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Is There An Ideal Online Community? (Part One)

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Way back in September, I wrote a post on free speech and included a question about what everyone’s ideal online book community looked like.

There were a number of interesting responses to the question, including,

Liz: On the one hand, I believe strongly that we all have a responsibility to defend our ideas in the Marketplace and be willing to argue for them if we want to put them out there. There are ideas that don’t deserve a respectful hearing, as far as I’m concerned, and people who put them out there in the Marketplace deserve the pasting they often get (e.g. racist ones). On the other hand, in a practical sense, sometimes the more laissez-faire and rough-and-tumble the Marketplace is, the fewer people are willing to engage there. Nasty speech may not be especially valuable to me, even if it is protected. (By nasty I don’t mean angry. Angry people often have really important things to say).

Lindsay: I really enjoy communities online with very clear rules and very strong moderation because, quite honestly, they’re the only communities where I’m able to read the comments. In fact, they’re the communities where I come for the articles but STAY for the comments!

Sarah: I want a space where everything can be said. I want engaging commentary on books. I want snark. I want honesty of opinions and explanations.

Ros: I don’t think I want one homogenous book community. I want lots of communities which all have their own social norms and ethics.

Very few communities on the Internet exist in a space where everyone feels free to say anything they want. Whether people self-police out of fear of backlash, whether users are known to police other users, or whether there is overt site-owner moderation, most of our communities have symbolic boundary lines across which lies “the land of verboten words,” even if such a boundary is not explicitly specified.

Some communities – Goodreads, for example – have evolved from a community where the lines were very diffusely drawn to one where the active practice of censorship has created a contested pattern of bisecting and intersecting lines, with a new boundary line established every time someone’s content is eliminated without their consent. Oh, yes, I know that Goodreads refuses to acknowledge that what they’re doing is censorship, but I think it’s pretty much the textbook case for non-governmental suppression of speech. As Laura Miller notes in her Salon post on the debacle,

. . . when Goodreads first announced this initiative on Sept. 20, hundreds of reviews and ratings were deleted from member accounts without advance notice.

. . .

This latest pang in Goodreads’ growing pains is more than just an instance of poor social network management. It raises broader issues about literary culture and conversations, how they happen and who owns and controls them. The vast majority of the content on Goodreads is generated by the site’s users. As Alf Aldavan, another protester, explained it to me, longtime Goodreads members “don’t feel like users or customers. They feel like contributors, because they are: library data and reviews content are their work, as well as the actual data GR sells.

Miller articulates the real double whammy here: Goodreads users also generate the site’s content, which, in turn, is used to bring authors (and thus revenue) to the site. Consequently, Goodreads users who are not using the site for authorial purposes are basically contributing free labor to Goodreads’ profit production. AND, when that content is not in line with what Goodreads deduces is good for its bottom line, that content is unilaterally eliminated.

Prior to this shift in Goodreads’ practice (and, I think you could argue, policy), there seemed to be a relatively complex ecosystem that existed on the site, by which readers could engage in review, discussion, and curation of books, while authors could either function as readers or as authors. In other words, the site was kind of a venn diagram of overlapping communities that, for the most part, bumped along as well as any enormously diverse online community. That some of the most invested and highest content-producing readers were also among the most vocal was perceived as a problem by Goodreads, something which, as Miller and others have pointed out, could end up backfiring on Goodreads, especially if another site can effectively fill that vacuum.  Now that Goodreads has become a bit more like an author-serving factory, it’s a great example of how a community’s perceived purpose has a great deal of impact on its structure and function. (Note: see Sunita’s excellent posts on Goodreads here, here, and here)

Censorship, in and of itself, is not necessarily an evil thing. People readily approve of certain speech (or speakers) being shut down within relatively engaged communities. Take John Scalzi’s Whatever blog, for example. Scalzi comes out and tells his readers that “you have no right to free speech on this blog.” He goes on to say,

I reserve the right to edit all comments, and to moderate all comment threads, as I see fit. Your comment is more likely to be edited, moderated or deleted if it contains phobic content (based on race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, etc), is a personal attack or threat toward another commenter, is entirely unrelated to the entry topic, features more than a “fair use” amount of someone else’s copyrighted work, has such poor grammar and spelling that it annoys me, is an obvious piece of trollage, or if I find it or you obnoxious and decide I’ve had enough.

Scalzi has a loyal blog following, and those who are not really in line with his approach are less likely to even want to read or comment on the blog, with a few notable exceptions, of which Scalzi has made a public example. Consequently, even though Scalzi claims that he doesn’t really want to delete comments, he’s set things up on the front end such that people are on alert that he can and will, because it’s his blog and he runs it as he sees fit. This is what I’d call a more middle ground approach, where there is a sense of community engagement, but with pretty clear parameters set by the site owner, and a largely self-policing readership.

Then there are many other blogs online that function with a moderation policy but attempt to keep things are unmoderated as possible. These blogs, which include many Romance blogs, have a philosophical belief in the concept of free speech, but have, through custom, habit, and the self-policing of its membership (as loosely or formally constructed as that might be), a recognizable pattern of allowable speech that, if one spends any time on the site, will for the most part be adhered to, even though it’s not explicitly defined. These are often the sites where there will not be an explicit appearance of a hard boundary line until it is perceived to be crossed, either by a substantial number of commenters/members or by the site owner(s). And the fact that the entirety of the membership may not be known or discoverable makes things even more complicated, especially when there is a surge of new participation around a controversial issue or speaker.

Still, as Sunita noted in her post last week:

Policing is not always bad, not by any means. It’s a way of keeping order, which all communities find necessary, and of reminding individuals of shared norms, which hold communities together.

That acceptance of the need for some order is probably why we see very few truly unmoderated sites and blogs, especially in romanceland.  People disagree all the time about what level of moderation should be used (partly because we don’t all share the same norms about what constitutes the ideal level of order), but we don’t disagree with the principle of moderation. And we recognize that some people have more policing power than others in certain circumstances, thus the common phrase “your blog, your rules,” whether we agree with those rules or not.

I am going to have to cut this discussion into two posts, but before I conclude this part, I want to return to the notion that purpose can often create a sense of clarity for community members (only a small fraction of which may actively comment), and in some ways, the more narrow the parameters of a community, the safer it may be for members to participate. In other words, the more spelled out and numerous the rules, the easier it may be for people to discern what is and isn’t allowable. At the same time, the narrower the parameters, the more exclusive the community may be in terms of membership, and the narrower the limits of allowable speech.

By contrast, those online communities that have the fewest rules may be the most volatile, as members search for the boundary lines and only find them by running painfully into them (via backlash from other members or site owners). These are sometimes the communities that are the most dynamic, with members moving in and out, through and among, a fluidity which may or may not be evident in comment patterns.  When there is a strong philosophical desire to have the most diverse, most engaged, most welcoming and interactive experience for members, this may come with uncertainty about feeling safe to speak out, especially for those who may be relatively new to the community.

In other words, a theoretically freer space may ironically feel less safe for its members to speak freely, while a space with more rules and exclusivity may feel safer for its members to speak freely. What I want to look at in my next post is the way this paradox can be self-perpetuating, as well as some strategies for creating safer, more inclusive online reader spaces.

So for this post, I want to leave you with two things. First is part of the famous dissent by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in Abrams v. United States, in which he outlines the logic for what we now call the “marketplace of ideas,” which has come to represent a sort of ideal within the US paradigm of free speech.

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care wholeheartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.

And now a question: Do you prefer an online community with narrower rules and stronger formal moderation, or one with broader rules and less formal moderation? Why?

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

20 Comments

  1. Ros
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 05:48:26

    I definitely prefer one where commenters who celebrate someone’s death are policed. I don’t mind if that policing happens formally by moderators, or informally by the rest of the community.

  2. Isobel Carr
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 09:29:22

    I’ll take either or, but I’d prefer a place where I felt the “rules” were evenhandedly applied. Yesterday’s death wish was simply beyond the pale and IMO that poster deserves to be put on moderation.

  3. Mary Beth
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 09:47:35

    I feel most comfortable in an environment which is moderately civil. Born and raised in the Midwest, it makes me uncomfortable when real acrimony appears in comments. By this, I do not refer to disagreements of opinion or differing points of view on a topic which I actually quite enjoy. Rather, it is the moment that discussion becomes nastily angry that makes me feel like it is time to leave. All of this most likely makes me sound like a true milquetoast, which I most decidedly am not.

    Personally, I feel very comfortable with your present commenting policy. This is a place where I feel safe and although I do not comment frequently, I do not feel concerned when I choose to do so. It makes me somewhat sad to suspect that in order for people to behave like decent human beings, they need some moderation.

  4. Ridley
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 10:53:46

    I don’t play much in truly unmoderated spaces like Reddit because they elevate the voices of bullies who reinforce the status quo. I also have little time for spaces that call for “civility” and go on to ban profanity and anger but not hateful speech celebrating the oppression or death of those they disagree with.

    You can’t create a space where everyone is free to say what they want. You have to choose between accommodating oppressive voices or creating a safe space for marginalized ones.

  5. Lynn
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 11:47:41

    I prefer one with broader rules and less formal moderation. What is offensive to one person is not offensive to another. How would you moderate that? In the above example, “or if I find it or you obnoxious and decide I’ve had enough” can mean many things. It’s a subjective determination based off of the moderator. I might accidentally become obnoxious without meaning to.

    In addition, some topics are more difficult than others. For example, a lively debate or discussion about something complex like whether a hero has or has not raped a heroine is bound to elicit comments that will insult someone. It’s almost inherent due to the sensitive nature of the topic. However, it’s an important topic that should be discussed and, in my opinion, somewhat freely. I would hate the moderator to skew the conversation in a particular way by deleting the comments he/she found offensive.

    However, there is one caveat to my “broader rules” approach. Here on this site you must address the content and ideas and not the commenter. This is the basics of an argument and I believe wholeheartedly in it. I may be offended by your opinion but I should be able to argue with you, respectfully, without becoming personal. Or by using hateful speech directed at the commenter.

    Thanks for the article. Looking forward to Part 2.

  6. DS
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 13:06:44

    Unmoderated Usenet was fun in its day, but I don’t think I have the patience for it any more. However the ability to filter posts is something I miss on sites that don’t provide it. If someone became annoying I just dropped them in the dungeon and read on without their contribution. However, I in general favor looser moderation or moderation by individual reader for his or her self via post filter. I can find a particular post distasteful, but not feel it is something that should be moderated out of existence. I may want to ignore a certain thread but not posts in different threads by the same people.

  7. Christina
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 13:07:41

    While the extremes on both ends of the spectrum tend to be sites I avoid, there is a lot of lee way in the middle. I prefer places where good manners are enforced, but uniformity of opinion is not. I think that the amount of moderation that is required to ensure good manners depends a lot on the size of the community – a small community would usually require less strictness than a large one simply because a mob mentality seems less likely. Whatever the policy is, the policy should be made clear from the start.

    One of the problems I tend to have online is that while forum based communities almost always have a post that states clearly (and usually in great detail) what does and what does not constitute acceptable behavior, a lot of other communities – those based around blogs or review sites – have a commenting culture, not a set of rules.

    If you don’t know what the rules are, you are more likely to break them. So the stricter the moderation is, the more important it becomes to make the rules clear upfront. Simply saying “good manners are required” is not sufficient because manners are cultural artifacts and they are not homogenous. Things that constitute a major insult in some parts of the world/cultures are simply not insulting in others. So the stricter the enforcement of the rules becomes the greater the need is for the rules to be clearly stated.

  8. cleo
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 13:07:56

    I come at this backwards. I don’t pay attention to the rules etc when choosing my online spaces – I choose to come back to spaces that have interesting and productive and entertaining conversations. And different sites seem to achieve this in different ways. I frequent a range of blogs – with very obvious moderation and rules to looser, less visible rules and moderation. But they all have a strong sense of community. And I think that makes a difference. I don’t like sites that feel more like a free for all.

  9. Charming
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 13:14:27

    I think Ridley is on to something, which is that the moderation rules you choose effect the kind of participation you get. What happened at Goodreads was upsetting to many because (in addition to the “free labor” point Janet makes) it signaled that the community was changing the relative value of readers versus authors. Before, the space was for readers, and authors were there on sufferance and had to fit into the social norms set by readers or face the consequences. Now, it is readers who must conform to norms set by authors or be censored.

  10. Sirius
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 13:19:24

    @Charming: Yep agreed about Goodreads. I did not leave entirely because I still talk to people there, but ever since they announced the deletion of reviews the way they so chose, I have not posted a single review there. It is still has value for me communication wise, but I do not trust them anymore – period. Not a single of my review or shelves was deleted, but I figured if they can do it to other people, they can do it to me and I just do not care for it. At all.

  11. Liz H.
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 13:21:06

    Although my instinct is to agree with others above, I have strong reservations. Like @Ridley, I have encountered truly unmoderated spaces where the bullies completely prevail (although I have encountered similar spaces which purport to be heavily moderated). And thus my instinct would be to agree that a reasonable limit would be to discourage strong personal attacks. However, (and despite reassurances to the contrary), that does seem to transmutate to an emphasis on courtesy (not itself a bad thing) and put a stigma on expressing anger/passion in debates (a very bad thing, however unintential).

    And such policies don’t necessarily solve problems, even when their targeted comments are stopped. As we all seem to be dancing around it- Dear Author’s policy is that comments shouldn’t be addressed to commenters. By that standard, my comment yesterday, which was directed at the commenter, was potentially subject to moderation. However, the OC’s comment which was aimed at, among other things, amorphous groups and a dead man, didn’t violate anything no matter how hateful.

  12. hapax
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 13:34:35

    @Christina:

    One of the problems I tend to have online is that while forum based communities almost always have a post that states clearly (and usually in great detail) what does and what does not constitute acceptable behavior, a lot of other communities – those based around blogs or review sites – have a commenting culture, not a set of rules.

    There are problems with both approaches.

    Those sites with a strict set of “rules”, in my experience, tend to attract an inordinate amount of “rules lawyers” — i.e., the sort of person who argues, “The rules say that I can’t wish death upon another commenter, but I only wished that she would spontaneously combust. That’s not necessarily fatal and doesn’t count!” Or they become so obsessed with coming up with rules for every conceivable situation that they leave very little freedom for wiggle room or exceptions (e.g. “Well, I know that the rules say ‘no profanity’, but this particular poster has been around since the site used DOS and she swears with such creativity, elegance, and in iambic pentameter so we let her get away it)

    On the other hand, sites with a “commenting culture” have an unfortunate tendency towards navel-gazing and meta-commenting; some of that can be interesting and valuable, but too much is self-indulgent and eventually boring. I have been told (although I haven’t experienced it myself) that such sites are unfair to some aneurotypical and other persons who have difficulty with inferring social “cues” and constantly find themselves inadvertently trespassing and offending.

    Honestly, my personal preference has always been for sites *like* Whatever (even though I visit that particular site very infrequently): the only “rule” is “Don’t annoy / offend / bore the siteowner.” This, in turn, requires an enormous amount of AFFINITY with and TRUST in that siteowner’s values and consistency; but honestly, if we can’t find something / someone we all basically like and trust, it isn’t much of a “community” anyhow.

  13. hapax
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 13:46:42

    Did my comment get eated?

  14. Jill Sorenson
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 13:59:23

    I prefer smaller groups within the community and often get overwhelmed by long comment threads. I also like it when the site’s contributors engage with its participants by responding to some comments and answering most/all questions. DA does this well, I think. What I don’t like is when someone hijacks the conversation, often an outsider or clear instigator, and they get more responses/engagement than a well-meaning commenter.

    I used to say that I wouldn’t argue with anyone I didn’t respect. Then I decided there’s no point to arguing with anyone incapable of changing their mind, but maybe that encompasses too many people, myself included. There are certainly topics I won’t change my mind about. I guess there are reasons to argue and debate beyond persuading that one person, and the result can be a learning experience for me, if no one else.

    Okay, so I do think some discussions get off track, but I’ve also noticed Robin (I think) trying to steer the conversation in specific directions. Not necessarily away from conflict, but towards the more important points. She wishes we’d address x instead of y, etc. I’m not sure this subtle moderation actually helps, but I get it. If I wrote a post about great heroines and everyone wanted to talk about heroes instead, I’d want to intervene or just give up. That said, I’m guilty of tangent comments and often find those discussions more interesting.

  15. Jamie Beck
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 16:30:57

    The question you pose is difficult for me to answer. In terms of the heart of any debate, I like to read varying points of view. It’s educational and often teaches me something I didn’t know, or shows me a perspective I hadn’t considered. It makes me grow. Thus, a less moderated site would seem to be up my alley. But sites without much moderation can quickly turn ugly, especially if people move away from debating the ideas and begin making personal attacks.

    Vague avatars and screen names give people an anonymity that allows them to be bolder and freer with their negative/unpopular opinions (or attacks) than they might ever be in a “live” conversation. This can get nasty quickly, especially when it snowballs from a small misunderstanding into a large “pile-on” kind of dynamic. When I see belittling, demeaning personal remarks directed at another person, I feel the moderator is not protecting the community, no matter how lax/open the comments policy is at the outset. I think it is easy to draw a distinction between a passionate debate and a personal attack, so I do not think moderating this element should hamper healthy exchanges of opposing ideas.

    So, I suppose I ultimately am more comfortable participating in a closely monitored environment…

  16. Annamal
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 17:37:06

    John Scalzi at Whatever does tend to warn people before he deletes further posts from them (and he will often ask posters to leave a specific thread instead of banning people outright).

    This kind of nudging should work quite well even for non-neurotypical folks because it’s usually spelled out clearly and gives a specific direction.

    If you are going to have a commenting policy that depends on the whims of a moderator then having that moderator explain what he or she is going to do if a given action continues is helpful.

  17. Shannon C.
    Jan 14, 2014 @ 21:55:22

    @Hapax: Yes. I agree with you completely. In fact, my initial draft of this comment involved an over-long tangent about a community we are both familiar with… I’d still like to have that conversation with you privately, if you would be amenable.

    @Jill Sorenson: I am totally with you on your points as well. Long comment threads are super overwhelming for me, too. I love reading them, but by the time I get to the end, the sheer volume of posts makes me often very reluctant to contribute. (That was my experience with the online space I almost went off on a tangent about.)

    For me, the most important thing about an online community is that it makes me feel welcome, either because the admins are approachable or because they have gone out of their way to demonstrate that I am explicitly welcomed. (An example: I love that Ridley has been alt texting the images on her blog. It’s not that I need to know what horrible romance covers actually look like, but the fact that she thought it through enough to decide, “Hey, there might be a person with a visual disability who would want this information. I should provide it.” makes me much more likely to leave my shell and contribute myself than I otherwise might be.

  18. eggs
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 00:51:40

    I think some form of moderation is necessary for pleasant online discourse, and that can be provided either by the forum host, or by allowing the individual users to set up their own killfiles a la usenet. An online forum where neither is available just lets the bullies run free.

    In terms of “rules”, I think it’s very important to have some! Clear boundaries on what is and is not acceptable (eg, racism, homophobic comments, etc) combined with user tools to control personal experience (eg, killfiles, ability to set preferences on what others can and cannot see) make participation more comfortable and more personal and those two things together can build a strong community.

  19. dick
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 09:55:01

    That some ideas are offensive to others is the entire point of freedom of speech isn’t it? Only personal attacks should be verboten on a site which asks for discussion.

  20. Stumbling Over Chaos :: Oh, no, not time to come up with another linkity title already?!
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 02:01:45

    […] “Is there an ideal online community?“ […]

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