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.

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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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