Q&A with Georgia Tech’s Amy Bruckman, analysis award recipient in on-line content material governance

In this monthly series of interviews, we put members of the academic community and their critical research in the spotlight – as thought partners, collaborators, and independent contributors.

We nominated Amy Bruckman, professor at Georgia Tech, for August. Bruckman is the winner of the 2019 Content Governance RFP, which sought proposals to help expand research and advocacy work in the online content governance space. In these Q&A, Bruckman shares more about her specialty, her winning research proposal, and her upcoming book. She also shares what inspires her in her academic work.

Q: Tell us about your role at Georgia Tech and the type of research you specialize in.

Amy Bruckman: I’m a professor and senior associate chair in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech. We’re halfway between an I school and a CS department – more technical than most I schools and more interdisciplinary than most CS departments.

I founded my first online community in 1993 and am immensely fascinated by how the design features of an online environment shape human behavior. My students and I are developing new tools to support novel online interactions, and we are also exploring existing systems using a mixed methods approach. My specialty are qualitative methods. My students and I participate online and take field notes on what we observe (sociology and anthropology inspired methods) and we also interview people about their experiences (based on clinical interview techniques from psychology). I work with people doing big data and NLP research, and I’ve found that qualitative and quantitative methods are usually more effective when used together.

Q: What have you been working on lately?

AB: Lately I’ve personally focused on my book “Should You Believe Wikipedia?” Online communities and knowledge building. It will appear in January by Cambridge University Press. In the book I try to explain how online communities are designed, with a special focus on how people can collaboratively build knowledge.

Q: You won the Content Governance RFP 2019. What was your suggestion about?

AB: Our research poses the question: What happens after a controversial person who regularly violates platform rules is kicked or “deplatformed”? In particular, we looked into what happened after Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Owen Benjamin were kicked off Twitter.

Q: What were the results of this research?

AB: My co-authors (Shagun Jhaver, Christian Boylston and Diyi Yang) and I found that the deplatforming significantly reduced the number of conversations about these people. More importantly, the overall activity and level of toxicity of the supporters decreased after the deplatforming. For example, Milo encouraged his followers to attack actress Leslie Jones. After he left the platform, his followers behaved better. The full paper will appear at CSCW 2021.

Q: What inspires you in your scientific work?

AB: I believe our field is at a crossroads: the internet needs to be redesigned to support healthy communities and a functioning public. The final chapter of my book focuses on how we can help the internet get the best out of all of us. I try to work towards this in my research and teaching. Every fall I teach our compulsory ethics course “Computing, Society, and Professionalism” and in spring “Design of Online Communities”. It is a privilege to teach students about these subjects, and the students have an impact on how they design and build the information systems we all use every day.

Q: Where can people find out more about you and your work?

AB: My book should you believe Wikipedia? will be released in early 2022, and there is a sample chapter on my website.

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