Friday, November 28, 2008

Moderation Policy

I've been participating in online community discussions for about 35 years now (starting with the Plato System in 1974.) I've seen numerous discussion groups start, grow, become diseased (with trolls, hostile opponents, etc.), recover, mature, senesce, and die.

I was among the first on Usenet Groups (which were an imitation of the newsgroups on the Plato System), and if you want to read some of my early (1984) Usenet postings, search google groups for "Huybensz" (my maiden name, which nobody ever pronounced or spelled correctly, now shortened to Huben) or "mrh". Google's cache of early postings is very incomplete.

So when moderation policy issues come up, I do think I know something about it. Sometimes they have come up here, sometimes people who dislike my position or style bring them up in their own blogs.

Here, as a heuristic, I tend not to allow anonymous comments. It is trivial to create a pseudonymous google (or other) identity: that's no real obstacle, despite protests from fools like Skeptico. It does deter the most casual annoying commenters. But the big win is that it allows us to have lines of argument person by person, rather than a contradictary chorus of an anonymous crowd.

I also rarely delete comments. I'm reluctant to do so, but sometimes there are good reasons that are not encapsulated by simple rules.

The best explanation of managing comments in blogs that I've seen is from Teresa Nielsen Hayden, her post NOT titled Some things I know about moderating conversations in virtual space.

Here are her principles:

1. There can be no ongoing discourse without some degree of moderation, if only to kill off the hardcore trolls. It takes rather more moderation than that to create a complex, nuanced, civil discourse. If you want that to happen, you have to give of yourself. Providing the space but not tending the conversation is like expecting that your front yard will automatically turn itself into a garden.

2. Once you have a well-established online conversation space, with enough regulars to explain the local mores to newcomers, they’ll do a lot of the policing themselves.

3. You own the space. You host the conversation. You don’t own the community. Respect their needs. For instance, if you’re going away for a while, don’t shut down your comment area. Give them an open thread to play with, so they’ll still be there when you get back.

4. Message persistence rewards people who write good comments.

5. Over-specific rules are an invitation to people who get off on gaming the system.

6. Civil speech and impassioned speech are not opposed and mutually exclusive sets. Being interesting trumps any amount of conventional politeness.

7. Things to cherish: Your regulars. A sense of community. Real expertise. Genuine engagement with the subject under discussion. Outstanding performances. Helping others. Cooperation in maintenance of a good conversation. Taking the time to teach newbies the ropes.

All these things should be rewarded with your attention and praise. And if you get a particularly good comment, consider adding it to the original post.

8. Grant more lenience to participants who are only part-time jerks, as long as they’re valuable the rest of the time.

9. If you judge that a post is offensive, upsetting, or just plain unpleasant, it’s important to get rid of it, or at least make it hard to read. Do it as quickly as possible. There’s no more useless advice than to tell people to just ignore such things. We can’t. We automatically read what falls under our eyes.

10. Another important rule: You can let one jeering, unpleasant jerk hang around for a while, but the minute you get two or more of them egging each other on, they both have to go, and all their recent messages with them. There are others like them prowling the net, looking for just that kind of situation. More of them will turn up, and they’ll encourage each other to behave more and more outrageously. Kill them quickly and have no regrets.

11. You can’t automate intelligence. In theory, systems like Slashdot’s ought to work better than they do. Maintaining a conversation is a task for human beings.

12. Disemvowelling works. Consider it.

13. If someone you’ve disemvowelled comes back and behaves, forgive and forget their earlier gaffes. You’re acting in the service of civility, not abstract justice.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The One Ring

I don't really have a personal blog (just how many should I have?) but I want to stash this somewhere on the web.

I teach Precalculus, and one of the key ideas for explaining the trigonometric functions is the unit circle ( with a radius of 1.) Tolkein fans might appreciate how appropriate this poem is:

The One Ring
(Great Circle Of Power,
Math Student's Bane)

One Circle to rule them all,
One ring to find them,
Unit circle to calculate all,
and in trigonometry bind them.
In the study of Precalculus where the functions lie.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Lame Duck Ideological Sabotage Deterrence Bill

Yesterday, there was an NPR report that the Bush administration is charging ahead with plans to change regulations in industry-friendly ways that Obama would not be able to undo. For example: bypassing environmental regulations, approving various applications, etc.

This could be forestalled with a Lame Duck Ideological Sabotage Deterrence Bill. The idea is to get the threat out there that any company that benefits from lame duck regulatory changes (before Obama and Congress get to act) will be socked with a massive penalty tax, far in excess of the profits expected from the regulatory change.

Of course, this could be prettied up and done informally.

Alternatively, Obama could be negotiating with Bush not to do this. Obama has a major bargaining chip: how freely he will unleash the furies to discover and prosecute Bush administration crimes and malfeasance. I'd settle for a truth and reconciliation commission, though I'd love to see Bush and Co. extradited to the Hague to stand trial for war crimes such as torture. Bush cannot pardon anybody for international crimes, only for crimes against US law. I don't think Obama would ever use this club against Bush, but it sure would make me feel good.