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Social Media Portal interview with Rebecca Newton at Crisp Thinking

Staff (Social Media Portal) - 20 November 2009

Profiled - Crisp Thinking - Specialists on the dangers of online grooming and internet bullying

An interview with Rebecca Newton, Head of Safety at Crisp Thinking on the detection and analysis of inappropriate online behaviour

The Social Media Portal gets the low down from Rebecca Newton about child protection on social networks and what the future holds for detecting and analysing online behaviour

Crisp Thinking logoSocial Media Portal (SMP): What is your role at Crisp Thinking?

Rebecca Newton (RN): Head of Safety.  Iím responsible for working with our clients to help create safety policies and manage various international compliance issues. I provide input on new safe moderation techniques and behaviours, aka, tweaking our tools and I oversee the localisation of our products in many languages.

I consult on a range of online community and social networking topics, specialising in risk management for companies/sites. COPPA compliance and Data Protection are at the top of the risk management list. Iíve spent the past 16 years developing and managing online communities that scaled quickly, so Iím quite familiar with how to scale in customer services, moderation and risk. I do the majority of the twittering for Crisp, as well (you know I had to throw that in!)Photograph of Rebecca Newton, Head of Safety at Crisp Thinking.

SMP: How did you get into community management and becoming a specialist in this space?

RN: I was first ďonlineĒ in 1980 via Duke Universityís computing centre (anyone remember the game Adventure?). Then again in the late 80s I spent more time online when I was working in survey research and statistics. In the early 90s I used my university access to test Mosaic and to spend time in Dalnet and IRC chat rooms (good old Ďflat chatí as I call it). I worked for AOL throughout the 90s in various positions. My last position at AOL was managing the Community Leader Programís recruitment, orientation and training program, and I took on the Guide program as well. We had 5,000 Community Leaders when I began as Program Manager and 16,000 when I left in 1999. AOL was my hands-on schooling in community management. The 90s was a special time to be on the net. Pretty amazing stuff was happening at a rapid pace.

It must have been something like moving out west in the 19th century, I expect. I consulted for awhile and then joined Sulake (Habbo Hotel) in 2002. I was heavily involved in all things community from the early days when there was only Habbo UK (and KultaKala in Finland). My last position at Sulake was as the Director of Community for all 24 hotels around the globe. The Sulake years were intense but a great learning experience; culturally, it was invaluable experience.

I love start ups and I really love scaling. Before I joined Crisp, I was at Mind Candy as Head of Community at Moshi Monsters for 1.5 years working with young kids. It was just fabulous. So far, Iíve been fortunate to work at companies that started small and scaled quickly. Itís my joy and passion, really, and I have a good nose for companies that are going to make it. I have a friend who calls me the Faith Popcorn of the net. I love that.

SMP: What sort of skill-sets should specialists possess in your sector?

RN: A passion for connecting people to each other is essential. I believe community professionals should have a natural ability to organize groups of people and to detect peopleís skills, talents and interests. You have to be a ďweĒ person, in my opinion. ďWe plan to move forward with X Y or Z.Ē  Or ďWe will soon be releasing new features...Ē or ďThe community team will assist you...Ē instead of ďMy StaffĒ or ďmy teamĒ or ďmy assistant...Ē The ďweĒ is much more powerful and true than the ďme.Ē

I also think a good community professional should thoroughly understand the realities of the darker side of the net, but balance the dark side with the creative, wonderful tools the net brings us all. So a genuine interest in keeping people secure, happy, and safe in order to create with and learn from each other is important. You have to keep up with whatís happening on the web and you must read and understand numbers. Community and Safety professionals are the liaisons between the company execs or board and the user. It can be a hellish place if you donít love everybody (lol).

You must genuinely like and have a good working knowledge of the techie side of things, you just have to or you wonít thrive. If you respect techies and learn to speak techie language, youíre golden. The ability to educate users is necessary, patience is required. Sometimes it takes us several tries to understand (and communicate) a concept. Finally, the best thing I heard in the early 90s about working with people online (and offline) was, ďput the right people in the right place and get out of the way.Ē  Learning how to get out of the way is a biggie.

SMP: What was the appeal of joining Crisp Thinking?

RN: Iíd spent 15 years or more building communities of people online, of all ages and interests. A few of us had dreams of building good behaviour management software for moderation online. The amount of abuse online in the big MMOs (massively multiplayer online gaming) is horrendous and can be disheartening. Itís also like herding cats. You can never really keep up. 

When my colleague at Sulake, Emma Monks, emailed me and said sheíd met some blokes from Leeds whoíd finally done what we wanted to do, I had to go to the CEO (my manager) at Mind Candy with my tail between my legs and say, ďYou know how you asked me to meet with the Crisp folks? Well, Emma says theyíre on to it and so I think we should meet after all.Ē

I had rolled my eyes when Michael Acton Smith suggested I meet with them in 2008. I blurted out to Michael, ďYes, yes, Iíve seen it over and over. Everyone asking me to evaluate their safety moderation software. Iím telling you, nobody can do it without understanding community and moderation. Itís a waste of time.Ē

They came down to London to meet up with me and I was completely blown away with their tools. I was shouting their name from the rooftops within the community professionalsí world. Then one night a penny dropped when I saw their demo for about the fourth time and I thought, ďholy mackerel, itís the holy grail.Ē It was a religious experience (lol lol).  

So, I thought Ė this would be really interesting work, this angle of community online, and then they contacted me and made me an offer I couldnít refuse. Maybe they saw the penny-drop look in my eyes, who knows.

SMP: Who are your target audience and why?

RN: Well, Iíd say parents, teachers, guardians, for imsafer and MMOs. Social networks and virtual worlds for NetModeratorô. The amount of user-generated content on the net is out-of-control-crazy-high and will only increase. It is no longer feasible for companies to think that using the 90s method of moderation is safe or effective.

Itís not just about safety issues, itís about keeping your business growing as well. We are 1.6 billion strong on the net each day, around the globe. You do the math. There arenít enough moderators on the planet to deal with that much content. So here we are, with an automated content analysis tool and a highly sophisticated filtering system, working with human moderators and accomplishing in seconds what human moderators could never hope to accomplish.

We will always need human professional moderators, donít misunderstand me. They need to check for context and take action on the serious infractions that affect business. A few years ago we did studies on why users left certain sites where Iíve worked. They all said the same things: password phishing, harassment, stolen virtual items, and stolen accounts. These were the number one reasons for attrition. I feel fairly sure this is still true. Do you want to spend six months building your reputation, your items, your world on line only to lose it to some badly behaved user?

The predatory dangers on the net are not huge compared to the same dangers off the net, but itís all statistics when it comes down to it. Nobody should be one of those statistics; particularly with regards to predatory behaviour. Itís so, so unnecessary -  especially now with our technology and technologies like PrivoLock, Reputation Share, working in tandem with our software. Itís the most effective combination a business can use on the net today. Itís good business, plain and simple. The pioneers who have already become our clients are the people who are succeeding online and they will stand out as early adopters in my opinion.

I donít believe we should regulate and block everything on the net in order to maintain security and safety. In fact, Iím not much on regulations. But here we are with the technology to address the most dangerous and problematic concerns. Itís just crazy to think the old methods like filters and black lists are effective. They just canít be (and really never were very effective). We must move to technology working with smart, professional, experienced humans Ė and I feel very sure weíre all going to be there in the next few years.

SMP: How did Crisp Thinking initially attract stakeholders to what you do, and how do you do it now?

RN: Crisp Thinking was the first to provide sophisticated content analysis and the early stakeholders with good business sense and a genuine interest in keeping their customers and users safe recognised this. We keep improving the tools, always improving them and always building the better mousetrap. Weíre now using ďautomated behaviour managementĒ which has cut moderation and customer service costs by 98% for one of our larger clients. Itís phenomenal. Most importantly, the program is more accurate than human eyes and the program is subjective and doesnít get tired of people behaving badly.

As a moderator, you just get fed up sometimes. This program has no emotion of course. Itís the Vulcan equivalent of moderation (ha ha!). The system allows moderators to concentrate on what is serious and / or potentially dangerous. You just canít get any safer while still allowing users freedom to express themselves and create online.

SMP: What have been the low moments of what you have been doing so far?

RN: Hmm, Iíd say witnessing some user behaviour can be quite disturbing and traumatic at times. You just canít believe that humans can behave as they do... and of course, parents never believe their children would behave as some of them do online. So that can be challenging Ė to have to talk to parents about dangerous or seriously inappropriate behaviour. Itís not the most fun. But itís important work. Itís tremendously important work.

SMP: What have been the high moments of what you have been doing so far?

: Iíd say knowing that weíre keeping sites 98.4% safe (according to Cambridge University), which allows users to have positive experiences, which means companies do better business while knowing itís more cost effective than any other method to date Ė thatís pretty awesome to think about. Iím all about cost effectiveness and this is the STUFF. For years community professionals have been the last in line for tools, upgrades, budgets and the like. Yet, weíve also been the first to be asked to cut staff. Crisp and our partnersí technology puts an end to that conundrum.

SMP: Now that Crisp Thinking is established, what do you see as your biggest challenges and opportunities?

RN: Going mobile and keeping up with social networking tools. But I have every confidence, you wonít meet a smarter group of blokes in this business.

SMP: What are the next moves for Crisp Thinking?

RN: Mobile technology, localisation into more languages (weíre in five languages now and about to add more), and videos/photos. Weíve built the basic vid/photo content analysis tool, we just need our first client to perfect it.

SMP: Whatís the next big step for social media and networks?

RN: Oh, how fun is that question?!

I think touch screens on a major level (in gaming and TV for instance) and voice activation and of course, mobile social media and networks will just go way beyond what we can dream up. I think weíre at a place in history where weíre expanding faster than ever. Almost as fast as someone dreams something up, itís in beta. Anyone under 20 wouldnít really appreciate how true this is. But itís all relative, isnít it?

SMP: Child protection online seems to be a massive issue to address, what is it that Crisp Thinking does to help businesses, children and parents understand their role?

RN: You know, it is a massively misunderstood issue in my opinion... and itís touchy because people donít think of the net like the offline or ďreal world.Ē But there is really no line anymore between online and offline reality.  The net is completely integrated into our everyday lives (and has been for some of us for many, many years thank you very much).

So, as Linda Criddle and Dr. Tanya Byron says, ďWe donít let our children play in the street or cross the street until weíve taught them how to be responsible, look both ways, and cross the street.Ē  We need to do the same online. This means parents, teachers and all of us (it takes a village!), need to step up and be responsible for each otherís safety and experience online. Education is imperative, and companies need to take responsibility for educating their users as well.

I travel quite a bit and speak about online safety and communities on behalf of Crisp. Itís my responsibility as a parent, educator and community professional as well as an employee. We work with schools in the UK and weíre heavily involved in Government and NGO efforts to educate the masses, while making good decisions. Being overly restrictive is not the answer. Everyone taking responsibility and working together to give users of all ages the knowledge and tools to stay as safe as possible will be the most effective method.

SMP: What are the major hurdles you are facing right now?

RN: Getting site owners to understand that just because they never see predatory behaviour doesnít mean it isnít happening on their sites. We know from studies than only 3% of young people report sexually inappropriate behaviour. That means 97% never say a thing.  You canít address what you donít know is happening. But one thing I can assure you, if you have a site where people can gather Ė  you have a predator of some sort. Not necessarily a sexual predator but someone who wants to exploit one of your users. Thatís a fact.

SMP: What can content creators, publishers and social networks do to help make web and related technologies a safer place?

RN: Take responsibility, use good technology, and educate their users with realistic, sensible content instead of burying safety information or making it frightening or worse ďcutesyĒ. Thereís no need to falsely alarm people and the net is not a dangerous place for the majority of us.  But who wants to be part of that minority? Not me.

Some lawyers are telling site owners that what they donít know will make them less vulnerable to law suits. In other words, donít ask, donít look Ė itís safer. I think thatís a shame really. This isnít a dig at lawyers; itís their job to keep their clients out of court. But how in the hell can you educate users or keep them safe if you bury your head for legal reasons?  It really does take a village and how bad will something have to get for people to get together and say, ďyes, letís be responsible business owners.Ē  I mean, we expect this offline Ė we should expect it online.

SMP: Top five things that parents can do to make a safer online environment for the children?

RN replies with:

  1. Teach them how to ďlook both waysĒ before they use the net
  2. Use imsafer. We donít spy on users. We only pass on potentially dangerous information. If a child says ďI hate my teacher she smells like cheeseĒ we donít pass that on
  3. Donít overreact when you find something unsettling and donít jump to conclusions. Ask, listen and educate yourself
  4. Donít cut off a childís access to the net if thereís been a problem. Go directly to the site owner and report the problem and monitor your childís behaviour after explaining why youíre concerned
  5. Get educated and culturally savvy about the net. If you canít speak the language, you wonít be able to communicate well

SMP: Is the internet more or less safe for children since the proliferation of social networks, instant messenger et al?

RN: It isnít any more or less safe, in my opinion. It is what it has always been; a place where 95% of the population behaves and 5% does not behave. It mirrors our offline line world, from my perspective. The difference is, weíve turned millions of young people loose on the net with no safety skills and assume theyíre fine because itís only text on a screen to most adults. Itís not just text on a screen to most young people. Itís an extension of their every day interactions. Get your head round that and take it seriously. Pay attention but remember, you donít follow them around school or the mall Ė you teach them basic behaviour skills and hope for the best.

SMP: What have been some of the milestones in protecting children online?

RN: I think the biggest milestone is public and government awareness. The early pioneers in the online safety world such a Larry Magid, Anne Collier, Parry Aftab and Janice Richardson of Insafe, have been advocating child protection for a nearly decade, or 17 years in Larry Magidís case.

The UK leads the way in allocated funding for child safety on the net. Itís quite impressive really.

The US has no funding to speak of but NCMEC is hands down the most reliable, responsive agency Iíve worked with over the past 16 years. They do not fool around. They are on top of every reported case and on it quickly.

And of course, technology has really come a long way because of people like the folks of the Crisp team, who had the vision years ago and stuck with it.

SMP: What still needs to be done?

RN: Education, public awareness, site owner responsibility. So many site owners or corporations say, ďwe have 40 billion users, we canít possibly be responsible.Ē Yes you can and you should, in my opinion. If youíre making money off user-generated content, or if you plan to, then be responsible for what users do and create on your site to the best of your ability.

SMP: Whatís going to be the most interesting aspect regarding social media / technology throughout 2010?

: Users generating, creating and expanding knowledge and information will always be the most interesting thing on the net, in my opinion. The best ideas come from people who use the net. People of all ages, in fact.

SMP: The media has been reporting again that the recession may be on its way out, how does it affect the sector/s that Crisp Thinking works within?

RN: I donít think we were affected by the recession to be honest. Weíve had a brilliant year! I guess that means weíll be even busier :)

SMP: How does this fit into plans at Crisp Thinking?

RN: The plan is always to expand, expand, expand.

SMP: Best way to contact you?

RN: rebecca.newton @  +1 919 493 1270

Now some questions for fun

SMP: What did you have for breakfast / lunch?

As it turned out, moldy bread. I was pretty ill all day as a result of it. Can you believe it? Donít eat bakery bread in the dark.

SMP: Whatís the last good thing that you did for someone?

RN: I bought my hairdresser a pocketbook she really loved as a tip. She was in tears. We never know what joy we can bring with simple acts.

SMP: How many hours to you work a week?

RN: It depends. Iíve been speaking at a lot of conferences so my hours have been pretty high, well over 40 with travel and schmoozing. Usually, about 40 though. In the old days, 70 easy! Europeans are much more civilized than Americans about work weeks.

SMP: If you werenít at Crisp Thinking what would you be doing?

: Well, Iím not running Crisp, I leave that to the 4 Cs (CEO, CTO, CFO, CMO). But if I werenít working at Crisp, Iíd be working somewhere, building and managing a big old MMO and trying to make it more efficient, building a great team, looking for creative ways for users to express themselves. Iím the Chair for a non profit organisation called Girls Rock North Carolina. I love doing non profit work, and one day, when my ship comes in, I plan on being a philanthropist and figuring out how to give away money to great causes.

SMP: When and where did you go on your last holiday?

Itís obviously been too long because I canít remember! Thatís not a good sign. I think it must have been the Appalachian mountains, where I have a little house on the top of a mountain.

SMP: Whatís the first thing you do when you get into the office of a morning?

RN: Put on my slippers, place my dogís bowl of food on the floor, and start reading email. Then I turn on my Tweetdeck... I work from home most of the time.

SMP: If you had a superpower what would it be and why?

RN: Iíd be happy to be Diana Krallís understudy. Iíve been a musician all my life but I would really love to play the piano as well as she does.

Related sites of interest
e-mint @ (international community professionals listserv, 10 years old now)

twitter: @RebeccaNewton @CrispThinking and @e_mint

If you're interested in doing a Social Media Portal (SMP) interview, get in touch.

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