As you may have noticed, there has been a great deal of discussion lately about what's wrong with how this blog is moderated. Much of that discussion took place in elcroata's post on Dec 28, and the title of my post is a direct quote from his. Although the title of his post was "Banning mikev", both in the main post and especially in this comment elcroata emphasized that what is most important here is not the dispute between Nico and Mike, but rather what system of rules we as a community want to have in place that will make Athletics Nation a fairer and better blog. Curiously, I heard a parallel sentiment from Nico, viewing the same issue from the other side. Nico has expressed concern that the health of AN has been threatened by an increase of disrespectful attitudes and meta conversation driving out actual baseball talk. In one of his first emails to the mods about the current crisis, he concluded by saying that regardless of what happens to him (Nico), the deeper problem is how to address the health of AN.
With that in mind, I'd like to continue the discussion about what sort of place we would like Athletics Nation to be and what sort of rules we could have to best serve that vision. And while there's no sense trying to hide the fact that the controversy with Nico and Mike V is what has raised most of these issues, it is my hope that we'll set aside any debate about those two specifically and what either of them has done, in order to focus on the general case for any blog administrator and any member.
(Warning: This post is very long. I tend toward verbosity anyway, and this one is long even for me. Also, in case you didn't see the warning in the title, this post invites meta discussion, so enter at your own risk.)
First, some perspective:
Several people said this in the course of the discussions, but I think it bears repeating: Athletics Nation is just a blog. Much of the language in the discussions has made comparisons to governments, civil rights, tyranny, and so forth. These comparisons can be useful -- in many ways the problem we face here really is a lot like the age-old political problem of how to balance the personal rights and freedoms against the need to impose order.
But in other ways, it's not the same at all. If I am banned from Athletics Nation, it is not even remotely comparable to being put in prison or banished from my home. If I am banned from AN, I can still watch baseball games on television, I can still discuss the A's on other websites, and I can still email the friends I've made here. I can even still read Athletics Nation. The only thing I've lost is that I can no longer post here -- something I was able to do in the first place only because Blez and his company created something and voluntarily opened it up to us. Even the worst possible punishment on AN is hardly a punishment at all in the real world. That's worth keeping in mind when we weigh the consequences of a person possibly being banned. When we see words like "tyrant" or "freedom" or "rights", we can keep in mind that these are just metaphors.
Each SBN blog is the creation of its members. Thanks to SBN's software, those members come in three varieties, correponding to different levels of access: regular members, moderators, and the chief administrator. Any member can write comments or FanPosts. A member who has been designated a moderator has some additional abilities, including putting a FanPost on the front page, editing a FanPost written by someone else, hiding or deleting FanPosts or comments written by another, and banning or unbanning another member. One person is designated the chief administrator. The chief administrator has all the powers of a moderator, plus some additional powers, including the power to assign or revoke moderator status.
Ultimately, power derives from what one is actually able to do. Although most of the blog's content is created by regular members, moderators, with their banning and deleting power, can control who is allowed to be a regular member and what of their content appears. In turn, the chief administrator (nicknamed the "blogfather" on AN) controls who will be allowed to exercise moderator power. Ultimately, the chief administrator (blogfather) has complete control over the content of the blog, should he choose to exercise it. This is not a matter of rules, it is a fact based on the workings of SBN's software.
And indeed this is reflected in the means by which a chief administrator obtains and maintains his position. The chief administrator of a blog is appointed by SBN management (ie, Blez). Blez has said many times that SBN prefers a hands-off approach to its many blogfathers; SBN does not micromanage its blogs. At the same time, it is made clear to every chief administrator that his SBN blog is expected to provide a steady stream of quality content and attract a healthy amount of traffic. With power comes responsibility. In exchange for the ultimate power to control the content of a blog, the blogfather assumes the responsibility for making sure that content is continually provided. Although there is no explicit quota for minimum traffic or frequency of front-page posts, if either falls too low, the blogfather has to answer to SBN about it.
Every blogfather is faced with the problem of creating content and a community. SBN provides them the tools with which to do it, but (mostly) leaves them on their own for how to use them. At the one extreme, a blogfather could make his SBN blog his own personal diary, writing every single post, banning or deleting anything else that doesn't meet his personal approval. If he is prolific and witty enough, he might still attract a healthy readership and thus provide the page views SBN craves. At the other extreme, a blogfather could grant moderator status to anyone who requests it and do nothing else at all, trusting the community to generate its own content.
Of course no one adheres to either extreme, each of which is wholly impractical in its own way. All take an approach somewhere in between, but there is much variety in where they sit on the spectrum. AN has traditionally leaned very strongly in the direction of full community participation. We have an unusually high number of moderators and an unusually high percentage of content written by someone other than the blogfather. AN has a large and diverse population, including flourishing subcommunities centered around activities and philosophies that not everyone subscribes to. In its official language, AN professes to value free speech, big-tent inclusiveness, and community participation, and indeed the blogfather has on several occasions allowed himself to be guided by the will of the community at large.
And yet at the same time, the blogfather has always had absolute power. The small print of the Community Guidelines still say that he can do as he likes. Throughout AN's history that power has been exercised quietly behind the scenes when needed, and recently it has been exercised more visibly.
In short, AN has a schizoid personality. On the one hand, it earnestly professes to be free and open; on the other, it is completely at the mercy of one individual.
This form of government we find
The beau ideal of its kind:
A despotism strict combined
With absolute equality!
(That's from my favorite Gilbert & Sullivan show, The Gondoliers. I would have embedded a YouTube, but the only ones I found for that scene were dreadfully amateurish.)
This contradiction has been called into question lately. People on both sides of the argument have complained about its incoherence. You can't have it both ways, they say. Either you're a free society or you're not. Either you're a dictatorship or you're not. If you really are a free society then you shouldn't be able to ban someone unilaterally, there should be checks and balances to prevent such abuse of power. Of it you're not really a free society, then you need admit that you're really a tyrant and stop pretending the blog belongs to the community when it really belongs to you.
I disagree with all of that. I think we can have it both ways, and I think that aspiring to have it both ways is exactly what has made AN great for so many years. As for incoherence, if coherence means committing to being either a free society or a dictatorship then I'm opposed, since I believe that steering a course between that Scylla and Charybdis is exactly what is needed.
But if you’ll forgive me for pushing that metaphor a little too hard, Circe advised Odysseus that the safer course is to steer closer to Scylla, figuring that it is better to lose a few sailors to the monster than lose the entire ship to the whirlpool.
As a moderator here, I've been party to some additional meta discussions behind in the scenes. One of the things that has been forwarded to me is a little article by the blogfather of another SBN blog discussing the perils of taking "free speech" too seriously. It has some tidy little examples -- yelling "fire" in the crowded theater, the unpoliced bully intimidating his weaker neighbor, and so forth -- the gist of which is that you have to rule your blog firmly or you'll lose control. Yeah, whatever. When I was to school, way back in the 1970s, we were expected to have basic familiarity with the ideas of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau -- the social contract, and all that -- but even if you don't, it still shouldn't come as news to anyone that a free society can't function without rules.
Yes, of course. You can run a tighter blog if you run it with a firm hand. You won't have as many regulars scaring away the newbies, and you won't have half the community clamoring against you for "abuse of power" if you never aspire to any sort of democracy in the first place. It will be easier and it will be safer. If Odysseus were running an SBN blog, Circe would advise him to steer his blog closer to authoritarianism, figuring that it's better to be boring and stupid than have the whole blog be sucked down in a vortex of mutinous meta.
Athletics Nation has dared to be greater than that. Athletics Nation has pushed the envelope of community participation. Athletics Nation has asked the question, "How much democracy and free speech can we get away with without the whole thing collapsing?" I believe that most of what makes AN great redounds from that philosophy. I also believe that much of it is due to the great skill of our blogfather for the past several years. A good friend and fellow mod disagrees, thinking AN has flourished in spite of him not because of him. Whichever it is, AN has flourished. We have steered close to the whirlpool and enjoyed the benefits of doing so. And now it's time for all of us to paddle like hell before we're sucked in.
Now I'm going to share some thoughts about the individual rules, written and unwritten, that have been called into question or proposed in recent meta discussions. This is my post, so I'm giving my opinions. If you have different ones, you can share them in the comments.
Three Strikes You're Out. This is supposedly the primary way of ejecting a member from AN. It provides the mods a formal way of telling a person he has crossed the line. When a person does get banned, the community feels good knowing that he was given due process and was only banned after failing to observe clearly stated rules. It has caused some consternation recently when it was discovered that it's possible for a person to be banned even outside of the three strike system.
I like the three-strike system. I think we need to use it more, and it has been a failing of the moderators that we've all become lazy about watching flags and issuing strikes. Our laziness has made the three-strike system less effective, and frustration with that ineffectiveness may have pushed the blogfather closer to resorting to his other tool, the insta-ban.
Insta-ban. The Community Guidelines state that the blogfather can bypass the three-strikes process if he feels the circumstances warrant it. Is this a good rule? I say it is. A central complaint in the recent discussions is that this makes it possible for the blogfather to unfairly ban someone, due to malice, megalomania, or simply bad judgment. Is this a problem that needs to be fixed?
I say no. Sometimes the insta-ban is needed to dispose of a troll quickly before he derails a thread. I do believe the blogfather and the mods need to show more restraint and not be so quick to wield the ban-wand. (I'm probably the most hesitant of all the mods when it comes to banning, as a recent incident showed.) I think we should have greater faith in the three-strike system and let it run its course where it can. I believe staying within the system has value, and that value might outweigh a little disruption if a trollish character is allowed to linger a while.
But the insta-ban power still needs to be there, and in borderline cases someone has to make a judgment whether the insta-ban is warranted. And that someone is the blogfather. Yes, this means he could make a mistake. Like the non-robotic plate umpire, he is fallible and will sometimes blow a call. If he does, so what? It's not a big deal. A ban is reversible. The banned person can be unbanned. We can talk about it. We can say, "Dude, you made a mistake." The point is, it's his mistake to make. And it should be, because he's the blogfather, he's responsible for the content of the blog. The buck stops there.
“Please e-mail me.” Among SBN's general rules, not specific to AN, is the requirement that every member maintain a working e-mail address. This is to ensure that the blogfather or mods have a way of contacting any user if necessary. It has been suggested that this rule could be interpreted such that if a blogfather asks a member to email him, that email reply is a legitimate requirement of membership, so that if he doesn't email that is grounds for a ban.
Whether such a requirement can be logically deduced from SBN's rule is trivial legalistic pettifoggery about which I care not a whit, but I am very interested in the more basic question: Is it fair that, as a condition of membership, when the blogfather says "please e-mail me" a member is obligated to answer? I say no. No, it is not unreasonable. It's just an e-mail. How hard is that? Now I know some will say it's not about how hard the specific requirement is, it's about the principle. The very fact that the blogfather can make any demand which the member must follow means that the blogfather is asserting his power over an inferior, and that is completely unacceptable.
I think this is ridiculous. It is because of this attitude that elcroata's post was peppered with such breathlessly hysterical absurdities as "the sinner has to CRAWL and beg to come back" or "Kiss my ring and we'll talk". or "innocent lamb that you led to slaughter". If you ask me, some people have such an issue with authority that they become completely unreasonable. If tomorrow there were a new rule that said, “In order to be a member of AN you must go pee at least once a day; anyone who doesn’t will be banned”, some jackass would be so mad he’d hold it all day long just to say, “Fuck you, man. You can’t tell me what to do!”
Get over it, guys. It's just an e-mail. If you think the request is bullshit and just a cover for a personal grudge, then call him on his bullshit and tell him that in your email. Or if the request is so he can say, "Look, I know all the regulars like you, but what you don't realize is your mouthiness is scaring away readers and ultimately my job is to maintain a large readership, so if you're can't be on board with that I can't be on board with you," then let him say it and hash it out if you disagree.
”Persistent annoyance”. In a reply to Nico’s “Modest Proposal” post, Paul Thomas made a counter-proposal which included a new way for a member to get a strike:
In cases of ‘persistent annoyance’, a majority of mods can issue a warning, which can be converted to a strike if the annoyance continues without change.I like this idea a lot. There is a weakness in the current system in that there is no middle ground between getting three strikes as a result of comments in direct violation of the rules, and being banned outright by the blogfather.
Ideally, outright ban should be saved only for extreme cases. A problem member should be dealt with through the three-strikes process as much as possible. Unfortunately, there are ways that a person can make himself unhealthy for the community without actually breaking the three-strike rules. In such cases, the mods and the blogfather have felt tempted to either goad strikes out of such a person or else ban him unilaterally. Neither of these is healthy. If this is a genuine priority of the moderators and community and the rules don’t cover it, then the rules need to be adapted to make it more clear.
If I were to redraft the Community Guidelines (a task I would embrace if the blogfather wants to embrace a philosophy like what I’m describing here) I would add this middle-ground way of getting a strike, but I would not limit it to “persistent annoyance”. (Paul has correctly identified one way for a person to warrant banning without actually breaking the current rules, but not the only one.) Instead I would devise some more general definition along the lines of “a persistent pattern of being unhealthy for the community”. And then, lest this simply become a meaningless catchphrase hypocritically used for arbitrary bannings, I would make sure that the CG’s have a good discussion of what “healthy for the community” means. In addition to the specific “don’t do this” rules for strikes, there can be another section with a broad outline of the AN community’s goals and values. As part of the sign-up, members would be asked not to necessarily agree with every detail, but to at least understand the basic goals and respect them and not repeatedly undermine them. If someone does undermine them, that would be grounds for getting a strike under this new section. I do think this should have a higher standard, and so I would keep Paul’s idea of a majority of moderators for this. The moderators would then be able to point to a pattern of behavior whereby a member has been unhealthy for the community and cite it to the member with a strike, with a consensus of moderator opinion. The member would then know what the situation is and what he needs to do if he wants to avoid a repeat strike.
I think this would help considerably. A lot of the concerns Nico and Blez have had for the past year -- general disrespectful tone, offputting attitude toward newbies that makes them not stay, “inflammatory” meta discussion, discussions intended for one topic getting sidetracked by another of interest only to a small minority, etc – fall in this gray area where the old CGs don’t cover them. I think that some of the blogfather’s questionable choices lately have come out of frustration with the inability to deal with such things using the three-strike system. The solution being proposed is for the blogfather to act with stronger authority and take the distraction of these discussion off the blog. I like my answer better. It makes the community more involved, not less.
No more meta. In his “A Modest Proposal” post, Nico suggested that AN might benefit from a new rule to keep front-page stories and FanPosts free of “meta-discussion”, by which he means “comments and discussions around AN’s enforcement of rules, how AN is run, how it should be run, etc” (this very post, for example). Of all the ideas put forth recently, I think this one is the worst.
The AN that I love thrives because it involves the entire community. It works best when the community at large moderates and polices itself, but it can’t do that if it doesn’t know what’s going on. In order to intelligently promote the health of the blog, its members need to understand what the legitimate concerns are, understand the conflicting interests, have a peek at behind-the-scenes complaints, and so forth. I think the recent troubles have been a result of not enough meta-conversation, not too much.
(If that last bit sounds familiar to you, it’s not your imagination; I just copied a few sentences from my comment in another thread.) As I hinted in that other thread, I do believe that Blez and Nico have some very legitimate concerns about the health of the blog, but there has been far too little open discussion of these concerns. Instead it’s just little hints with excuses like “this is a private matter between him and me” or “you haven’t seen the personal emails I’ve gotten about it”. As a result, people jump to the conclusion that the blogfather is being arbitrary and deceitful.
Either concerns for the community are real or they’re not. If they are, then the community can come to understand them. Not everyone will agree, but enough will that we can see it really is a choice the community is making and not just the blogfather. And if after a full discussion the community really doesn’t agree, then the blogfather really should reconsider his judgment. The value of making AN a community-based blog is not just so other people will do more of the writing (though that’s considerable) but also to tap the wisdom of the crowd to tell you when you’re making a wrong choice.
A problem with my ideal of the community is that we don’t agree on everything. In fact, we don’t completely agree on much at all. And we the masses might not agree with the blogfather and SBN. This isn’t just about one side being right and one being wrong. It’s about conflicting interests.
On the simplest level, there is the question of favorite content. Some of us might enjoy the gossipy silliness, while others wish it would go away. Some prefer the hardcore stat discussions, while others are frustrated when their opinions are shouted down by others because they aren’t backed with evidence. Some wish that the AN hooligans would stop talking about boobies like a bunch of drunken adolescents, while others would like to see even more boobies.
But it’s more than just that. There is – and no sense trying to hide from this reality – the fundamental conflict that SBN’s business side wants more page views for its advertisers. I don’t believe that Blez is all about the money. He started this company for his vision, not for profits. But even so, he can only keep it going if he stays reasonably profitable, so he has to be aware of the page views. And even so also, even if it is just about his vision, his vision was a place to talk about sports, not necessarily a place for you and your friends to hang out and talk about bacon or pigeons or boobies or what you’re having for dinner right now.
There has been some talk about how a small and vocal core of people within the blog can drive down traffic because new members feel like it’s a pre-established group of people who already know each other and don’t know them. In the course of the discussion about mikev where dozens of regulars were threatening to leave, several people openly said that they care more about those dozens than the possible hundreds of newbies who might be turned off instead.
This is not an irrational position, so I won’t try to talk you out of it. I even share most of it. As an old-timer, I like seeing all the old familiar names than I know and love. If all my friends left this place, but 100 new potential friends showed up in their place, that would not be a gain for me. I’d lose interest and I would leave, too. And similarly, when a new guy comes on and says something that we’ve all heard and debunked 99 times before but he thinks it’s new and brilliant, that feels boring and repetitive to me, and I feel the temptation to tell him he’s an idiot. So yeah, I get it.
But even so, we have to share AN with others, and there are two very good reasons we need to care about other people’s concerns at least enough to compromise. The first is that even our group of favorites needs new blood to thrive. Some people do leave, for personal reasons unrelated to the blog. Someone needs to replace them. I remember when dwishinsky was a newbie, when tutu-late was a newbie. I even remember when danmerqury was a newbie. These people have to come from somewhere. And while we like to imagine that we’re only scaring away the dorky and/or stupid people while the cool and/or smart people will have the good sense to love us and stick around, I don’t think it really works that way.
The other reason is that Blez and his appointed blogfather really do run the blog. To whatever extent your interests really do come in conflict with theirs, you’re the one who is going to be thrown overboard. They really don’t want to lose their core members, and even more they don’t want to lose the next layer of members who will also leave in protest if the core is ejected. But if you really distill it down to conflicting interests, they’ll cut you loose. So my advice, to both sides, is don’t force that confrontation. Look for common ground and common interests. Try to understand the other’s position better and find ways to keep everyone happy.
This has been a long and rambling post, but there are a couple key themes throughout. One is that the blogfather has ultimate responsibility for the blog and ultimate power to go with it. If that creates exposure to abuse of power, so be it. It’s his call and he’s got to make it. Another is that the blogfather has choices on how to run his blog, and I believe the best (but not the easiest) is to strive for maximum community participation and not give in to the temptation of heavy-handed control. Or even if it’s not the best, it’s at least the way that makes the sort of blog that I personally want to be a part of.
The blogfather has all the power, but the community has power too, in that the blogfather needs to provide content and viewers. If everyone leaves then he fails in that. No matter what Nico (or any other blogfather) does, I will never say he has no right to make that choice. But if anyone doesn’t like it, they can leave. All the people who threatened to do that in the earlier thread, I do think they’re being hasty and impulsive, but ultimately if that’s what they want to do they should do it. It’s what I’ll do, too, if it comes to it. I’m not the protesting sort, so I’m never going to walk out to make a statement. But if the new CGs are a philosophy I don’t share, I’m not going to want to be a moderator any more. And if the blog becomes less interesting to me, I’m not going to spend as much time here.
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