Bringing you a safer online experience
AKA some "personal" news: I'm here to tell you about my startup Block Party!
The first thing I built as a fresh-faced computer science graduate joining the ranks of Silicon Valley’s software engineers 10 years ago was… a block button. I was the second engineer hired at Quora, we were just building out a new platform for user-generated questions and answers, and though it was still a tiny community, I already faced harassment on the site. Happily, as an engineer on the team, I was empowered to solve my own problem. I was so tickled when my code went live and I could make my harasser the first person ever to be blocked on Quora. I later worked on a whole suite of moderation tools to surface content for human reviewers, channels for company employees and site moderators to discuss and decide on site policy, and machine learning classifiers to automatically take action on content or prioritize it for human review.
But user and content moderation doesn’t exist in a silo. Product decisions elsewhere deeply impact what people see and post, how they engage, who stays and who leaves. I also built our first ranked home feed, the algorithms for recommending related content, and the weekly digest that would push content to people’s inboxes. I thought a lot about how the rest of the product influenced the community norms and thus the moderation responsibility of the company building and running it. Though we mostly focused on getting “good users” who’d write thrilling intellectual answers that’d make the site a destination, we also worried about the trolls, the sock puppets, the “bad users”.
After Quora I headed to another small startup down the street; when I signed my offer letter, there were just 8 employees hunkered over 3 rows of small Ikea desks. That startup was Pinterest. What drew me to the company was how much they cared about culture and wanted to build a company where people would be proud to have worked, 10, 20, 30 years into the future. Aside from the selfish reasons of wanting to be at a place like that, I knew it mattered for what we were building. Technology is not neutral. It is made by people, and the cultural DNA of a company is the DNA of its products. Knowing this, I am indeed proud but not surprised that Pinterest is now one of the first and still cringingly few tech companies to take responsibility for content on its platform. In a recent interview, the CEO Ben Silbermann said: “Like a lot of people, I thought the internet would be this positive place that could connect people in a positive way, that could lead people to feel really good. And it didn’t turn out that way. A lot of the internet wasn’t built with the needs of especially women in mind.” The fixes are slow in coming.
We all live the consequences of the Silicon Valley establishment condescension towards and dismissal of problems that don’t affect them. To be fair: There have been voices calling for us to slow down, to think through the consequences of what we’re doing, to question whether we can means we should, many of these voices from women, minorities, and other marginalized groups, some from regretful white men as well.
I now feel the trauma of a broken internet in a deeply personal way thanks to a heightened level of platform-enabled online abuse and harassment. During my time at Pinterest, I wrote a blog post calling for the tech industry to disclose its diversity data — and miraculously, it did. From that point on, I fell into a “side hustle” of diversity activism, later co-founding two non-profits, Project Include and #MovingForward, to work with tech startups and venture capital firms to build a more inclusive and equitable tech ecosystem. This side hustle pays no financial rewards and in fact demands an extraordinary emotional toll. It’s one that I’ve paid heavily in dealing with not only skeptics and embittered industry colleagues clutching onto their privilege, but also online harassment and stalkers who’ve crossed the online/offline bridge to threaten me in real life. My primary platform for activism work is Twitter, but the abuse follows me wherever I go.
Like many others in a world that is relentlessly digital, I can’t just opt out. To do my work, to maintain my professional profile, to stay up-to-date with news and connections, I have to be online. I also want to be online. Some of that original vision of the internet being a positive place, connecting people in a positive way, has actually materialized. I’ve met wonderful people online, I’m grateful for the endless firehose of information and insights, and I’ve gotten some incredible opportunities from people reaching out over online channels. The tough part is balancing the negative with the positive. It’s repeatedly an exasperating experience to receive trolling and abuse mixed in with all the things I do want to see. Blocking people sometimes escalates the harassment, while muting and pretending that content doesn’t exist can be dangerous when there are real physical threats. Filing reports against abusive accounts typically either results in silence or an infuriatingly condescending return message that there is no violation of terms of service so no action will be taken.
What’s even more frustrating is that I know it doesn’t have to be so bad. I know that it is possible to build technology that centers the user’s concerns. I know that it is possible to build technology that takes the burden of managing abuse off the people being targeted by it, and empowers anyone and everyone to engage with the internet on their own terms, without being subjected to unwanted, threatening, or otherwise abusive content. Not surprisingly, it’s often women and other marginalized communities who are most harassed: they are journalists, politicians, activists, writers, comedians, researchers, scientists, developers, gamers, and more. Journalists want to be able to source stories and hear feedback, politicians want to be able to engage with constituents, activists want to be able to use the amplification and organizing power of online platforms… Their not being able to participate fully in online civic life is a loss for the world and for all of us.
This is why I started Block Party.
In a curious but fateful way, all these different threads of my life have come together: experience building platforms, experience building anti-harassment and moderation tools, experience being harassed online, experience being harassed offline, experience advocating for diversity and ethics in the tech industry, experience advocating for those most adversely impacted by technology. Our big vision is to bring a safer online experience to everyone. I know it’s not an easy problem to solve but I can’t imagine anything else more meaningful for me to work on, given my unique intersection of experiences, skills, interests, and network.
Stay tuned — we’re just starting to invite folks into our product beta (waitlist here! sign up!) and we’ll be sharing more industry news, interviews, and product thinking and updates via this newsletter.