App designed to increase bystander intervention debuts at fraternity party
As a way to encourage bystander intervention on campus, three Washington University alumni have designed an app called xSoteria, a chatbot that operates through Facebook Messenger and allows guests at parties to anonymously connect with a risk manager at the venue if they feel uncomfortable or threatened.
Washington University alum Michael Berkowitz, Brandon Meeks and Robbie Steirn collaborated this summer in Washington, D.C. to develop the tool, which they piloted at a Beta Theta Pi party Saturday, Sept. 23.
“When I was actually in St. Louis for the introductory party, I got to talk to people and actually introduce them to the platform,” Berkowitz said. “So I was the one walking them through how to use the platform. Seeing students actually interact with our platform and have huge smiles on their faces was truly unbelievable to see.”
To use the tool, partygoers can open the Facebook Messenger app, type “xSoteria” into the search bar and begin connecting with a designated sober contact, also known as a risk manager. Through this conversation, guests are able to request assistance or intervention and share their location with the risk manager.
Because xSoteria utilizes Facebook Messenger, it requires no additional downloads, accounts or logins for Facebook users. Meeks, who studied computer science at Washington University, was very involved in the coding and development of the service.
“It’s very fast, it’s very easy to find, and there’s a very low barrier to entry, which is kind of one of the pillars of at least the technology behind this,” Meeks said. “It’s something that we think makes the platform very unique, in that it’s so easy to get started. We’re really excited about that.”
The three alumni, all of whom are former brothers of Beta Theta Pi and members of the class of 2017, first got the idea for the service toward the end of their senior year.
“We were reflecting on our past four years, and while all of our nostalgic feelings brought back some of the best memories of our lives, without a question, we also talked about some of the major institutional issues where we saw a need for change,” Steirn said. “It was through those discussions that the xSoteria initiative came about.”
As students at the University, the team had noticed that while many parties had risk managers present, partygoers often did not know who they were or how to contact them. They also recognized that factors like gender, age and comfort level, among others, could serve as obstacles to bystander intervention. To address these concerns, when using xSoteria, guests are able to send messages anonymously while the risk manager’s name remains visible.
“I think the biggest thing is the overarching theme of the entire platform: We want it to come through that xSoteria provides the tools for everyone to engage in bystander intervention,” Berkowitz said.
Several weeks ago, while visiting the University, Steirn talked to every fraternity president on campus, many of whom plan to begin using xSoteria. Although Beta Theta Pi is currently the only organization on campus to use the platform so far, the team envisions many possible uses for the service, both in and outside of Greek life. Student groups who wish to host off-campus events could have hosts sign in as risk managers and input the location into the xSoteria database. The team also sees the service possibly being used in residential halls, with residential advisers as risk managers.
“We’ve had other non-social, fraternity-related organizations reach out to us asking to use it in future ventures or events,” Steirn said. “You’ll see more of it in the future.”
Moving forward, the team hopes to train risk managers in both the platform’s structure and purpose, as well as in effective intervention techniques. Though the project is young, the team has already received positive feedback from the University community.
“We’ve all received messages from students at Wash. U., saying that they feel safer going out to—whether you call it parties or venues—with xSoteria, knowing that they can use xSoteria at that party,” Steirn said.