Letters to the Editor: WhatsApp Data, Word Processors, and More
Motherboard responds to reader mail.
It's the weekend, thank goodness, meaning it's time to sift through the old inbox and see what Motherboard readers have to say.
This week, we learned, people are really passionate about word processors. It makes sense, I suppose. Chances are you're reading Motherboard at work, meaning you're working in an office, meaning you must have spent a significant amount of time in Word, Google Docs, or another word processor to write a memo or something.
I spend most of my workday in a word processor. Hell, I'm typing these very words into a word processor since only a madman types directly into the CMS. I learned to make it not painful, but does it make sense that word processors are still designed around printed pages? In my opinion, not really. But other readers who wrote in thought differently. Others also wrote in about WhatsApp sharing user data with Facebook and the best and worst college campuses in terms of sexual health, all of which you can read about below.
I read Sam Gustin's account of Facebook's recent bait and switch with WhatsApp users' privacy with much disgust but little surprise. One line stood out as a bit inaccurate though:
"The truth is that if you're on Facebook, you are the product."
Actually, you are the product even if you're not on Facebook. Facebook builds profiles even of non-users through the contact lists of users. The "find friends" feature implies the sharing of your phone contacts is for the express purpose of finding current Facebook users who are IRL friends, but not yet Facebook friends, but Facebook keeps the contacts data for its own purposes. Facebook's position is effectively that Facebook users have the legal right to disseminate their non-user friends' e-mail and phone number (and other info). Say you had an unlisted number (back when we had phone books), how would you feel if one of your friends called up ma-bell and "helpfully" listed your number? That's basically what Facebook is claiming they have the right to do.
I thought Ernie Smith's "It Makes No Sense…" was interesting but, on balance, wrong. My background: I came from the time when daisywheel printers and Electric Pencil were state of the art and have written more than a dozen technical books and thousands of magazine columns, blog posts, and so on.
First, he misses that the shift away from codes (which in Electric Pencil, Scripsit, etc. were usually visible in the text and in WordStar, WordPerfect, etc. were hidden and had to explicitly be revealed) to WYSIWYG was demanded by the market, not something foisted on us by some cabal of evil overlords. On balance, it has been a very good thing, as it gave control of document structure and appearance to the author, unlocking an unparalleled blossoming of self-publishing and self-expression.
Second, he ignores the many features in modern word processors—oh, let's be honest, we're really talking about Microsoft Word here—that are necessary components of the entire writing workflow no matter what form the output takes. Paragraph and character style sheets, spell checking, cross-references, tables, inline images, and revision marking (among others) are all just as useful and important in an online-only world as in one where we print on dead trees.
Third, he sidesteps the role of tool innovation in making writers more productive. For example, I routinely use co-editing in Word to let me simultaneously work on a document with co-workers in distant locations. All of us can see each other's changes, in real time, with our edits continuously saved to the cloud. Perhaps Thoreau could get by with an Alphasmart, but some of us benefit from a more collaborative way of working.
Fourth, it should be noted that Word, Google Docs, Apple Pages, and other word processors work just fine in bare-bones text-editor mode. None of them force you to apply styles, use heading structures, etc if you don't want to. Hide the ribbon and just start typing.
Lastly, as my dad used to always say, it's a poor workman who blames his tools. If "…worry[ing] about the appearance of the content as well as the formatting" means that "you're constantly getting pulled out of your zone," don't blame the tools; work on your zone discipline.
Thank you for your feedback; this issue stirred a lot of debate, and I appreciate that it did.
Ernie Smith, Motherboard contributor
I was deeply horrified to read your article, "The Best and Worst College Campuses for Sexual Health." In it, you alleged that there are universities in this country with single-digit sexual assault rates per 10,000 students. As a sexual assault survivor at Columbia University whose assaults were, to my knowledge, not included in her school's Clery Crime Report, I find this atrocious.
It is a well-established fact, though multiple surveys such as the one conducted recently by the American Association of Universities (AAU), that 20% of undergraduate women experience sexual violence on college campuses. (The numbers for gender non-conforming and male students are still not sufficiently studied, though estimates for men have put the rate at around 6.25%, and gender nonconforming people are one of the highest risk groups for being assaulted.) That means, at a school where around 5,000 of every 10,000 students identified as cisgender women, there would be 1,000 sexual assault survivors, not the measly 1.3 you claimed at San Jose State University or your "generous" 8.3 at University of Connecticut (which recently settled the largest Title IX lawsuit in U.S. history, giving $1.3 million to five complainants.)
What is clear to me is that you simply pulled statistics from each school's Clery Crime Reports and took them at face value. However, that is extremely misleading. Clery Crime Reports, the reports universities must issue to the public every year regarding the number of various type of crimes on campuses, are reflective of two things: 1. The number of survivors willing to report their assaults formally, and 2. The accuracy with which schools report the number of assaults they know about on their campuses.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice found that only 7% of campus sexual assaults were reported to campus officials. This is largely due to how horrifically schools treat survivors when they report assaults. At my alma mater, Columbia University, of the 13 reported cases of sexual assault that went to a hearing panel, only 3 people were found responsible and only 1 of the 3 expelled. And those 13 cases were out of the nearly 120 reported, in some form, to Columbia. Why report if nothing will come of it? Even worse, why report when the investigative process itself is overwhelmingly traumatizing and centered around fault on the part of the survivor?
As for the second thing I mentioned, accuracy, numerous schools under-report the number of assaults on campus precisely so they can be lauded on lists like yours. For example, Yale University was found in violation of the Clery Act for failing to report numerous sexual assaults a few years ago.
You might be wondering why I took the time to write this letter. I am doing so because your article is harmful. It perpetuates the narrative that few students experience sexual violence, and schools with lower reported rates of sexual violence are "healthier." In reality, the opposite is true. When I look at Clery Crime reports with high numbers of reported assaults, I commend the school for creating an environment conducive to survivors reporting and being more honest in their statistics. Your article, on the other hand, applauds the laughably failing universities for falsified or misleading statistics that emphasize their failures.
If we are going to end the epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses in this country, we need to acknowledge it instead of undermining its magnitude.
Thank you for your response to my article "The Best and Worst College Campuses for Sexual Health," based on the independent study "Sexual Health in Higher Education" by Andrew Larson.
You make a very strong and compelling point about the statistical limitations of assessing sexual assault rates on college campuses in a broad, comparative manner.
Publicly reported data does fail to accurately represent the lived experience of sexual assault survivors on campuses, especially with regards to the large margin of error created by the percentage of crimes that go unreported for some of the reasons you outline. That's why we highlighted the unique methodology of this study, and the specific results it yields.
This is not a subject we take lightly at Motherboard. We have added an update to our original story, that reads as follows:
It's important to note that the research methodology featured in this article is based on reported crime statistics from the CDC and other public sources. It does not account for the number of unreported assaults on college campuses, which is projected to be much higher than represented in these visualizations. The study also does not factor in the possibility of colleges providing inaccurate numbers when it comes to sexual assault rates.
We would also like to share your email in our "Letters to the Editor" section, with your permission of course. It would be helpful to share the wider context you point out here with our readers. Let me know what you think.
Thanks again for your input.
-- Becky Ferreira, Motherboard Contributor