My heart was flip-flopping as our moderator went down the lineup of teams pitching their solutions for women news entrepreneurs at the International Women’s Media Foundation/Ford Foundation “Cracking the Code” hackathon on January 29-30 in New York City. My team was last on the list, and I sat in agony as eight other teams took the stage. The ideas included LaunchMeet, a matchmaking site for founders and coders; The Gender Report, a tool to analyze the ratio of female and male sources in news stories; and PitchCoach, a mobile app to help founders perfect the all-important pitch, among others.
The judges were scrutinizing each pitch on four criteria: usefulness, creativity, technical difficulty and user-friendliness. They peppered each team with questions: How does the user navigate the interface? How are you different from other products like this? How do you maintain privacy on your app? What technologies are you using to implement your ideas? How will you make your idea sustainable?
I should have anticipated the questions … I’ve sat as a judge for many startup competitions, taught media entrepreneurship and even coached teams on the art of the pitch. But now, I was on the proverbial other side of the fence and trying to keep from hyperventilating. And I was learning from it.
The Cracking the Code organizers said startups use hackathons to drive innovation. I think educators can use structures like these to experience the startup culture and understand the media entrepreneurship experiences we create inside and outside the classroom for our students.
Focusing a vision
My team and I had started the journey toward our startup idea just 24 hours before during an evening brainstorming/lightning round pitch of ideas. Then women journalists, front-end developers, designers, and educators gravitated to the ideas they wanted to implement. I’d pitched two ideas and gotten traction around both. Both were ideas that were personal and ones that I had tried to implement in various ways in the past.
But one held a severe pain point for me and many other women online: how to address cyberharassment, cyberbullying, trolling, denial of service attacks and other online behaviors designed to shut down voices of women. Recent media coverage of Gamergate and attacks on celebrities and women scholars online would resonate with our audience. And I knew if we could craft an elegant solution to fight hate with love, we could honor and support those women no matter what the hackathon outcome.
Our team included Debbie Galant of Montclair State University’s NJ News Commons; Louisa Reynolds, a IWMF Fellow and a U.K. freelance journalist; Berta Valle, general manager of Vos TV from Nicaragua and our hacker Sneha Inguva, co-founder of Perooz, a browser service to refute false claims in news reports. Others gave support to our project but ultimately selected other projects to pursue.
I went to bed that first evening with ideas chasing sheep. And awoke to a nightmare. The team wanted to pivot -– change our idea back to the first idea I had pitched. “I can go either way,” I said. But I had engaged my online community late the night before, asking for help as our “virtual team” on the “TrollTracker” idea. They would be disappointed, I thought, but we could move on.
We studied the judging criteria. We studied the judges. “Which idea was closer to the ideas of the conference?” we deliberated. After nearly an hour of precious time, we decided that we could tell the story –- our story –- of online harassment and those of women publishers and friends online. And that our solution would help women journalists — but also a lot of other people too.
And so TrollBusters was born. We worked for 12 hours to define the problem, find statistics, determine what services and supports we could offer technologically and emotionally to women under attack and we hacked and created wireframes to visualize our solutions. Our international team helped put in perspective that trolling was one part of a problem that sometimes included lost jobs and in other times lost lives. And that trolling is not just an American problem.
Tools help forge a solution
Our TrollBusters solution was three-fold:
1) S.O.S. Teams: Countering cyberattacks in real time by creating a hedge of protection around targets by engaging their own network of followers to counteract hate messaging with “attagirls,” positive messaging like quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., and other reputation endorsements.
2) RAID: To use the online community clustering technology to find “nests” of trolls around topics like #BlackLivesMatter or #Gamergate and rescue others under attack.
3) SUPPORT: To provide the legal, psychological and technical services to address denial-of-service attacks on women-led sites.
We leveraged a proprietary technology that came out of Ohio University’s Scripps Innovation Challenge 2014 winning student team called C.A.T.S. – Clustering Audience Targeting Shooting — as a way to detect communities online using natural language processing. We are using the technology to detect “nests” of trolling activity online using network analysis and natural language processing to make visible the top trolls and areas of their operation online.
We had five minutes to impress the judges. As our team mounted the stage, I was channeling the isolation, pain, loss of reputation, income and lives of all who had been cyberbullied online. No matter what, we were #winning, equalizing the online playing field for women.
We didn’t get through our slide deck; we got through our live demo though. And we used the judges’ questions to backfill the other slides we hadn’t had time to present. Then it was over. The waiting was agony as the judges deliberated over the team ideas. We played music, danced and celebrated that the hard part was over.
And then the awards: Our idea received one of the three top prizes of $3,000 and a strong endorsement from our judges that our idea had traction. Our team will determine who will choose to continue to develop the idea.
The experience was nerve-wracking, exhilarating, inspiring, collegial, competitive, fun — and even lucrative! But as an educator and entrepreneur, I’ve come away from this hackathon with even stronger conviction about the importance of media entrepreneurship and activities like these inside and outside the classroom for our students — and for ourselves.
Postscript: Thoughts from the Team
Louisa Reynolds: From the moment I listened to Michelle Ferrier’s pitch at the start of the hackathon, I knew I wanted to be part of her team. She spoke eloquently about her own personal experiences as a victim of harassment and the idea of creating a tool that would identify online trolls and support victims definitely resonated with me. The Internet should not become a space of impunity where people feel they can hide behind the anonymity of an online alias and use social media to spew venom that destroys lives and aims to silence female voices.
Debbie Galant: It was incredibly fun working with a team to iterate and build out an idea in less than a day. Fostering civil discourse online is an incredibly important goal — and not just for women and women publishers, but for everybody who cares about democracy and the marketplace of ideas. (Debbie is leaving the project due to her weeknight and weekend work on Midcentury/Modern, a new startup funded by J-Lab.)
Berta Valle: This was my first experience at a Hackathon, and I am amazed to witness what can be created in collaboration. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to share the work with such talented women like team TrollBusters. Hate speech and cyberbullying is affecting many women publishers around the world and my country Nicaragua is no exception. That’s why listening Michelle’s idea, it was easy to identify with the intention to do something to stop this trend. In my career as TV anchor, I had to face unpleasant situations in social networks, so think of a “space” that can support other women who feel attacked in the exercise of their duties, fills me with enthusiasm.
Dr. Michelle Ferrier is associate dean for innovation at the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University. She is the author of “Media Entrepreneurship: Curriculum Development and Faculty Perceptions of What Students Should Know,” published in Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, September 2013. Ferrier is vice president of Journalism That Matters and creator of the “Create or Die” startup weekends. She is a former columnist, digital content architect and online community developer who has been involved in new media for more than 30 years. Her research interests include media entrepreneurship, online journalism, online communities, digital identity and reputation management and hyperlocal online news. Contact her at [email protected].