FICTION: 'The Moderator'

THE MODERATOR

I usually arrive at the Campus five minutes before the working day is set to start. I walk the short distance from my apartment to the bus stop in the thickening heat and arrive there damp with sweat. The final moments of my commute are spent cooling off in the employee bus. The bus drives from the edge of the Campus towards the Hub in the centre, transporting those of us who live locally and don't own a car: it passes by the bay, stopping every half a mile and picking up three or four of whatever crowd has formed in the shade of the bus shelters. By the time I get on it is crowded so I usually try and find a place at the back where I can stand, gripping onto one of the rails above my head, closing my eyes and feeling the air-conditioning pass over my face.

I have often wondered if there is some kind of codified directive within the company which dictates that every employee must approach work with a sense of lively anticipation. The people that sit around me in the morning speak to each other like children returned from their summers, with smiles on their faces; turning over their shoulders and adjusting themselves in their seats so that assemblies of four or five emerge in each section of the bus. Occasionally, in more muted tones, they talk about what they are going to be working on that week; a new advertiser, sometimes a new feature. I look at them and think to myself about what we might say to each other if we met in a bar. One morning I remember a small, dark haired man introducing himself to a group — it was first day. He was sat down and welcomed into the conversation. They said how lucky he was and that they wished they could live through their first few months again. It was a time when work started to became life, they said. When they had experienced their first few moments of collective achievement. It was thrilling, they all agreed. I remember one member of the group saying to the man, “Don’t be afraid,” then there was a pause, a couple of seconds in which he started to smile through the window, it was as if he was remembering something of terrific depth from the past: “Don’t be afraid to draw meaning from the work that you are doing.” 

It was a mentality that on the milder mornings even I found quite appealing. I would grip onto the rail above my head and smile in the same way as they did; feeling my weight shift with the gentle turns of the bus and enjoying the sun coming harmlessly through the windows. By the time the bus had arrived at The Hub and I had stumbled down past the various conversations and out into the sunlight my feeling of solidarity had usually faded. By the time I had reached my desk, as the air got heavier and began to rest on my chest, that feeling had always left me. 

Today, I walk in past reception and take out my phone to scan myself through security. Then I walk up the stairs to the third floor, wiping the sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand as I go. Once I’ve climbed the stairs I walk through to the back of the office and sit down at a desk nearest to the window; the office is close to empty and there are three unmanned desks to my left. 

The atmosphere of our particular office is always peculiar, like that of a kind of family reunion: there is the stale air of familiarity, the faint sense of shared interests and beyond that a blatant feeling of obligation. The desks are lined up in rows like a library with thin, white partitions between every station, meant to protect us from whatever our neighbour is looking at. The desks are largely undecorated, there is a pair of wireless headphones and a large, flat-screened computer that has its wiring passed back into a piece of plastic skirting that runs under the partitions all the way along the row. 

Today, the blinds are drawn to keep glare off the screens but some light has still made its way through and is illuminating the dust hanging about in the air above my desk. I drop my bag underneath my chair and go to a get a glass of water from the cooler in the corner of the office. Not feeling in any way refreshed I walk back, sit down and start to work.

***

It has been explained to me that the system for moderating was designed to maximise the speed and efficiency with which we can pass through the content. The screen itself is divided into two sections; there is a large box which displays the offending image(s) or words and below it there is a drop down list with three options: ignore, remove or escalate. Once you have made your evaluation you move onto the other section of the screen where there is a clock, a tally of how much content you have moderated that day and a small arrow which leads you onto the next piece of material. We aren’t given access to any of the personal information of the people who have posted the content: there are no photos or friends, just words and images.

By 9.05am I have gone through 10 pieces of content. There are three swastikas: two to be removed and one to be ignored — superimposed cartoonishly over a politician and classified as satirical comment.  There are five instances of racist language (****** four times, **** once) and then two comments which had no reason to be reported at all. 

At 9.30am our section manager comes through the door and gestures for us all to take off our headphones. 

“Right, everyone,” he says. 

I watch the dust moving around in the air and feel sweat forming under my armpits. “You will be left to your own devices today. I’m doing interviews until five," he says.  

A few people mutter back something in acknowledgment. 

“Any problems come and find me.” He swivels round on his toes and starts to walk back towards the door. Then he pauses and says loudly and to no-one in particular— “Keep doing what you’re doing. " — 

I remember my interview with him at the start of the year. He met me at the front of the Hub, wearing shorts and a button down shirt, waving me past security. He was recognisable, almost instantly, as the kind of person that might be described in very vague terms as ‘friendly’ by the people that knew him well. The more I spoke to him the more he seemed to be alarmingly without character. Inside the interview room I sat across from him, wearing my borrowed suit with a smile fixed on my face, and there was a moment when I shook his hand in which neither of us seemed to know what to say. 

Eventually he started: “Tomorrow’s technology depends on the imagination of the people we hire today, which demands genuine intellectual curiosity. This kind of work often involves risk-taking and resilience and it isn't always easy to find,” he paused and I gestured with my hands thoughtfully. 

“We want to hear about your blunders as much as your wins, we want to know what you learned from those experiences.” He looked up at me and then clarified, “Talk to me about a great idea you had that ultimately didn't come to fruition.”

I gave an example of a website my friend had designed in school, remembering him telling me the details of his business model at the time and now passing those same details off as thoughts of my own. The website itself, I explained, was for the promotion of local food trucks. It classified them all into a database: they were split up based on the type of food they sold, their prices, how good a deal you could find, companies uploaded their own menus and then I (my friend) would would go round and evaluate them, noting them down on my (his) map and judging their quality. 

“It ended up being quite a success,” I said and then remembering his question was really about blunders I quickly decided upon a failed expansion plan. “I wanted to expand internationally,” I said with an air of intense mourning. “I wanted to take restaurants into account too but then resources started to dry up. At first I started struggling for money and then eventually I had none. In hindsight I regret not monetising the site through advertising sooner.”

The section manager looked up at me once I’d finished, noting something on his clipboard.

At the end of the interview he lead me out of The Hub and back through security. 

“Is there a particular reason you want to stay and work in the US?”  

“Living here in Menlo Park is where I want to be. The US part is only secondary.” 

“Is there anything else you want to ask me about the role or the company?”  

“Why do they call this area ‘The Campus’?” 

He smiled and took my hand into his. His palm was damp, I was reminded of the feeling of touching raw, skinless-meat. Finally, he answered: “It is all about fostering a collegiate atmosphere.”

***

After the section manager leaves the room I go quietly back to moderating. In the first hour or so of work there is an alarming concentration of dick picks. They are mostly shot from a low angle, the faces obscured in the background by the silhouette in front. Some of them are taken in front of the mirror: they are defined by the incriminating jewel of light that reflects back from the glass when the flash is on, the person’s face usually frozen in concentration.

There is a lot of porn that morning too. Conventional stuff, nothing particularly sickening. Men with tattoos and big bellies fucking disturbingly loud girls. Step-fathers seducing daughters. Teachers delivering their punishments. There is a video of a man masturbating slowly into the camera: at one point he turns around to get lubricant and reveals a rat’s tale. His mouth hangs open and his eyes stare blankly below the camera lens. 

I stop for a minute and get another drink from the water-cooler. Looking out into the quad I find myself thinking strangely of someone I knew in college, I have an image of him masturbating into a camera that has stuck itself firmly in my head. Then I remember why: when I had known him the friend in question had been talking to a South American girl on the internet. After a few months he had plucked up the the courage to send photos; after a few weeks he started to receive some back too. For a while he was very satisfied with the arrangement: his sexual desire was given a more tangible fix and the girl was never especially demanding of his attention. Then gradually the girl started getting more specific in her photographic requests — “sit like this, wear that, say this” — a week later the South American girl becomes a Turkish man and he is demanding $1000 dollars be transferred to his account or a video of him masturbating will be circulated round to all of his friends. I walk back from the water-cooler and sit back down at my desk, then I flag the video of the rats-tailed masturbator to be removed. 

I am often surprised by the amount of illicit content that reappears again and again. Of everything that exists on the internet, of all that is horrifying or sordid, the same things resurface like the common cold, circulating wildly for a day before dying off, only to reappear the next month. There’s the conveyor belt of chicks, riding unknowingly towards a funnel and dropping through a hole towards a pair of rotating blades. Then there’s the one with the horse — a naked woman squatting beneath its legs. Handling it. The horse looking off camera, blinking impassively and shaking off flies.

I flag a video of an old man fucking a younger woman and then feel a tap on my shoulder. I look up to see a colleague who had been sitting at the end of the row. 

“Do you mind if I open the blinds?” 

“Sorry?” 

“The blinds — to get some sunlight in here?” 

He goes over to the window and tugs gently on the plastic sidewinder and the blinds shuffle open until sun fills the room. I start to sweat again and sense my mouth going dry. I can feel my legs are damp and my trousers sticking to my skin. There is the sound of cars and people outside.

“Is that alright with you?” he asks. 

I want to tell him to fuck himself but with my eyes half-shut and distracted by the light I can’t think quite how to phrase it. 

“That’s fine.” 

I go back to work instead. There is picture of a pile of guns: ignore. More hate speech: remove. An hour later and the video of the masturbating man reappears: escalate. Another hour and it’s almost lunch. 

At 11.22am a grainy video buffers on the content box. It looks like CCTV footage. There is watermark on the bottom right hand side of the video and the date and time are layered in the bottom left. The picture is of a dusty street: on the far side chickens are scouring the floor near a grass verge. Opposite the verge there is a building and below and out from the building’s base there is a worn away, stone pavement. A man is standing there, leaning against the door and looking down at his phone. After twenty seconds a car pulls up across the verge and the chickens scatter, the man looks up and returns his phone to his pocket, then he gets up from the door and starts to walk along the pavement. Three men jump out of the back of the car and then another appears from the passenger side. Just as the man on the phone disappears from the picture he is dragged back by two of the men and kicked to the floor. The driver emerges from the car now and with the choppiness of the CCTV appears to float over to the man on the floor. He reaches behind him and pulls out a machete from a tattered leather bag. The man is being held down onto his knees by the group of four. The driver of the car looks up and down the street, kicks some dust into the man’s face and then brandishes the machete like a baseball bat. He swings down and cuts through his neck. Two of the men holding the body jump back to avoid the sprays of blood before stepping carefully back into the picture. The machete has only made it halfway through so the driver dislodges the blade, pulls it back behind his head again, this time a bit higher, and then severs the man’s head completely off his neck. More blood spurts upwards and now all of the men who had been holding the body lurch backwards; one of them stumbles and then they all stand there for a second and watch the body stay strangely where it had been knelt, as if it were moored to its position on the ground. After, they throw the machete back into the leather bag, return to the car and drive away. 

There is a minute left of the video but I stop watching and report it to be removed. The sun comes out again from behind a cloud and shines onto my screen. I peel my trousers off from the skin on my thighs and feel another drop of sweat trickle down the side of my ribs. As I stand up my vision blurs slightly from the heat. Instead of walking along the window I go down my row and across the centre of the office to stop at his desk. 

“Hey.” He is wearing his headphones and watching a piece of content so I tap him on the shoulder as he had done to me. “Excuse me.” 

He takes off his headphones before he turns around and I think about grabbing his neck and digging my nails in until I reach his windpipe. Then I think about smashing his teeth against the corner of the table until he inadvertently swallows some of the shards.

“Can I help you?” 

I look down at him. “After lunch we can swap monitors if you want, I’d rather be out of the sun.”

“That would be great actually,” he says. “Works better for both of us.” 

He smiles and puts his headphones back on as I walk over to the water cooler. I decide I’ll take lunch early: work until the tally gets to 500 and then go to the canteen by myself. As I walk slowly past him back to my desk I start to notice all the dust again, drifting about in the beams of light coming through the window, seeing the movement in each corner of the office reflected in the clouds of the dust, the clumsy power of computer fans. 

Then I’m back at the computer and looking at a picture of the Klu Klux Klan, then some spam, then more porn, then a video released by Wiki Leaks showing an American plane bombing Afghan civilians. Then more spam. Now another porno - a woman fucking a woman - then I am up to 496 pieces of content reviewed and I feel my stomach rumble slightly from hunger so I click the arrow to take me on. 

After a moments pause the screen re-assembles itself and there is a bare, white room with a production spotlight shining down from behind the camera and onto a wall. There are two children - the boy is maybe twelve and the girl about eight or nine -  they are standing facing each other. They aren't wearing any clothes and after a few seconds standing on opposite sides of the room they move towards each other and put their hands on each other's bodies. There is the sound of someone instructing them from off camera in a deep voice. I keep watching for a while and think mostly of how easy it is to tell that the video is real. Then I move the mouse down across the screen, avoiding their bodies, onto the drop down box. I click escalate, log out of my computer and go for an early lunch. 

I pass him walking out of the office and gesture back towards my computer with a thumbs up. He gives me a perfunctory smiles and lifts his thumb slightly off his mouse in response. Stepping out of the Hub my chest feels the heat first: I take a short, stiff breath and walk on towards the canteen, my body inching forward like I’m facing a strong wind. 

***

Most days there is a small, American man who mans the sandwich bar. He has a wispy beard and thin, round glasses. We chat when I’m ordering, him joking about my accent, me sometimes doing an impression in return. He’ll usually spit out a laugh at whatever I say before he asks me whether I want ranch on my sandwich, or maybe chipotle instead. He is there again today and as I walk in filmed with sweat I catch his eye. 

“Look who it is,” he says. 

“I’m back.” 

“Well, hello there.”

“The same as usual please.” 

“Oh, certainly good sir.” he says with a faux-received-pronunciation. He smiles to himself and lays out a sandwich with a ritualistic sleight of hand before filling it with meat and salad and cheese. He looks up at me as if anticipating a joke and I can see sweat on his forehead too: it isn't much cooler than outside with the heat of the kitchen. He picks up the sandwich with the same rushed efficiency as before and carries it along the counter. The oven starts to beep from behind him and he turns around to it, balancing the food in his hand, and bending his knees in a strange pirouette. 

As I wait for the sandwich to be heated up we look at each other across the counter. 

“When are you going to deliver on your promise?” I ask.

“How about today?” 

Another customer approaches the counter behind me, wearing sports shorts and a grey, college vest. The sandwich man scuttles back down the counter to serve him and as he starts to speak he loses the ambiguous caricature of my accent and returns to the voice that he must use the rest of his day.

“What about sauces?” he says as he comes back to finish off my order. “Ranch or chipotle?’ 

“Ranch.” I say, putting on my American accent. 

"That was bad" he says, stretching out the a. “Closer to French than American.” 

“Have you ever visited France?” 

“No, I haven’t.” He pauses as if deep in thought and then goes on — “But I’ve been reading a lot about it recently.” He closes together the sandwich and swaddles it in serviettes. “It’s elections there next week. They’re going to have someone to deal with their problem in the same way that we have.” 

“What problem would that be?” 

“You know? There are bits of France you cant step foot in.” 

“I don't think that’s true.” 

“Oh, believe me, it is. There are no-go-zones.” He hands me the sandwich to take to the cashier and as I take it from him I feel an uncomfortable flush of heat from the open oven.  

“I have been to Paris. I don’t think that’s true.” 

“We’ll see how the elections go next week then, the people will speak.” He looks at me through the shrinking frames of his glasses and I feel the months of our vague acquaintance refiguring in his mind. I imagine taking his head in the palm of my hand and forcing it into the oven, scraping it again the side of the metal and shutting the door down on his neck. 

When I reach the cashier the sandwich man shouts something over from behind the counter. The cashier looks up at me from his seat, “What he say?” 

He shouts over again. “Give him the sandwich for free. I promised him.” 

“Okay then,” the cashier prods at his computer and waves me away. 

I walk towards the exit with my lunch and decide to eat it at the office instead. Out the door the prospect of a hot sandwich becomes less tempting and I check my watch and think about what I could do for the rest of the hour. I start to walk along the side of the pavement, in the shade of the building, my left foot stepping onto gravel and my right foot straddling the grass. Then I become aware of someone shouting behind me, a noise I had noticed a few seconds ago but only just figured to be a voice. I turn around to see the man that had been stood behind me at the canteen, wearing all grey, running towards me, his food rocking from a bag in his left hand. 

“Wait a second, sir,” he reaches me and quickly catches his breath. “I’m sorry about all that at the canteen, which sector do you work in?” 

“Sorry about what?” 

“That man. If you don't intend on reporting him then I will.” 

“It’s okay — I will report it when I’m done with lunch.” 

“We don't tolerate hate speech here so you have to make sure to report it. It breaches our employee contract rules, you realise?" 

“Oh, I will.” I say. 

“Great,” he says, smiling. “As long as it gets reported, I’m happy. We can't stand for that stuff.” Then he jogs ahead of me in the direction of The Hub with his sandwich bag swinging at his side, as I walk on in the shade and remember that I recognise him from the bus.