Interviewing Badass UX Designer Caroline Sinders On Digital Harassment


Caroline Sinders is a user researcher and UX designer with two entire degrees from NYU. Among a large number of fantastic things she’s doing right now centering on women and gaming, she’s created two awesome panels for South By Southwest. Actually, that’s all I have by way of introduction—I’ll let her tell you the rest of the story. This is something every participant in social media of any kind should read.


Everyone meet Caroline! This is Caroline.

This interview has been edited for length and flow. We talked a good long time, y’all.

Ali: Congrats on putting together a panel.

Caroline: I put together two panels.

Ali: Congrats on putting together two panels which is twice as difficult as putting together one. Can you tell me a little bit about the panels? Who are the other participants? What sort of thing you will cover? That sort of thing.

Caroline: So, they are both [for South By Southwest] under geek and gaming culture. The first panel I put together was one for Code Liberation. We teach women how to code and make video games. Our panel is specifically on how do we get women coding more. How do we get women coding more in games? There is already an imbalance of women programmers. It gets even more imbalanced once you get into games. One of my cohorts, Adele Lynn, and I are just going to talk about what we do at Liberation. A lot of what we do is provide education, but we also provide a safe space to be a geek girl. We have board game nights, we have code jams; one of the themes was a Nicki Minaj song.

We host different types of conferences. I created a conference called Facets that was started in Code Liberation it has now moved out of that. It now has a focus on all different aspects of creative coding, interactive art and technology. We want to get it out there that there is this other space. It’s not girls who code and it’s not like Khan Academy. We are providing educational resources as well as community and mentorship for self-identifying women.

Ali: Where is this located?

Caroline: It’s in New York City. We’re trying to expand it even more. We’re starting a London Chapter because one of our original founders is now there.

The second panel is on online harassment. How to use design to mitigate online harassment, specifically in gaming spaces.

Ali: Can you talk a little bit more on this one and who the participants are?

Caroline: On that panel is Katherine Cross, Randi Harper and myself. Katherine Cross is a Sociologist and Graduate Student at CUNY Graduate Center. She is this amazing woman and lecturer on harassment specifically in gaming spaces. Randi Harper is a developer who lectures a lot on online harassment. She created the Good Game Auto Blocker. That is an auto blocker that essentially is for Twitter and blocks a lot of Gamergate enthusiasts. It is really great, I’ve used that.

I write a lot about interaction design and how to use design elements to start stymieing harassment. As well as this concept called “designing consent.” We didn’t design consent into our social networks because when we designed our social networks years ago we designed for a different demographic and a different user group. We designed for a small town, but right now social media is a very, very large city. The infrastructural needs have changed. We didn’t update them to reflect those needs. We designed for what we thought social media was. What social media was when the internet first came to be, which was a place to actively meet strangers. It was not a space to meet people who you’ve also met in real life.

Ali: Can you tell me what happened with this second panel?

Caroline: Yes, Katherine Cross and Randi Harper are really well-known, especially with Gamergate. I figured we would get a little bit of pushback and we did along with two other panels, one that Brianna Wu is on and one that Arthur Chu is on. Both are people who are really well known inside of Gamergate and are very actively anti-crusading and talking about online harassment specifically around Gamergate.

Gamergate started a thread in one of their Reddit forums, Kotaku in Action. Kotaku is the Gawker anime/games blog and Gamergate created Kotaku in Action to provide their version of what they wanted Kotaku to be. They started a thread highlighting our panels. First with the obvious unsaid intention of: let’s highlight these people that started a panel and do everything we can to make sure they don’t get one. Gamergate went out of their way to say in the thread (because they know lots of Anti-Gamergaters read this thread) that they’re not brigading, anyone can vote.

With SXSW you can down-vote and up-vote for a panel, meaning if 20 people want to see my panel vote yes, but 45 people vote no, my panel gets moved down further in this queue of panels you can see. Even just having people who are not going to SXSW, that have no affiliation with SXSW, that are not fans of SXSW down voting a panel that they are never going to attend it hurts that panel’s chances of being seen. One of the reasons SXSW wants voting is they want to gauge what their community and ecosystem is into. Having outside people that are not interested in SXSW skews the voting. We notified SXSW and they said they would take that into heavy consideration. They take the voting very seriously but voting only counts for 30% of your grade for selection. SXSW ultimately gets to decide, regardless of voting, who is picked. It helps sway if your panel is popular.

We saw that Arthur notified us and we talked internally and our recommendation from SXSW was to keep promoting our panel. We all started reaching out to our different networks and we started talking about what was happening. That snowballed into this positive campaign. There is a positive campaign now around our three panels to up-vote them. That is something that Gamergate is really upset about. That they are getting a lot of negative criticism for down-voting us. It is just one of these things, well, you started a campaign to take us down and lots of people read it because it is public on Reddit and then I wrote about it. I don’t know what to tell you. I wrote a piece on why we should do away with a down vote for voting situations like these. I just don’t think it is necessary when you have a one-to-many voting choice. It is one thing to have a one-to-one vote choice, such as voting for or against Proposition 8. You should vote yes or no.

You could technically get rid of the no and count the number of people voting who have abstained from voting going in. That would stand in lieu of a no. It is easier to have a yes and a no when you are voting on one thing. When you have one-to-many, meaning there are 3,000 choices, there is no reason to down-vote when you can just vote for something. The down vote doesn’t add anything. You could have a dislike button or commenting section. A down vote is an active element. It is not an emotionally passive one such as a Like button or a Dislike button, it is an active interaction design element. If it is something where you want to reach a specific community, but it is a public vote, then there is no reason to have a down-vote.

Ali: I find it interesting that not once in the panel description did you mention Gamergate? 

 Caroline: Yeah, I don’t want to talk about Gamergate. That’s the funny thing with online harassment: it is not just this one thing. Online harassment has a really long history in social media and in technology and in digital spaces. Gamergate is a really fascinating ethnographic example and I find them to be fascinating in an ethnographic way. Meaning watching how they interact online, linguistically looking at the way they communicate to each other, looking at how that communication can differ from website to website. They are a blip in the history of the internet. They’re not new and they’re not big in the sense for how long their campaign has been on.

I want talk about Penny Arcade Dickwolves and I want to talk about Anonymous before they were these white knights in black hats, right? I want to talk about AOL chat room abuse and how did you navigate that as a user. I remember being 10-years-old in an AOL chatroom making people think I was 24.

There is a lot of stuff I want to talk about that has nothing to do with Gamergate at all. It is literally a panel around how we use design to help create a different kind of social media ecosystem. How do we use it in places where users have mixed identity spaces? Meaning, anonymity and real names. Specifically what if you are in World of Warcraft or League of Legends how do you mitigate harassment in a space where you are not yourself?  How do you formulate rules when you are in space that is rooted in storytelling and fantasy? What are the rules within that and how do you navigate from there? What you are personally comfortable with but who you want to interact with when you are in a space to primarily play? You are in a space that is maybe male-dominated? That is what I want to talk about.

Ali: Why do you think Gamergate reacted the way they did having really not any reason at all to look at your panel because it is not about Gamergate? What can we glean from their reaction? Is there anything we can glean?

Caroline: Honestly, it is the names attached. For instance, Brianna Wu’s panel is on virtual reality. It has nothing to do with harassment. None of the panels are about Gamergate. My panel is about interaction design and harassment. The other two panels are about game design and theories for virtual reality. It is just the names attached. Randi Harper, Brianna Wu, Arthur Chu have very frought names in the Gamergate lexicon. They are very specific people for that group. It doesn’t matter what Randi is lecturing on. She is the persona non grata. I think it is really that. I think if Randi wasn’t on my panel, this wouldn’t of happened. I want Randi on my panel. I came up with this panel because specifically I wanted to talk with Randi and Katherine Cross. You know? I want to have a conversation in public with them there. All of our work really intersects in a beautiful way. I want to have that conversation with them.

Ali: One of the things I noticed in the SXSW panel description, you were talking about creating positive and inclusive online spaces. What online communities are looking at as examples of positive and inclusive online spaces?

Caroline: Slack, a lot of Slack channels. I feel like my Twitter can be very positive. The downside to Twitter is you have no idea who is looking at you and when. Or the bigness of your reach. They can tell you impressions but they cannot tell you how many people [who aren’t signed in] saw something. Effectively I have been looking at really small communities and looking at how to size them up. I am a part of a bunch of different Slack channels that vary in size. From five people to over 100 people.

I’ve been looking at Twitch. I went back and dug through all my LiveJournal stuff. Effectively I’m looking at smaller places that are on bigger networks that allow you to partition areas of safety. If that makes sense. Slack, for example, is the most partitioned because it starts off partitioned. You have to be invited to a specific channel, there isn’t a general big channel where all Slack members are. You are invited into a space and then you can divide that space up into other channels of topic. It’s like saying I’m in the Fantastic Bisexual Women’s Channel, which is a channel I would totally join, and then from there I am going to join the Mental Health Channel. That means in the Mental Health sub channel, I am only talking about that. I am on a Women Dev Channel and we have General, we have Hustle, we have Brag, we have Mental Health, we have Design, we have Make-up. You’re really supposed to keep whatever is in those channels intrinsic to those channels. I posted something about Adult ADHD and someone in the channel is like oh, We have a Mental Health Channel, we can move this topic there. Those are examples. Code Liberation has a Slack where we have all different kinds of channels: channel of classes, channel for mentorship, channel for a book, we have a channel for general, we have a channel for updates. For us to run effectively we have to stay in those channels with those topics.

Are there ways and spaces to put this idea, this design element, into gaming? What if I can go through World of Warcraft and have created this safety channel or this thing around me where I don’t have to interact with a good chunk of users. Meaning chat can be turned off between us or maybe I only want to see users that have similar things in common. I know that changes a lot of the structure of the game. This would be a great time to prototype. Your first idea isn’t your best idea, sometimes it is your worst idea. To get it down on paper and see how bad it was and then you learn from there.

What would that look like? I think a lot of it is understanding that these really big ecosystmes of communication and social media need to have smaller channels or they need to allow filter options for users to start creating those channels. For instance with Twitter a lot of my suggestions have been, what if you look public but you have all the offerability of privacy. Or the ability to turn the comments off on one of your tweets but it is still spreadable and retweetable. People can’t select it and put it in a tweet to write about it. They can’t respond to it. What if people can see you but they can’t interact with you if they have less than a certain amount of followers or are only a couple of days old. Things like that. That starts to build an invisible channel partition. It is not structured outwardly through UI the same way the Slack channel is but it is structured systematically like that.

Ali: So another thing that we’ve talked about prior to this conversation is institutions or groups of people or publications treating Gamergate as sort of a weird subculture that they may agree with or disagree with, but not treating them as threatening. And I wanted to ask how SXSW’s response to Gamergate has been for you?

Caroline: I’ll be totally honest. Their response has been great, and it’s also been totally evocative for people that don’t quite understand Gamergate. They have been super supportive and really responsive, they’ve been asking around Austin, and different people that they know affiliated with different companies that have an understanding about Gamergate, what they should do. I dont think they quite necessarily understand the seriousness of what Gamergate is capable of, specifically around if Brianna Wu or Arthur Chu is involved. Randi Harper — those three people I just mentioned, they are just so ill-regarded by Gamergate to a point where their safety at certain points has been compromised by specific members inside of Gamergate.

So Gamergate is just this really large grouping of people, and a small chunk of them have made violent accusations. And we’re at a point now where digital culture and our online selves are these sticky personas we carry with us into our offinlie lives, that you cant neccsarily say “I hope you get raped to death and die,” because it’s like — thats something that now has weight, because our online personas are becoming equal and as weighted as our offline personas. If somebody says that to you in real life, I think Gamergate thinks thats a different thing, think thats a joke, but we’re at a point now where actually that’s not a joke.

We’re at a point now with our digital selves and our offline selves are so completely intertwined and so evocative of our offline personas but also, socially they bleed together. I’ve met so many people offline that I’ve met online. So what you say online is actually like you are saying it to someone’s face. I don’t know if that understanding has necessarily been there. SXSW is also only going off what’s been said in the commenting for our panels, they’re not necessarily going off of the documentation that Gamergate creates on other social media channels such as Twitter, 8Chan, Reddit, and I think that that’s kind of problematic. I understand their hesitation to look into that because what if everyone said, “out of 3,000 panels, this one person said this thing.” However, I do think that conferences need to start taking that seriously as the internet is really fraught and can be a breeding spot for harassment, specifically because I think as users, we don’t quite understand what it means to have this platform that is so sticky.

Our words are data, they’re not words that melt away. I can’t yell at you once on the internet and assume it’s going to melt away the way I yell at you in real life. Because it’s data. It’s saved to a database. It has a URL. It will be there pretty much for forever as long as someone has a URL. That’s not the way our fighting matches happen in really life, unless someone records it. But you’ll forget what I said to you of we got into a fight, and you’ll remember that I got angry, and then one day you won’t remember. And you won’t have any way to pull it back up. But that’s not the case with the internet. So I feel like we’re in this really fantastic turning point, especially as a user researcher watching this. People are staring to create these really intensive social interactions, social ecosystems, online. But we’re still sort of fighting to say: “no, it’s really not quite real.” But it is real. You’ve made real friendships online, you’ve made real enemies online, you’ve found real love online, and that needs to be taken into consideration.

So, TLDR: they’re doing a great job, but I don’t think that they quite understand that where they need to be looking is not in our commenting sections, but what’s being said outside in Gamergate-approved channels.

Ali: So on to the fun question. What are your three must-play games right now?

Caroline: Ohmygod. So Lifeline… It’s a text-based iOS game [editors note: here’s the Android version]. You’re leading this man named Zachary who’s an astronaut through an alien planet. It’s like what Prometheus, that horrible movie, should have been. It’s so good. And then Papers Please is amazing. And I would say I love this game called Type: Rider. It takes you through this history of typography but you’re playing as this little thing, and you have to get through these really fraught obstacle courses. You’re interacting with these different letters and you’re learning about the history of typography.

Ali: That is the nerdiest thing I’ve ever heard. [We both laugh. Because we’re both huge huge nerds.]

Caroline: It’s exciting. I’m a type nerd, so I thought it was fantastic.

Ali: Amazing. And is there anything that you wish I had asked that I didn’t? Anything you want to share, completely outside of what we talked about?

Caroline: I guess I always feel like I want to stipulate that I’m a researcher, so I find Gamergate to be completely fascinating. And while there are aspects of Gamergate that I think are dangerous, I also think that’s evocative of most online groupings and large groups of people. And I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of the situation for people like Brianna or Anita. This is serious, this is our everyday life, and it’s fraught. But I also think it’s important to highlight that we’re at this really specific place and intersection of online and offline personas, and really what does it mean to be a person on the internet? But also what does this do for internet culture and for social media? The internet is expanding. So we’re at this point where it’s a fascinating place and time to be a researcher, watching people use technology and seeing culturally how we start to group ourselves.

Ali: And then the very last question I have is: where can we get a copy of Night Witches?

Caroline: It’s coming soon!

Ali: First of all, tell everyone what Night Witches is.

Caroline: It’s my thesis from grad school, it’s an experimental iOS story that I built in to Unity. It’s language, like what you hear people talk in, is Russian but it has English subtitles. And you’re exploring this world—it’s a really short game. It feels wrong to even call it a game—it’s a really short story world experience and it’s super weird and experimental and it should be out hopefully within a month on iOS and Android.

Ali: I saw it on your website and I was like: “I have to have this.”

Caroline: It’s pretty good. It’s a pretty straightforward, strange experience. It’s not even really a game. You’re wandering around a world trying to put together a story with this woman who you can’t tell if she’s dead or alive.

Ali: I’m so excited.

Caroline: It’s like a really chill “Gone Home,” is the way I think about it. You’re just walking in a world. It’s probably a thirty, forty-five second game. That’s why it’s free.

Ali: That’s all I have!

Caroline: Okay, cool. I guess the big thing I want to stress is that Gamergate is very serious, but not just for Gamergate. It’s also time to start paying attention to online harassment campaigns and their tactics. To understand that we design these systems that allow for this completely. It’s not about Gamergate, it’s about how we got here. It’s about what happened prior, what will happen after. The reason I don’t like to talk about Gamergate anymore is that I feel like I’ve explored ethnographically all the things that are fascinating about them. But something else is going to happen in a year, and it’s going to be to the scale of Gamergate. Because our systems allow for that.

If you’d like to see Caroline’s panels at SXSW, head over to the panel picker and check out Code Liberation: Getting Girls Gaming and Level Up: Overcoming Harassment.

This has been the one-hundred-forty-second installment of Queer Your Tech with Fun, Autostraddle’s nerdy tech column. Not everything we cover is queer per se, but we talk about customizing this awesome technology you’ve got. Having it our way, expressing our appy selves just like we do with our identities. Here we can talk about anything from app recommendations to choosing a wireless printer to websites you have to bookmark to any other fun shit we can do with technology. Header by Rory Midhani.

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A.E. Osworth

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 542 articles for us.


  1. This was great; I’m glad to learn of the high-quality work being done in this area. I hadn’t thought about the intersection of design and harassment; very interesting. Have a great panel!

  2. Very cool interview! I am really interested in Sinders’s explanation of designing different models of spaces and channels online.

  3. Great interview.
    I felt this on so many levels. Especially the negotiation of having a safe online space, but also wanting your words to reach people. Tough line.

  4. Gotta say it’s worth the read for anyone in this industry! Here’s also an article from TMO Group talking about simply methods to conduct user research in UI design and UX design (link: Feel free to read it and let us know what you think!

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