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25 July 2019

How can we connect students safely?

Amber Mitchell is a fourth year Comparative Literature and English Language and Linguistics student at the University of Kent. She also worked as a Unibuddy student ambassador.

She visited Unibuddy’s London office to explore the problems of safeguarding, see what we’re doing, and work with us to find more solutions. She wrote this article describing what she found. 

The internet’s oldest problem

It is well documented that sexual harassment online is a serious and widespread issue. It affects every medium – from social media or professional networking platforms to online marketplaces and fitness apps. In light of the increased awareness following movements like MeToo, people have increasingly been calling on big tech companies to do more in the constant battle to try and make their platforms safe, with many being accused of not doing enough to protect their users. One company that understands the importance of safeguarding their users from inappropriate conduct online is Unibuddy.

Launched in 2017, Unibuddy is an online platform connecting prospective and current university students, or ambassadors, from across the world. Prospective students have the opportunity to ask ambassadors questions and get first-hand advice on topics such as accommodation and courses or societies and nightlife. Ambassadors get to share their experiences with prospective students in one-to-one conversations, and they can also write blogs on any aspect of their time at university.

Why safeguarding matters to Unibuddy

Safeguarding ambassadors is particularly important to Unibuddy, not only as their student ambassadors are generally aged between 18 and 24, but also because it has the unique position of being a workplace for ambassadors based entirely online.

Thankfully, very few users abuse Unibuddy – with only around 0.5% of messages being reported as inappropriate. However, as Unibuddy CEO Diego Fanara says: “one inappropriate message on our platform is one too many.” 

However, fighting misconduct online is challenging for a variety of reasons. For one, the majority of inappropriate content is difficult, if not impossible, to detect. It is often more subtle and insidious than just explicit language. Not only that, but is often dependent on context. Just because a message does not contain explicit sexual content, it can still be inappropriate, excessively personal or irrelevant to a prospective student. 

Another, more unique, problem that Unibuddy faces as a platform is maintaining a professional purpose and tone without losing the informal and personal feel they strive for. Prospective students want to talk to current students in a way that is relaxed enough that they can be themselves, but without it becoming a dating app. Similarly, the platform aims to find the balance between preventing the more shocking behaviours enabled by anonymity, often seen online through troll accounts, but still allowing prospective students to chat freely, without the feeling of being watched. 

How can we solve inappropriate conduct online?

There are a number of solutions platforms employ to tackle the issue such as word flagging, verification processes, and blocking. Word flagging prevents the most overt harassment by flagging swear words and words with inappropriate connotations such as ‘sexy’, with the aim of deleting/hiding the message before a user has to see it. Verification ensures that all email addresses used to register are real, and thus helps to combat the negative effects facilitated by anonymity, dissuading troll users, as well as gently reminding users to behave appropriately for the medium. 

But these solutions are not without their own flaws. Word flagging can sometimes catch innocent words, such as “Middlesex”. And email verification can be an obstacle to registration, putting people off signing up. Unibuddy had to get creative to combat the unique challenges that they face. In order to manage the expectations from the site, finding the balance between professional and informal, between friendly but not friends, prospective students now have to read a brief code of conduct before being able to connect with ambassadors. This particularly helps to establish expected behaviours on a site which puts students across the globe, from greatly differing cultures, in contact with each other. 

After implementing the code of conduct, Unibuddy also arranged consultations with ambassadors such as myself, to consider amendments and revisions to the code of conduct, effectively ensuring that their ambassadors are heard and their thoughts on safeguarding are being represented. As well as being open to revising their code of conduct, Unibuddy also implemented improvements to their blocking feature. Initially, ambassadors did have the ability to block a prospective student from messaging themKeen to go further, Unibuddy implemented more blocking powers. Now, if an ambassador feels the need to block a user they can select one of four reasons for the action – inappropriate/unpleasant messages, abusive or threatening, spam, other – and a report will be sent to their university supervisor to decide on further action. The block also now prevents the offending user from messaging any other ambassador, effectively safeguarding all ambassadors using the app. This has transformed the app, ensuring ambassadors know that, although they do have a responsibility to respond to messages and be an ambassador for their university, they have the power to block and report people abusing the app, in doing so protecting other ambassadors. University supervisors do have the authority to reverse the block if they feel it was a misunderstanding or unfounded, making sure prospective students are also supported. 

By far one of the most innovative features Unibuddy has introduced is the addition of templates. As well as receiving comprehensive training, ambassadors can use a selection of premade template responses if an occasion arises where they are unsure what to respond to a prospective student. This feature is another way the platform is really making ambassadors feel supported and guided.

Intervention from authority is one of the most effective safeguarding methods. Not only does it work to remind users of the appropriate behaviour, but it empowers users, preventing them from feeling that it is a problem they have to handle unaided. Unibuddy is now exploring ways to implement intervention features into the platform.

“Always more work to be done”

As well as their desire to understand and represent their ambassadors, the most striking impression left on me is the acknowledgment by Unibuddy that it’s important to go even further in fighting inappropriate conduct online, and their willingness to do so. They are committed to regularly consulting with their ambassadors in order to get the most from their platform, revising and implementing new and innovative features to fight inappropriate conduct online. Moderation and safeguarding are truly at the forefront of Unibuddy’s mind, an attitude many other tech companies could benefit from.

However, as Diego Fanara put it, “there is always more work to be done.” 

Diego said: “keeping in constant contact with our users is one piece of the puzzle that helps us come closer to solving this huge problem, that continues to plague social media and the internet at large.”

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