Why online communities need transparency and accountability

If there’s one thing that poisons an online community, it’s unaccountable moderators who rule with an iron fist.

transparency III
Image by riotcitygirl via Flickr

As luck would have it, just a few days after I posted how the rampart hierarchy and cliques of TT have started morphing it into an online wasteland, a similar situation has exploded in reddit where a well known moderator of multiple subreddits has been uncovered as a paid marketer. Needless to say, the shit has hit the fan and a full blown witch hunt has started in some places.

The main reason for this was two-fold it seems. One was that the people believe that the mods of reddit have some secret power with which to improve their own post rankings and thus drive more traffic to the sites they are promoting. The second one is that it is considered a major faux-pas to submit links to reddit in exchange for money, even if this is done within the rules of reddit and without spamming.

This marketer faux-pas is nothing unexpected seeing how much marketers are disliked and not only online. I personally don’t have so much of a problem with it as long as its not abusing the rules of the system and trust in communities to self-moderate against egregious spammers. However it seems to me that the main reason people are up in arms are because of the status of one such person as a moderator and the powers they assume this grants them.

The secret mod powers fear on the other hand, is not true and based only on speculation. Mods cannot promote anything to the front secretly and nor can they delete something and repost it themselves. Their powers are limited mostly in weeding out spam and getting rid of abusive users. However, while these powers are more limited than most other online communities, they can still be abused as has been the case previously when some mods went into paranoid power-trips and destroyed the communities around them with their actions.

The bad part is that any acts on the part of the moderators are hidden from the general populace. This breeds paranoia and conspiracy theories which can even create dissatisfaction and hostility when people think they’re smelling something fishy going on. This is not helped by the fact that some mods have attempted to abuse their powers. If this bad in reddit, it is 10 times as bad in places like online fora where the moderators have far more power at their disposal and can quickly and easily quell any (small) dissent.

In fact this points out how hierarchical power works on a scale where the more of it you have, the less healthy the community becomes. This is the primary reason why I’ve stopped using fora for the most part (even anarchist ones). The underlying mechanisms and power they bestow on the mods and the power users below them create an oppressive environment, even when this is not explicitly attempted. It is in fact why I’ve become a regular of reddit and of /r/anarchism especially, which has gone to great lengths to combat the built-in hierarchy of the system and has become a superior community because of this.

While the solution we have implemented there, such as a large number of moderators, have been criticized by people who did not understand their underlying reasons, the community as a whole has benefited with the peace of mind that comes from knowing that it will be difficult for any one mod to abuse their position since the rest will quickly revert their acts. From being able to see that we do not conspire in the not-secret-anymore mod char and from being able to observe the banned list of users and posts. There’s simply no reason for people to suspect foul play and this shows in the interactions people have there.

I would go as far as to say that the psychological aspect is really one of the most important reasons why moderator power must be held accountable. Most people become far more meek than they would have otherwise been when they know they are arguing with a moderator. The looming fear of “if I piss him off too much I’m going to face consequences down the road“, even when the mod does not generally act like this, is enough of a fear to skew the conversation. People are not any more discussing as equals and this shows. Speaking for myself, even when I challenge a moderators without holding back because I don’t care principally if I’m banned, I still feel a gripping claw of fear in my chest as I think “Oh oh, I pissed him off too much and he’s going to take action.” I do not want to feel this and I do not want this to affect me, but it does and I have to actively suppress and fight it. Even the most benevolent moderator, much like the most benevolent boss or most benevolent king, retains power over you and this shows in your interactions with them.

Ttransparency is one of the most important measures required when you have any sort of necessary power structure. This is what allows accountability to work and by its mere existence it keeps the powers of the moderators in check as they cannot pass themselves as benevolent dictators when they are abusing their powers behind the scenes, which is unfortunately the curse many online communities suffer: Mods being benevolent in general but not averse to using their power in the few unwarranted instances they feel strongly about. This in turn slowly creates an oppressive environment of “toe the line or else”, even to those not affected by those actions but simply having seen them. The most unfortunate is when those convince themselves that such was the right thing to do, just because that person was a mod in the first place. Power justified power sort of thing.

Accountability is the sister principle to transparency and cannot exist without it. It is what makes sure that the power of a community lies on the people who comprise it and not the few at the top. A community with accountability is healthier because of it, because people know and expect that their problems will be heard and have an impact. While it’s better not to have any hierarchies at all due to the detrimental effect they have, when their existence is necessitated by the environment (such as an online community existing in a spam and troll heavy internet) they need to be held as accountable as possible. Some may complain that the power over a community shoud be rightfully held by those who initiated it (such as the admin of a forum) but this is a flawed perspective. The owner of the forum does not make a community by themselves, nor do they make it a success (while they can of course play a significant role in this). It’s the people comprising it who do and thus they ones who deserve the power over it. It perpetually frustrates me when I encounter people who act as if an online community is the private property of the server admin and therefore they should be justified to act however they like.

It is because of the way that transparency and accountability prevent abuse and power-tripping from the few at the top that you’ll inevitably see those same few at the top opposing these principles with all kinds of excuses. “It will not help us at all”, “It will reduce privacy”, “It will only make people bitch more”, “It will facilitate spammers”, etc etc. For all their excuses, at the end it comes down to those at the top not wanting to dilute their own power through the community. Even when they claim that being the moderators is a heavy load and more of a duty than a privilege, they steadfastly refuse to share the burden. To anyone reading between the lines, the motivations are obvious and occasionally they become striking just by the way one argues against it.

In summary, Accountability of those at the top (when having someone at the top is structurally necessary) makes for a healthier community as it reduces the chances for abuse of power as well as the real (cronyism, cliques etc) and the psychological (fear, paranoia etc) after-effects these cause to the member of the community at large. Transparency is a sister and necessary step before accountability is even possible. Given these argument, any and all of us need to push for more of these principles wherever we may lurk online. It will always be beneficial, even when rabidly opposed by those who’s power is set to be diluted by them.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Can self-moderation of a game community reduce abuse and dickwadery?

Can a game community repair its internal social relation through self-moderation or is it doomed to fucktardery by the few. I believe the concept of Direct Action can help.

PA's Greater Internet Dickwad theoryI’ve recently entered the beta for an upcoming DotA (almost-)clone called Heroes of Newerth (HoN) when I discovered through reddit giving away 100 of ’em for the most absurd names (I submitted the Flying Spaghetti Monster of course). I always wanted to play the DotA experience but I didn’t have Warcraft3 available and Demigod is quite different from it (and a bit disappointing as well). Plus, having a native GNU/Linux client was an offer I couldn’t resist. 😉

But what does this have to do with the title above? Well one of the main issues that DotA has is the sheer number of elitist assholes who heave tons of abuse at people trying to learn the ropes or even just don’t play perfectly. I am talking total nerd-rage here. Unfortunately, this mentality seems to have migrated to the HoN community, most likely because it’s been marketed as the intellectual sequel to DotA (Items and Heroes are almost the same).

While this general level of fucktardery is not such a big issue in a free mod such as DotA, for a commercial game with developers to pay and with big plans for the future, it might make or break their life-expectancy. The less people that are interested in nurturing and increasing their “newbie scene”, the less people will stick around until they won’t be at a level where they suffer abuse simply for not having climbed the (very steep) learning curve.

As I was reading similar sentiments from other people in the fora, I got to thinking on how those who would like to help new players might overcome this obstacle and alleviate, if not reduce the rampart dickwadery. While technical solutions might be proposed and coded, such as improving the match-making system, I think the solution lies in direct action and cooperation from the community.

Of course the community cannot take very good action without the game presenting at least some tools to combat the problem, which is incidentally why the DotA community is what it is. Fortunately, even at this beta stage, the game has some controls that could be used for such purposes. Permaban and Ignore. If I understand the first one correctly, one can mark a specific account as always banned from games one hosts. Ignore just…well, ignores chat messages from a particular player.

So how can these two be used for self-moderation? My idea was through a blacklist. Lets say that a known newbie-friendly player (lets call him/her a ‘Mentor’) while playing in a newb-only game, discovers that one of his team members is constantly ranting and cursing at the others for being worthless, n00bs, sucky and whatnot. The Mentor then, grabs a few screencaps or a replay as evidence of this and adds the dickwad’s alias to a blacklist he maintains. This can be as simply as a blog with each new post being about a particular dickwad and a full list in a prominent location.

Now all the other people who have a likewise mentality, ie they like to promote a healthier community are subscribed to this blacklist. Each time a new person is added to it, people judge the evidence and if solid ((Although of course, if the Mentor or the maintainers of the blacklist are trusted, many will not even need to look at the evidence)), they add this account to their permaban and ignore lists. If just a 10% of the HoN people are subscribed to this blacklist, then the abusive players are going to quickly start running into problems joining games or talking to people.

The effects of this tactic would be akin to peer pressure in a normal social situation. Suddenly the dickwads are going to find out that being a jerk online has some drawbacks. Hopefully some might reconsider as generally, not being a dickwad is not so difficult. They should be then given a chance to take themselves out of the blacklist (probation time?) and who knows, maybe they’ll join the other side for a change.

So why is this better than simply using system based changes? Well first of all because no programmed system is perfect, especially at catching such vague concepts as dickwadery. Matchmaking may not work well enough and options to mark others as abusive (say via a game function like permaban) may in turn be abused themselves for griefing purposes. On the other hand, a self-moderated solution avoids these issues.

Let’s say for example that someone was added to the dickwads blacklist but some think this was wrong. Perhaps his frustration was warranted, or there is not enough evidence and whatnot. What would probably happen is that not all subscribers to the blacklist would add him as they wouldn’t feel he deserves it. As such his “pain” would be much less. Dialogue will be also had and perhaps more evidence requested.

Lets have another example where the Mentor goes on a power trip and starts adding people he doesn’t like to the blacklist without evidence just because he expects to be trusted. Seeing as this is not anything official, nothing would prevent people from calling him out on this, a new blacklist forked from the old under the supervision of another Mentor or even a collaboration of them and the old Mentor might quickly find himself in a prominent position in the new blacklist.

All of these then are ideas that might work to allow a game community to self-moderate itself to a healthy environment which is conductive to new people joining, without requiring any authoritarian measures on the part of the developers or the moderators. Rather it would be based on direct action by the members themselves and as such far less prone to corruption, who would then get the community they deserve.

Who knows, If I stick around with HoN once it comes out (curse my short attention span) I might actually start this for the heck of it. Just to see if a purely community driven initiative can make a difference. It would be an interest test to put some of my principles under. 😉

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Μέρα της Λίνουξαρτησίας

Σε περίπτωση που δεν το ακούσατε ακόμα, τo πρώτο Lindependence τελείωσε με επιτυχία. Για μια μικρή πόλη στις Η.Π.Α. τα αποτελεσματα ήταν πολύ θετικά και η προσωπική μου άποψη είναι ότι θα βοηθήσει στην “word-of-mouth” διαφήμιση του GNU/Linux όσον αφορα το desktop.

Ο λόγος όμως που γράφω αυτό το κείμενο δεν είναι απλά για να διαφημίσω αυτή την πολύ σωστή κίνηση αλλά για να επιστήσω την προσοχή σας στο πόσο πολύ το αγνόησε η κοινότητα του Λίνουξ.

Απο μεγάλους κόμβους στόν τεχνολογικό κόσμο (Slashdot, O’Reilly) μέχρι αφοσιομένες στο Gnu/Linux ιστοσελίδες (Linux Journal, FSF), η αντίδραση ήταν μια απαθής αδιαφορία! Πέρα απο μερικά σημεία όπως το LXer, σχεδόν πουθενά αλλού δεν είδα, αν όχι ενθουσιασμό, τουλάχιστον μια απλή ανακοίνωση. Αντίθετως πολλοί είναι αυτοί που συγκεκριμένα απέφυγαν να το ανακοινώσουν.

Το όλο θέμα είναι λυπηρό. Είμαστε μια (σχετικά) μικρή και αποκεντροποιημένη κοινότητα που δεν έχουμε κανένα άλλο για υποστήριξη εκτώς απο τα μέλη μας. Είναι εντελός αντι-διαισθητικό να κινούμαστε σε τέτοιες κατευθύνσεις μόνο και μόνο επειδή δεν συμφωνούμε με τις πρωτοβουλίες που παίρνουν οι άλλοι. Ειδικά τα μεγάλα μέλη ενημέρωσης για οτιδήποτε Λίνουξ θα πρέπει να είναι αγνωστικά στο τι παρουσιάζουν σαν νέα, εφόσον έχουν να κάνουν με το θέμα.

Δεν υπάρχει κανένας λόγος να μην αναφέρουν, έστω και αν συντομία, οτι η Μέρα Λινουξαρτησίας “θα γίνει την Τάδε μέρα” ή ότι “έγινε με επιτυχία”. Κανένας. Το να μην το αναφέρεις καν είναι μια ένδειξη μικρότητας και συμφωνώ με αυτούς που πιστεύουν οτι η ζηλεία είναι ο υπαίτιος. Γιατί δεν το κατάφεραν οι ίδιοι…

Όπως τα έφεραν οι εξελίξεις, ο Ήλιος (Helios) και οι συνεργάτες του τα κατάφεραν μια χαρά αλλά η ελειψη οποιασδήποτε βοήθειας έβλαψε αρκετά τον ενθουσιασμό τους. Ελπίζω μόνο να συνεχίσουν με τον ίδιο ρυθμό και να μην το βάλουν κάτω γιατί πραγματικά εμπνέουν πολλούς μας αλλά και το γεγονός οτι κάνουν την θεωρία πράξη μπορεί να αλλάξει και γνώμες.

Με αλληλεγγύη…