Random Rants, Raves and Ramblings

A forum Moderator's Guide out of the Democracy Fallacy

Quite a few discussion forums that I visit (and I assure you they are about extremely diverse subjects) are plagued by individuals with a destructive attitude. As we speak, one of these forums is sinking as constructive and well-mannered visitors are all quitting while the moderators find themselves unable to take action because “there’s no rule breaking going on and you can’t just kick folks for no reason in a democracy”.
The following thoughts discuss the relationship between freedom of speech, rules and disruptive or antisocial behaviour and how different contexts call for and permit different attitudes towards rules and judgment.

Cunning vs the Rules

Obvious forms of disruptive behaviour on internet discussion forums are thread hijacking, flooding, verbal aggression and making threats. Less obvious forms are: failure or refusal to offer or respond to cogent arguments, making unwarranted (and usually indirect) accusations, proposing impossibly extreme opinions, personal attacks, polarising the discussion, misrepresenting dissenting opinion, emotive language and whining*. Probably the clearest hallmark of the disruptive individual is constantly testing the limits of the rules.

The list is by no means exhaustive, and there lies the rub. Forum moderators confronted with disruptive behaviour are usually seen fretting over the exact interpretation of board rules, more likely than not finding no clear-cut transgressions which would mandate disciplinary measure. Taken at face value, most forum rules are remarkably vague and unenforcible. Steeped in a democratic political tradition, moderators find themselves paralysed by the apparent inadequacy of the rules while a rampaging freak forces the entire membership out.

Nation States vs Clubs: Form and Function of Laws and Rules

If an internet discussion forum were a microcosm of a nation state, writing forum rules would be every bit as fraught as drawing up the laws that govern a country. A law could be thought of as a line of computer program code: if a certain condition is met, do such. Just like computer programs can have bugs, laws will have loopholes and conflicts. Much more intelligence is needed to write a law or a computer program than to outwit it (hence the term fool-proof). Even for the most capable of lawmakers, this asymmetry is a constant source of frustration.

Laws are invented to prevent arbitrariness in government and judgment and form the back-bone of any democratic society. The more serious possible consequences of misinterpretation or subjective judgment get, the more important unambiguous and comprehensive rules become. For instance, people are always born a national of some country and they’re always subject to the laws of some country. There’s no way you can get out of society and there’s no way society can throw you out. When a citizen breaks the law, any “corrective measure” (i.e. punishment) would take the form of the suspension (temporary or indefinite) of some of that citizen’s rights. This is very serious indeed - serious enough to make good on any investment needed to get the law finely honed to be maximally just.

The situation in a club (or an internet discussion forum for that matter) couldn’t be more different. One is never automatically a member, one has to join. People join because they want to. The meaning of rules then becomes roughly to outline what the club stands for, plus a few examples of behaviour that doesn’t fit in. On the one hand, the worst that can happen to a club member found on the wrong side of the rules is being booted. This leaves him no worse off than before joining. On the other hand, since people sign up out of a desire to become a part of the club, it is no more than reasonable to expect them clearly to behave in the spirit of the rules. Members show that they value their membership much more convincingly by staying well clear of the vague limits imposed by the club rules than by simply saying so. The odd “mistake” is easily forgiven. In contrast, people who spend most of the time in the twilight zone quite expressly do not share the interests of the rest of the membership. When someone has the leadership constantly scurrying for the rule-book, that in itself is fairly good evidence of unfriendly intentions.

Stating the Aim

Managing a club as though it were a country is a misapprehension of both the function of nation states and that of clubs as well as form and function of their respective rule-books. Free speech for instance, is a defining feature of democratic states because of the seriousness of potential consequences (collectively and individually) when not all opinions are heard. In a club, absolute free speech is important only inasmuch as it is a stated aim of the organisation. When their views are deemed inconsistent with the values of a club, people are always free to go and express them elsewhere. Regulating free speech within a club does not restrict or violate the rights of the individual member. The local greenie coffee klatsch is quite free to expel members who insist on extolling the virtues of globalisation.

*A full catalogue of “subtle” disruptive behaviours would read like the standard list of logical fallacies (see http://www.fallacyfiles.org/ and http://www.don-lindsay-archive.org/skeptic/arguments.html). Anything is in there, from personal attacks (argumentatio ad hominem) to spewing gobbledygook (argument by bafflement). Their primary effect is to subvert a chain of logic. Used intentionally and persistently, they become powerful tools for upsetting an entire debate or even all of the social interaction on a discussion forum.

Friday 07 January 2011