Friday, February 27, 2009

Trolls on Top

The faux-ster, Hector, who once aimed his hectoring at The Nomad, has now brought down Mark Boyden, moderator of the Windsor Park Neighborhood Association listserv. Today Mark tendered his resignation from the position, which he's held since 2002.

I had meant to write about this remarkable turn of events earlier, but I'll recap here: Hector recently goaded a couple female WPNA readers into spamming him in retaliation for his sarcastic remarks to the listserv. Then they admitted, to the list, that they'd spammed him, and they forwarded a private email from Hector to the public forum - thereby disseminating an obscenity that Hector had used. The upshot: bad etiquette was compounded by stupidity and, against the odds, succeeded at making Hector blameless, perhaps for the first time.

And Mark is taking the hit. As he wrote in his letter, "I have not been able to help good people not succumb to baiting and help them to not violate the guidelines themselves by promoting and engaging in abusive behavior themselves -- actions that have helped in other situations and on other lists. In short, I have failed as your moderator on this one list."

I like Mark, who is a selfless, principled person who cares for the neighborhood and believes in public service. As I wrote to him in a private email earlier this year:
I don't envy the decisions you have to make as a moderator, on behalf of neighborhood comity, and I appreciate the time you spend as an unpaid volunteer keeping WP patched together virtually. Your notes of encouragement are inspiring, as well. I like hearing you on the radio, too.
However, I agree that his time as an effective moderator is over, and I'm not necessarily sad to see him go (though who knows who WP will get as a replacement). It's not that he kept good people from doing bad things. His first and biggest error was defending Hector's right to free speech, even as the rumors rose that "Hector" is a pseudonym. Though Mark moderated Hector's comments, Hector was able to write things in a way that made them acceptable according to the letter of the law but, by violating the spirit, polluted the listserv. It seems clear that any policy that allows people to follow the letter of the law but violate its spirit needs some revision.

What is that policy?

Mark is an Internet veteran, back from the days where online forums were considered public spaces that could be governed through the First Amendment: anyone could say anything they wanted, as long as it wasn't obscene, violent, or discriminatory. Those veterans were libertarians, vocal and fierce and understandably so: the Internet was the last wild open space, and they wanted to protect its wildness and openness.

Since then there's been a shift. We've become more communitarian and less libertarian about our Internet communities. Friendster, Facebook, Myspace are all clear sorts of communities, but so are web forums, email listservs, comment threads in newspapers and articles: in one way or another, they're hyperlocal virtual minisocieties that are shaped by rules that may or may not be mirrored in a face-to-face community and that may or may not be shared by the society at large.

Some might say this is the result of the commercialization of the Web: the wild open Web became real estate. It may, as Mark writes in his note, result from how increasingly prone Americans are to "devilize" those with different ideas.

Whatever the cause, these communities still have to be governed, and though the First Amendment principles are noble, they're not effective in these social spaces if they're applied too mechanistically. It's assumed that once a system is established, its workings must never be interrupted. In fact, humans intervene in the system all the time, and the principles are more often situationally applied. Invoking the First Amendment allows a moderator to act according to what's been called "procedural objectivity," which will be familiar to anyone who's dealt with a bureaucracy. "Those are the rules, gotta follow the rules," the bureaucrat says, which directs your ire not at him but at the system. In actual fact, the rules aren't universally, objectively invoked, and moderators make subjective decisions all the time. So do bureaucrats.

Free speech and property rights may be crucial for protecting democracy, but they're not very good principles for stewarding community. While these online communities are common spaces, they should still be shaped and curated -- the community can decide what sort of ethos and atmosphere it wants to live in, and what sort of values they want to encourage and discourage. The First Amendment is a blunt tool. In the Internet veteran's view, any attempt to shape or curate amounts to censorship, but it's possible to engineer interactions and spaces for interaction such that choice and freedom are retained while shaping the choices that someone makes. This is called paternalistic libertarianism and was laid out in the recent book, Nudge.

Mark, like many moderators, used to advocate that people respond to WP assholes by deleting or filtering emails from their inbox. But I've never liked this view. For one thing, my inbox is an extension of my private space, and I shouldn't have to tolerate invasions or pollutions. Now, the conception of inbox = private space may be faulty, but it's the default conception. In those terms, I should be able to keep assholes out of my house, which shouldn't be their last free haven.

For another thing, online communities should be able to work like real world communities do, where people who are obnoxious can be shunned. In dog parks, aggressive dogs and their owners can be shamed. In these spaces, even in public spaces, you can rid a space of trolls, or marginalize them so much that they either stop what they're doing or go elsewhere. This can be done peaceably and nonviolently. It's done all the time.

Among its many attributes, a good community has a transparent, shared and effective mechanism for neutralizing its trolls. My immediate reaction is that Mark could have neutralized the Hector troll but didn't, and that it's appropriate for him to step down. There's probably more to this story, which I'll pursue as time permits, but for right now, this feels right.

If I were moderator, these are some tools I'd use to neutralize trolls:
1. Block the message, not the person. A certain number of complaints from users should be enough to flag a troll's posts, so that that person gets moderated; they may be able to earn the right to post again unmoderated.

2. Create a volunteer editorial corps to divide the moderation duties.

3. Encourage face to face meetings between trolls and their targets, perhaps even requiring those meetings, once a disagreement has broken out.

4. Create a face-to-face meeting as a requirement for joining the listserv. Avatars like Hector can't be granted the same rights as real people, because only real people have a right of free speech. That's the last problem with the First Amendment: its defense can blind you to other problems.

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