Justin Davis of Spectrum Labs: “Be authentic”

Be authentic. People use social media to find community. By treating others the way you’d like to be treated and being your authentic self can create a safe and inclusive online environment. As a part of my interview series about the things we can each do to make social media and the internet a kinder […]

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Be authentic. People use social media to find community. By treating others the way you’d like to be treated and being your authentic self can create a safe and inclusive online environment.

As a part of my interview series about the things we can each do to make social media and the internet a kinder and more tolerant place, I had the pleasure to interview Justin Davis.

Coming off a successful stint at Krux (acquired by Salesforce for 800M dollars), where he led R&D for new products in data privacy, safe data sharing, NLP, and machine learning, Justin Davis led product for the Salesforce Data Studio Platform, building it into a 15M dollars ARR business. A product and data technophile, Justin is dedicated to building ethically designed technology in service to solve real-world problems. After the 2016 election, he saw a chance for contextual AI to create a smarter, safer, healthier Internet, at scale. Prior to Krux and Salesforce, Justin spent a decade growing data-driven SaaS platforms in business development and sales engineering roles with Adobe, SAS, and Microsoft.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

When I was growing up in my small town in North Carolina, I found community online. I loved connecting with people over online games like Ultima Online and EverQuest and various chat rooms on AOL, Yahoo! and ICQ. It was those early, online experiences that shaped my understanding of the diversity of people out there in the world that my town of less than 1000 people couldn’t and opened my eyes to the possibilities of unique types of communities that could be created online.

I’ve always had an interest in technology and how it can be applied to solve real-world problems. I went from one tech company to the next doing sales, business and product development, and in the wake of increasing hate speech online, brought on by the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I was driven to use my big data experience to build something that mattered and gave me a sense of purpose, which resulted in my battle to combat toxicity on the internet.

Online users are exposed to toxic behaviors each day despite the passionate teams of content moderators working to remove it. Human moderators and AI algorithms that many companies use aren’t accurate enough and are hard to scale. This is where Spectrum Labs comes in, we use contextual AI to moderate, track, flag and ultimately stop harassment, hate speech radicalization and 40+ other profiles of toxic behavior online. Recognizing which content is and isn’t appropriate can be challenging for platforms with legacy moderation technology or that possess limited data assets.

Today we’re proud to be working with a wide range of companies across gaming, social platforms, e-learning and online dating, including Riot Games, The Meet Group, Wildlife, Udemy, Mercari and others to usher in the next generation of trust & safety infrastructure on the internet.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When Microsoft shut down the aQuantive business and team back in May 2009, I was on my 4th day in the hospital after being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis the very day the full team got the call that we were being laid off.

Looking back at who was on that call at the time, it included folks that I got to experience three successful exits with (Accipiter > Atlas, Atlas > Microsoft, aiMatch > SAS), as well as the team that I would eventually work with at Krux through our exit to Salesforce.

I couldn’t be more proud that some of my investors and half of my team came as a result of the people that were on that call in May 2009. Life really is about the communities you build — family, sports, religion, shared interests, etc. The healthier those are, the more you’ll find they are rewarding in unexpected ways.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

On my first ever business trip, which was supposed to be a 3 day trip from RDU to SFO, I checked a bag. The reason I checked a bag was because I had borrowed my mom’s rather large suitcase (I didn’t have one).

It was lost somewhere in the connection at DFW. We got in late that night and I was hopeful that my bag might be found and returned to me before our important set of meetings the next morning.

It never showed. My colleague at the time purposefully took me shopping for an oversized suit at Jos A Banks and dress shoes from DSW. Nothing fit and I looked like I had just raided my uncle’s closet. Stylish for a kid from NC having his first real business meeting in the big city of San Francisco, though. I was officially hazed and indoctrinated to the team.

Weeks later that colleague with the help of some of our peers, bought me my first carryon suitcase which lasted all the way through my Microsoft journey. Looking back, it was quite serendipitous…fitting even.

Ah the lesson. Don’t check a bag.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We recently founded the OASIS Consortium, which unites key stakeholders across the digital world to drive consensus and adoption of industry-wide online brand and safety standards. I’m very excited to work with our founding members from companies like TikTok, The Meet Group, and Roblox to advocate for brand and user safety, with the goal of building a better internet experience for everyone.

When one reads the comments on Youtube or Instagram, or the trending topics on Twitter, a great percentage of them are critical, harsh, and hurtful. The people writing the comments may feel like they are simply tapping buttons on a keyboard, but to the one on the receiving end of the comment, it is very different. This may be intuitive, but I feel that it will be instructive to spell it out. Can you help illustrate to our readers what the recipient of a public online critique might be feeling?

A lot of places we like to go to build community online are struggling from a lack of safety, and there’s real harm that can evolve from this. The internet allows users to wear a mask and feel a false sense of confidence to make hurtful comments and decisions that they might not otherwise say offline. Some still would of course.

Online abuse is unrelenting and often anonymous, leaving the victim to feel helpless, hopeless, and trapped. It affects their mental health and ability to go about their everyday lives.

Currently our platform protects 1 billion people from online toxicity every day. 1 billion people! It’s encouraging to see more companies recognize that what they’re doing to monitor and eliminate toxic elements on their platforms isn’t enough, hopefully this will lead to more solutions to address this systemic issue.

Do you think a verbal online attacks feels worse or less than a verbal argument in “real life”? How are the two different?

I think a verbal argument in real life is more likely to lead to a resolution. You can read body language, better understand the context, and hopefully resolve the issue in that moment. Oftentimes, an online attack includes an element of shame and virality, which can make it much more damaging to the victim.

Online communities play an instrumental role in bringing people together. At their best, online platforms are excellent places to enjoy, share, and connect. At their worst, they can become toxic, driving users away.

What long term effects can happen to someone who was shamed online?

Cyberbullying is a growing concern for social, gaming and dating platforms looking to create a space for their users. Toxic behavior online is hurtful, widespread, and disproportionately impacts teens. 59% of U.S. teens have reported being bullied or harassed online and about 30% of online bullying victims said they feared for their lives. It causes victims to feel fear, loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Victims of cyberbullying are at a higher risk for suicidal thoughts or actions like self harm.

Cyberbullying identification and prevention can be complex. Without context, it can be challenging to identify harmful behaviour. Our technology allows customers to look beyond a single message and measure sentiment and emotions and other signals that can provide a full picture to more accurately detect and prevent toxic behaviour.

I highly encourage readers to check out “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” by Jon Ronson.

Many people who troll others online, or who leave harsh comments, can likely be kind and sweet people in “real life”. These people would likely never publicly shout at someone in a room filled with 100 people. Yet, on social media, when you embarrass someone, you are doing it in front of thousands or even millions of people, and it is out there forever. Can you give 3 or 4 reasons why social media tends to bring out the worst in people; why people are meaner online than they are in person?

In the last four years, there’s been a rise in overall racism, hate speech and misogynistic behaviors online. Coming out of the 2016 election, it became pretty clear that the internet was on fire. More and more people are coming online and getting comfortable with expressing opinions as they feel less personal risk in confronting and exposing someone on the internet vs. in person. The internet allows people to hide behind a screen and when you’re anonymous, you feel less vulnerable and accountable for any toxic behavior which can lead to more outrage. But it’s not just that and there’s certainly an exaggeration (in my opinion) on the importance of anonymity on this topic. It’s also about accessibility, it’s just easier for individuals and mobs to form and harass.

The success of online platforms hinges on a positive user experience. While companies have to emphasize growth, we believe that a healthier, safer platform actually leads to better growth, engagement and retention. Building a trust and safety team to moderate content and protect customers from malicious users is key to fighting the epidemic of online harassment and addressing community trust and safety issues head-on.

If you had the power to influence thousands of people about how to best comment and interact online, what would you suggest to them? What are your “5 things we should each do to help make social media and the internet, a kinder and more tolerant place”? Can you give a story or an example for each?

  1. Be authentic. People use social media to find community. By treating others the way you’d like to be treated and being your authentic self can create a safe and inclusive online environment.
  2. Know the rules and follow community guidelines. Platforms should create and publish clear expectations for all users. Users should follow those guidelines which are in place to ensure safety.
  3. Safety is everyone’s responsibility. Content moderation cannot occur in a silo, users should be vigilant and flag/report toxic behavior.
  4. Don’t believe everything you read and go beyond the headline. The spread of misinformation is a growing issue. Before believing or sharing something online, do some research, dig deeper and fact check.
  5. Invest in Trust & Safety teams and automated solutions. Human moderators can leverage AI to respond to more toxic behavior online in real time.

Freedom of speech prohibits censorship in the public square. Do you think that applies to social media? Do American citizens have a right to say whatever they want within the confines of a social media platform owned by a private enterprise?

Every social media platform has its own community guidelines, and as soon as we make a profile on that platform, we are agreeing to their terms and conditions. If what you posted breaks the rules on hate speech, cyberbullying, etc. that platform reserves the right to kick you off their service because you have agreed in advance to the rule and the documented consequence.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You’re the average of the people you surround yourself with.”

I’ve found that I’m at my happiest when I’m surrounded by positivity, diversity, and passion. It’s a quote that’s been effective at helping me assess if I’m giving and receiving the things that I need in life.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

My mom. It’s been over a year due to COVID. A big southern breakfast and a hug sounds perfect, don’t let me down.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on Twitter @_JustinDavis

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