Quora amplifies the political bubbles

Fighters for Diversity - Who is the Woman Who Wants to Detoxify the Internet?

Tracy Chou is considered the unofficial diversity officer of Silicon Valley. As a result, she has drawn a lot of hatred. Now she has developed an app to defend herself against it.

It only took a few moments for the pack to strike. Tracy Chou started an “Ask Me Anything” on the digital platform Reddit, a live interview with the entire Internet. The response has been immense, and that wasn't a good thing in this case because the ugly part of the internet knows her name.

Chou tried to answer the questions she was asked, talked about the topics that preoccupy her: about filter bubbles and polarization, diversity and inclusion, artificial intelligence, activism, racist prejudice - but her contributions were flagged a thousand times as inferior and slipped accordingly Reddit's mechanics on the page down became virtually invisible while their screen filled with hate, infinite hate.

There was also a lot of encouragement from people who consider these topics to be important, because this part of the Internet also knows their name, but the mob simply outnumbered them. The storm surge of insults spilled over into her Reddit direct messages, on Twitter, and finally to the page of her start-up Block Party, whose approach to a better Internet she wanted to present at “Ask Me Anything”.

Bitter irony

"It felt like a violent mob had attacked me and pressed me to the ground, gagged me and injured me," she later wrote in a blog article. The irony has not escaped her, by the way, that all this harassment hit her because she wanted to speak publicly about what it is like to program “anti-harassment software”.

Now, eight months later, this software has been launched and Chou provides information about it in a video interview. Somewhere outside the image area of ​​your webcam, an electronic door unlocks itself again and again with an aggressive hum, as if someone had burst into your office. She nods gently, brushing back her silky black hair. She agrees to start by talking about herself and not about the software. It is about understanding where all the hatred comes from, where all the affection that meets her comes from. How it landed on the covers of tech magazines, but also in “Vogue”. "Sure," she says, but for that she has to go back a little.

"There are many positive things about the Internet's promise to connect everyone with everyone else, but it has also increased the number of people who can harass you enormously."

Tracy Chou

She then tells how she helped her parents, Taiwanese immigrants, fill boxes with floppy disks on which database software she had written herself was stored. Green numbers on a black background that fascinated the girl. Today you would say that her parents had a start-up, back then it was simply called a company. They lived in the southern San Francisco Bay Area, in that sun-drenched area by the sea that is known all over the world today and called Silicon Valley even then. "Actually, my path into the tech industry would have been mapped out," says Chou. Actually. If it weren't for their gender.

She studied at the elite Stanford University, the campus was just a few minutes 'drive from her parents' home. Despite top grades in electrical engineering and computer science, she was advised to try something with marketing, something that had nothing to do with programming. Despite this, Chou did internships as a software developer, including at Google. "Very cool Silicon Valley company, but a lot of inappropriate behavior," she says. She was also on Facebook: "There was an attitude there that knew better than the users themselves what the users wanted". She then landed on the question-and-answer platform Quora before moving to Pinterest as a lead developer to program online bulletin boards.

At that time, in the early noughties, a new political culture was emerging on the Internet, especially on the Tumblr platform, from where it quickly spread. Minorities, who had previously only been extras in the stories of the majority society, began to use the new digital publication channels to tell about themselves and their lives and to demand social recognition. Tracy Chou was part of this movement, this generation. She realized that it wasn't her fault if she had felt uncomfortable around some of the male colleagues. She began to see this as a tech industry problem.

But how big was this problem? At a conference in 2013, she heard Facebook number two, Sheryl Sandberg, say the number of women in the tech industry was actually decreasing. How does she know that, thought Chou, there wasn't any data. The companies did not disclose any information about the make-up of their workforce, allegedly it was trade secrets. Chou spoke to their bosses. Then she wrote a blog article entitled "Where are the numbers?" As a software developer, she wrote, she could not imagine "solving a problem that obscures the metrics by which we want to measure our success". So just start now: Eleven out of 89 developers on Pinterest are women.

Overlooked for too long

And indeed: within a week, more than 50 companies, including Dropbox, Reddit and Mozilla, announced the percentage of women among their developers. Her blog article also landed, she was told, on the desk of Google founder Larry Page. In May 2014, the group published its first diversity report, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, Twitter and others followed suit. All reports showed the same picture: the Internet was programmed by white men.

That is why the negative excesses of the Internet, which particularly affect women and minorities, have been overlooked for too long, says Chou today. "There are many positive things about the internet's promise to connect everyone with everyone else, but it has also increased the number of people who can harass you enormously." Theoretically, every person around the world could talk to you stupidly.

In 2016, Chou founded “Project Include” together with several other women from Silicon Valley. The non-profit organization helps tech companies become more diverse. She now has a new project of her own. Your start-up Block Party wants to filter the hatred out of the net. But not in the way social platforms have been doing more and more since last year by banning problem users. And also not through the future strategy, which Mark Zuckerberg especially likes to refer to the US Congress, namely to train algorithms to recognize and block problematic content.

She is not a fan of locks, says Chou. Block Party is not about the content that is clearly forbidden and that the platforms should take care of themselves, but about the daily "sandpit abuse", as she calls it. “If someone writes me that I'm ugly, then that person shouldn't be thrown off the platform for it. I just don't want to see it. "

"A break from this poison"

In an article for the tech magazine “Wired”, she recently argued that the very idea of ​​“moderating” content had a fundamental flaw, regardless of whether it was super smart algorithms or, until the time came, armies of poorly paid “ Click workers »are responsible for this: The platforms always decide from above what the users can withstand, what is allowed and what is not. But because that differs greatly from person to person, too much and too little are filtered out at the same time.

Chou's app currently only works with Twitter, but other platforms are set to follow suit. It allows certain types of content to be moved into a separate folder, a kind of poison cabinet - for example, tweets from users without a profile photo. Or you can only see what friends of friends write, depending on the setting. Block Party extends the regular blocking function of the platform. Because without them, says Chou, the Internet would hardly be usable for many people. “There is just too much dirt on the net. People need a break from this poison. Only until they have more control over their online experience. "

From their point of view, Block Party is a technical means of self-defense, a kind of internet pepper spray. Unfortunately, this is necessary until more in-depth revisions have hopefully been carried out on the platforms and the climate for discussion there has improved. It is supposed to keep people at a distance who are allowed to let off steam elsewhere with their right to freedom of expression. Just not in the news channel of people who don't feel like it.

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