How To Keep Hostile Jerks From Taking Over Your Online Community
Angry people looking for fights will inevitably try to poison successful Internet communities. Columnist Cory Doctorow looks at ways to remove the poison without killing the discussion too.
Discussion groups are like uranium: a little pile gives off a nice, warm glow, but if the pile gets bigger, it hits critical mass and starts a deadly meltdown. There are only three ways to prevent this: Make the pile smaller again, spread the rods apart, or twiddle them to keep the heat convecting through them.
Making the group smaller is easy in theory, hard in practice: just choose a bunch of people who aren't allowed in the discussion anymore and section them off from the group. Split. Or just don't let the groups get too big in the first place by limiting who can talk to whom. This was Friendster's strategy, where your ability to chat with anyone else was limited by whether that person was your friend or your friend's friend. Users revolted, creating "fakesters" like "New York City," whom they could befriend, forming ad-hoc affinity groups. Friendster retaliated by killing the fakesters, and a full scale revolt ensued.
Spreading the group apart is a little easier, with the right technology. Joshua Schachter, founder of del.icio.us, tells me that he once cured a mailing-list of its flame-wars by inserting a ten-minute delay between messages being sent to the list and their delivery. The delay was enough to allow tempers to cool between messages. A similar strategy is to require you to preview your post before publishing it. Digg allows you to retract your messages for a minute or two after you post them.
But neither of these strategies solves the underlying problem: getting big groups of people to converse civilly and productively among themselves. Spreading out the pile reduces the heat -- but it also reduces the light. Splitting the groups up requires the consent of the users, a willingness to be segregated from their peers.
The holy grail is to figure out how to twiddle the rods in just the right fashion so as to create a festive, rollicking, passionate discussion that keeps its discourse respectful, if not always friendly or amiable.
Some have tried to solve this with software. Slashdot (and similar group-moderated sites like Kuro5hin and Plastic) use an elaborate scheme of blind moderation in which users are randomly assigned the ability to rank each others' messages so that other users can filter what they read, excluding low-ranked posts. These strategies are effective for weeding out the pathetic attention-seekers, but they don't have a great track record for creating rollicking discussion. Instead the tone of the discussions, even read at the highest level of moderation, is an angry, macho one-upmanship. The top posts are often scathing rebuttals of someone else's ill-considered remarks.
I'm not sure why this is, but I suspect that it's because there's something fundamentally unfriendly about a roundtable where the participants are explicitly asked to participate in active, public, quantitative rating of one's peers. Like one of those experimental 1970s communes where everyone has to tell everyone else the absolute truth all the time ("Your laugh irritates me," "You have a fat rear end that I find unappealing"), this does a good job of getting all the cards on the table, but is less successful at inspiring an atmosphere of chumminess.
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