“Towards Safe Spaces Online: A Study of Indian Matrimonial Websites” is now an award-winning paper on designing for safety and inclusivity. At the 17th IFIP TC.13 International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (INTERACT 2019), lead author Vishal Sharma accepted the Interaction Design for International Development Award, which “recognizes the most outstanding contribution to the application of interactive systems for social and economic development of people in developing countries.”
Sharma says the motivation behind the work was the need for more research that is “inclusive and cross-cultural, representing the world population.” He recently started working toward his Ph.D. at Georgia Tech after graduating from UCI in June, but was a master’s student in the Department of Informatics when he co-authored the paper with Informatics Professor Emeritx Bonnie Nardi and his fellow grad students, Juliet Norton and A.M. Tsaasan.
“This paper investigates a thoughtful technology that builds on positive traditional social values while at the same time promoting some positive changes,” says Nardi.
Sharma explains that the team was “fascinated by how Indian matrimonial websites provide safety to their users and foster inclusivity without disrupting the entire culture [yet still question] certain practices that are discriminatory.” The team found the websites help ensure safety through government involvement and help support inclusivity by serving people traditionally excluded, such as older adults and those with disabilities; those who are divorced, widowed or have annulled marriages; those who are HIV positive; and those seeking inter-caste marriages.
The paper notes that “in the West, it is received wisdom that digital technologies must be disruptive, encouraging people to discard what they have and replace it with something entirely new, which is sometimes completely unnecessary and unsustainable.” The authors suggest the HCI community “take a cue” from these matrimonial websites.
“I am glad that the papers committee at INTERACT recognized and acknowledged the importance of applying a cross-cultural lens when understanding when safety is present or lacking in popular online spaces,” says Norton, who earned her Ph.D. in Informatics and now has a joint post-doc appointment at North Carolina State University and the USDA Agricultural Research Service. “Such a lens should be used for the many human security issues in the age of rapid technology development and adoption.”
Tsaasan, who earned her M.S. in informatics and is currently starting a nonprofit that supports nontraditional learners, notes that “there are few examples of or opportunities to engage in cross-cultural studies examining these sorts of relationships between tools and practice.” This is why she loved working on this project. “I’m a better scholar because of the experience.”
As Nardi points out, “I think there is a lot to learn from not starting out to ‘disrupt’ but designing technology to connect with and support people.”
In future work, the researchers hope to explore contradictions that arise when the needs of different groups are in play, finding ways to manage the contradictions in support of fairness and social good. “We hope this study inspires prosocial work,” they conclude in the paper, “creating and promoting safe spaces for diverse communities that cater to positive cultural values.”
— Shani Murray