Why people are annoyed by very strong opinions in online forums.

Recently I’ve been getting more and more active in the BoardGameGeek.com community for Android:Netrunner, since I’m so active in the development of the OCTGN game definition for it, as well as liking the game itself quite a lot. And yesterday a usual event occured that gave me an insight into forum culture.

As is common with geek culture in online communities, some people tend to form strong opinions about various aspects of their hobby and want to share those opinions with others. But sometimes we get to see things heat up a little too much. Apparently randomly, one person will reply rudely to someone known for strong opinions suddenly there’s an outpouring of negativity against the opinionated player coming from all directions.

Someone reacts badly to a strong opinion
Someone reacts badly to a strong opinion

The opinionated person is usually taken aback from such hostility as they don’t understand where it’s coming from.

Reaction to negativity

I’ve seen this reaction occur quite frequently, but it usually happens in hobbyist discussions, such as the ones revolving around games. This is because those tend to have a low-impact consequence to a change within them being bad, which makes most moderate people not bother as much with online discussions about them, unless those people are opinionated or bored.

This however means that someone who does react strongly about changes that they perceive to be important, tends to stick out like a sore thumb. Why does someone gets constantly flustered about something as insignificant (in the large scale of things) as a game? And why do people get annoyed at such common reactions?

This hadn’t actually click for me until today, as I was reading the above exchange and I was also considering that I also felt annoyed every time I saw such strong opinions being posted by the same people. But I couldn’t put a finger as to why. Why was I irritated about someone taking a card game too seriously?

And then it dawned on me, that I wasn’t getting annoyed by the opinion itself. I wasn’t even annoyed by the opinion being put forth as a fact. It was rather the situation that the same people would post the same kind of “the sky is falling” commentary every time and then, predictably, others would reply aggressively in to point out why they are completely wrong, which would trigger a discussion that took over most of the thread from that point on.

In short, those posting strong opinions ended up almost always focusing the whole topic on their ideas, “heating up” the thread and making the whole discussion revolve around them. It’s an attention grab! And it’s this constant attention-seeking that is annoying the people around them, possibly without them realizing the true reason. And thus ending up with random lash-outs like the above screenshot.

I suspect that the people behaving this way do not realize why they are doing it. For them, this is a hobby that they really love and they have strong opinions because they’d hate to see it ruined by bad decisions. So it’s understandable that they post those opinions on every relevant discussion and make threads about them, isn’t it?

It just so happens that this behaviour makes them the superstar of every discussion. Sometimes negatively, sometimes positively, depending on how much they reflect the popular sentiment, but almost always there will be one or more people with an equally strong opinion on the other side who’ll be annoyed enough at the arrogance or stubbornness to reply likewise, and thus a heated discussion will begin, centering around their comments. And given that humans are social creatures, this is addictive.

It’s addictive to always be the center of attention, as long as that attention is not overly hostile. So any behaviour that brings about this state of affairs is going to be repeated as long as the reward is reinforced. And given that most people, on both sides, don’t realize what is going on, is is going to be reinforced every time.

And then people in the community are going to start getting annoyed, because it turns out that any thread where particular people comment on (in their usual style), immediately takes a few steps towards flamewar status, and it just so happens that everyone will be discussing those comments for the next few pages, and every other interesting comment will be ignored as those most inflamed by the arguments are going to focus on just that.

So you see this kind of comments, and you grind your teeth, mutter “Oh it’s this person again? What horribly wrong opinion do they have to present now?”. And after months of the same procedure, someone else tells them to “STFU because nobody cares” or something, and you think “Fuck yeah” and pile on at the opportunity to put them in their place, until the whole thing escalates and feelings are hurt.

I think this whole thing can be quickly de-escalated if people realize the true reason why such comments create a negative attitude. The attention seekers need to stop trying to make the kind of inflammatory comment that will make them the center of discussion, and I believe the way to achieve that is not in random hostility, which is likely not to achieve anything as it’s vague and misdirected, but to call those people out explicitly for their attention seeking and how that negatively affects the community around them.

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.

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

The ToyTown community has been overrun with abusive members and facilitating moderators. Why is this so and what can be done?

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.

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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