Well-Kept Gardens Die By Pacifism
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
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