There are two types of comments in this world: those linked to one's public profile and those that remain anonymous under a cryptic handle and unusual avatar. While the former requires transparency and a modicum of responsibility for one's words, the latter can often be useful for discussing intense topics such as divorce or reproductive issues, without the omnipresent eyes of friends and family.
The problem with anonymous commenting? Trolls -- the hate-speaking Internet users seemingly intent on destroying not only the topic of conversation in a thread, but also the feelings of others. To solve this dilemma, a new social network has launched with multiple technology filters to prevent such comments from disrupting conversations.
"VProud is a safe space for women to discuss important topics without trolls," said Karen Cahn, founder of the site. “Our definition of a troll is anyone that is a producer of hateful, mean and unproductive comments.
While men do occasionally fall victim to trolls, research indicates that women are more often the target.
A 2005 safety report by the Pew Research Center showed that 72.5 percent of people reporting harassment and stalking online were female and 5 percent said that they were in physical danger from something that happened online. A decade later, the issue persists: According to an online harassment study released by the Center in October 2014, women and young adults were "more likely than others to experience harassment on social media" and, more specifically, women ages 18 to 24 "experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels: 26 percent of these young women have been stalked online, and 25 percent were the target of online sexual harassment."
But whether the trolls manifesting these incidents are male or female is anyone’s guess.
“The main thing about trolls is we don't know who they are -- they often create fake personalities or operate without being clear about gender,” said Karen Untereker Doak, a social media expert who leads the Detroit Digital team for Weber Shandwick, a global public relations firm unaffiliated with VProud.
“Part of why they're able to get away with that behavior is it's done behind a veil of anonymity,” Doak said. “This is one of the reasons why you don't see very much trolling on LinkedIn—fewer people will behave that way if it's tied to their real name and occupation.”
Despite all of the negatives associated with anonymous commenting, many without malicious intentions still find it appealing.
A former Google, YouTube, and AOL Video executive, Cahn was inspired to create VProud after experiencing feelings of isolation following her divorce.
"With my Facebook name, I may be comfortable commenting on yoga," she said. "But I wouldn’t want to discuss more intimate issues in my life and I couldn't comment freely without the fear of my family or neighbors seeing what I was saying."
In an attempt to satisfy both desires, VProud allows its members to switch back and forth between a public handle linked to their Facebook profile or a private one. Community members can choose to follow and engage with either of the accounts, but will remain unaware that the two belong to the same person.
Currently operating in beta, the site has already attracted approximately 250,000 users to the discourse. Participation is free.
From Brittany Maynard's decision to end her life to student loan debt to women's healthcare, all of the original content on the site is video-based, asking questions that users can vote to agree or disagree with, and respond to.
"Is it important to be honest with socially challenged children even when it might hurt?" asks one recent video.
"Is watching porn bad for our brains?" posits another, while yet another queries: "Could you go a day without your smartphone?"
To stave off conversation disruptors, VProud monitors comments in multiple ways: proprietary technology filters that understand context and evolve as new information is introduced, editors that review conversation threads, and the ability for users to report comments going against community guidelines.
Still, some detractors say a separate site for women creates more of a divide between the sexes.
"I'm of the view that, if you start from the outset that men and women should be equal, then a social network for women that is meant to be an alternative to Facebook is a betrayal to the women in history who have got equal rights into the statute books," said Jonathan Bishop, editor of the book, "Examining the Concepts, Issues and Implications of Internet Trolling."
Bishop declined to comment on the troll problem that the site was designed to circumvent. But for Cahn, VProud is the first of many applications for the company’s filter settings.
"We wanted to provide a safe space for women first based on our own experience, but we have already received multiple phone calls from parents asking when VProud will launch a site for teens," said Cahn. “And we are open to partnering with other platforms down the road.”