A correspondent writes to ask if linguistics has anything to offer in relation to the recent Facebook paedophile scandal and all the current discussion about panic buttons.
Of course it does. Indeed, the point has already come up on this blog, when I was talking about internet applications a few years ago (March 2007). In 2003 I developed an application called Chatsafe, using a technology I call a sense engine, which carried out a linguistic analysis of a conversation in order to identify dangerous or sensitive content. It worked fine. It processed a conversation in real time, and as dangerous content built up it would warn the user (or the user's parents) that there was a potential problem. The system needed a lot of testing, using real paedophile conversations, and as it's virtually impossible to get this kind of research done safely without clearance, I approached the Home Office. They said they'd get back to me but didn't. I approached a UK university department that specializes in such things and had a meeting with one of the researchers. No subsequent interest. I sent the idea to a mobile phone company after a scandal there. No response. A couple of years ago I sent it to a US child protection conference. Never heard anything further. I had hoped that someone somewhere would be following up the leads, but the Facebook disaster suggests not. I'd send it to Facebook now if I could work out how, but they hide their senior management contact procedure very well.
It's all very well offering a panic button, but how do you activate it? It's not enough to leave it up to the individual recipient, who may not be aware of a problem until it's too late. One needs an independent method. And as it's impossible for all conversations to be checked manually, it has to be done automatically.
Maybe that lass would be alive now if a system like Chatsafe had been used. That's why I'm writing this post. Maybe someone out there knows how to alert the social networking agencies to the relevance of a linguistic approach. It hasn't been for want of trying, on my part, and why the organizations most closely involved in this awful subject are ignoring the potential that linguistics has to offer is quite beyond me.