Caroline Sinders a design researcher, artist, and digital anthropologist currently working at the Wikimedia Foundation on their Anti-Harassment Tools Team.
Lately her work and creative projects have focused on the intersections of language processing, artificial intelligence, and online abuse.
As a BuzzFeed/Eyebeam Open Labs fellow, she’s worked to prototype a machine-learning system built to mitigate online harassment.
She holds a masters from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, and a BFA in Photography and Imaging from NYU.
Here, she talks about how she ended up with such a niche expertise, shares her approach to finding new opportunities, and offers some wisdom for anyone designing things with a user community in mind.
Your area of expertise—as both a researcher and as an artist—is super niche.
I assume you didn’t plan on being an anti-harassment designer when you were starting out. How did you come to do what you do?
While at ITP, I started to look at how people were organizing protests through social media. This was around the time of the Arab Spring and the Green Revolution.
I also started making video games for fun, to take my photographic practice into something involving technology that wasn’t just an interactive slideshow.
I wanted to understand, how do you actually make technology? How do you make photography really interesting with technology without making it about computation,
and without making it about inserting an image into a blog or website?
Your work has a unique position in between a lot of different practices.
There’s research, there’s interaction design, then there’s visual art and photography. How do you intertwine all these different practices?
A photo-journalistic practice involves asking a lot of questions.
What are the implications of the photographs you’re taking? What do they say?
How truthful are they, and what is the truth in this situation? I think my practice is still very similar to that process.
A lot of the artwork I do involves talking to people, and trying to create a ground truth using qualitative and quantitative data.
So I think my practice, especially because it’s so research-driven, really does come from this background I had in photojournalism. I just don’t use a camera anymore.
Since you’re not using a camera, and therefore don’t have a body of photos as the clear result of your practice, how do you decide what form all of the research should ultimately take?I think about my practice from three different standpoints: How do I make something that’s really practical? How do I do something that’s activist-driven?
So you’re almost taking a user-experience approach to what art you should make.Totally. My piece Social Media Breakup Coordinator resulted from doing a bunch of user interviews with victims affected by Gamer Gate,
A lot of Social Media Breakup Coordinator came out of the practicality and the activist standpoint.
Once I realized that I had all this knowledge for dealing with different forms of internet trauma, my user research manifested into this art project.
Then, that project led me to start thinking about other, different kinds of internet trauma. Like, what do you do when a friend has passed away and there are artifacts of them on the internet?
That resulted in a piece for Fusion that’s still a project I come back to a lot. I guess in my practice, I just keep asking questions.
What do you do if you do see an abusive ex-boyfriend on the internet? What do you do if you are the victim of a harassment campaign?
What do you do when you leave a job and it was really awkward, and you don’t really want to be friends with your coworkers, like, what do you do?
When you expose these voids in tech companies’ user-experience design, is it your job to bring awareness to them in a way that helps them be resolved?
Or is your only responsibility to make the work, and let others decide how to handle it?
When you publish things publicly to get feedback, it’s important to have a readership, and to have visibility. How did you go about gaining enough interest in your work to achieve visibility?I actually used to run a blog that I took down at the end of ITP, called Cellar Paper. I was constantly writing there and photographing there.
So your whole career trajectory sort of blossomed from there, whereas beforehand you were sending a lot of pitches out into the void?Before that I wasn’t really writing that type of research-based, investigatory piece. It didn’t really dawn on me that that was something I could necessarily do. I had stopped blogging.
Do you think that having a niche expertise and wide mix of experience has helped you?
A lot of people have an approach of, “I’m going to be a painter, I should do all these things that painters do,”
and they don’t necessarily think about how that then puts them in a pool of very similar people.
At this point, do you have to actively seek out opportunities—or do opportunities just come to you because you’re the most obvious subject expert?It’s a mix of both. With my current job, the position was created specifically for my research. Before I started my job, a reporter sent someone on my team a lot of my work,
So you proactively made the case for your own job—and it all worked out.Yeah. And I still actively look for things. Not for employment opportunities, but for research opportunities. Research opportunities and conversations often lead to bigger conversations,
You seem to really trust yourself to pursue a ton of different ideas and projects all at the same time. How do you carve out enough time to make it all happen?I find it incredibly helpful to work with collaborators. Also, projects have to be lightweight and agile enough to stop and start at any time.
There is some work that I’m doing that I can do alone. I’m working on this piece right now called Feminist Data Set, where I run these three-day workshops with groups of people,
and we try to define what feminism is. This project can be stopped and started at any time, and I don’t necessarily need a lot of people to work on it.
This could also be a four-year-long or a 20-year-long project.
When you work on these longer-term projects, how do you manage to sustain a feeling of urgency around them and not let them peter out?I feel like I come at this from a different perspective. My coworker and I made a joke that if Silicon Valley startup tech’s slogan is to move fast and break things,
As an example, I’m really excited about this one public tool we’re building that’s in Alpha right now, that will compare two users to see if someone’s being stalked.
It’s a tool that probably exists inside of Facebook, but it’s something that they would never publicly release.
It’s taking us a long time because we’ve had to show every step of the process to our community. If we weren’t doing that, we could have rolled it out in a week or two.
But it also wouldn’t fit our community’s needs. So, for a lot of the work that I do, I’ve reevaluated what is “fast” and what is “slow.”
I think moving slower creates a stronger workflow because it lets you make things with people, rather than just give things to people.
How has studying user issues with social media affected your own use of social platforms?I get really frustrated with it. I use Twitter a lot less now. There’s a piece I’ve been wanting to work on called Microaggressions Inside Social Media.
But also, I get frustrated because there’s no way for us as consumers to have equity in these systems. I can’t go to, say, the public people’s forum of Twitter, and tell Twitter,
“Hey, actually, what I really want is this thing.” What we do at Wikimedia is we have the community technology wish list,
so people can submit ideas of things that the Wikimedia Foundation should build for Wikipedia. We had over 200 ideas submitted, and over 1,000 people actively voted and participated.
Then each idea got ranked, and the community technology team looked at what was actually feasible to build, and created timelines. Now, that’s not a perfect system.
But I think the idea that as a member of a community, you can have equity without having to work at that company is incredibly important. I wish that we had spaces like that for Facebook and Twitter.
How many people do you think you should talk to when you’re trying to come up with the right tool for a community?I mean, there are many possible answers here, right? You have to ask a lot of questions: What is the actual purpose of your tool? Is your tool supposed to be a solution for a small group of people, or for a general audience? Are you okay if the general audience is people that don’t look like your friends? Do you care about equity in the system? If you’re like, “I don’t care, I just want the tech running,” then you should understand that not a lot of people are going to use your tool. It’ll be really antagonistic to a general audience, and therefore it won’t be a general audience tool. If you’re really concerned about activists using it, then you should go to conferences like RightsCon to hear about how people working with activists and advocates outside of the United States are using technology. Then, you have to keep asking questions: Did you build this tool for the right platform, or did you just build it for iOS? Do you know people’s cell phone usages outside of the United States?
Is there a specific method or resource that you recommend people use during the design process to get their thoughts in order?Take your time. Find people to talk to. Do user research. When I first started researching, the first thing I would do—and this is advice from Clay—is when you speak to one person, ask for a recommendation of three other people to talk to. I love that it’s part of my job to just talk to people, for better or for worse. Even if it’s a really hard or uncomfortable conversation, there is always a moment where I just can’t believe that this is what I get to do with my life.
Five things Caroline has been revisiting over the past few months, for which the underlying topic is how research can culminate into
different kinds of “things”—from VR pieces, to curated film series, to articles, to visual artwork: