Saturday, June 22, 2019

Book Review: 'Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media' by Sarah T. Roberts

Behind The Screen is a very superficial attempt to portray the lives of internet content moderators, those unfortunates who look at all the porn and the hate on social media, and give them a thumbs up or down. They are the maintenance crew of the internet. Browsing social media would be a horrific experience without them.

There are three levels of moderators, according to Sara T. Roberts. One is to work directly at a company that does it. Or, work for a contractor that moderates for others, which is called outsourcing. Lastly, there is home work, where moderators are paid to stay away. Not examined are the lives of freelancers, who surf the internet on their own, looking for gigs that last mere seconds, and pay one cent or so. They add tags to photos, check or write translations, caption images, categorize and classify, and determine what is porn or hate. They are the bottom of the heap.

Even at the top of the heap, those working directly at a social platform, tend to have no benefits, can’t use the facilities everyone else can, and have zero chance of this being a foot in the door, even if they take on side projects. They are second class workers with no hope of advancement. When they burn out, they are disposed of.

Despite the emphasis on the moderators, it takes Roberts 75 pages to introduce one and even begin to describe the grind. She interviewed three moderators at one Silicon Valley firm. And while she documents conversations with them about the trivial hiring process and the lack of benefits, she never bothers to ask senior management why it has policies against moderators staying more than two years or having to take three months off before applying for a second one year stint, why this path is a dead end, or how they came to implement such a system.

There follows a pointlessly bland trip to Manila to see outsourcing in action, but Roberts doesn’t compare working conditions (offices, teams, managers, hours) or highlight differences in job functions. She doesn’t speak to top management there either, and doesn’t follow through to see the effects of it all. It’s mostly about adopting American language and culture so they don’t screw up on behalf of American users. She also speaks at length with a Canadian expat in Mexico who runs an outsourcing operation. His concerns are mostly cultural too.

The one home worker she interviewed in depth was justifiably fed up with all the hate she had to read all day.

Behind The Screen leaves no impression of the life of a moderator. The most impressive thing anyone says in the book is that a completed shift is “like you spent eight hours just in this hole of filth.” Max Breen was the moderator who said it, and he also told Roberts not to bother trying the work herself. So she didn’t.

Neither does she examine the state of the freelancer, who, paid one cent per decision, can make up to $40 for a 12 hour day if they’re really good. She spoke to no doctors about the PTSD-like effects of doing this work. Instead, there is a long discussion of bogus therapy sessions for all who work at the Silicon Valley firm, though workers cannot request direct attention to their own plight, since they have no healthcare. She also doesn’t tie the moderators to the greater disease of the gig economy of precarity, no benefits and repetitive assembly-line jobs, where workers are not even considered employees, even though they’re in the same building. (This is far from unique to content moderation.) Or how totally isolated home workers pathetically try to recreate an office atmosphere with chat functions the company provides. Or how they plot to create unions for better pay and conditions. At the very end of the book she manages to mention that some moderators at Microsoft and Facebook are making claims in court over their treatment by the companies.

The book was an exercise in frustration. Long descriptions of Manila and Silicon Valley were space fillers that added nothing to understanding what goes on behind the screen. The lack of depth and follow through was surprising, and not in a good way. Roberts likes to speak of herself as an expert at the center of the issue, but she never demonstrates that expertise. There are no recommendations other than studies are needed, and her five or six interviews don’t count. Roberts has no answers and nothing new for me to tell you here.

islavery is a very hot topic. If it seems I know as much as Roberts does on this topic, it’s not true. I don’t. I have simply read far better books on it.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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