[lbo-talk] How To Keep Hostile Jerks From Taking Over YourOnlineCommunity

Chuck chuck at mutualaid.org
Fri May 18 08:42:18 PDT 2007

Wojtek Sokolowski wrote:

> [WS:] Yes, but this is much more likely to occur in online forums, because
> such forums do not provide any means of non-verbal emotional communication.
> Non-verbal emotional communication is essential in reading the intentions of
> group members and "regulating" interaction among them.
> However, I never said that there is a problem with online forums - they
> work, but they have limitations, just like any other tool or means of
> communication. The problem starts when they are used instead rather than in
> addition to face-to-face interaction - but that has more to do with the
> nature of our society than with the nature of the medium itself.

I have to ditto Woj here. I've been on numerous email lists since the early 1990s. I run several dozen email lists and several online forums. I've been kicked off and banned from a few lists. So I've had plenty of time to understand that lists, like communities of interest in the physical world, develop their own style, culture, tone and mores.

I agree with Woj that the lack of non-verbal communication leads to a more hostile environment for online forums. Of course, even when you talk to somebody in person, there are plenty of communication barriers, but you are programmed as a mammal, after millions of years of evolution, to communicate face-to-face with other people. Another important factor in face-to-face communication is that the other person(s) is/are right there in front of you. If you are going to talk shit about them to their face, you had better be prepared for the consequences.

I also agree that forums should replace face-to-face interaction. My biggest gripe with the Internet is that it has further atomized people, isolating them from each other. One of my goals as somebody who develops online websites and runs forums, is to get people together physically. That's why I'm putting so much effort into our physical infoshop here in Kansas City.

I have plenty of experience with online jerks disrupting forums that I run. The biggest headache are with the forums that I describe as "contested political space." Indymedia forums have this problem, especially highly trafficked sites like NYC and DC Indymedia. Not only do you get passionate participants who get a little crazy, but you get hostile outsiders, who can be very determined to bait and antagonize other people. The only way to deal with this is to institute moderation and establish policies. Ratings-based moderation systems only work on high traffic sites like Digg and Slashdot because you have lots of people who have the time to rank other posts.

Infoshop News ran an open forum for much longer than other leftist websites. Our forum started in May 2001. In March of this year, the collective decided to require user registrations in order to post. This came on the heels of several flamewars which were compounded by people posting anonymously. I've also been the subject of constant attack over the years as a "censor" because I retroactively moderated messages posted to our *open* forum that allowed *anonymous* comments.

I'm incredibly happy with our new policy (which wasn't my idea). I get to spend less time moderating nasty flame wars, the discussion is more civil, the discussion content is more germane and insightful, and I can spend more time working on other stuff, like original news content. There were some people who complained, but not as many as you might expect. Most of the complaints came from the "free speech absolutists" who think that anarchist forums should have no moderation or registration whatsoever.

Others complained that the amount of discussion decreased. This was one of my worries, but discussions continue, it's just that we have less of those 75-100 message flame wars. One surprise was that the number of visitors actually INCREASED after the new user registration policy was implemented. This could be do to the time of year, the type of news we were posting, or other factors, but the visitor rate has been consistently higher since the policy change. I also pointed out to some of these critics that Infoshop News is primarily a news site, not a discussion site.

We also made the policy change because several collective members felt that it was our responsibility to the greater activist community to run a forum that encourages responsibility, accountability and ownership of one's words. We are not against people arguing with each other, they should just do it from a consistent alias or user name. Ironically, several of our more provocative posters immediately signed up for user accounts.

Chuck Infoshop News (news.infoshop.org)

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