Q&A with Georgia Tech’s Amy Bruckman, research award recipient in online content governance

In this monthly interview series, we turn the spotlight on members of the academic community and the important research they do — as thought partners, collaborators, and independent contributors.

For August, we nominated Amy Bruckman, a professor at Georgia Tech. Bruckman is a winner of the 2019 Content Governance RFP, which sought proposals that helped expand research and advocacy work in the area of online content governance. In this Q&A, Bruckman shares more about her area of specialization, 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 am professor and senior associate chair in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech. We are 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 I am endlessly fascinated by how the design features of an online environment shape human behavior. My students and I build new tools to support novel kinds of online interaction, and we also study existing systems using a mixed-methods approach. My specialty is qualitative methods. My students and I participate online and take field notes on what we observe (methods inspired by sociology and anthropology), and we also interview people about their experiences (building on clinical interview techniques from psychology). I partner with people who do big data and NLP research, and I’ve found that qualitative and quantitative methods are usually more powerful when used together.

Q: What have you been working on lately?

AB: Personally, lately I’ve been focused on my book Should You Believe Wikipedia? Online Communities and the Construction of Knowledge. It is coming out in January from Cambridge University Press. In the book, I try to explain how online communities are designed, with a particular focus on how people can collaboratively build knowledge.

Q: You were a winner of the 2019 Content Governance RFP. What was your winning proposal about?

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

Q: What were the results of this research?

AB: My coauthors (Shagun Jhaver, Christian Boylston, and Diyi Yang) and I found that deplatforming significantly reduced the number of conversations about those individuals. More important, the overall activity and toxicity levels of supporters declined after deplatforming. For example, Milo encouraged his followers to attack actress Leslie Jones. After he was deplatformed, his supporters were better behaved. The full paper will appear at CSCW 2021.

Q: What inspires you in your academic work?

AB: I believe that our field is at a crossroads: The internet needs some redesign to support healthy communities and a working public sphere. The last chapter of my book is focused on how we can help the internet to bring out the best in us all. I try to work toward that goal in my research and in my teaching. Every fall, I teach our required ethics class “Computing, Society, and Professionalism,” and in spring, I teach “Design of Online Communities.” It’s a privilege to teach students about these issues, and the students have impact as they go on to design and build the information systems we all use every day.

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

AB: My book Should You Believe Wikipedia? will be published in early 2022, and there is a sample chapter on my website.

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