Anyone who has spent time online, especially on social media or reading news reports or blogs, has likely encountered Internet trolls. The typically anonymous commenters range from those who stir the pot with provocative statements to engaging in name-calling and physical threats. They range from benign insults to serious threats of harm.
Karen Cahn has probably seen more than most. A former executive at AOL and YouTube, part of her role was to look for great content creators and help them monetize their work. She says she would always gravitate toward women creators and was routinely shocked by what she saw in the comments.
“It really struck me how here were these creators putting up DIY fishtail braid videos, and there were people telling them, ‘I want to rape you’ in the comment section. It was violent for them, it’s harassing, and it’s not appropriate for anybody to see that,” she recalls.
After going through a painful divorce in 2011 and being unable to find a like-minded community of women where she could share her experiences in a safe environment, Cahn began to develop the idea of creating one on her own. The result is VProud.tv, a video-driven social platform where women can discuss everything from sex and aging to fitness to parenting without being criticized about their looks or threatened with violence by anonymous users—not uncommon occurrences for many. Users can post videos and comments, exchanging ideas and offering support. The process of launching the site has left Cahn with several valuable lessons about what it takes to tame the trolls.
Cahn knew that combatting trolls in her online community would be a full-time job, but their intensity was still surprising. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, 40% of adults who use the Internet have experienced some sort of harassment online, ranging from name-calling and purposeful embarrassment to physical threats and stalking. While men are slightly more likely to experience online harassment overall, the report says women—especially young women–are significantly more likely than men to report being stalked or sexually harassed on the Internet.
When the site launched in October 2014 after a month in beta, “you can imagine the trolls were having a field day for a little while there,” she says. “I received death threats on Twitter, which is why we shut our Twitter account.” But her contributors rallied around her, and it made their community more resolved to succeed, she says.
Cahn opted for developing proprietary technology to weed out hateful and violent comments. (The company has filed patents to protect its creation.) However, no system is perfect at detecting abusive comments, so “troll patrol” is encouraged in the community. Comments have tiny troll icons that users can click if someone crosses the line. Such community policing has become an effective part of the site’s efforts to eliminate abusive content.
At the same time, Cahn says the site is agnostic when it comes to points of view. VProud doesn’t care whether you’re liberal or conservative, pro-choice or pro-life, or Team Taylor or Team Katy. At first, the troll icon led to more than a few false alarms when users reported posts that contradicted their viewpoints, but Cahn says they were quick to reinforce that VProud is not “Big Sister.”
Cultivating varied viewpoints and allowing people to express themselves respectfully, even when they differ, is an important part of the community, she says. Once the community caught on, the troll icon was used more appropriately.
While some believe the answer to stopping trolls is to unmask them by requiring people to use their real identity, Cahn says there are some times when you need a little anonymity to feel comfortable expressing yourself or asking sensitive questions. VProud enables users to toggle between using their public and private identities for various interactions to help women feel protected and shield some of their sharing from the spying eyes of a boss or neighbor, she says.
“I may be very happy to comment on a conversation about yoga or girls’ education in developing countries or something else that I am publicly for, but I’m definitely going to use an alias when I’m talking about my divorce or my child with special needs or whatever else. We’ve made it so you can literally click a button and go back and forth between your two identities,” she says.
Cahn felt strongly that VProud shouldn’t be exclusive of men, who she says make up roughly one-fifth of the site’s users. The site launched with 250,000 users, according to its announcement release, and Cahn says unique users have reached as many as 500,000 per month when conversations are trending. The site has mostly grown through word of mouth and social media, especially video creators’ Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn accounts. And YouTube is a key driver, as well.
“We have a video blogger creator network of women who are submitting conversations on VProud after they post their YouTube videos, and then they’re inviting their communities to join the conversation on VProud because it’s a safer, more well-lit place,” she says.