Can We Build a Safer Internet?

in the New York Times: “We often take it as a given that the Internet is a cruel place, a natural haven for those who seek to harass and threaten others. But to some people, social networks are not mere conduits for our worst impulses. They’re structures whose design can influence how we behave, for good as well as for ill.

Right now, having a social media account can mean facing down a torrent of harassment — including, for some, attacks that are misogynist, racist or both. “Just as you create a space for people to use something in innovative, creative ways, there are also people who will use it for other means,” Moya Bailey, a postdoctoral fellow at Northeastern University who writes about race, gender and media, told Op-Talk. She mentioned Anita Sarkeesian, the video game critic who has faced harassment for critiquing the portrayal of women in games.

“Because she is doing that work, she becomes a target of a lot of violence and hate,” said Ms. Bailey. The rise of online communication is “a gift and a curse always. It’s always both/and.”

And the way we behave online may depend on which site we’re using. Ms. Bailey cites Tumblr as an example. “I think there’s something about Tumblr that is really attractive to social-justice folks, and the kinds of conversations that people have on Tumblr are very different from what’s possible on Facebook,” she explained. “The platforms themselves help shape the kind of content that people post to those different sites.”

The design of those platforms can also determine who sees what we post. Kate Losse, a writer on technology and culture and a former product manager at Facebook, told Op-Talk that Facebook has widened the scope of some of our conversations.

“Pre-Facebook there would be all these different kinds of interactions you might have socially,” she said. “You might talk to one person, you might talk to three people, you might talk to a hundred people. But Facebook’s interesting because you’re always talking to a hundred people when you post, or more.”

“You have to look at something like Facebook as structuring social interactions,” she added. And interacting via what Ms. Losse called “large-scale announcements” can introduce problems. “The Internet is the classic case of tragedy of the commons,” she said. “If something that’s important to me gets viewed by someone across the world, who has no attachment to me, doesn’t care about me at all, doesn’t have any reason to know me or have empathy for me, it’s much easier for that person to do something hateful with the content than to be respectful of it.”

But if platforms can structure our interactions, can they steer us toward kindness rather than toward bile? Batya Friedman, a professor at the University of Washington’s Information School who studies the relationship between technology and human priorities, thinks it’s possible. “Any time people talk to each other,” she told Op-Talk, “we have all kinds of social norms that check how we say things to each other. We give each other social cues, we tell each other when somebody’s starting to go too far.”

The question for designers of online communities, she said, is “how do we either create virtual norms that are comparable, or how do we represent those things so that people are getting those cues, so they modulate their behavior?”…”