Lab 4 (Trolling)


As we learned from Whitney Phillips, trolling can take many forms. The most inclusive definition of trolling ranges from simply disagreeing with someone online to sending rape threats, exposing personal details (doxxing), or SWATting. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, 41% of U.S. adults have faced some sort of harassing behavior online, and 18% have faced physical threats, prolonged harassment over a period of time, sexual harassment, or stalking.

Some well-known counter-trolling strategies include the following:

But what if the problem isn’t simply the trolls, but the platforms trolls use: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, Reddit, and so on. What if there’s something about the software that enables or even encourages trolls? What if the software itself is complicit with online harassment?

And conversely, what if software could be redesigned to stem the tide of harassment and abuse?

The Problem

Working in groups, you are going to spend today’s class coming up with speculative redesigns for existing online platforms that might discourage trolling in its most toxic forms. Your solutions should be technically feasible and balance competing concerns such as privacy, free expression, and safety.

The Process

  1. Divide into 5 groups [2 minutes]
  2. Each group pick a platform. Possibilities include Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, Reddit, etc. [5 minutes]
  3. Solve the problem of harassment on that platform! Go beyond the obvious (a Block button!). Think about changes to the user interface, changes to the behind-the-scenes algorithms, changes to settings, and so on. There are two important criteria: (1) the solution must not violate the essence of the platform—for example, eliminating anonymity on 4chan; and (2) the solution must be software-based—not a human solution like a revised Terms of Service. [10 minutes]
  4. Sketch out sample screenshots, flowcharts, and detailed close-ups on the whiteboard. Prepare to pitch your solution to the class. [5 minutes]
  5. Pitch your group’s procedural solution! [5 minutes/group]

There is no written lab report to accompany this exercise. Everything will be done in-class!


The inspiration for this lab comes from the work of Jim Brown and Becca Tarsa. Their forthcoming “Complicit Interfaces” article will appear in Precarious Rhetorics (Parlor Press, 2017).