Law in the Internet Society

One Way to Build an Internet Community

-- By NickFlath - 08 Nov 2009

Internet Forums

Usenet predated the World-Wide-Web. It was the first messageboard. Many interesting things happened there. Usenet also has become a medium for file-sharing, prompting Attorney General Cuomo's crackdown. Facebook is a step backwards from Usenet and its successor messageboards because it merely facilitates online social interaction between real-life friends, without providing an egalitarian platform for developing new friendships online.

I had never heard of Usenet before I began research on this essay. My personal experience has been on the Something Awful Forums ("SA"). SA is now almost a decade old and is one of the most well-populated English-language general-interest forums in the world. Much notorious (and often downright offensive) internet humor originated there. I pass over in this space SA's past sordid scandals, mainly involving long-gone bit-torrent subforums. Although the forums display advertising, forum administrators respond to complaints and keep out "those that play sounds, create popups, or sell ringtones" - unlike some other websites I could name.

Forums are more interesting than mainstream social networking sites because they offer an entirely new kind of social interaction: written and archived conversations between people writing under consistent aliases who have no connection other than their shared interactions on the web. The autonomy dimension of privacy we discussed last week is not as troubling on internet forums as on Facebook because the user may disclose as much or as little of his or her "real" life as he or she wishes, and is not foreclosed from having fulfilling social interactions by hiding behind a user alias. It is thus easy for the user to compartmentalize the forums and prevent them from invading other aspects of his or her life. But anonymity also brings out the worst in people.

Policing the Forums

Why are Youtube comments so bad? Youtube comments are a blank canvas on which anyone may write whatever they want. There are no consequences to posting racist, offensive, or stupid things. The question of incentives is immaterial: since the cost of posting trash is zero, somebody out there will do it. This is the perverse flipside of Professor Moglen's point about the efficiency of distribution over the Internet. There is one glaring counterexample to this bad effect: 2Chan, Japan's most popular website and one of the largest forums in the world. 2Chan's creator, Hiroyuki Nishimura, says that "people can only truly discuss something when they don't know each other". 2Chan posters do not even have a web alias and post in utter anonymity. But they are not left to utter chaos: 250 volunteer staff keep the boards moderated.

SA has avoided the problems of anonymity by charging $10 for posting privileges and hiring full-time moderators who police discussions and discipline anti-social users with an escalating series of punishments depending on the severity of the offense. The fee for posting privileges acts like a poll tax: only those who truly have something to say will pay for it. Once paid, it also acts as security for the poster's good behavior. The escalating punishments are temporary "probations," which lapse after a set time; "bans," which may be undone by another payment of $10; and "permabans" for truly heinous offenses, which result in deletion of the username and constant moderator vigilance lest the offender returns to the forums under a new name. Forum administrators do not return the poster's initial $10 in the event of a ban or permaban. These punishments have real bite, and thus people behave themselves on the forums.

The administrative staff have drafted the forum's rules to allow flexibility in enforcement. But the staff are serious about avoiding even the appearance of arbitrariness, because the health of the forums depends on a happy community of posters - if posters are disatisfied enough, they and their friends can migrate to another forum or start their own. All user punishments are archived in the "leper's colony", a database that records the severity of each sanction, the moderator who requested the punishment, the administrator who authorized it, and (most importantly) a hyperlink to the offending post and a one-sentence reason for the punishment. If a thread does not contribute to the discussion in a subforum, moderators move it to the "gas chamber," a subforum in which all may view the offending threads but not post in them. These three measures - publicly posted rules, a database of decisions, and a rogue's gallery of ill-thought out threads - maintain the quality of discussion in the forums while also assuring users that the moderators will not act arbitrarily.

Why Does this Matter?

SA's users and staff care deeply about forum governance because good governance leads to a healthy community. SA is an internet incarnation of an old-style social club. Membership in social clubs has always had tangible benefits (use of the clubhouse) as well as social networking benefits (showing the club ring at a job interview). On the internet, the tangible drops away and the social networking benefits increase in significance. Without overt external legal pressure, SA has created the rudiments of procedural due process as well as an effective deterrent on anti-social behavior. People are willing to spend time on SA and submit to the autocracy of the moderators because they have some assurance that the moderators act impartially and transparently.

Right now, in the United States, internet forums are still for gamers and nerds. But this will change. Comments and discussion are inescapable. Google now seeks to turn the entire Internet into a Youtube comment zone with Sidewiki. SA's labor-intensive governance mechanism would be impractical for Google - but they must find some way of keeping the discussion interesting, or else the Sidewiki will degenerate into a haven for spam, botting, malware, and flamewars. I have never in my life read anything interesting in a Youtube comment. For now, I'm happy browsing Something Awful.

  • This seems to me a fairly clear explanation of the rules used in one among the hundreds of thousands of online communities in the world of different sizes, compositions, purposes, degrees of hierarchy, etc. It's a little like describing the rules and customs of one's weekly poker game, or sewing circle, but on a slightly larger scale. Your likeliest comparison, the one you end on, of the social club, is accurate and therefore also a little misleading, because the club's localization in space and limitation of resource is part of what makes it charming rather than dismaying.

  • You express neatly, if perhaps at more than necessary length, the difference between building a space and building a community in the net; similar questions arise, with perhaps less elemental clarity, in the "real" world. What you need in order to make the essay more effective is to put clearly the general propositions to which the observations recorded here lead you.


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r4 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:44:12 - IanSullivan
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