Ignoring Online Abuse is Bad for Business. Let’s Build Safer Spaces.
I wanted to share the story of why I believe in building safer spaces online through my startup, O.school. Then, the story wrote itself:
One of our wonderful pleasure professionals, Ashley, did an amazing session about “Living, Loving, and Thriving with Herpes” for the O.school community. She got so much love for it that she decided to recreate it on Facebook Live. You can see what happened in the first comment…
It would be laughable, if it didn’t happen so often. Ashley’s response?
“I get messages several times a week on my various social media channels requesting sex or with dick pics attached. It’s frustrating but I’ve mostly numbed myself to it because it’s so common.” — Ashley Manta, pleasure educator
People are realizing that the internet is a place. And like the “real world” often taken to extremes, it’s a very different place depending on what you (or your name and avatar) look like.
Especially for women, gender-diverse folks, and people of color, abuse and harassment are the price of admission for having a voice online. And the worst part is, few people find it surprising anymore.
But online harassment can have intense consequences. The effort to build safer spaces online isn’t about worrying whether people are “offended” by speech — facing down constant rape or death threats is a legitimate and taxing emotional challenge.
Ella Dawson, an STI awareness activist, wrote movingly about the personal effects of having the alt-right “discover” her. And “doxxing” (maliciously exposing others’ personal information online) can put folks physically in harm’s way.
Researchers in Australia found that 76% of women under 30 had experienced some form of harassment or abuse online. 76%? Really? Why didn’t we treat this like the crisis it is when the numbers were…say, 25%?
Another key fact: Around seven-in-ten Reddit users are male. 59% are between 18–29 years old. And 70% of users are white. Why have we let the 7th most-visited website in the world be a playground apparently exclusively welcoming to young, white men?
One interpretation of why we’ve collectively failed to act: companies may believe that letting trolls do their thing is good for business.
I once asked a friend and ex-Twitter employee why Twitter hadn’t tried to address harassment and abuse on their platform. My friend explained that Twitter has long had technical solutions to the issue — usually a product of internal team hackathons.
But Twitter’s revenue comes from ads. More activity equates to more money (and trolls generate a lot of activity), so it was rare that any of the solutions borne out of these hackathons were implemented to make Twitter a more welcoming place. It just wasn’t a value.
Dick Costolo himself said, “We suck at dealing with abuse.” He promised change, but one of the women who was most targeted by Gamergate argues that change has come too little and too late. A reporter who looked at Twitter’s 10 year failure to stop harassment calls abuse on the platform a “feature,” not a bug. And it’s costing them — like the time Disney apparently decided that acquiring a platform with a tolerance for abuse wouldn’t be good for the brand.
In reality, the technology of building safer spaces could change the game and encourage greater fearlessness and authenticity for so many conversations beyond sex — politics, relationships, therapy, identity, trauma, and more. And yes, a lot more “activity” from people who currently stay off of the usual platforms.
The tech community needs to build safer spaces online for pretty much anything women, people of color, and queer people want. It’s good politics, and it’s good business — because almost no one is doing it.
For example, we are building in moderation from day one. In many online spaces, moderation is an afterthought, a band-aid solution to an already spawned culture of harassment. Instead, we’re making moderation of community content a main feature from the start. We’re also consciously curating our community, by proactively reaching out to communities that represent folks who don’t typically get served by mainstream sex ed content.
This is still very much an experiment — and I am excited to share what we learn about growing high-quality online spaces at O.school along the way.
I want to know what you think.
Where can you talk on the Internet and not be abused? Who, today, is making a significant effort to create safe(r) spaces online?
I’d love to hear from you about this on Twitter: who have you seen do this well? What well-intentioned policies have crashed and burned? And what would a truly welcoming online community look like to you?
Because no space can be 100% “safe,” but creating safer spaces that can hold our most authentic selves is a goal worth fighting for.