I’ve been struggling for a while with issues of free speech in the community of commenters over on OrangePolitics.org. Over the life of the site, there has been a small group of people who are generally screwing it up for the rest of us. Instead of informing and getting to know each other, the site devolves into nasty bickering which no-one wants to read except maybe the 5 people involved in it. I know I don’t want to read it, and that’s not just because half of it seems to be based on the premise that I am an evil dictator who is trying to control your life and ruin your neighborhood.
I often hear from folks who have varying success at ignoring the negative elements and usually just stop reading the site. I try to remind people that you can just read the posts and skip the comments (especially via RSS), but most OP readers don’t value that distinction very much. Lately the tension has gotten worse and some commenters have become increasingly toxic.
So as we are approaching the second major platform change to OP (from WordPress to Drupal), I’m starting to think about how to help the readers feed back into the system and have some collective say about what words and what behavior is or is not valued. It’s already going to be a great improvement that trusted users can have their own blogs on the site. I’m especially interested in Drupal modules that might help with rating content (both posts and comments), although I also accept that some manual moderation will probably be needed, especially in determining what goes on the front page.
Brian says that allowing the community to vote will encourage gaming of the system, and I think he fears that this could put the difficult people even more in charge. While this is certainly possible, I have more confidence in the commenters and especially the (silent) readers to balance this out and result in the right outcome most of time. This isn’t so much a wisdom of the crowd thing as it is a Buddhist thing, at least for me. I need to believe that everyone is essentially good. Otherwise I wouldn’t be working to amplify their voices, help them vote, help them make media, etc.
I have a few ideas about systems to develop more authentic identities on the site, which I have found usually leads to more mature behavior. For example, we could encourage people to put their Voter Registration Number in their profile (easily found with this form).
There is also the DailyKos-style of comment rating, but I wonder if it needs to have consequences. Maybe we could make the visual display of the comments be bolder for good and lighter for bad. But this does run the risk of becoming a popularity contest. I don’t know exactly how the community would behave with such a system.
Thanks to the blog diva herself (and drupal wrangler), Liza Sabater, for pointing me to Clay Shirky who has spent a lot of time thinking about online community. Here’s an excerpt from a 2003 talk called A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy in which he addresses just these very issues:
And the worst crisis is the first crisis, because it’s not just “We need to have some rules.” It’s also “We need to have some rules for making some rules.” And this is what we see over and over again in large and long-lived social software systems. Constitutions are a necessary component of large, long-lived, heterogenous groups.
Geoff Cohen has a great observation about this. He said “The likelihood that any unmoderated group will eventually get into a flame-war about whether or not to have a moderator approaches one as time increases.” As a group commits to its existence as a group, and begins to think that the group is good or important, the chance that they will begin to call for additional structure, in order to defend themselves from themselves, gets very, very high.
– Shirky: A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy
Shirky says there are three things we need to accept:
1. “You cannot completely separate technical and social issues.” In other words, we can’t just create software that will make people behave the way we want.
2. “Members are different than users.” It is natural for there to be a core group within the community who are more invested in it than people who just drive by.
3. “The core group has rights that trump individual rights in some situations.” Because those in the core have a better understanding and are more invested in the long-term health of the community, they need to be a position to guide or moderate it to prevent the tyranny of the outsiders. This sounds elitist to me, but I have to admit that it is human nature and we do need leadership.
I’m definitely planning to address these issues in OrangePolitics 3.0. In fact what I had in mind is something a lot like Shirky’s four “four things to design for:”
1. “Handles” (ie: identities) that people can trust.
2. A way to determine the reputation of each identity.
3. “Barriers to participation,” not to keep people from engaging at all but to limit some functions or privileges to those with more status.
4. “Spare the group from scale.”
He also has this interesting point: “the act of hosting social software, the relationship of someone who hosts it is more like a relationship of landlords to tenants than owners to boxes in a warehouse.” I usually say that running OP is like hosting a party in that I have an obligation to eject guests who are rude, to preserve the party as a whole. His analogy is different in that it implies that tenants also have rights, and sometimes have interests different from those of the landlord. But then does that I mean I guest to charge rent? (Just kidding!)
This change is going to be a huge undertaking, but I believe that it is completely necessary to preserve the good thing we have in OrangePolitics. What suggestions do you have about policies and especially about drupal tools to help manage our community?