5 Ways We Were Wrong About Platform Neutrality

18 months and hundreds of conversations into exploring the concept of platform neutrality, the GlobalGiving team shares what they’ve learned from peers and partners.


 

For more than a year, we’ve met with more than 100 people and spent countless hours helping GlobalGiving and similar platforms determine how to address what we are calling the Neutrality Paradox for platforms. We’ve been conducting interviews, holding workshops, and building out and testing prototypes. Many open, digital platforms populated with user-generated content (think: social media platforms as well as crowdfunding sites) have operated under the guise of neutrality. But, in practice, platforms and philanthropic intermediaries like GlobalGiving are frequently confronted with a wide range of choices that challenge this assumption of neutrality, forcing leaders to take opinionated stands on a variety of issues. That is the inherent paradox of neutrality.

As soon as we began to ask our peers about the curation and moderation dilemmas they faced, all kinds of folks had a lot of feelings to share. They had examples to share, too. Enough that we built a catalog of 41 dilemma cases and categorized them into eight groups. In our interviews and case tests, people talked a lot. And they taught us a lot. Specifically, they taught us we were wrong… a lot.

We were wrong when…

1…talking about neutrality.

All of our work to-date has demonstrated neutrality is, at best, a failed principle that has proved inadequate in practice, and, at worst, is a blunt tool used deliberately by those looking to avoid accountability and controversy. Most importantly, neutrality does not adequately reflect the human values that ground GlobalGiving’s mission, culture, or community.

2…believing we all just need to settle upon our core values.

We entered into this project expecting that we all just needed to better articulate our values. Surely if we asked our executives to agree on their specific beliefs and publish them, we could all feel like we’re being transparent and fair.

At the Curation with a Conscience workshop in February, I asked philanthropy leaders to sit around a table (remember when we used to do that?) and work together to prioritize values like “honesty,” “transparency,” and “integrity.” Only a few of the groups were able to complete the sorting; most ended up lost in disagreements about language. Getting teams to agree on certain values became an impediment to the process of building a protocol for making decisions.

3…underplaying the “risk” factor.

Furthermore, we had this problem with the concept of “risk.” Nobody wanted to talk about risk—they loved talking about beliefs and values— but, in the end, the risk to the company or organization was almost always the most important factor in a final decision. This left people feeling gross.

4…believing this was a question about getting it “right.”

While many of my colleagues hoped the solution to the Neutrality Paradox would be a thoughtful matrix or a decision-tree type of tool to help decide who should be on or off our platforms, it was impossible to “pre-program” any framework to account for all the complex considerations in such disparate cases.

We tried it, trust me! But this process broke down in almost every test—like when we tried to apply the very different cases from one organization to the next. Or when we attempted to evaluate non-binary alternatives (for example, many folks wanted there to be a column between “Option A: stay on the platform forever” and “Option B: off the platform forever”).

Several of my colleagues might still expect there’s a Neutrality Paradox “solution” that will get us to the objectively “right” answer, and they’re looking for a method that would produce consistent results over time. But our experience with testing a sample protocol proved it’s not possible when we’re working with people and complex social issues.

5…focusing on resolving dilemmas as quickly as possible.

We heard it loud and clear from the interviews: dilemmas are uncomfortable for leaders, and they often make us feel we’re under a tremendous time crunch. Sometimes there are actual deadlines that bind our decisions. But when we started looking at the full scope of the problems, we observed that only one portion of dilemmas was often time-sensitive, and it uncovered several other issues that needed to be dealt with more holistically over time, and in a more human way. Which might involve continued discomfort of difficult conversations.

What you taught us instead…


From the beginning, this work has been shaped by our peers, global nonprofit partners, and other stakeholders who’ve engaged with us. Given that important contribution, this is where we’re headed:

1. Talking about neutrality. Talking about Ethos.

We’re replacing the concept of neutrality with a bold commitment to openness and inclusion, and a practical Ethos to guide our decisions with empathy and compassion.

2. Focusing on our values. Moving beyond the “why” and focusing on the “how.”

We asked ourselves,

“What if we moved beyond the values that bring us to our work—the WHY—and instead focused on HOW we will work together?”

We must acknowledge we’ll never actually agree on the WHY, but that diversity of thought is our strength. Could we come up with guiding principles to serve not only as a contract for our decisions but also as our way of working with one another?

We developed and tested an Ethos framework and found that yes, it is possible to engage in these complex and difficult conversations in a way that saves time and helps us reach better outcomes. That Ethos process is based on the HOW—the shared behaviors and ways of working—to guide our decision-making.

3. Underplaying the “risk” factor. Centering in on integrity.

The one core “value” that several test groups could agree upon was “integrity.” And by that, they often meant their moral or ethical integrity. But discussions of risk also pointed to the importance of the integrity of the business model of platforms and the ecosystem. We simply couldn’t focus on one side of the integrity coin without also acknowledging the other.

So, no matter what Neutrality Paradox solution we came up with, we needed to consider the integrity of the platform from both perspectives, by understanding its Jobs To Be Done according to key stakeholders. We can’t ignore staff and board among those stakeholders, whose considerations include risk to our business model.

4. Believing this is about getting it right. Understanding this is about treating each other right.

People couldn’t come to agreements about values, but they did, however, really value the conversations we held as part of the Neutrality Paradox test protocol. As one test subject put it, “after holding a rich conversation, humans are wired to come to decisions. We actually know what to do.”

Therefore, instead of creating a decision-making tool, we’re building a structure for “inclusive conversations.”

We’re not offering a framework for making decisions. We’re offering a framework for taking on difficult conversations with empathy and courage.

We’re also developing facilitation guidelines that allow for more non-binary (and non-permanent) resolutions. Because no dilemma is clearly black-and-white and the right solutions may evolve over time.

5. Focusing on resolving dilemmas as quickly as possible. Improving the way we interact with people throughout the lifespan of a dilemma.

Dilemmas don’t come out of anywhere, nor do they disappear once a decision is made. They are a reflection of tensions and relationships and larger systems and structures that force us to decision-points. Rather than focusing on one point of “resolving” a dilemma, the Ethos approach invites us to look at the whole spectrum of interactions involved. We’re invited to consider what it means to “manage” a dilemma all the way through, addressing all the systems that bring us to this point.

Where are we going from here…

GlobalGiving’s response to the Neutrality Paradox is Ethos. As we seek to build out our Ethos approach and principles, we’ll work to improve our own capabilities for managing dilemmas, improve our storytelling tools for stakeholders to share their perspectives, and we’ll compile and share our journey to help people outside the sector as they encounter dilemmas.

We’ll be creating tangible tools for ourselves and our peers, including tips for developing Ethos principles, discussion guides for inclusive Ethos conversations, and facilitation tools for developing a team’s empathy and curiosity as they encounter dilemmas.

Please stay engaged in this conversation by using #NeutralityParadox and #Ethos on Twitter and by contacting acarlman@globalgiving.org if you wish to receive updates or speak in person. We wouldn’t be making progress without input from people like you!

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