With a week left to go in its campaign, the group has passed its $10,000 funding goal, but is still raising funds to improve the project. The crowdfunding site Catapult has pledge to match funds if the campaign raises another $2,500; the Knight Foundation has also promised to pledge funds of up to $10,000 if the group can get 1000 contributors.
HeartMob is a project by Hollaback, a decade-old organization that fights street harassment. Emily May, the group's co-founder and chief executive, said that she sees many similarities between real-world and online harassment.
"Street harassment is sexual harassment in a public space," she said. "Online harassment is sexual harassment in a public space." The group has taken its expertise in combating real-world abuse to the digital world, and spent 18 months developing the project. As part of that process, it interviewed dozens of people who've faced harassment online to find the best tools to support victims.
Dealing with the online world does, after all, present unique challenges. Right now, the process of reporting online abuse is arduous -- message by message, comment by comment, day after day.
It's also fractured. If you're being bothered on multiple networks, you report only part of what you face to each company. But there's no easy way to show how the parts add up to a whole, horrible picture.
Having a tool that lets victims do that will be invaluable -- and gives them a more compelling case if they want to compile a report to bring to companies of law enforcement officials.
"It will capture cross-platform harassment," said Soraya Chemaly, a writer and activist who's spoken out strongly against the harassment of women online."That's really important context for understanding that you can’t get right now," Chemaly said.
Both Chemaly and May would like to see social networks do more to fight this kind of behavior on their own sites. But, May said, she also realizes that the companies can't do it all by themselves.
"There’s a lot of pressure on the social media companies to do more, and I think that pressure is well-placed," she said. "But to say that the social media companies alone are going to be able to solve this problem is short-sighted. That's like saying the NYPD is going to be able to solve the problem of rape."
So, using HeartMob, users can also choose to make their record public to find support from others who want to stop abusive behavior online.
Making it easy to find allies is a huge part of fighting harassment, May said. And, she added, it's actually one thing that's easier about combating abuse online as its often done so publicly. "With street harassment, maybe half the time there are people around," May said. "With online harassment, it's 100 percent of the time."
That's of particular importance when looking for ways to fill in the support gaps around gray areas of harassment. There are many things people can say online that is abusive but don't rise to the level of violating a network's terms of service.
For example, if Joe -- or 500 Joes -- were to tell Jane that she's worthless and should jump off a bridge five times per hour, that wouldn't trip network standards in most cases because there's no threat of actual harm. But it would still be a bruising and traumatic experience, and one that would be difficult to deal with alone.
May hopes that this sort of education could, down the line, help effect a change in the overall social media culture. HeartMob doesn't encourage the harassment of harassers, she said -- that doesn't help anything. Instead, the system will try and work to break the cycle of abuse by focusing more on education than revenge.
"We hope to engage people who may be nice in real life, but haven’t thought about the fact that the person they’re harassing [online] is actually a person," she said. "It's also about educating the harasser on what’s okay. When you say 'I’m gonna rape you,' you may think you're saying, 'I don’t like your ideas.' But what I hear is that I can’t leave my house."
She realizes, however, that trying to change the culture of the entire Internet is an enormous task. So she's staying focused. "I don’t want to be overly Pollyanna about it," she said. "I think ultimately our first and most important job is to reduce trauma."