Well-Kept Gardens Die By Pacifism

Pre­vi­ously in se­ries: My Way
Fol­lowup to: The Sin of Underconfidence

Good on­line com­mu­ni­ties die pri­mar­ily by re­fus­ing to defend them­selves.

Some­where in the vast­ness of the In­ter­net, it is hap­pen­ing even now. It was once a well-kept gar­den of in­tel­li­gent dis­cus­sion, where knowl­edge­able and in­ter­ested folk came, at­tracted by the high qual­ity of speech they saw on­go­ing. But into this gar­den comes a fool, and the level of dis­cus­sion drops a lit­tle—or more than a lit­tle, if the fool is very pro­lific in their post­ing. (It is worse if the fool is just ar­tic­u­late enough that the former in­hab­itants of the gar­den feel obliged to re­spond, and cor­rect mis­ap­pre­hen­sions—for then the fool dom­i­nates con­ver­sa­tions.)

So the gar­den is tainted now, and it is less fun to play in; the old in­hab­itants, already in­vested there, will stay, but they are that much less likely to at­tract new blood. Or if there are new mem­bers, their qual­ity also has gone down.

Then an­other fool joins, and the two fools be­gin talk­ing to each other, and at that point some of the old mem­bers, those with the high­est stan­dards and the best op­por­tu­ni­ties el­se­where, leave...

I am old enough to re­mem­ber the USENET that is for­got­ten, though I was very young. Un­like the first In­ter­net that died so long ago in the Eter­nal Septem­ber, in these days there is always some way to delete un­wanted con­tent. We can thank spam for that—so egre­gious that no one defends it, so pro­lific that no one can just ig­nore it, there must be a ban­ham­mer some­where.

But when the fools be­gin their in­va­sion, some com­mu­ni­ties think them­selves too good to use their ban­ham­mer for—gasp!—cen­sor­ship.

After all—any­one ac­cul­turated by academia knows that cen­sor­ship is a very grave sin… in their walled gar­dens where it costs thou­sands and thou­sands of dol­lars to en­ter, and stu­dents fear their pro­fes­sors’ grad­ing, and heaven for­bid the jan­i­tors should speak up in the mid­dle of a col­lo­quium.

It is easy to be naive about the evils of cen­sor­ship when you already live in a care­fully kept gar­den. Just like it is easy to be naive about the uni­ver­sal virtue of un­con­di­tional non­vi­o­lent paci­fism, when your coun­try already has armed sol­diers on the bor­ders, and your city already has po­lice. It costs you noth­ing to be righ­teous, so long as the po­lice stay on their jobs.

The thing about on­line com­mu­ni­ties, though, is that you can’t rely on the po­lice ig­nor­ing you and stay­ing on the job; the com­mu­nity ac­tu­ally pays the price of its vir­tu­ous­ness.

In the be­gin­ning, while the com­mu­nity is still thriv­ing, cen­sor­ship seems like a ter­rible and un­nec­es­sary im­po­si­tion. Things are still go­ing fine. It’s just one fool, and if we can’t tol­er­ate just one fool, well, we must not be very tol­er­ant. Per­haps the fool will give up and go away, with­out any need of cen­sor­ship. And if the whole com­mu­nity has be­come just that much less fun to be a part of… mere fun doesn’t seem like a good jus­tifi­ca­tion for (gasp!) cen­sor­ship, any more than dis­lik­ing some­one’s looks seems like a good rea­son to punch them in the nose.

(But join­ing a com­mu­nity is a strictly vol­un­tary pro­cess, and if prospec­tive new mem­bers don’t like your looks, they won’t join in the first place.)

And af­ter all—who will be the cen­sor? Who can pos­si­bly be trusted with such power?

Quite a lot of peo­ple, prob­a­bly, in any well-kept gar­den. But if the gar­den is even a lit­tle di­vided within it­self —if there are fac­tions—if there are peo­ple who hang out in the com­mu­nity de­spite not much trust­ing the mod­er­a­tor or who­ever could po­ten­tially wield the ban­ham­mer—

(for such in­ter­nal poli­tics of­ten seem like a mat­ter of far greater im­port than mere in­vad­ing bar­bar­ians)

—then try­ing to defend the com­mu­nity is typ­i­cally de­picted as a coup at­tempt. Who is this one who dares ap­point them­selves as judge and ex­e­cu­tioner? Do they think their own­er­ship of the server means they own the peo­ple? Own our com­mu­nity? Do they think that con­trol over the source code makes them a god?

I con­fess, for a while I didn’t even un­der­stand why com­mu­ni­ties had such trou­ble defend­ing them­selves—I thought it was pure naivete. It didn’t oc­cur to me that it was an egal­i­tar­ian in­stinct to pre­vent chief­tains from get­ting too much power. “None of us are big­ger than one an­other, all of us are men and can fight; I am go­ing to get my ar­rows”, was the say­ing in one hunter-gath­erer tribe whose name I for­get. (Be­cause among hu­mans, un­like chim­panzees, weapons are an equal­izer—the tribal chief­tain seems to be an in­ven­tion of agri­cul­ture, when peo­ple can’t just walk away any more.)

Maybe it’s be­cause I grew up on the In­ter­net in places where there was always a sysop, and so I take for granted that who­ever runs the server has cer­tain re­spon­si­bil­ities. Maybe I un­der­stand on a gut level that the op­po­site of cen­sor­ship is not academia but 4chan (which prob­a­bly still has mechanisms to pre­vent spam). Maybe be­cause I grew up in that wide open space where the free­dom that mat­tered was the free­dom to choose a well-kept gar­den that you liked and that liked you, as if you ac­tu­ally could find a coun­try with good laws. Maybe be­cause I take it for granted that if you don’t like the arch­wiz­ard, the thing to do is walk away (this did hap­pen to me once, and I did in­deed just walk away).

And maybe be­cause I, my­self, have of­ten been the one run­ning the server. But I am con­sis­tent, usu­ally be­ing first in line to sup­port mod­er­a­tors—even when they’re on the other side from me of the in­ter­nal poli­tics. I know what hap­pens when an on­line com­mu­nity starts ques­tion­ing its mod­er­a­tors. Any poli­ti­cal en­emy I have on a mailing list who’s pop­u­lar enough to be dan­ger­ous is prob­a­bly not some­one who would abuse that par­tic­u­lar power of cen­sor­ship, and when they put on their mod­er­a­tor’s hat, I vo­cally sup­port them—they need urg­ing on, not re­strain­ing. Peo­ple who’ve grown up in academia sim­ply don’t re­al­ize how strong are the walls of ex­clu­sion that keep the trolls out of their lovely gar­den of “free speech”.

Any com­mu­nity that re­ally needs to ques­tion its mod­er­a­tors, that re­ally se­ri­ously has abu­sive mod­er­a­tors, is prob­a­bly not worth sav­ing. But this is more ac­cused than re­al­ized, so far as I can see.

In any case the light didn’t go on in my head about egal­i­tar­ian in­stincts (in­stincts to pre­vent lead­ers from ex­er­cis­ing power) kil­ling on­line com­mu­ni­ties un­til just re­cently. While read­ing a com­ment at Less Wrong, in fact, though I don’t re­call which one.

But I have seen it hap­pen—over and over, with my­self urg­ing the mod­er­a­tors on and sup­port­ing them whether they were peo­ple I liked or not, and the mod­er­a­tors still not do­ing enough to pre­vent the slow de­cay. Be­ing too hum­ble, doubt­ing them­selves an or­der of mag­ni­tude more than I would have doubted them. It was a ra­tio­nal­ist hang­out, and the third be­set­ting sin of ra­tio­nal­ists is un­der­con­fi­dence.

This about the In­ter­net: Any­one can walk in. And any­one can walk out. And so an on­line com­mu­nity must stay fun to stay al­ive. Wait­ing un­til the last re­sort of ab­solute, bla­tent, un­de­ni­able egre­gious­ness—wait­ing as long as a po­lice officer would wait to open fire—in­dulging your con­science and the virtues you learned in walled fortresses, wait­ing un­til you can be cer­tain you are in the right, and fear no ques­tion­ing looks—is wait­ing far too late.

I have seen ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­ni­ties die be­cause they trusted their mod­er­a­tors too lit­tle.

But that was not a karma sys­tem, ac­tu­ally.

Here—you must trust your­selves.

A cer­tain quote seems ap­pro­pri­ate here: “Don’t be­lieve in your­self! Believe that I be­lieve in you!”

Be­cause I re­ally do hon­estly think that if you want to down­vote a com­ment that seems low-qual­ity… and yet you hes­i­tate, won­der­ing if maybe you’re down­vot­ing just be­cause you dis­agree with the con­clu­sion or dis­like the au­thor… feel­ing ner­vous that some­one watch­ing you might ac­cuse you of group­think or echo-cham­ber-ism or (gasp!) cen­sor­ship… then nine times of ten, I bet, nine times out of ten at least, it is a com­ment that re­ally is low-qual­ity.

You have the down­vote. Use it or USENET.

Part of the se­quence The Craft and the Community

Next post: “Prac­ti­cal Ad­vice Backed By Deep The­o­ries

Pre­vi­ous post: “The Sin of Un­der­con­fi­dencee