OP becomes its own worst enemy

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?

10 thoughts on “OP becomes its own worst enemy

  1. Hmm. Hmm. Man I have so many thoughts on this. I think there might be a number of lo-tech solutions to consider.

    What about regular face to face gatherings? Or an Orange Politics meetup. Or conference. (I don’t know if you’ve already done this.) Helps that the subject matter is essentially local. Might chat with Anton Zuiker.

    There is something about online communication that makes people forget that their community members are human. With feelings. I wonder if more regular meetups wouldn’t reinforce more respectful behavior.

    I also wonder if maybe it’d be possible to create a space for more raucous (toxic) behavior. Maybe something like a chatroom or IRC channel. A place with a little more instant feedback and less permanence.

    What about gravatars?

    What about inviting your “problem commenters” to write a guest post? Bring them into the fold, while at the same time making them vulnerable to the criticism they’re subjecting others to.

  2. All of those are good suggestions, Justin. And they would certainly help the site in some ways, especially between people who share similar, vaguely progressive ideals. And actually I am hoping to organize quarterly social gatherings.

    The folks who have presented problems in terms of identity. As you can imagine, many of them have never met me, and I don’t think they especially want to. There is a lot of partisanship that has led to people not really *wanting* to get along. (And there already is another online community for them.)

    In addition, it’s really quite fine for people to disagree. In fact it’s necessary and important to have a healthy debate. I just want to make sure it remains healthy and and that anti-social behavior has some consequences.

  3. Ruby, as I have indicated before, I think you fail to see when it is you personally who are out of balance. Being a participant and the editor means you are at times, “of two minds,” but more than a few times it appears that your reactions to some posts is directly related to who made it.

    There are some things that I feel very strongly about, and fairness is one of them. Right is right and wrong is wrong, irrespective of who the doer is, and when one believes that it falls between those two point we should talk about it and defend our personal positions. When folks are willing to accept that it is OK to have different takes on the same thing, then there will be no productive discussion. But not letting someone hold a position on what’s right or wrong TO THEM, then there will be no productive discussion.

  4. Fred, I am also extremely concerned with fairness, but only when it is hand in had with honesty. And I certainly do treat information differently depending on whether the source is credible to me. I expect most people do the same.

    I have never claimed that OP is “balanced” in a journalistic sense, and it’s not our mission to be so. In fact, I think it is of critical importance that we are open and honest, and when folks speak lies or intentional mistruths, we have an obligation to say so – even though some people might find that uncomfortable.

    I have done so little moderation of the site, I still don’t understand how I’m not letting people say or do what they want. I have only ever removed comments that were either fraudulent or broadly offensive (which is something STP does not so, I seems).

    I’m all about people openly disagreeing. I don’t see name calling or slander as a useful part of the political dialog, but what is an objective fact to one person is sometimes hurtful or not true to another.

  5. But not to keep dwelling on it, you used “labels” towards me just recently because you didn’t undertand something that I wrote on the “Chancellor Search” thread. Several people wrote me because they understand fully what I was suggesting and wondered why you went so personal. That’s an example of what I mean. You also accused me of being “mean” towards WillR. That had to qualify as the joke of the month!

  6. Fred, I looked at that thread this morning and I don’t know what “label” you’re talking about.

    I thought your remark to Will was snide, but there’s no rule against that! I’m sure I have also criticized other people’s attitudes as well. I can see what you mean about the line being fuzzy as I’m stating these opinions just as myself not as The Editor. But the difference is that my personal opinions aren’t backed up by moderation threats.

  7. I think it is funny that this post devolved into a he-said, she-said debate dealing only tangentially with the issue at hand and guess what – I got bored and quit reading it.

    So, let me focus, and try to go back to the point. The new OP. I am not a big user of Democratic Underground, and because of that there are some functionalities I cannot use. For instance, I think you have to post a certain number of stories before you can “recommend” one for the Greatest Page or whatever (like i said, I don’t use it much). This might NOT work for you because it would probably be a small group of people who would be posting stories and therefore having access to recommending. Maybe, a certain number of comments?

    I think Open Threads with a few bullet points are a great way for people to bicker without distracting everyone else.

    OP is a great source of information and maybe because it has lasted so long there are some ongoing personality issues. I suppose that’s life online.

  8. Ruby says: “Fred, I am also extremely concerned with fairness, but only when it is hand in had with honesty.”
    and
    “I have never claimed that OP is “balanced” in a journalistic sense, and it’s not our mission to be so.”

    How can you be unbalanced and still fair and honest? “Balance” suggests to me, presenting facts for both sides of an argument.

    It seems to me Ruby should state her positions so contributors would know who is editing their contributions. I would be more willing to participate if the editing were minimal (other than simply redacting name calling and such) and the discussion were open to all ideas. “That wouldn’t work.” is an unacceptable sentence to me unless it is immediately followed by the specific reasons why. “That’s a bad idea.” falls into the same category. Ideas and building on them might prove very productive for Orange county.

    Maybe I’m naive, though.
    Ed

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