Thursday, 23 May 2013

Losing the faith of your (online) community

Earlier this year, I was asked to leave an online community after a row between myself and a few other members had developed. When I was asked by a community member in private to leave, I chose to do so and did so without making noise.

In the real world, I had a group of friends who began to exclude me after I had made a unpleasant life-changing decision that was overall unpopular. This was understandable as it had created a rift between me and specific people. I had it out privately with one particular person but again chose to not make much noise beyond that.

Both of these cases were quite difficult for me emotionally as nobody likes rejection, but at the same time there are things that you have to have to face in life. Sometimes it's better to cut your losses because it becomes futile to try and fight it. There are things worth fighting for too, but you have to understand how much you need to fight and how much it is actually worth.

My context for the above stories is parallel to my experience with running online communities. You can have a vibrant, active community when things are running smooth when those who are a member of said community have some level of faith in the decisions you make as maintainer, but it can turn on you very quickly if you start to become arrogant or ignorant of certain aspects of it. For six years, I ran a forum for the local anime convention here in Vancouver and learnt a lot about myself and others; it wasn't really pretty when I look back at it.

It was like herding cats and I was not well received

My experience with running this forum was at the time a pleasant one for the early few years but looking back I have changed my mind. I went through wanting to clean up the place to becoming a tyrant and it reflected poorly on how people perceived me.

When I say that running this forum was like herding cats, I am saying this because the anime convention had introduced a contingent of members who were of a wide age variety; I believe that the average age of the forum users was something along the lines of 16 or 17 based on my knowledge of the actual convention attendance. At the time when I was in my early 20s, I could put up with the politics of dealing with these guys because I never quite grasped that it was a herding cats scenario.

Policies handed down to me from the convention operators didn't apply well to the forum and as a result I found myself having to swim upstream in order to keep these rules in line. I would go and make fancy methods to get people from avoiding the word filter and found myself banning the public schools in the province (which are on a single IP block) in order to make life easier for myself and those who worked with me. However, as time grew on I found myself spending far more time on this than what was deserved.

It was quite active when I was in charge, with 2,000 some-odd accounts and about 500 of them active, but as time progressed, the demographics and types of behaviour began to shift and I found myself turning more and more into a tyrant in terms of how things should be run in order to stem the changes that I didn't find very likeable. Power goes to your head and for that I don't think I'd ever make a good Prime Minister in the face of such things. This is not to say I should never be in charge, but I believe that I shouldn't do the same job for too long and I shouldn't do it knowing I have no impunity such as the case here. I could effectively get away with almost anything and those who ran the convention didn't dare challenge me, which looking back I feel was a mistake.

I left briefly as I wanted to focus on other matters (namely that I had decided to move to another province), but came back some time later and found myself in the same habits as I was in before. And with that came an overall disgust for me from these forum members.

Effectively the online community had no trust in me but was powerless in doing anything about it. I could share some of the remarks that people had for me but it is irrelevant to this part of what I am writing, but in short I was not exactly liked in the role I played and the words chosen to describe me were not good.

I don't look back at this period in my life as a positive one even though there were some rather awesome people I met in the process. I removed myself from this community a number of years ago and haven't looked back on my decision. There were definitely good times, but overall I feel that it was a huge time-sink and put me behind on a lot of other things that I am working on now.

Reddit and how its moderation works

I've written about Reddit before in a not so happy light. In addition to my remark about it being a circlejerk in a lot of cases, I have zero love for how the site is moderated.

Reddit and its sub Reddits are moderated two ways: votes (karma) and moderators. Downvotes for posts that don't contribute to Reddit or the discussion and upvotes for the opposite. A moderator's role is to be there to take care of whatever they see fit that doesn't fit for the sub Reddit. It could be harassment, spam, or outright pointless and ignoring what the community as a collective has considered as the norm.

However, this is an ideal situation and is rarely if ever followed. The votes are used when people don't like the discussion or person. This is more or less evident in the Obama AMA where the downvotes were likely those voting for Romney or other candidates, but you can see this in smaller situations where it just comes to just overall popularity of the poster. Reddit has attempted to address this by introducing a scheme that allows sub Reddit moderators to implement a delay on when karma is shown, but this isn't a real solution. Really, Reddit is broken this way because it doesn't interpret how a human being actually thinks on a typical decision--reactive and largely not objective.

And the moderation system itself is broken too. Nobody owns a sub Reddit really as that is actually the property of Reddit itself. However, once you go and create a sub Reddit, it's yours for as long as you choose to keep it and as long as Reddit desires to let you do so. And if you appoint any moderators underneath you, they cannot perform a coup on you, but if they can remove anyone who comes after them. It's basically a lineage system that is very ineffective and you cannot take someone on top out easily.

Really, Reddit is flawed.

When to know that you need to leave

I bring the topic of Reddit up because it's different from an online forum run by some forum software and at the same time has a lot of same characteristics of such. Recently on a sub Reddit I frequent, a number of users and moderators had began to voice their dislike for how the place is being run. Since the order system was in place, the complaining moderators who actually spent more time on the sub Reddit than those on top ended up opting to resign citing that they are powerless to go against someone who's ideal isn't in line with everyone else. Those at the top have resisted to leave and would rather make "simple changes" to pacify the general crowd. It might work but it's really not worth it in my mind.

When you have a large number of users being vocal against you running the place, citing that content quality has gone downhill since then, you have to act decisively. You cannot continue with the status quo and hope that everything will continue on positively.

Sites like Something Awful have only survived long term because users were not left to make decisions on everything. However, certain decisions were made in the past of lead to it being the site is today. For example, Lowtax no longer actively moderates the forums and does so due to his position in the site. He has focused more on running the place as a business and as a result there is a more or less positive view on him. This took years for him to realise and there were a number of odd behaviours on his part as time went on, but I look at the place now and it's largely neutral. It's not the same site it was a decade ago when I first signed on, but a lot of the old circlejerk mentalities from the past do not exist in the same manner.

I found myself hearing comments along the lines of me being an "asshole" or "douche bag" when I ran these forums for the previously mentioned convention. At the time they didn't phase me but looking back, these users were mostly right. I have a bit of an ego that needs to be deflated sometimes and I try my best to acknowledge when I am in the wrong, but sometimes you need to just let these things go and let others take the helm. I haven't looked back at the site since then and there have been attempts to get me involved again, but again, it's not worth it.

You need to leave a community when you're in charge when you have way too much opposition. It's how you fix the community in the long term. You can stick around as a member but you shouldn't hold on to power as if there is no other solution.

For those who are wondering: there is a long story behind why I have opted for a new account on Reddit. It will likely be discussed on this blog when I get around to it, but I have decided to start using my actual name in some places.

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