You really struck a nerve with this one.
I, also, feel like I could write a book about this. In fact, here is a 7 page paper I wrote for a class about facebook’s moderation problems in 2019, if anybody wants a light read. I also recommend Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media, “the first extensive ethnographic study of the commercial content moderation industry.”
I have so much I could say and want to say about this. I moderated online communities for 15 years, twice as long as I spent in the military. I’ve seen a lot of things go down and I’ve got some of my own strong opinions about moderation, but I know I can have a tendency to go on a little long, so as much as I can I’m going to try to break it down to some important bullet points.
- Commercial, “impartial” moderation does not work (I’ll get to my definition of what “working” is), for a lot of reasons, but unfortunately the scale that social media works at requires a lot of labor. The usefulness of social media depends on it having an enormous scale, so this is non-negotiable and it wants to swallow and keep as many people as possible. Because everyone is all in the same big room, someone in an audience you weren’t addressing could pop into the conversation at any time.
- Moderation is labor. A lot of people dont think about it this way, either because they’re old and they’re used to the They Do It For Free mindset, or they’re young and they’re used to the way moderation is an invisible monolith on social media. It’s important to understand, organizing and corralling a group is work. If you’d had the job yourself, you know. Sometimes the mental space it takes up is much more than the actual work it demands of you.
- Mods should not be impartial, and sometimes they should even be visible. Mods are stewards of the community and should be familiar with the standards of the community. The easiest way to accomplish this is by recruiting from inside your community. This is another major problems with commercial moderation, where often the posts being judged by a commercial moderator come from a international context that might be incredibly hard to understand. A Facebook moderator will never be a visible member of the community, and why would they care to be, because…
- Commercial moderators are given very little personal agency when it comes to how to deal with a problem. In the research paper I linked above I talk about Facebook’s 2000 page rulebook for its 15,000 moderators. This all goes against what I perceive to be the natural order of the online universe: that Mods are the people you trust, so you imbue them with free agency to take care of shit based on the tools you’ve given them and their own judgment.
- It’s honestly more healthy if the mods you recruit from your community dont agree on everything. In the past I’ve had to log into an IRC channel when taking mod actions, and it would auto announce every mod’s action in the channel. Sometimes people would bicker and disagree over bans, and every mod had the power to repeal any one else’s bans. You had agency but were aware you might get yelled at about it by somebody if you were too loose with it.
- When you give moderators agency, it fosters an even stronger sense of ownership of the community. Even something as simple as letting mods write custom ban messages instead of using stock ones. This can go too far though, were a mod can become too possessive of a community.
- The game changes entirely once your forum is perceived as having value by the outside world. It is my professional opinion that the real death knell of 4chan was the 2008 Chanology protests. The wide media attention placed on these internet organized protests got a lot of people’s attention. 4chan suddenly had perceived value, and within a few years it flooded with grifters and Nazi recruiting schemes. I don’t think we’re in danger of that happening any time soon but I want you to think about what might happen here if the traffic, say, doubles in a month, or quadruples in a year.
- The Big Room is a problem, how do you decide who gets to stay in it? Again, this is not an issue I’m worried about insert credit having any time soon, I think we are currently properly positioned to grow at a healthy sustainable rate. Rapid growth CAN be disastrous for a community, but I also want you to run the thought experiment about what would happen long term is not a single new user joined starting today.
- Things that are hard to find or hard to join often have an innate perceived value. Kind of where the whole double meaning of “occult” comes from.
There’s way more I could say, and a bunch more I’m going to say.
I was a mod on an imageboard for over a decade, where instead of having 4chan’s mostly laissez-faire system where only strictly illegal things were removed (very similar to the “impartiality” of social media) we had an explicit “mods aren’t required to follow the rules all the time” rule. There was no expectation of fairness or impartiality on certain boards. We would use temporary bans as slaps on the wrists to drive away people we didn’t want because most of them wouldnt come back after the three day ban was over, anyway (but thats not an approach that would work on a site with usernames). We would make active choices, sometimes as an individual and sometimes as a team, about what kinds of stuff we wanted and didn’t want on the site, and while there wasn’t agreement there was usually consensus about how to run things.
Eventually the traffic to the imageboard slowed to a trickle, and half the active users there were mods who had been there for years. Sometimes i believe that the way it existed there at the end of its life, even though it was extremely slow, was like the ideal form of forum, since half the users were also trusted “staff”.
I’m going to talk about one more thing, that I talked about at the end of my virtual world posts: closed social groups. I believe that shit is the future. Closed social groups are sometimes capable of so much more then the panopticon wasteland of social media. But the hard part is you need to be an attractive group for some reason, or sending out some kind of signal for people to find you. The Pinchurch thinks of itself as an “incubator”, and charges members dues (which I’m by no means suggesting we do, but it’s like how you might care more about being part of a torrent tracker site that invite only). The issue is that starting and running and sometimes even just being a member of a group like this is EFFORT. It’s WORK sometimes. I feel like one of the reasons people took to social media in the first place is that it reduced the effort of organizing things. Anybody who’s had to work around the calendar of 5 people in the same D&D group might know how surprisingly difficult that can be if people aren’t committed to it.
Anyway, enough preamble (and oh my god is there more unending stuff I could say about this whole issue)
Lets look at these questions. These arent going to be perfect answers.
What do you think the internet should be? Is there a “higher purpose” for the internet? How would you characterize the current state of the internet in regards what you’d like it to be?
Ideally it should be a large collection of self-governed and self-directed communities and websites. @goonbag is 100000% correct that “in name only, Cyberspace had its origins in science fiction: its historical beginnings and technological innovations are clearly military (from NASA’s primitive flight simulators of the 1940s to the ultra-modern SIMNET-D facilities in Fort Knox, Kentucky)…” and that is an enormously complex and fucked up subject that I am still trying to figure out how to present to people in a way that wont make me look insane. As far as I know the “higher purpose” of computers and the internet was to create a virtual training space much cheaper than real training, and to have a robust networked computer information retrieval system. Everything else might as well just be a happy accident. And I’m not even going to talk about how thats been perverted today by social media, because I’ve done that plenty elsewhere.
What kinds of things do you do on the internet? What kinds of things do you wish you could do on the internet?
I read, I joke, I sometimes takes notes about a subject so that I can collate those notes into a more coherent thought later, but even just the act of taking those notes is often better than nothing since I’m always in use of a reminder of things from my past self. The way I use the internet has changes a lot over the past 5 years, in the last 2 I’ve heardly used my desktop for anything anymore and largely “live on my phone”. I dont know what I want from the internet. That would be like asking me what my ideal perfect videogame would be like. I’d really have to think about it. Because designing a community is kind of like designing a game. Reddit’s “rules” about displaying posts with upvotes higher, has an enormous impact on how the site is used. I do sometimes like to do “game theory” about different forum designs that dont exist yet as a idle passtime.
I do wish there was such a thing as a “local internet” that made it easier to get in touch with people in your area. Or a game that fostered real world cooperation like Niantic’s Ingress.
What kinds of things did you use to do on the internet, but now can’t or won’t because it’s no longer fun/interesting/useful/safe?
Use an image board. I left 4chan in 2006 for my satellite board that still technically exists today but is so slow that it’s not really the same. The past really do be a foreign country that you can never return to. I was never big on MMO’s but I do miss playing games with friends. I was always a big fan with anything that had asymmetrical multiplayer but it’s slim pickins when it comes to that.
What are some of your best internet experiences? What made those experiences possible? Are they still possible?
Me and like 6 of my friends in high school over the course of 4 years basically completely took over a phpBB forum called “Manga Academy” that had been set up as the official forums for a company that printed those “How To Draw Manga” books. It resulted a few long term romantic relationships for some people, a few interesting trips across thre country for me, free pizza one time when I watched their booth at Anime Expo for them once (the most I was ever “paid” for my services), and some life long friends I am still in contact with today, some of whom went on to work in animation professionally.
Is that still possible? Well, the last time I was able to find the “Manga Academy” forums a modern browser couldn’t even load it, and as I look today I cant even find an internet archive capture of it. I was also half my age back then. So in some ways they are not, but I think keeping small traditionally structured forums like this one alive means that in some ways it still is.
What are some of your worst internet experiences? What factors led to those bad experiences happening?
As an internet user thats a long story, in general things were a lot meaner on the internet than they used to be, believe it or not, social media seems sanitized in comparison. As a mod, it was having to be the person responsible for taking out the garbage. In order for the most horrendous things to get removed, somebody like me would have to look at them first. I began to think of myself as a sin-eater.
Are there any recurring visual/ui trends or ways webpages are often structured that bother you/make you uncomfortable/make you not want to or unable to use a website?
I just hate how everything is upvotes now. I was a forum and imageboard user for a long time and I am so fucking sick of upvotes or things being ranked by their engagement.
What meaningful spaces used to exist on the internet, but are now gone? Why are they gone? What real life spaces has the internet destroyed without offering a suitable alternative? What could be done to support similar spaces now in the current state of the internet?
Well the Manga Academy forum disappeared because the company that was maintaining it literally forgot it existed and just let it decay into unuseability. As for what could be done:
Finally, can you think of any concrete (perhaps very small) things you (or someone else) could to do to make the internet better for you? For others?
Try starting a community sometime, and not just an online one. Put up signs and start a paranormal investigation unit in your town that meets twice a month and collects people’s dreams and takes on cases or whatever, it doesn’t matter. Maintaining an existing community is hard but starting one is neigh impossible. This stuff is work and it can often be drought or flood, where either you suffer the slow death of traffic, until all of a sudden you get more traffic than you ever wanted. You can slowly cross pollinate with another community or you might experience a rush all at once due to a bunch of people migrating from another community because of some issue there.
I think its important we have more small groups and small spaces. Sometimes even exclusive, invite only spaces or something, if the interest is there. But operating and moderating those spaces takes work. And sometimes that work is easier when its shared among the members of the community. I like the idea of using this place to maybe try to incubate interest in something, but I have no idea what it would/should look like and I’ll leave that part to someone else.
I’m open to answer any questions people might have about this because I could talk about this forever.