on Jun 2, 2013
It has been noted by non-me people that this website is an unusual place. Specifically, we have an uncharacteristically genteel and polite community by internet standards. Very few communities have the sort of low-key and thoughtful disagreement we see here, even ones with more stringent rules, less people, and more moderator coverage. In fact, you’ll notice there are basically no rules aside from the advice at the bottom, “Thanks for joining the discussion. Be nice, don’t post angry, and enjoy yourself. This is supposed to be fun.” That’s pretty vague as far as rules go, and you wouldn’t expect it to keep the trolls away. In fact, it doesn’t.
The interesting thing about this is that I do very little in the way of moderation. Aside from requisite spam-handling, a vanishingly small percent of all posts actually require my attention. I read them all – even comments on posts from years ago – and I step in when I think things are getting nasty. A good week will see anywhere from 400 to 1,000 comments, depending on how often I’m posting and how much anyone cares. I have to step in to warn people or delete posts perhaps once or twice a month. That means less than one in a thousand comments presents a problem. Compare this to YouTube, where the ratio of insight to insipid is rarely better than 1:1. (And sometimes a lot worse.)
So there’s only one moderator and no rules. Yet we’ve got good spelling, coherent discussion, and a calm tone. And unlike most forums, posting is open so there’s less direct accountability. So why don’t the comments here devolve into the usual YouTube-level sewer of hate as performance art? So what makes this site so special?
It might be counter-intuitive, but the reason this place works so well is because there aren’t any written rules. I’ve said in the past that I like to keep the line blurry in order to encourage people to stay away from it.
In my estimation, the world looks like this:
In any random cross-section of internet society, you’ve got a couple of people who won’t ever stoop to unpleasantness. If they don’t have something nice to say, they won’t say anything. If the conversation turns sour, they simply leave or go quiet. These conversational saints are great to read and fun to have around. I aspire to be a saint, but if I’m being honest then all too often I fall into the next group…
Most of the population consists of basically decent people who are willing to respond in kind. If you sling mud at them, they sling it right back. If you cuss, they cuss back. They prefer to inhabit civil places, but if they can’t have civility then they’ll make sure they have justice. Just like meeting in person, most of us tend to adopt the tone and posture of the environment around us. If it’s hostile, we’re hostile. If it’s gentle, we’re not eager to be the first person to raise our voice.
And then, in every sample, you’re likely to have a tiny minority of completely batshit crazy moron assholes. This last group is obviously the root of the problem. If you let them run rampant, the saints will leave, and the normal people will sink down to their level. People will get angry, reactions will intensify, people will begin to hate and resent each other, and the conversation will degenerate.
This is inevitable.
A lot of things can put someone into this last group. Maybe they’re performing for attention and don’t care how destructive they’re being. Maybe they have a bunch of pain in their lives and they’re trying to share it. Maybe they were raised in some messed-up abusive environment and aggressive hate is their normal. Maybe they just aren’t very good at communicating. It doesn’t matter. They’re broken, and as a moderator you don’t have the power to fix them. The problem is in their heart, and nothing you say or do can make them care about others.
Most communities are built around the idea of getting these people to behave. This is a mistake. Broken people cannot be fixed by rules. If you make the rules loose, they will find weak spots and exploit them. If you make the rules tight and specific, they will rules-lawyer you to the brink of insanity. They will haggle over the specifics of the rules, and they will insist everyone be held to precisely the same standards. If you let someone else slide, the nut will condemn you as a hypocrite or accuse you of injustice.
We’ve all seen a rule along the lines of, “You will not use any forum or other community section to post or transmit any material that is abusive, hateful, racist, bigoted, sexist, harassing, threatening, inflammatory, defamatory, knowingly false, vulgar, obscene, sexually-oriented, profane or is otherwise offensive or in violation of any applicable law, rule or regulation.” The thing is, sane people know this. They understand it without being told. Nobody needs to post rules on the door to Olive Garden telling customers not to spit or punch. If someone breaks these rules then they’re sick, and we call the cops. The crazy people are the only ones who need these things explained to them, and even when you do explain it to them, they just see your rules as a problem to solve. The problem isn’t that they broke the rules regarding saying hateful things, the problem is that they wanted to say something hateful in the first place.
Instead of making rules to compel crazies to behave – which can become a full-time enforcement project – I allow them to act out. And then I ban them. I want to know who the crazy people are, as fast as possible. The sooner they reveal their character, the sooner I can pull them out of the pool before they make a mess. This isn’t hard. Problem People are usually easy to spot.
Now, in the context of an open system like this blog, “banning” doesn’t mean much. People can change personal details and come in as someone new. But so what? If someone assumes a new identity, they still have to pass the sanity test. They still have to behave like a human being. And if a banned person assumes a new identity and then behaves in a civilized manner? That’s not a flaw in enforcement. That’s mission accomplished.
This system lets me give slack in a way that a strict set of rules doesn’t. If Ann Commenter hangs around for several weeks being generally sane and polite, then I can cut her some slack if she screws up. Maybe she’s having a bad day. Maybe the topic drifted into something that’s deeply personal to her and set her off. Maybe she’s got some stress in her life. Maybe she misunderstood what someone else said. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what she’s saying.
With all of this in mind: I have created forums for this site. They’ve been sort of spreading by word-of-mouth over the last couple of months. I’ve watched them long enough that I’m reasonably confident they’re not going to endanger the conversations here on the blog, and I’m reasonably sure they aren’t going to change the tone of the site. However, the blog takes priority. If the forum diminishes the blog in any way, I’ll nuke it and we can forget the whole thing. The whole system is still on probation until we’re sure it will bring value to the community.
If you’ve wanted to be able to have conversations with sane people about games that I don’t cover here on the site, then this may be what you’re looking for.
Be nice, don’t post angry, and enjoy yourself. This is supposed to be fun.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.