Modulate’s mission statement is to make online social platforms safer, more inclusive, and overall better. But how can we define “better” in a way that truly works for everyone? This isn’t just a philosophical problem - as we partner with major game studios and social platforms, we at Modulate are finding ourselves in a position of unusual power to shape the experiences of a diverse array of groups, and we are committed to wielding that power carefully and responsibly.
An example: Modulate’s ToxMod system helps platforms identify harmful behavior in voice chat so their moderators can take action. But this inevitably leads to a crucial question - harmful in what context? Many platforms today are too eager to generalize their rules to every group, without giving this question its full due.
Consider the use of the n-word. In many contexts, this word is innately hateful and harmful. But some black-identifying players choose to reclaim the slur, adopting it into their vocabulary as a term of association, familiarity, or authenticity. Adopting a blanket ban on the use of the n-word would protect some vulnerable players, but it would also exclude this other group of players - a demographic which already faces substantial exclusion and discrimination - from building their own authentic spaces on the given platform. That’s unacceptable to us, and while we certainly recognize the enormity and complexity of making a platform truly equitable, we’ve vowed at Modulate to seek real answers to the real problem, not just easy answers that only shift harm around.
But we can’t do this without acknowledging the gaps in our own perspectives, and seeking genuine expertise into the different kinds of experiences players have online. The diversity of our own team can make up for some of that gap, but that’s an imperfect solution - especially recognizing that my co-founder Carter and I are both white cis men who studied physics at MIT and live within a few blocks of each other. There will inevitably be situations in which our perspectives and those of our team are skewed or limited - making it crucial for us to augment our thinking by learning from the true experts in this space.
It’s with this goal in mind that we are so thrilled to welcome Dr. Kishonna Gray to the Modulate team. Dr. Gray has spent years studying the online experiences of underrepresented groups - especially black and female players - and brings with her not only a wealth of knowledge and important perspectives, but an infectiously energetic attitude and a genuine belief in the importance of building a better world that makes her fit in perfectly with the Modulate team. Dr. Gray has already begun working with Modulate to provide expertise on the nuanced use of reclaimed slurs in different communities; suggestions for removing sources of bias from our understanding of toxicity and harm; and most importantly of all, real stories of real people online - helping all of us build not only an academic understanding, but genuine empathy for the challenges faced by so many players today.
The world is filled with infinite perspectives, and Modulate’s team is currently less than twenty people - we know we still have a long way to go to ensure that as many views, experiences, and needs as possible are represented in our thinking and the solutions we provide. We may - scratch that, we will - make mistakes along the way, with our technology having imperfect consequences due to our imperfect perspective. But with the dedication of our team and the foresight and expertise brought by Dr. Gray, we’ve already been able to augment ToxMod with a deeper understanding of nuance than we’ve seen before, and we’ll only keep getting smarter about differentiating real harm from innocuous behavior.
The online world - a place where so many of us have found homes, friendships, and safety especially in the last two years - needs to be welcoming to everyone, and we need to break the “wild west” mentality that too many studios use to justify the damage that occurs on their platforms. We know Dr. Gray shares our belief that this is a goal worth fighting for - and we are immensely grateful to her for committing her time, effort, and emotional bandwidth towards helping our cause...and for her support in myself and Carter in particular, who will continue to strive to live up to the expectations of Dr. Gray and our entire team.
The metaverse is coming. Let’s make it be for everyone.