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Home > News> Talking Point > How to cope with working on an anti-revenge-porn project

How to cope with working on an anti-revenge-porn project

When Sheela and her girls were assigned to a brand new project and asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, little did they know what they getting themselves into. An exclusive excerpt from a new book of stories

Representational image. Courtesy: Unsplash.
Representational image. Courtesy: Unsplash.

Girls had changed. Girls had changed too much, Sheela felt.

Sheela had only been away four years, but when she was around her team, it felt like she had arrived from the 1940s in a khadi sari. She had been prepared to be cheerful, to be a good boss, to be the exact opposite of the bosses she had had. Sheela had planned to be understanding. She was going to take the girls out for a drink once in a while, to be available if they had any personal problems. But somewhere between 2014 and 2018, while she had been at home with her daughter, girls had stopped smiling or laughing at jokes. They only stared at her when she said something funny.

They didn’t like being called girls either, she had recently discovered. One of them, Sheela didn’t know which one, had printed a meme and left it on her desk. Some actress saying, ‘Don’t call me girl, sir!’ Sheela didn’t recognise the actress and it bothered her. So, she spent some time at home reverse-searching until she found her. She had definitely never seen a movie with this one in it. Sheela was careful to never call her colleagues girls again, but it felt like a loss the first few times she censored herself. She remembered her college friend Liz, small and bouncy, standing in the aisle of the excursion bus they took from Bangalore to Goa, saying Girls, Girls, Girls each time she had some new dumb joke or announcement. Girls, girls, girls, I have a very serious announcement, she’d say and then start laughing. Come on, girls, don’t laugh. Come on, girls.

Sheela didn’t need this drama at the beginning of a brand-new project the whole world was talking about. It was a lot of pressure. Especially since the whole world actually was talking about it in the media, but she and the team could not discuss it with anyone. They had all signed non-disclosure agreements two weeks before the announcement. Of course, her team complained about how many times they had to sign. They came in from legal, laughing and rubbing their arms as if they had been doing manual labour. That was a few days before they were told the details of the actual work. And that was when her job really became stressful.

Sheela, a woman whose boyfriends had always called her no-nonsense, thought it was a great idea. Men were pigs and were constantly putting naked pictures of their girlfriends or ex-girlfriends online to punish them. Can you stop men from being pigs? No. So why not try out the solution the company had come up with. ‘Our motto is to make an impact. So if you don’t want to be part of the solution, you just want to be part of the problem,’ she told the girls. She could see Mansi and a couple others rolling their eyes, but she saw two of her team nodding thoughtfully. Women’s safety was an issue that was on everyone’s mind after all.

The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories, published by Westland (232 pages, Rs499).
The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories, published by Westland (232 pages, Rs499).

On the bus home, she couldn’t stop obsessing. They passed a new children’s soft play centre with huge plate glass windows. Stuck in traffic she watched kids squeezing through tunnels and hurtling down slides for nearly half an hour. It struck her that part of the misery came from the space her team shared. The team had been pulled off the main floor and into one of the small, glass-walled conference rooms to work in privacy. What privacy. Sure, everyone couldn’t see your nose-hairs the way they usually could on the main floors. For the world’s biggest social media company, they were pretty kanjoos about space. And as a manager it would have been nice for her to not be practically sitting on the laps of her direct reports. But in the conference room, the six of them were stuck with just each other and this difficult pilot project. The girls weren’t chatterboxes. That wasn’t the problem. In fact, it was the opposite—a permanently tense silence, as if she had screwed up or was about to. Occasionally, two of them would start laughing, making it clear to everyone else that they had been chatting online. The others never asked ‘tell us the joke also’. Sheela did once, right at the beginning but her good humour evaporated when they only stared at her silently, unwilling to part with whatever gem they had shared with each other.

That was on the inside. On the outside, the whole floor was staring at them like they were fish in an aquarium. They couldn’t talk about it and didn’t. But when the first announcements went out about the anti-revenge-porn project, people on the outside pieced together enough to understand that Sheela and her team were in charge of looking at naked women all day. The speed with which they pieced this together from the 1,600 internal emails that flooded their inbox every day amazed Sheela. She opened her inbox a million times a day, still terrified she’d miss something crucial. And sometimes did. But some people replied to everything and some people were quick to follow the sequence of events that led to Sheela and the girls being stuck in the aquarium.

The company had taken a big decision and needed to persuade its millions of daily active users to come on board. If men were going to violate the privacy of women, why not take some insurance? You fill a form and then you upload your photos yourself to a private database using an encrypted link that the company gave you.

She had asked at their first two-day training session about the responsible storage of these images. The reply from the International Head of Safety in Mountain View had reassured her. Bow (short for Rainbow) had leant earnestly into the screen, ‘No, we won’t be storing these images. We will generate a digital image hash.’

Mansi asked with her best old Western movie cowboy accent: A who?

Sheela turned to glare, but Bow laughed. ‘It’s a unique code. It’s the kind of thing that lets us do reverse-image search on Google, for instance. So the photo has a code. Then, if a bad-faith actor uploads a copy of the same photo, we can match the photo against the code and block the copies from circulation.’

An hour later, she was squeezed, standing between Vineeta and Mansi’s chairs, helping Vineeta with a process, feeling unhappily aware of Mansi’s judgey-judgey body next to her. Through a series of surreptitious eye movements, she saw Mansi Whatsapping Karunya.

Knock, knock.

Why did you break up with your crazy ex-boyfriend?

Because he was a bad-faith actor.

Karunya sent her a gif of a woman spitting up her drink.

An exclusive pre-pub extract from The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories by Nisha Susan. The book is published by Westland/Context and releases on 10 August.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    09.08.2020 | 09:00 AM IST

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