The launch of SketchFactor, an app that lets users report instances of harassment, racial prejudice, and general weirdness in a particular area, has unleashed the internet's righteous fury for coming off as a tool for rich white folks to steer clear of "bad" neighbourhoods, often code for "poverty-stricken and and non-white."
By gamifying sketchiness—itself a vague category that can disguise racist stereotypes—SketchFactor just might gamify racism itself. Of course, not everyone sees it that way. Namely, the co-founder and CEO of SketchFactor, Allison McGuire.
"People have said things about painting certain neighbourhoods as 'safe' or 'unsafe;' white, black, brown, whatever. We are doing the exact opposite of that," McGuire said. "We're not coming from a fear-based model, we're coming from an empowerment-based model.
"We're letting people post that they are harassed every day on a certain block, or they experience racial profiling every day on a certain street," she said. "Wouldn't it be really helpful to see where all the racial profiling and Stop-and-Frisks in New York are happening on a map?"
Certainly, it would, and I trust McGuire's intent is noble. Before founding SketchFactor, she told me, she was an active member of the social justice community. But intent isn't all that matters when it comes to classism and prejudice. Effect matters, too. SketchFactor leaves the definition of "sketchy" open to interpretation on the part of the user, and therein lies the problem. Does "sketch" indicate an unfamiliar race? Brutal cops? Racial profiling? Poverty? The threat of crime?
"As it turns out, 'sketchiness' is not a word used exclusively by one group to describe another," McGuire countered when I asked her about the word's loaded implications. "It's used by everyone to describe situations that they find sketchy. So, for example, we're partnered with a community group called Million Hoodies Movement for Justice. They focus on racial profiling and racial justice, and how that affects their communities."
Even if we put aside the complex relations of social power that are sure to play out in SketchFactor, it's core flaw is how fundamentally unconstructive it is. Since when is straight-up avoiding the "Other" a good way to breed understanding, empathy, and eventually a safe space? "There's a reason we didn't call it SafeFactor," McGuire said. Indeed. Though she denies it will feed into the culture of fear surrounding minorities, the app might as well have been called ScareFactor.
Moreover, coding and couching stereotype in a sanitized digital environ is an unsettling trend, that threatens to further entrench the already deep divide of social inequality in America.
For example, the use of Twitter to detect language likely to lead to a crime in order to alert police to potential disturbances in "bad" neighborhoods before they happen. Here, racism is lifted off its feet and into the ethereal realm of data and language. Similarly, Microsoft's much maligned "avoid ghetto" patent for a GPS app in 2012 used data analysis to codify racist behaviour—the active and wholesale avoidance of racialized neighborhoods.
The supposed openness and equality of the internet, and the inhuman objectivity of data, actually lend themselves to effacing the stratification of social and economic power and how it plays out.
At best, SketchFactor is an invitation for a frank and public discussion about the intersection of race, class, technology, and privilege. At worst, it will be a tool to shore up the largely invisible forces of digitized prejudice. I for one sincerely hope the former comes to fruition, and not the latter.