A few months ago, a Predator Alert Tool co-creator and I got to speak with participants at a hackathon for social good. They were inspired by the Predator Alert Tool suite and wanted to build something on it, or similar to it. Mostly, they wanted to get up to speed with background information as quickly as possible (hackathons are short, whirlwind events), and so we made an effort to have a Skype call that day.
Most of the information here isn’t new. There are troves and troves of resources in my blog archives about the Predator Alert Tool, my other blog archives, and not to mention all over the rest of the Internet. ;)
Nevertheless, we did have a pretty good conversation and so in the spirit of “Coder Day of Service,” I’m sharing this in the hopes that someone else might be inspired to take more action and build something useful. After all, all the code for Predator Alert Tool is entirely public domain, and there are numerous ways beyond programming that you can help.
The audio is in an MP3 file called: “Predator Alert Tool conversation at Coder Day of Service.” Also, my apologies in advance for possibly screwing up the name of Erin’s teammate in this transcript. The audio was sub-par and we didn’t have a lot of time to speak.
Erin: Hi, Meitar?
Meitar “Maymay”: Yeah, you got it right! Most people call me maymay.
Erin: “Maymay,” love it, that’s awesome! What’s up? My name’s Erin.
Kianne: My name’s Kianne, I’m Erin’s teammate.
Rebecca: Hi, we’re trying to turn on video. Hello, I’m Rebecca.
Erin: It’s great to meet you. Thank you guys so much for talking with us today.
Maymay: Yeah, thanks for writing us about it. You are there at Coder Day of Service?
Erin: Yeah, Coder Day of Service. We like your problem and we want to try and help solve it also. We just want some background information on it from you guys. So, I think I sent you some of the questions, but I’ll just review. What made you get into it? What’s your background in this kind of problem? And then, what were your intentions for use in creating this? That kind of stuff.
Rebecca: Okay, well, um, first of all, do you know–so, Predator Alert Tool is a whole suite of tools. Is there a specific one that you’re working with?
Erin: We were looking at the code for Facebook, like finding a predator–how to identify a predator on Facebook. And how to identify a predator on OkCupid.
Rebecca: Okay, cool. So, um. Sorry, I’mâ€¦
Erin: That’s okay, take your time.
Rebecca: I’m kind of like, wait that’s a whole bunch of questions!
Maymay: Yeah, I mean, you’re asking for just like, how did this all start orâ€¦?
Rebecca: Yeah, do you want the story?
Erin: Yeah, give us the background story. And, guys, we’re just gonna plug in [our headsets], I’m so sorry for this background noise. Do you mind? So we can hear them better?
Maymay: Yup, we can still hear you.
Rebecca: Are you all video-less?
Erin: Oh! Oh, we can turn that on, let me see. Can you see us?
Maymay: Yeah, there we go.
Rebecca: Okay, hi!
Erin: Lovely meeting you.
Maymay: So, who all is Erin and who is Kianne?
Erin: I’m Erin.
Kianne: I’m Kianne.
Maymay: Okay, hi Erin, hi Kianne. Okay, so! Actually, Rebecca wrote a blog post just talking about the start of this and it was called “Rape Culture, meet Internet Culture: PAT-OkCupid and other online anti-rape initiatives.” You can Google for that. But the gist of it is–
Rebecca: And we can send you a link.
Maymay: Yeah, we’ll send you a link. In fact, let’s do that now. We saw the Predditors Tumblr.
Rebecca: Yeah, do y’all know about Predditors?
Erin: No! Do you mind educating us about it? There’s a “predators Tumblr”?
Rebecca: Okay, so, what originally happened was, I think, there was a Subreddit where people had been posting, like, creepy photos of underage girls.
Maymay: It was that “Creep shots” thing.
Rebecca: “Creepshots” reedit, and so some people started finding the people that were posting in that Subreddit and posting their information online. And then this turned into people using Tumblr to do a similar thing: to post, to share information about sexual predators, rapists, people that they had had bad experiences with.
Rebecca: And so it was just sort of an individual thing for a while. Someone would post a picture and be like “This guy raped me, he lives here.” Y’know, like, “If you live in this neighborhood, watch out for this guy. This is his phone number.”
Maymay: Well what was interesting about it to us, though, was that it, like, it was very quickly shut down by Tumblr, as is to be expected. A lot of the, y’know, any effective push against something like that would target the people who are being effective in resisting it.
Maymay: So, what I wanted to do was basically lend the technological power to what they were doing, and, y’know, what they were doing was literally just posting a picture and some text. That’s what’s the Internet’s great for.
Maymay: What it’s not so great for is providing users the ability to control where that data ends up, because we live in this corporatized world where the people who own the pictures and the words that you put online, are the corporations who are hosting it. So, along with a number of other people, like Rebecca, I started brainstorming for ways to make it more possible to share that same kind of information in a way that is controlled by the people sharing it as opposed to by the corporations on whose servers they’re sharing. And so, this led us to the idea of using browser tools and essentially making unhosted apps. Like, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Unhosted.org or the whole concept of browser-side, like, thin-clients? Here, Unhosted.org is a good site. And, essentially, trying to build ways for user’s browsers to become, like, their agents online in that space. So, it was inspired by that.
So the next idea was, well, why don’t we move this into OkCupid, ’cause that’s a dating site, seems a pretty obvious place to go.
Rebecca: And there’s also a lot of data to pull from. I mean, I don’t know how much of a chance you’ve had to look at it, but the OkCupid data all comes from information that people have posted about themselves.
Rebecca: And so it’s just kind of easy to go through and say, well, these are answers that red flags for me. And I might know that already but it’s hard to go through somebody who’s answered three thousand OkCupid questions, and find the ones that are relevant to me. And this just, kind of, creates a tool that allows people to do that faster and more easily, to find the relevant information about what’s important to them.
Maymay: Right. So, in the case of OkCupid, as described on the Predator Alert intro itself. I mean, are you familiar with OkCupid, how it works, andâ€¦?
Kianne: Yeah, I met my boyfriend there.
Maymay: Okay, great.
Maymay: Yeah, and congrats. So, as you know, OkCupid plays this, like, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” game, where you are basically like, “I like bananas! Do you like bananas?” and if both people like bananas, then they get matched up with a higher Match Percentage, and so on. So, OkCupid encourages users to answer these questions and of course those questions themselves come from the users. So, you can just write any question you want and OkCupid will add it to its database of questions. So, what I did was search the academic literature on, essentially, rape culture, and found these studies by David Lisak and Paul Miller in 2002 which provide surveys to what they call “college age men”, whatever that means. I’m guessing 18-24 or whatever. I think it was actually 18-24.
Rebecca: I’m sure it says in the study.
Maymay: Yeah, it says in the study. Anyway, the point is that those questions are questions like, “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to by force or threat of force such as holding them down, orâ€¦”
Rebecca: Basically what they figured out is that if you ask people questions about whether they’ve committed rape, but you don’t use the word “rape,” they’ll tell you.
Kianne: Yeah, we heard some research on this, too, like on the Yes Means Yes blog, and that, yeah it was pretty cool.
Maymay: Yeah. So, what I did was literally copy the survey questions into OkCupid’s Match Questions, and then the browser tool simply scrapes out whatever profile you’re looking at, the answers to those questions that it can see, and then red flags them if they’ve answered “Yes” to any of that set of questions. And you can add your own questions to the tool, too. So, if you see an OkCupid question that is not part of that default [Lisak and Miller] set, but that is like, maybe, for example, you see someone saying, “Do you mind racist jokes?” and they say “No,” and that’s a red flag for you. So, you can say, that’s a red flag for me, and then anytime anyone who’s profile you’re looking at has answered that question in that way, it automatically just red-boxes them.
Kianne: Okay, cool. So, but I’m still a little confused. So, the questions that we ask them, like the web appâ€¦. So what if the person who we’re viewing hasn’t answered that question. Like, how do they actually answer that question?
Rebecca: So, the questions that you answer when you fill out the–when you first start, those questions are just in the OkCupid question database. So some people will have answered them, and some won’t have answered them. In that default set, there’s the Lisak and Miller questions, and then there’s also a number of questions that got suggested to us, or that we pulled from the earlier set of OkCupid questions that are things like, “Are there situation in which you feel you’re entitled to sex?”
Maymay: “Is there any situation in which someone is obligated to have sex with you?”
Rebecca: “Is there any situation in which someone is obligated to have sex with you?” Questions about, y’know, sexual behavior with people who are drunk. Things like that, that are also probably red flags, and a lot more people have answered those questions.
Erin: Oh, sorry, audio’s cutting out.
Rebecca: Can you hear us now?
Erin: Do you mind backtracking for a second? Yeah, sorry.
Rebecca: Anyway, so, some of those questions that are in the default set are questions that a lot of people have answered, and so those are the ones that do tend to come up more often. And, like May was saying, ideally, the tool would also allow people to just build their own individual sets.
Maymay: Yeah. It does that now. What I would love to see is the ability to share those sets. So, for example, let’s say that, Erin, you are well-known in your circle for being really, really on top of certain issues about racism or whatever it is.
Erin: Oh, sorry, audio’s out again.
Erin: Go back. Okay, sorry!
Maymay: So, I mean, well, I guess I should ask, before I move on, Does that answer your question?
Kianne: Um, yeah, like a little bit. So it does scrape like, similar questions to what people have asked.
Maymay: Well, when you use your browser to go on a profile page on OkCupid, then, um, y’know, the browser is essentially you, so whatever you can see, that’s what the tool knows about the other person. So, the questions that the Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid is sensitive to are only a subset of ones that people have answered. But, if they have answered any of those questions that it is sensitive to, it simply notices that and adds a CSS border around their user pic.
Kianne: Oh, okay. But what if the user hasn’t answered the question?
Rebecca: If they haven’t answered, I mean, it relies on the users answering the questions.
Maymay: There was actually an earlier versionâ€¦
Erin: Wait, sorry, just a moment. Yeah, these guys are the ones who made it.
Kianne: Thank you so much.
Rebecca: So, PAT-OkCupid is based on self-report. So, it’s possible that if someone hasn’t answered any questions, then you won’t be able to get that information about them.
Maymay: And there was an earlier version of PAT-OkCupid that is stillâ€¦
Erin: That identifies them asâ€¦.
Kianne: We were guessing that you were coming throughâ€¦.
Maymay: PAT-OkCupid is a very simple HTML scraper with a very specific purpose.
Erin: Oh, sorry.
Rebecca: Can you hear us?
Kianna: The audio keeps cutting.
Erin: Bummer. Sorry, can you repeat again? So there’s an older version of OkCupid?
Maymay: Well, there’s an earlier version of the Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid and it actually has a Google App Engine-powered web server that shares the answers that one client install scrapes with all the rest of the installations. But, um, it was so popular, that that part of the tool was overloaded and I don’t have enough money to keep the server running.
Kianne: Wait, what happened, it was that popular?
Maymay: It was so popular that the Google App Engine instance that I was using to host the centralized sharing of the question back and forth between the Predator Alert Tool installs, it just, it got overloaded. It completelyâ€¦like, I get over 500,000 hits a day on that. There’s no way I can maintain something like that while being homeless and vagabonding my way around the country.
Rebecca: Okay, so, this is one of the differences between PAT-OkCupid and PAT for Facebook. Which is that, with PAT-OkCupid, like we said, all the data comes from the users, so if someone hasn’t answered the questions, then they haven’t answered the questions and you can’t find that out about them. Whereas with something like PAT-Facebook, that data is reported by other people, and so someone might say, “I went on a date with this guy and I had a really bad experience with him, and I’m gonna post that information about him online.” And so that information is sourced not from the predators themselves but from people who had experience.
Erin: From people who interact with them.
Rebecca: Yeah. And so that’s, because they’re just two different social networking sites that work in different ways. So the tools work in differen ways.
Maymay: And also the fact that with Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid, the interaction paradigm is much more, y’know, the question is, “Is this person I’m thinking of going on a date with, y’know, a rapist?” Whereas with Predator Alert Tool for Facebook, the question we’re trying to answer is, “Hey, are any of my friends rapists?”
Erin: Oh god.
Maymay: So, that’s a very differentâ€¦it’s a very different cultural approach.
Erin: Seriously. Um. Howâ€¦I’m sorry, I’m a little naive here. How do you implement the tool? Like, how does the user find the tool and then use it? How do you learn about it, how do you use it?
Maymay: For Facebook it’s simply a Facebook app, and that relies on word-of-mouth sharing. There’s a “Share” button on the app itself. I’m hoping to get in touch with more rape crisis centers and college health centers and, y’know, people like you. I already know that there is someone, I forgot her name, but she’s a programmer at a dating website startup and she’s looking at it to maybe integrate to–
Rebecca: Into the dating website itself.
Maymay: –the website itself, which would be a first of a kind, which would be awesome.
Maymay: And with Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid, it’s simply a browser userscript, so it’s literally like a plugin, and again, you have to know about it, hear about it. I mean, Facebook and OkCupid and all the rest of the companies are doing their damnedest to make sure no one hears about it. I mean, I know that OkCupid has been contacted by reporters about it, and they just refuse to talk about it.
Maymay: Yeah, it’s justâ€¦I mean, I’m not surprised, necessarily, butâ€¦.
Rebecca: Yeah, mostly at this point people find out about it through word of mouth. OkCupid, especially, on Tumblr. There was just a lot of, um, talk about it. And we’ve been trying to spread the word through–
Maymay: Yeah. You mentioned Yes Means Yes blog before, and Thomas Millar who writes it is someone I know personally and I know that he also knows about it, and he’s also refused to write about it. So, that’s–
Erin and Kianne: What? Why is that?
Maymay: For reasons that are–
Rebecca: Political drama.
Maymay: Mostly political drama that has to do with activist reputation. Things that don’t really matter to people who are trying to survive in this world. But that gives you a sense of the kind of difficulty we’ve seen in making sure that this gets spread. That people just know about it.
Rebecca: So, what are you two thinking about? What excited you about it? What questions do you have around how you want to move forward?
Erin: Yeah! Well, y’know we met today, at this hackathon. And I’m a designer. She’s a developer.
Kianne: I’m more of a baby developer. I can do some things butâ€¦
Rebecca: That’s sort of how I feel.
Erin: So, the thing is, we have a team of actually, what, eight people that are currently in a class right now. But we were all, y’know, gonna make something with it. But then we were trying to determine what form it should take. What can we build? How to implement this really, really well? We weren’t sure if we should create a new dating site, y’know, how do you make this tool more accessible to people?
Kianne: Yeah, and because the limitations are it seems like the dating sites are trying to keep it down low.
Rebecca: Right. One of the reasons that I was excited about building the version for Facebook is because it felt like that was kind of the way that we had found so far to make it the most accessible, because so many people are on Facebook and it’s so easy to install, and then it brings that information–because there are lots and lots of websites out there where people can go and, just like, post information about sexual violence and their experiences and stuff. But you have to know that those are there and go looking for them, whereas everyone’s sort of already on Facebook. So, if that information shows up on their Facebook, it kind of comes to where they live instead of them having to think to go search the dating website, or something.
Maymay: So, one of the things that, um, that I have, sort of, on my to do list–so, the Predator Alert Tool for Facebook has an API. You can simply do an HTTP GET request once, y’know, you have to be logged in to both the app and Facebook, you send an HTTP request along with your login cookie, and basically that just returns a result, “This person has a report or not,” and how many those are. So, that’s how the viewer, the front-end side of this works.
Erin: You’re cutting out.
Maymay: So, the point I’m trying to makeâ€¦
Erin: Wait, go back.
Maymay: Okay, the point I’m trying to make is that, um, since it has an API, any website that integrates with Facebook, and has a user ID system, such as, I don’t know, Foursquare, can be integrated with the Predator Alert Tool for Facebook today. There’s a post on my blog called “How to build”–actually, as a front-end designer, you might find this particularly interesting–“How to make a Predator Alert Tool viewer“.
Kianne: Wow, I will definitely check that out.
Maymay: So, that would be like a, “Ask Jenny” kind of application. Like, what do people do–every woman that I’ve talked to, is like, “Here’s how I vet my dates.” They talk to their friends about it. So, like, “Hey, do you know Jake from chem lab? What’s he like?” This is kind of doing that on Facebook, at scale. And because that’s simply a, essentially, a boolean yes/no check, and then you can link directly to the Predator Alert Tool pages already, that would be, depending on how much time you have for your hackathon, relatively easy to implement, very design-heavy–in other words, most of the application is front-end work–and, y’know, the back-end’s pretty much done.
Rebecca: How much time do you have? Is it just today?
Kianne: Yeah, we have like 2 hours.
Rebecca: Do you want to send them [an anonymous person’s] post about this?
Maymay: Yeah, let me send you a post that has a description of what this might look like.
Erin: Awesome, thanks a lot!
Maymay: And, let’s seeâ€¦. And that might give you a good starting point.
Erin: Yeah, thanks a lot!
Maymay: Plus, y’know, whatever you don’t finish if you wanna just chuck it up on GitHub we can pull and push and all that stuff.
Rebecca: Right. Like, this is very much an ongoing project, so.
Maymay: Yeah, I work on this pretty much full time in the sense that “full time” involves my not having any other job. Other than, y’know, the seedbank thing that I sent you earlier.
Erin: Yeah, yeah, exactly, that’s awesome.
Kianne: How did you guys get it on to, um, onto CodeMontage?
Maymay: I know Vanessa Hurst personally. We met in New York City some time ago, and I’ve been involved with a lot of folks like Danielle Sucher who does the Jailbreak the Patriarchy, the women in tech groups.
Kianne: Yeah, I’ve also met Danielle before.
Maymay: Yeah, cool.
Erin: Cool, cool! Thanks guys, thanks a lot! I really appreciate it. We’ll check out all these things and obviously let you know what’s going on.
Rebecca: Awesome! Well, yeah, keep us updated.
Erin: Thank you for taking time out of your day.
Maymay: Yeah, thank you for working on this.
Rebecca: It was nice to meet you.
Maymay: And your interest in it!
Kianne: Lovely meeting you!
Erin: Thanks a lot, guys.
Rebecca: Well, good luck. Have fun!
Erin: Talk to you later! Bye!
Unfortunately, despite following up with Erin, I never heard of anything they made along this theme. Over email, Erin informed me that,
We did make another app that was an offshoot of your idea! Where, instead of searching through profiles and alerting users as to potential predators, we can educate daters in a positive fun way! We’ll show you some time when we have better mock-ups!!