Humanities Collaboratory holds conversation on fostering respectful digital environment

Wednesday, October 24, 2018 - 10:08pm

Kamilah Taylor, co-founder of Swaay, discusses how her app deters internet trolls in North Quad Wednesday.

Kamilah Taylor, co-founder of Swaay, discusses how her app deters internet trolls in North Quad Wednesday. Buy this photo
Asha Lewis/Daily

As part of their “High Stakes Culture” series, the Institute of the Humanities and the Humanities Collaboratory hosted an event Wednesday afternoon titled “How Did We Become a Troll Nation and What Can Humanists Do About It?” Four panelists, ranging from an academic to software entrepreneurs, were joined by about 50 students, faculty and other audience members at North Quad Residence Hall for a discussion on the increasing toxicity of online platforms.

The event began with moderator Angela Dillard, LSA Undergraduate Education Associate Dean, asking audience members to discuss with people sitting near them about what drew them to the event and what they hoped to learn more about that afternoon.

A troll, panelists explained, is a member of a digital community that intentionally mocks or harasses others.

Amy Dawson-Andoh, a fifth-year communications study Ph.D. candidate argued despite the opinion that online platforms are neutral, she believes sites are inevitably influenced by the bias of the people who use them. In support of her claim, she spoke of her own experiences with trolling in the gaming community.

Panel member Kamilah Taylor concurred with Dawson-Andoh, further speaking about trolling in the gaming community and social media. In response to toxic digital culture, Taylor and panel member Daniel Burke co-founded Swaay, an app currently in private beta meant to foster diverse and civil discussion. The app purposely incentivizes such behavior by asking users to consider whether opinions are thoughtful or not before asking if they agree or disagree. Users are also able to have private conversations with other users who hold different opinions.

Burke explained the main goal of the platform as well as meaningful online activity should not be to convince other people of a point-of-view, but to first listen to how the opposing opinion was formed.

“There was a question earlier about the difference between an opinion or an argument. I hope to create a place, a safe place, for both, where someone can just say a thing,” Burke said. “This is just something that I’m feeling, or to even describe. I’m not going to make a comment right now, but I’m going to tell you how my frame of reference was built. I’m going to tell you where I’m coming from as I enter into this conversation. The intention is not to change someone’s mind. There’s no winning.”

Panel member Rachel Rohr, a Knight-Wallace fellow, spoke of her experience with trolls while managing the digital side of a show on National Public Radio. She discussed how her show was unique among others for having a particularly healthy comment section. In order to achieve this, she shared that she dedicated time every day to read every comment. If a commenter violated community guidelines, she would redact or delete their comment in addition to explaining to them why she did so. She spoke of how her presence itself altered behavior, for people knew she was there monitoring the conversation.

However, she also noted such an approach had its limitations due to subjectivity. She also spoke of how such a solution was only necessary because the structural features of the comment section could not prevent trolling, and how ultimately it is not ideal because it is not sustainable nor scalable.

Overall, much of the discussion referenced ideas raised by fourth panel member Megan Ankerson, a communications studies associate professor. She outlined many of the main difficulties with changing online dialogue relate to questions of labor, or who moderates the exchanges, and architecture or how the design of a platform could prevent trolling.

Ankerson concluded solutions must address both the technological and the human. In the last remarks of the evening, she envisions the kind of common space online environments should be.

“I think, as someone that comes from communication studies, that this is a really important connection between community and common, and having a space where we don’t necessarily have our opinions in common, but a space in which we can debate questions of common concern, in order to, you know, communicate,” Ankerson said.

Dawson-Andoh said the point that resonated with her the most was the discussion of exactly how online culture can be reshaped.

“I think the question of labor, and how you’re to moderate online spaces if you want to, you know, deal with (this) problem with this problem of toxicity, not just trolling, not just individuals, because toxicity is an entire environment – How do we stop that?” Dawson-Andoh said.

Event organizer Kristin Hass, the faculty coordinator of the Humanities Collaboratory, explained the event was designed to encourage audience engagement, particularly from undergraduate students.

“People in the humanities have a lot to contribute to try and understand the world, and that wouldn’t it be cool to provide a space for undergraduates to get in on the conversation, so that we weren’t just inviting people to come and give a lecture,” Hass said. “The intent (of the event) was to provide an opportunity for undergraduates to talk to, to have a real exchange with faculty and actors in the world who are trying to address a big problem that matters to a lot of us.”

Ankerson also mentioned the Humanities Collaboratory is planning to host another High Stakes Culture event next semester and were looking for student input on potential topics.

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