Amy X. Zhang: I’m Amy Zhang. I am a grad­u­ate stu­dent at MIT. And I’m going to be talk­ing about about Squadbox, fight­ing harass­ment with your friends. 

Okay. So, as Lindsay men­tioned, online harass­ment is a huge prob­lem today. Pew and Data & Society have done reports that show that 40 to 50% of peo­ple online expe­ri­ence online harass­ment. That’s a huge num­ber of people. 

And over the last about a year and a half, I and my col­leagues have been inter­view­ing peo­ple who have been recip­i­ents of harass­ment to learn about their sit­u­a­tion. So, these are not the actu­al peo­ple, but just to give you a sense of the diver­si­ty of peo­ple we talked to. Anywhere from YouTube celebri­ties with hun­dreds and thou­sands of fol­low­ers, to jour­nal­ists, cli­mate sci­en­tists, activists, all the way to just reg­u­lar peo­ple who are harassed by a sin­gle ex part­ner, for instance. 

And unsur­pris­ing­ly, look­ing at this diver­si­ty one of the things I quick­ly came to real­ize was just how dif­fer­ent each case was. So, peo­ple had them­selves very dif­fer­ent ideas about what was harass­ing to them and what they did not want to see. They also had real­ly dif­fer­ent pref­er­ences for what they want­ed to do in response to harass­ment. So, for instance some peo­ple want­ed to respond to their harassers or wish their friends could respond to harassers. Other peo­ple just were say­ing don’t feed the trolls. Some peo­ple were want­i­ng to actu­al­ly see their harass­ing mes­sages, because they want­ed to keep a tab on the harass­ment. Other peo­ple did­n’t want to see it at all. And so much of this was so con­tex­tu­al to the kind of harass­ment that they were get­ting as well. And that was also real­ly varied.

So one thing that did come up over and over again in our inter­views was the impor­tance of friends and com­mu­ni­ty. (Similar to HeartMob.) There were peo­ple who were friends of these peo­ple expe­ri­enc­ing harass­ment who under­stood their sit­u­a­tion deeply and under­stood their needs, and were there to help them. So doing things such as hav­ing the per­son who’s get­ting harassed giv­ing their pass­word to their friend so their friend can go in and clean up their inbox for them. Or anoth­er case we had, a friend who had their part­ner scroll through their YouTube com­ments and read aloud to them the affirm­ing com­ments only. 

So, hear­ing about these prac­tices we began to won­der how can our exist­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems actu­al­ly sup­port this kind of inter­ac­tion? Because you know you gen­er­al­ly don’t want to give your pass­word away to oth­er peo­ple, even if they’re your friends. So how might com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems be designed to make it eas­i­er for you to call upon your friends, or loved ones, or your com­mu­ni­ty for help? 

So to explore this ques­tion fur­ther and to real­ly cap­i­tal­ize on a need that we felt was real­ly miss­ing out there today, we built this tool called Squadbox and you can check it out at squad​box​.org. It’s a tool built for email cur­rent­ly, because as it turns out there are no report­ing struc­tures for Gmail and most of these email plat­forms what­so­ev­er. But we are also hop­ing to expand to more plat­forms. And the idea is basi­cal­ly a way for you to recruit friends to join a squad” that then helps mod­er­ate your inbox of harassment. 

So, one way it works is if you are get­ting harassed in your cur­rent email unex­pect­ed­ly, we help you set up fil­ters so that stranger emails, that could be harassing/could not be harass­ing, get for­ward­ed to your squad who then go through the mes­sages and decide what to return to you and what to do with harass­ing mes­sages if they find one, such as trash it or give it a tag, or redact it, or put it in a fold­er, or per­haps even respond to the harass­er for you. And you can tell them, if you’re using the tool, what you’d like your squad to do for you. 

So you know, just as an exam­ple, the abil­i­ty to move harass­ing con­tent out of the way of one’s inbox was real­ly impor­tant. Because we heard from so many peo­ple that talked about going to their inbox, hav­ing this hor­ri­ble feel­ing of hav­ing to sift through harass­ing mes­sages that were mixed in with emails from their boss or from their friends. Or in some cas­es get­ting so much harass­ment it’s basi­cal­ly a denial of ser­vice attack on their own communication. 

A sec­ond way you can use Squadbox is we also give every Squadbox user a ded­i­cat­ed email address, so that any emails to that address first go to your squad. And we found this was real­ly impor­tant for peo­ple who had a pub­lic pres­ence or want­ed a pub­lic pres­ence and give out their con­tact info to strangers, but are wor­ried about get­ting harassed. 

Beyond that, there’s a bunch more fea­tures to Squadbox to make it eas­i­er to use. I won’t go over all of them in detail, but we have short­cuts for Gmail users who are get­ting harassed. For squad mem­bers, we’ve added things like col­lab­o­ra­tive block­lists, so now your squad can help you make a whitelist and black­list. We help check for spoof­ing. We have an inte­gra­tion with Jigsaw’s Perspective API, which detects harassment. 

So just to close and give a sense of how much friends real­ly care about help­ing peo­ple with harass­ment, we talked to a friend of some­one who was get­ting harassed and they said, 

If I could help in any way, shape, or form, I would do that, no ques­tion… It’s real­ly dif­fi­cult to watch some­one that you care about so much go through this, and to be by-and-large helpless…to have a tool at my dis­pos­al that would help even in the small­est way, I would leap at a chance to do that.

So, friends. So, I know many peo­ple are think­ing about harass­ment with online com­mu­ni­ties here. As I said, we’d real­ly like to roll this out to oth­er plat­forms and think about oth­er forms of col­lab­o­ra­tive mod­er­a­tion. So for instance, col­lec­tive rec­i­p­ro­cal efforts where a group of peo­ple are maybe all mod­er­at­ing for each oth­er. And with that, this is the web site. If you have more ques­tions, feel free to email or con­tact me. Thanks.

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