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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.  I?m 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. I?ve spent the past 16 years developing and managing online communities that scaled quickly, so I?m 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 ?online? in 1980 via Duke University?s 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 ?flat chat? as I call it). I worked for AOL throughout the 90s in various positions. My last position at AOL was managing the Community Leader Program?s 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, I?ve been fortunate to work at companies that started small and scaled quickly. It?s 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 people?s skills, talents and interests. You have to be a ?we? person, in my opinion. ?We plan to move forward with X Y or Z.?  Or ?We will soon be releasing new features...? or ?The community team will assist you...? instead of ?My Staff? or ?my team? or ?my assistant...? The ?we? is much more powerful and true than the ?me.?

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 what?s 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 don?t 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 won?t thrive. If you respect techies and learn to speak techie language, you?re 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, ?put the right people in the right place and get out of the way.?  Learning how to get out of the way is a biggie.

SMP: What was the appeal of joining Crisp Thinking?

RN: I?d 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. It?s also like herding cats. You can never really keep up. 

When my colleague at Sulake, Emma Monks, emailed me and said she?d met some blokes from Leeds who?d 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, ?You know how you asked me to meet with the Crisp folks? Well, Emma says they?re on to it and so I think we should meet after all.?

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

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 professionals? world. Then one night a penny dropped when I saw their demo for about the fourth time and I thought, ?holy mackerel, it?s the holy grail.? It was a religious experience (lol lol).  

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

SMP: Who are your target audience and why?

RN: Well, I?d say parents, teachers, guardians, for imsafer and MMOs. Social networks and virtual worlds for NetModerator?. 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.

It?s not just about safety issues, it?s 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 aren?t 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, don?t 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 I?ve 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 it?s all statistics when it comes down to it. Nobody should be one of those statistics; particularly with regards to predatory behaviour. It?s so, so unnecessary -  especially now with our technology and technologies like PrivoLock, Reputation Share, working in tandem with our software. It?s the most effective combination a business can use on the net today. It?s 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 don?t believe we should regulate and block everything on the net in order to maintain security and safety. In fact, I?m not much on regulations. But here we are with the technology to address the most dangerous and problematic concerns. It?s just crazy to think the old methods like filters and black lists are effective. They just can?t be (and really never were very effective). We must move to technology working with smart, professional, experienced humans ? and I feel very sure we?re 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. We?re now using ?automated behaviour management? which has cut moderation and customer service costs by 98% for one of our larger clients. It?s phenomenal. Most importantly, the program is more accurate than human eyes and the program is subjective and doesn?t get tired of people behaving badly.

As a moderator, you just get fed up sometimes. This program has no emotion of course. It?s the Vulcan equivalent of moderation (ha ha!). The system allows moderators to concentrate on what is serious and / or potentially dangerous. You just can?t 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, I?d say witnessing some user behaviour can be quite disturbing and traumatic at times. You just can?t 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 ? to have to talk to parents about dangerous or seriously inappropriate behaviour. It?s not the most fun. But it?s important work. It?s tremendously important work.

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

: I?d say knowing that we?re keeping sites 98.4% safe (according to Cambridge University), which allows users to have positive experiences, which means companies do better business while knowing it?s more cost effective than any other method to date ? that?s pretty awesome to think about. I?m 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, we?ve also been the first to be asked to cut staff. Crisp and our partners? 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 won?t 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 (we?re in five languages now and about to add more), and videos/photos. We?ve built the basic vid/photo content analysis tool, we just need our first client to perfect it.

SMP: What?s 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 we?re at a place in history where we?re expanding faster than ever. Almost as fast as someone dreams something up, it?s in beta. Anyone under 20 wouldn?t really appreciate how true this is. But it?s all relative, isn?t 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 it?s touchy because people don?t think of the net like the offline or ?real world.? 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, ?We don?t let our children play in the street or cross the street until we?ve taught them how to be responsible, look both ways, and cross the street.?  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 other?s 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. It?s my responsibility as a parent, educator and community professional as well as an employee. We work with schools in the UK and we?re 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 doesn?t mean it isn?t 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 can?t address what you don?t know is happening. But one thing I can assure you, if you have a site where people can gather ?  you have a predator of some sort. Not necessarily a sexual predator but someone who wants to exploit one of your users. That?s 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 ?cutesy?. There?s 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 don?t know will make them less vulnerable to law suits. In other words, don?t ask, don?t look ? it?s safer. I think that?s a shame really. This isn?t a dig at lawyers; it?s 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, ?yes, let?s be responsible business owners.?  I mean, we expect this offline ? 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 ?look both ways? before they use the net
  2. Use imsafer. We don?t spy on users. We only pass on potentially dangerous information. If a child says ?I hate my teacher she smells like cheese? we don?t pass that on
  3. Don?t overreact when you find something unsettling and don?t jump to conclusions. Ask, listen and educate yourself
  4. Don?t cut off a child?s access to the net if there?s been a problem. Go directly to the site owner and report the problem and monitor your child?s behaviour after explaining why you?re concerned
  5. Get educated and culturally savvy about the net. If you can?t speak the language, you won?t 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 isn?t 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, we?ve turned millions of young people loose on the net with no safety skills and assume they?re fine because it?s only text on a screen to most adults. It?s not just text on a screen to most young people. It?s an extension of their every day interactions. Get your head round that and take it seriously. Pay attention but remember, you don?t follow them around school or the mall ? 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 Magid?s case.

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

The US has no funding to speak of but NCMEC is hands down the most reliable, responsive agency I?ve 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, ?we have 40 billion users, we can?t possibly be responsible.? Yes you can and you should, in my opinion. If you?re 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: What?s 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 don?t think we were affected by the recession to be honest. We?ve had a brilliant year! I guess that means we?ll 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? Don?t eat bakery bread in the dark.

SMP: What?s 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. I?ve 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 weren?t at Crisp Thinking what would you be doing?

: Well, I?m not running Crisp, I leave that to the 4 Cs (CEO, CTO, CFO, CMO). But if I weren?t working at Crisp, I?d 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. I?m 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?

It?s obviously been too long because I can?t remember! That?s 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: What?s the first thing you do when you get into the office of a morning?

RN: Put on my slippers, place my dog?s 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: I?d be happy to be Diana Krall?s understudy. I?ve 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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