A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 17, 2020

The Most Important Job On the Internet

The rise of a global threat - and the attendant, all too human inclination of some to seek profit, attention or create chaos - has reinforced the importance of internet content moderation even if it slightly reduces attraction or engagement. JL 

Annalee Newitz reports in the New York Times:

Moderators are gatekeepers, the welcoming committee, paramedics, law enforcers, teachers and curators. And, sometimes, they’re friends. Human moderators are valuable (because) they understand what’s important to the community they’re moderating. A well-trained moderator enforces rules not just to delete abuse, but to build up a unique community. Moderators are effective only if they have the support of their employers. The problem is a conflict of interest between moderators, who want to enforce rules, and executives who want content from famous or controversial people, at any cost.
Most of the internet is made of comments. Some are like the old-fashioned ones you can see accompanying this article online, but others take the form of memes, gamer live-streams, or even breaking news from people on the ground at a disaster scene.
And yet, the more ubiquitous comments are, the more that tech companies treat them like the detritus of the internet — little more than raw data to be mined and analyzed for political candidates or marketers, or mechanically sorted by algorithms for posting or rejecting.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In all these efforts to process comments in various ways, we’ve lost sight of one of the most crucial jobs created by the internet economy: the moderator.
We need to put human moderators back at the center of our social media, where they belong. But to do it, we’ll need to acknowledge what moderators have already done, and what the job actually involves.
“Moderator” became a tech job in the early 2000s, right around the time when people started joking, “Never read the comments,” because they were so unbearable. Companies hired moderators to prevent abuse, report illegal content to law enforcement, ban commenters who broke the rules and generally keep the peace.
But the gig was more than that. Jessamyn West, a librarian who was a moderator for 10 years at MetaFilter, said the job is like what Catskill entertainers of the mid-20th century called a tummler, “the person in the room who isn’t quite the M.C. but walks around and makes sure you’re doing OK.” Tummlers were basically professional minglers at shows and social gatherings. If you were feeling shy, they’d even help you strike up a conversation with other vacationers at the resort.
Then, as the number of commenters soared, behemoth platforms like Facebook and YouTube had a tough time scaling up the tummler model. They also needed a new kind of moderator, one who was more like a paramedic than a social director.
These moderators are the people who review abuse complaints, usually on posts that have been flagged by users. Like paramedics in real life, they see a lot of things they wish they could unsee. Sarah T. Roberts, an information studies professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has interviewed moderators who report spending days at a time looking at videos of animal torture, child abuse and worse. In her recent book, “Behind the Screen,” she found that moderators suffer traumas that are very similar to those felt by rescue workers at a disaster scene.
To cope, some companies have tried to replace human moderators with algorithms. The results have been mixed at best. Some of the most high-profile failures were at Facebook, where algorithms censored archaeological images showing a 30,000 year-old nude figurine, while allowing live video of suicides to circulate widely. Facebook promised last year to hire thousands of human moderators — and, in some cases, to provide them with trauma therapy.
Those are good first steps for disaster-response moderation, but we also need to revive what Ms. West called the tummler part of the job. It’s a tough gig, but it can be done. Especially if companies admit that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for moderation.
This is why human moderators are so valuable: they can understand what’s important to the community they’re moderating. On the Reddit forum r/science, for example, moderators will delete posts that aren’t based on peer-reviewed scientific research. And on the fan-fiction forum An Archive of Our Own, where many people prefer to post stories under pseudonyms, members can be banned for revealing the legal names of another member.
A well-trained moderator enforces these rules not just to delete abuse, but also to build up a unique community. At AO3, for example, there is a class of moderator called a “tag wrangler,” whose job is to make sure stories are labeled properly for users who don’t want “Iron Man” fic mixed in with “Iron Giant” fic. Or “Iron Chef”! The forum is also recruiting bilingual moderators who can answer questions and post items of interest for its growing community on Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging site.
Monique Judge, an editor at the black news site The Root, told me that she and her colleagues are inundated with racist comments. But instead of banning the commenters, or deleting their words, The Root lets them stand. “We let those stay so that people can see how ignorant they are,” she said. “I feel like those comments are just our reality as black journalists. No matter what we talk about, people will say, ‘Don’t discuss this because you’re black.’”
Ms. Judge’s point is that context matters. Racist comments mean one thing in The Root’s community, where black perspectives are centered, and quite another on Twitter, where they are not.
Moderators aren’t the only ones responsible, though. They are effective only if they have the support of their employers. Anil Dash, a social critic and podcaster who runs the app development community Glitch, once argued, in an essay that has become a classic among moderators, that if a website’s comment section is full of jerks, “It’s your fault.”
Now, he finds that the problem is a conflict of interest between moderators, who want to enforce the rules, and executives who want content from famous or controversial people, at any cost. “That’s why Twitter hasn’t banned Donald Trump from its platform,” he said, even though the president has repeatedly broken Twitter’s rules against posting violent threats. Moderation works only if the rules apply to everybody on a platform.
There’s something just as important as banning people, Mr. Dash notes. “When you define rules of suspension, you have to make rules of reinstatement, too,” he said. When Twitter and other platforms ban people, they should also tell them what they need to do to become commenters in good standing again. Perhaps they have to delete the tweet or comment that broke the rules, or apologize. The idea is a bit like restorative justice for the internet, where offenders are given a clear pathway back into their community if they choose.
Moderators are gatekeepers, but they’re also the welcoming committee. As well as the paramedics, the law enforcers, the teachers and the curators. And, sometimes, they’re friends. Unfortunately, no single person can be all of these things.
We need to expand the ranks of moderators, and acknowledge that the job has many subspecialities. But most of all, we can’t forget why we needed moderators in the first place: They’re our tummlers, helping us have a good time.


Post a Comment