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Allen School student Tal August earns Twitch Fellowship to make conversation in online communities more supportive and vibrant

Tal August, a Ph.D. student working with Allen School professors Katharina Reinecke and Noah Smith, has been named a 2021 Twitch Research Fellow for his work in creating writing tools to accommodate different online audiences. His current research focuses on strategies used to help moderate these communities in order to shape them into vibrant, supportive, online spaces.

August is one of five Twitch Fellows selected and aims to use his Fellowship to automate tools that support conversations in domains like science communication and in online communities like Twitch and Reddit. 

“Online communities can be such vibrant places, and that is often reflected in their language,” he said. “The goal of this work is to build tools that tap into the language of a community, guiding newcomers and moderators to communicate more effectively.” 

Using LabintheWild, a site that tests people’s abilities and preferences so that researchers can improve users’ experience when interacting with technology, August studied the effects of language styles that influence user behavior. This led to his work on building writing tools tailoring language to better engage different audiences.

Currently, most tools for online moderation are used for policing posts to eliminate profanity and toxic behavior. August aims to make moderation tools more welcoming. Working at the intersection of human computer interaction (HCI) and natural language processing (NLP), he has found that newcomers in online communities face barriers by not understanding the norms of the community. Based on his research, he will create tools to identify ways for moderators to encourage positive contributions for more inclusive engagement and discourse. 

With the help of machine learning, August’s tool will analyze newcomer remarks and moderator responses in order to suggest responses that are more likely to encourage future positive contributions by the newcomer. Many online forums list rules or frequently asked questions for new users to read before engaging in the conversation. August would build a separate tool to arm newcomers with more information by giving them just-in-time recommendations for making positive posts.

“Tal’s research at the intersection of HCI and NLP will help encourage more positive and thoughtful conversations in online communities such as Twitch,” Reinecke said.

August’s tools will be open-sourced for moderators to use in their online communities. They will help them respond to newcomers in a more meaningful way and foster a more welcoming online space for everyone. 

In addition to his Twitch Fellowship, August received a University of Washington Endowed Fellowship in Computer Science and Engineering in 2018 and has published nine refereed conference papers, including the Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing and the Association of Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. In addition to being a student and researcher, he is a teaching assistant for NLP and HCI capstone classes. 

Congratulations, Tal!