophetic words

“It appears that Facebook will only look at problems if they realize that it might cost them too much political or media capital if they continue to ignore them”, writes De Zwart at the end of his email.

These words turn out to be prophetic. A few days after the author of this article presents the case to a Facebook PR person, the problem is solved. Nobody had reported his website for “abusive” material — just like the film revolves around a kidnapping incident that has never taken place. The website has all this time been incorrectly labelled “by our automated tools” as spam, according to the spokesperson. “Our apologies for the inconvenience.”

Thebiglebow.ski can now be shared without limitations on Facebook: a bittersweet victory. “If this can happen to me, then I should assume that this happens to (tens or hundreds of) thousands of other people too”, according to De Zwart.

The end of the film is similarly bittersweet. The dude has an even nicer rug, but loses a friend. Hans de Zwart still hasn’t gotten his 5 euro back.

This article was written by Reinier Kist and originally appeared in Dutch in NRC on August 3rd, 2020. It was translated into English by Hans de Zwart.

Werken = Leren & Leren ≠ Werken

Today I keynoted the Dutch Moodlemoot (mootnl12). I talked about how current times force us to let go of curricula, why it is more important than anything else to teach students how to learn, what it means to work in a knowledge society (work becomes synonymous with learning) and what this might mean for a virtual learning environment like Moodle. Unfortunately this talk was in Dutch and so will be the accompanying blogpost.

De slides van het praatje staan op Slideshare, maar zijn ook als PDF te downloaden.

Hieronder, ongeveer op volgorde van de presentatie, links naar achtergrond informatie:

De organisaties waar ik als vrijwilliger voor werk zijn Bits of Freedom, helden en strijders voor digitale burgerrechten en de Nederlandse chapter van de Internet Society.

Mijn leesgedrag is te volgen via Goodreads en Daytum.

Al mijn blogposts die met Moodle te maken hebben zijn via deze link te bekijken. Eerdere presentaties staan allemaal online bij Slideshare.

Het fantastische boek Teaching as a Subversive Activity staat in zijn geheel online.

De Open Schoolgemeenschap Bijlmer is een school waar een aantal van de jaren zeventig onderwijs-idealen nog hoog in het vaandel staan.

Het Peter Drucker Institure is een goed beginpunt om wat meer over de grote business denker te weten te komen. Probeer ook zijn Wikipedia pagina. Alle quotes in de presentatie komen uit het boek Management.

De Wikipedia pagina over het Cynefin framework legt goed uit wat het is. Harold Jarche heeft een ijzersterke blogpost geschreven waarin hij dat framework toepast op leren en daar vergaande conclusies voor organisaties uit trekt. Lees ook zijn drie principes voor “net work”.

Ben Goertzel is de “transhumanist” die in A Cosmist Manifesto erg ver vooruitblikt (naar een post-singularity wereld).

Meer informatie over de pedagogiek van Moodle staat in de Moodle Docs.

Het artikel over Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is een goede inleiding. Zelf heb ik actief meegedaan aan de Learning Analytics MOOC. De Moodle discussie over corporate use-cases van analytics vind je hier.

Twee voorbeelden van mijn eigen leer-experimenten zijn de grassroot leesgroep over het Learning in 3D boek en de workshop op de Online Educa over Learning Scenarios. Allebei deze sites zijn gemaakt met WordPress.

Scott Jenson had jaren zijn eigen design consultancy and werkt nu als Lead UI Designer for Mobile bij Google. Hij weet dus waar hij het over heeft. Zijn boek The Simplicity Shift staat integraal als PDF online.

Drupal kent al een tijdje het concept van distributions. Moodle heeft misschien met de Flavours plugin al een beetje hetzelfde in huis.

Putting the ‘Design’ in Learning Designer (for The eLearning Network)

The eLearning Network publishes a yearly advent calendar at the end of the year. I wrote a small post for this year’s calendar. Please find the text below (first published here):


The Big Lebowski

It took weeks to properly "age" the clothes in The Big Lebowski

It took weeks to properly "age" the clothes in The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski by the Coen brothers is my all time favourite movie. I am not the only one who feels this way. The movie has inspired a whole movement of followers. I’m a Lebowski, you’re a Lebowski, a book describing this movement, gives a wonderful insight into why thousands of people come together every year for a Lebowski fest where they watch the movie on a big screen, dress up like characters from the movie, host a trivia competition and announce books that are published about the film. In one of these books, Mary Zophres, responsible for costume design, talks about dressing the protagonist:

I’ve used a lot of drop shoulders on him because when somebody has higher seams, it somehow improves the posture and makes their look seem more put-together and tidy, which of course we didn’t want. [..] I know this all seems like a very subtle thing, but from a costume designer’s point of view it does make a difference. And if you make sure that you’re doing it the right way down to the basics, then you’re assured of getting the overall effect you want.

This shows the extraordinary high level of authorship of the Coen brothers. The quote made me realise that one of the reasons that this movie gets better every time I see it, is because every single element in the movie is put there by the directors for a purpose. Nothing is there by chance or by the fact that it was just there when they came around to shoot a scene.

Unusable stuff

We all have had the experience of trying to turn on one of the burners on a stove and randomly trying out the knobs to see which one works. Donald Norman explains in The Psychology of Everyday Things the cause of this problem: the burners are arranged two by two and the knobs are in a single row of four. There is no natural mapping between the two. Why not? Because even though we all know the problem, there has never been a designer who has cared enough to think about a solution and implement it (i.e. if the knobs were arranged two by two then we would never make the mistake). Often aesthetic reasons get first priority. I keep a Twitter account, @unusablestuff, dedicated to documenting these design follies.

Paying attention to the title bar

Like what appears to be all of the technology world, I too am fascinated enough by Apple’s disruption of multiple markets to have devoured the biography of Steve Jobs as soon as it came out. One passage that really struck me was the following:

Jobs lavished [..] attention on the title bars atop windows and documents. He had Atkinson and Kare do them over and over again as he agonized over their look. [..] “We must have gone through twenty different title bar designs before he was happy,” Atkinson recalled. At one point Kare and Atkinson complained that he was making them spend too much time on tiny little tweaks to the title bar when they had bigger things to do. Jobs erupted. “Can you imagine looking at that every day?” he shouted. “It’s not just a little thing, it’s something we have to do right.”

This shows that he was able to take the tacit view of the user of his products. A view that the user might not even be able to verbalise themselves.

What does this mean for learning design?

These three stories are all about ways of looking at the world that are sorely missing from a lot of elearning design nowadays. So ask yourself the following questions about the next piece of elearning that you design:

  • Do you see yourself as an author in the sense that you are fully responsible for the experience that the learner has? Did you look at the end results with the eyes of the learner? Do you realise that the thing you create might be seen by thousands of pairs of eyes?
  • Did you make a conscious design decision about every single part of your elearning module and does everything that is included have a clear purpose? Or did you just use things that were turned on by default or put in things because that is the way it is always done?
  • Have people around you been talking about the Pareto principle (the 80/20 rule) and are you therefore delivering something that is mediocre? Do you like interacting with things that are mediocre?

To summarise: Details matter, so please act like they do.


P.S. I have just started reading On Writing Well. I intend to use the lessons in that book on this piece of writing. I am curious to see how much it can be improved!