ToyTown: How an online community built around mutual aid is becoming a social wasteland because of hierarchy.

Today I wish to talk about ToyTown which is an online community, mainly a number of fora, where

English speakers can share news, ask questions, post answers, make advertisements, organise sports and social events, discuss current affairs, make friends, and generally engage with each other.

Now as some of you – particularly those following me on twitter or facebook – might have heard, I’ve been the victim of a real-life con (I will post details about this soon) as a result of which I started my own investigation to locate the perpetrator. At the advice of a colleague, I decided to try and ask for help in the ToyTown fora something which would also raising awareness of this type of scam to people living in my area.

Toytown?

Image by Bashed via Flickr

The reaction was a stunning display of hostility and mistrust, even after I went out of my way to substantiate my case. For a place which prides itself on its helpfulness, this just didn’t make sense.While I can understand people being snarky on someone who asks where to buy milk or not even making an attempt to use the search function, surely this

would not apply to my relatively unique thread right? Wrong.

Nevertheless,  it quickly dawned on me that what was really happening was that the overwhelming negative response I perceived came from a small number of vocal people who seem to have in face a very heavy presence in the fora. If one were to take the distinct people who posted in the thread and see their response, the reception was if not positive, at least neutral. The positive replies however were drowned in a sea of abuse…from the same few antisocials, either

trolling, deliberately insulting or simply being stunningly xenophobic, while also being under the auspicious eye of the mods who silently approved of obviously trollish behaviour, as long as it came from the “great old ones”.

To make this fact abundantly clear, let me show you one of the comments that was posted in the second page:

Now you see, this is why Greece is in the shit. And us German taxpayers are expected to sort your shit out for you. Bloody charming. And what’s more, we are led to believe you got scammed by a Greenlander…or was it by any chance an Icelander?

My reply to this borderline racist comment was to call the poster for the troll he is. The result? My post got pulled by the mods because the rules of the community forbid you from calling others trolls. Something which obviously facilitates their behaviour.

Surprised as I was from the results of asking for help in ToyTown, I asked my colleague as well as another, former colleague for their impressions. The former, while not as surprised as I was, still did not expect hostility of this magnitude and admitted that he feared this would happen. The latter said this among others…

yeah…trouble is..it’s the worst kind of forum, internet clique at its very worst mate – If you are new, more often than not you are ridiculed…if you have been there a while you should know better… Basically, be one of the normal 10 or 15 or forget about it.

Now both of these are expat brits mind you, very like the people who claim that this reaction is because people are expat. Bullshit. Just because you go to live in another country does not make people assholes. No, what was at play here was nothing else than a community gone astray after having morphed into a “old boys club”. Unfortunately it seems that the residents outside of this little clique have reached the point where they either passively accept this, or they feel helpless to do anything about it.

Soon afterwards a reaction post was in the forum where I believe everything bad with the community was put forth plainly. Unfortunately, the result was not a good discussion as the OP would have liked but a pathetic attempt by the good ol’ boys club and the moderators to skirt the issue with accusations of conspiracy or petty flamewars. The points raised where barely touched, even though there is an obvious support from the silent majority as can be seen from the positive ranking of the OP (which you must imagine persists despite the downvote brigade by those who like the community being difunctional)

So how come this situation persists even though it’s obviously unwanted by a lot of the community members? The reason seems to be the same as to why any class society persists even though change is wanted by the majority of people living in it. Inertia and Alienation.

You see, by now ToyTown has grown huge and it the stop for the english-speaking crowd in Germany. As this just happened naturally just because there was a demand for it, the one who happened to start it first became the de-facto leader and a hierarchy formed below him. First the mods and then the good ol’ boys AKA the vocal minority. Since ToyTown has always been the property of the admin, this situation has simply not been challenged, even though the value of the community lies in its numbers, not in its owners. The site, much like a nation, will keep on growing regardless of the actions and abuses of the admins due to the existing demand for an english speaking site in Germany. This leads to the the biggest challenge any new site will face when trying to setup a healthy community around the same goal. Oobscurity. The ToyTown administration and old boys club knows this and therefore have no reason to control their behaviour. And this attitude only worsens the more a community grows larger.

This is the curse of all hierarchy. Benevolent or not, it is corrupted by the sheer control that is centralized as it naturally grows. Those at the top see themselves as increasingly benevolent even while their actions become more and more intolerant and authoritarian. Those with social power, such as that coming from seniority or friends in high places, get more and more vain and expect that their social status grants them immunity from the same things that “lesser mortals” AKA newbies get punished for.

Those not in the upper strata of the community quickly learn what their place is and take on of two actions. They either leave or keep their head down, find a niche and try to work within it. As long as they do not draw the ire of the mods or the old boys club, they can function without many issues. To challenge and stop abusive behaviour coming from those higher than them is impossible however.The will of the mods will always be over the will of the old boys will always be over the will of the unwashed masses. As a poster called Jimbo said:

however, I think the quote above is quite wrong – it belongs to Ed Bob, and ultimately, the site is therefore created in his image. Or at least he allows it to be organic and grow in its own way.

Which is simply nonsensical. A community without Ed Bob is still a community. An Ed Bob without it isn’t. To quote another user

Uh, no it doesn’t and that is one of the huge problems around here. The site belongs to the users and without the users E.Bob would not be in a position to make a chunk of change by selling out to The Local. Our help and our comments made this site, he just gave us the vehicle. The real life E.Bob is a pretty cool guy, but can we stop kissing the virtual E.Bob persona for once and for all?

This is why hierarchy needs to be nipped in the bud. There’s no such thing as “too little” or “just enough” hierarchy. Just look at how it can even corrupt children’s relations in the same destructive manner. It is just disruptive to healthy human relationships making good people authoritarian and allowing bad people to be cruel. We need to learn to recognise this and start building our communities with this in mind from the start. Even when structurally necessary, as is the case for web sites which require at the least an admin, a community built around them will immensely benefit the more such privilege is consciously removed.

ToyTown may be too far gone to fix and like many online communities before, it may eventually implode. Just look at how quickly the immensely popular Richard Dawkins community self-immolated just by the actions of the few at the top who were completely disconnected from those at the bottom. Such events are not uncommon and more importantly, I’ve not heard of any of them which were not the result of hierarchical power gone bad.

Could it be salvaged somehow? Depends on how alienated the community is. For those at the top, things will always look good of course. They‘re at the top. This is why you see the vocal minority dismissing and trivializing the concerns others make. Unfortunately, from what I saw at ToyTown, those who do not like how things are going are not convinced or confident that they can make a difference which is not exactly true. I’ve seen a few fora and communities which managed to change things via dedicated non-conformity and persisting objection (think of almost everyone starting new threads to complain). If something like this cannot work, the only solution is an exodus which unless it is made to a system built around avoiding the same issues will only be a temporary solution.

Whatever happens, at the end of the day the power to change things is in the hands of those interested in it. The community itself, not the old boys club or Editor Bob. As long as people are too scared or apathetic to act, nothing will change obviously. For my part, I wash my hands of ToyTown. I do not care to wade into sewers just to take a shortcut.

UPDATE: It seems this blog entry is being linked from a private forum of ToyTown. I have no way of seeing what they’re saying but I’m guessing someone saw this post but was too scared to discuss it with the open public of the forum. Much better to mock me behind closed doors apparently.

UPDATE2: Given the responses that the second thread keeps receiving, I think this is appropriate

(h/t See Mike Draw)

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