UMass student tries to combine online anonymity and positivity

The Internet has a problem, and that problem is that many of the people who use it are bullies and cowardly naysayers who hide behind their anonymity.

On the other hand, Peter Tao, a junior and biochemistry major at UMass Amherst, is upbeat and positive to a fault. I am skeptical as I sit across from him at the Blue Wall when he tells me an iPhone app he developed called Spotlight is designed specifically to let people post photos anonymously.

Peter Tao’s phone, featuring his app, Spotlight. Photo by Dave Eisenstadter

“I want people to feel more comfortable posting things they really feel,” he tells me, listing off apps that inspired him like Fade and Yik-Yak.

But what about people who use that anonymity to gang up on people and in general be cruel, I ask.

This is the one moment his wide smile and bubbling enthusiasm waver during our encounter. His face darkens and he says it is awful that this happens.

But his smile quickly returns as he shows me how he is working to address that problem. His app’s up-vote/down-vote feature acts as one filter to fight against this, as negative posts will be voted down, he says. He is also looking into using a Google negative phrase filter to cut out the negativity. He already uses Google Cloud Vision to filter out inappropriate pictures.

Peter Tao at the Blue Wall, phone and laptop close at hand. Photo by Dave Eisenstadter

For his app, he also hopes the wide distribution across the globe would discourage individuals from bullying someone. Not enough people will know that person, he said.

Some of this is comforting, and I chuckle as I see the photos in the feed. One features a small yet cute ferocious beast with the caption “someone dropped a goddamn baby bear into doggy day care.” Another has Easter eggs painted as the characters from South Park.

OK… this stuff is pretty cute and happy. Courtesy photo

But more convincing is Tao’s own general niceness and positive attitude. Late in our conversation, he tells me the first app he developed was a social media app called “Praise” to make it easy for its members to give each other compliments.

As if to drive the point home, Spotlight’s logo is a bright, shining sun — mirroring Tao’s own sunny disposition.

Originally wanting to attend medical school, Tao has decided that he wants to be a software engineer for a few years. He hopes to have a positive impact in that way.

I leave the conversation feeling good that people like Tao are in the world, and I wish him luck on his app. The app can be downloaded at https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/spotlight/id1200693702?mt=8.

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