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Attacked from Within

By anaesthetica in Internet
Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 11:17:19 AM EST
Tags: k5 isn't dying, community, society, scaling, internet, forums, group dynamics, moderation, tl;dr (all tags)

Traditional methods for protecting community from the effects of scale and poor behavior are now manifestly unfeasible. Raising barriers to entry, relying on the assumption that users will maintain only one registered account, and placing faith in the ability of admins and user moderation to reproduce a forum's organic culture are all easily circumvented, gamed, and/or ineffective when faced with the problems of scale. Moreover, they tend to reinforce self-destructive behaviors, by increasing returns to the most persistent rather than the most constructive, reinforcing groupthink, and providing ample targets for trolling and griefing.

This article attempts to fundamentally rethink what constitutes community and society on the web, and what possibilities exist for their maintenance and reconstruction in the face of scale and malicious users. The recommendations reached, after analyzing the weaknesses of the web forums we all know and love, are:

  • User anonymity should be forced.
  • Barriers to participation should be as low as possible.
  • Moderation should not focus on users or on comments in isolation, but on the relational quality of comments.
  • Passive moderation filters can mitigate problems of scale.
  • Preservation of community must shift from being based on exclusion to being based on demonstrated constructive interaction.
  • Forums should discriminate between content types: original content, links, and personal content.
  • Story promotion and front page position should be driven by conversation, not voting.

1 — Community, society, diversity and stasis

According to the mythology we've received from the neckbeards we find squirreled away in server rooms, Eternal September turned the Internet from a place of constructive conversation and engagement into an endless and unwinnable war against trolls, griefers, crapflooders, spammers, and the 13-15-year-old demographic.

Antediluvian John Allen (in the linked video above) makes what are now risible claims about "Internet":

There's an interesting kind of restraint that you find. There's not a lot of cursing or swearing. There's not a lot of personal cuts. There's not a lot of put-downs that one would expect to find. There's not screenfulls of "go to hell." It's surprising. The kind of liberation is mixed. It's interesting because one would think, if you're anonymous, you'd do anything you want. But people in a group have their own sense of community and what we can do. The thing that I'm always left with, when I leave, is this overwhelming desire for people to be rooted, and the only way they feel rooted is through another person. And if this is the way, the only way maybe, that they can talk to somebody, this is how they'll do it.
The problem that Eternal September presented to this command-line Eden was one of growth and socialization. When it was just the yearly influx of freshman gaining Internet access for the first time, the socialization task was manageable. But with the flick of a switch, AOL unleashed millions of their internet-with-training-wheels subscribers on Usenet. The flood of new users ran roughshod over sys-admins' individual moderation capabilities in disregard for their established notions of civil vs. rude behavior. More significantly, AOL users overran the ability of the communities themselves to socialize newcomers by example, hints, rebuke, and frustrated injunctions to "lurk moar!"

Clay Shirky, dubious internet commentator who has somehow scammed a job at NYU teaching "new media," calls this an "attack from within":

[A]ttack from within is what matters. Communitree wasn't shut down by people trying to crash or syn-flood the server. It was shut down by people logging in and posting, which is what the system was designed to allow. The technological pattern of normal use and attack were identical at the machine level, so there was no way to specify technologically what should and shouldn't happen. Some of the users wanted the system to continue to exist and to provide a forum for discussion. And other of the users, the high school boys, either didn't care or were actively inimical. And the system provided no way for the former group to defend itself from the latter.

The problem faced by online forums in a post-Eternal September world was not a technological problem, because the system was working as designed. It was a social problem. Community disintegrated as the scope of their world widened following the technological baptism of the television-classes.

German, pragmatist, neo-Marxist, critical theorist, and possessor of a rather large nose, Jürgen Habermas is most famous for his concept of the 'public sphere.' Like John Allen's Usenet Eden, and the fall from grace represented in the Eternal September, Habermas described the fall from grace experienced by the liberal public sphere of the Enlightenment. The public sphere was a space within which people of varying backgrounds could come together to discuss the issues, problems, and culture of the commonweal. It was a space for reason and public criticality. But, significantly, it was also a place in which bourgeois and aristocrats came together as if they did not have social class differences and therefore different personal interests in the public problems under debate. Their ability to come together as if they did not have class or social interests was premised on the exclusion of the vast majority of society: women, workers, peasants, conservative nobles, slaves, etc. The pre-September 1993 Usenet can be seen as such a public sphere, before the baptism of the lower classes. Sixteen years hence, the 'as if' problem still remains: how do we organize ourselves civilly if we let just anybody join in?

German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies first investigated the difference between 'community' and 'society' (respectively, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft). Small groups can exist in a sense of organic community, not requiring formal rules because a sense of common mores or norms unite them. Personal relationships can be cultivated and are quite strong, and there is little need for external enforcement. John Allen's quaint description of early Usenet illustrates Tönnies' idea of community. Larger groups find community hard to sustain. Individual interest rules behavior rather than common mores. Society, as opposed to community, is based on explicit rules that require enforcement. Society possesses greater flexibility and potentially more capability, but individuals are subject to greater anomie and anti-social behavior. Internal factional conflicts occur more frequently, despite the greater modularity of individuals' function in society.

The internet is still dealing with the problem of community collapse. Each site that attempts to build community and grow in size inevitably reaches this tipping point in which socialization into community is no longer possible. Community mores and identity breaks down into society, conflicts between old and new users increase. Those committed to the identity of the site follow two options: form an oligarchy or flounce.

  • Slashdot used moderation and 'karma' in order to defeat trolling, but ended up creating insufferable groupthink magnified by braindead editor-controlled story selection.
  • Kuro5hin quickly gave up on effective moderation, 'mojo,' and trusted users, ending up in a trollocaust flameout and extended undeath.
  • 4chan's /b/ has suffered from uncontrollable, metastasizing, cancerous newfags.
  • Digg's owners have deliberately expanded from a tech 'community' to a general interest 'society,' and abetted the continued existence of 'power users' and 'bury brigades' gaming the system in order to control the front page.

Dunbar's number is one anthropologist's attempt to define the threshold beyond which community is no longer cognitively possible. Various numbers are proposed—150, 230, 290—but the key point is that the capabilities of a community's members to sustain social relationships determines its ultimate size. Face-to-face relationships obviously have different requirements for their maintenance than do online relationships. As such, Dunbar's number (if indeed the concept is itself valid) ought to face different hurdles in scaling online than in the Pleistocene societies that Robin Dunbar studied—notwithstanding The Economist's recent defense of Dunbar-on-the-web. (An interesting side note, trolltrack notes that monthly diary usage for the last two years on k5 has been between 120 and 150 users, lending some credence to Dunbar's number.)

Our own LilDebbie asserts that community doesn't scale. It's painful to admit that, to a limited degree, he's right. But his absolute statement should be qualified: community doesn't scale easily or rapidly. In between taking bong hits, griefing Scifags, and running for Senate, Debs realized that k5 has reduced in scale from society to community, whereas Slashdot remained a society in which "Community doesn't matter [because] the comment and article volume is too great for any single voice to carry over the wave." Society scales easily because users are interchangeable, community scales with difficulty because relationships and identity are not interchangeable.

2 — Shii contra Shirky

Thinking about the community and society problems faced by online forums, we run into two opposing conceptions of identity: persistent identity and anonymity. Although there are a number of advocates for either position, on many different grounds, I'm going to choose two different representatives here to stand in: Clay Shirky and Shii.

Most respectable forums implement an identity system. Slashdot, Kuro5hin, Advogato, Wikipedia, Digg and so on down the line. The thinking is twofold:

  1. People prefer having an identity, keeping track of their comments and friends, and adorning their userpages with links and avatar pictures; and,
  2. Persistent identities allow for effective control through moderation rewards and penalties.

Localroger and Delirium argued over Shirky's article before, but I think a brief recapitulation of its central points are in order. Shirky argues that three things must be accepted when building a successful, long-term community:

  1. "You cannot completely separate technical and social issues."
  2. "Members are different than users."
  3. "The core group has rights that trump individual rights in some situations."

So, to a degree, the community structure is reducible to the technological structure. However, behaviors and uses that cannot be accounted for or 'solved' by changes to that technological base will always emerge. Shirky's formula is weighted toward preserving the community rather than embracing the society conception of online forums. His advice is to choose preserving existing forms of interaction even if it means suppressing new forms.

The technological base that he advocates is a strong system of persistent identity (although he prefers saying 'handle' instead of 'identity'). There are four components:

  1. "Handles the user can invest in... It's pretty widely understood that anonymity doesn't work well in group settings, because 'who said what when' is the minimum requirement for having a conversation... There has to be a penalty for switching handles. The penalty for switching doesn't have to be total... I have to lose some kind of reputation or some kind of context."
  2. "You have to design a way for there to be members in good standing. Have to design some way in which good works get recognized... You can do more sophisticated things like having formal karma or 'member since.'"
  3. "You need barriers to participation. This is one of the things that killed Usenet. You have to have some cost to either join or participate, if not at the lowest level, then at higher levels. There needs to be some kind of segmentation of capabilities."
  4. "Spare the group from scale. Scale alone kills conversations, because conversations require dense two-way conversations. In conversational contexts, Metcalfe's law is a drag."

The political science terms for what Shirky is trying to say are 'asset specificity' and 'selective incentives.' Users need to earn non-portable assets on an individual basis as a reward for constructive contributions to the community.

Unfortunately for Shirky, most of these suggestions have already been implemented in traditional forums and have been found wanting. First, handles do not prevent any negative, community-destroying behavior. Nor do rewards for good behavior. This is due to the possibilities for multiple identity syndrome inherent in interacting online. We here at k5 represent a malignant example of duplicate accounts engaging in trolling, griefing, crapflooding, shitposting and all other forms of destructive behavior. Dupe accounts, much like the shady accounting practices that allowed Enron to shift all its losses onto the balance sheets of fictive subsidiary corporations, allow the user's principal account to retain any specific incentives for constructive behavior while shifting all of the negative moderation and other penalties off onto the dupes.

Second, barriers to participation, even relatively minor ones like requiring an account, prevent community growth (and maybe even $300 million in sales). This is, of course, their designed function. Ever since k5 became a gated dysfunctional community we've experienced the slow communal constriction that effective barriers to participation create. While the barrier has solved problematic dupes for the most part (since no one seems to want to waste $5 on an account that will rapidly be banned), it hasn't solved the existing self-destructive behavior that drives away both new users and disaffected old users, see for example: [1] [2] [3] [4]. Once given over to griefers and trolls, it's unclear that normal users will ever return—bad money drives out good.

Shirky's final point on scale is similar to the difference between community and society, discussed above. Once too many people are involved, the ability to have unenforced norms and communal links between users breaks down. As users become interchangeable in their interactions with one another, 'community' collapses into 'society.' He lauds LiveJournal's clustering of users into soft groups, gives a hat tip to Rusty's favorite site which just closes the gates at arbitrary intervals, and notes that IRC and mailing lists are self-regulating insofar as people come and go as they please (a truly profound insight into scaling problems). Kuro5hin has been through the "should we form sub-communities" question before, and never seriously considered it (another option presented in that article, killfiles, has been implemented independently by j1mmy).

Shii takes the polar opposite approach to identity and participation in online forums. As the ideological mastermind behind the era of forced anonymity that 4chan's /b/ underwent at the hands of W.T. Snacks, Shii theorized that registration systems in fact had the opposite of their intended effect.

Shii and Shirky agree that registration poses a barrier to entry, but disagree on its implications for the resulting quality of forum interaction. Shii found that not only did the scale of interaction vastly increase after registration barriers were dropped, but that the percentage of automatically-identified "bad posts" dropped by more than 50%. Shii summarizes his lessons learned in four points:

  • Registration keeps out good posters.
  • Registration lets in bad posters.
  • Registration attracts trolls.
  • Anonymity counters vanity.

Just like the $300 million registration button case (linked above), registration can keep good posters out by frustrating their attempt to strike while the iron is hot. Wikipedia's open editing policy (although it grows progressively more closed as time wears on) operates on the same principle: compare the brilliant success of Wikipedia as a forum of interaction, compared to the abject failures of Nupedia and Citizendium. Anyone can dive right into editing Wikipedia, and, like other habit-forming business models, the first hit is always free.

The problem with sites like Wikipedia and Digg is that there are always registered users with less of a life than you. Persistence, not quality, counts for more than anything else. Wikipedians who persist the longest in retarded edit wars will win, regardless of how well-written or well-cited their opponent's contributions are. Persistence, not quality, earns them community recognition, and eventually a spot among the administrators and the IRC clique. Similarly, the Digg circlejerk of 'power users' spend all day running scripts that automatically submit hundreds of articles pulled from RSS feeds into the Upcoming Stories section, and digg-exchanging by digging every single story submitted by their fellow circlejerkers at a rate of one every few seconds. Truly astounding effort put into dominating the public face of 'community-driven' websites. And for what? The vanity of having your username and icon appear on the front page? And, how does registration ameliorate the problem of persistence? How can you kill that which has no life?

Anonymity counters vanity, instilling some degree of egolessness into users. Ad hominems are less effective, and the substance of the comment means more than the person saying it. Anonymity truly makes the users modular in the sense that Ernest Gellner means when he discusses the emergence of industrial modernity and the possibilities for civil society possessed by a new modular man. In "The Importance of Being Modular," Gellner writes:

Modular man can combine into effective associations and institutions, without these being total, many-stranded, underwritten by ritual, and made stable through being linked to a whole set of relationships... This is civil society: the forging of links which are effective even though they are flexible, specific, instrumental.
But the modularity, the flexibility of institutions, requires the substitutability of men for each other: one man must be able to fill the slot previously occupied by another. To do this, they need not be identical in all respects: were that so, nothing would be accomplished by the substitution... The communication symbols employed by the new occupant of the slot must be culture-compatible with those of his new neighbors. This is indeed one of the most important general traits of a modern society: cultural homogeneity.
The standardization of idiom is in any case imposed on this kind of society by the nature of work, which has ceased to by physical and has become predominantly semantic: work is now the passing and reception of messages, largely between anonymous individuals in a mass society, who cannot normally be familiar with their interlocutors.

Society, especially civil society, depends on shared culture, mores, norms. At the smaller scale, community can enforce its own mores, but as greater and greater scale comes, community collapses into society, and the mores that sustained the older users are incapable of being effectively transmitted to the newly inducted masses.

Maintaining the common institution of culture can be conceived of as a collective action problem. Mancur Olson gave the definitive treatment of the subject in The Logic of Collective Action. According to Olson, small groups are qualitatively different from large groups, when considered in terms of their respective abilities to achieve collective goods. Small groups are small enough that an individual's actions are noticeable by other members. In large groups, the effects of any given user's bad behavior are not necessarily discoverable by all members and there is little incentive for individual members to enforce the group's rules. This is why communities can only function when small, but collapse into societies when their growth outstrips the institutional capacity for individual behavior to be noticed (and punished).

Small groups can be effectively governed when one or a few members are granted greater capabilities to preserve the culture of the community—we call these moderators. While they play a crucial role in most online communities, their ability to police ever-larger numbers of participants is limited. Unfortunately, as the pool of moderators grows and as moderator status becomes increasingly institutionalized, the iron law of bureaucracy sets in. The transition from "MODS=GODS" to "The Cabal" and later to "MODS=FAGS" is a near universal feature of online forums.

As scale overwhelms community and the ability of even well-meaning mods to enforce its norms, society-driven moderation becomes the next option for enforcing cultural homogeneity. Broad swaths of users are given the ability to rate other users and their contributions. For example, new users might be asked to find sponsors among existing users in order to preserve some level of trust and social links. Ta bu shi da yu detailed the perverse incentive structure that sponsored users would create (at the time, Shirky called Ta Bu's opinion "hysterical"). Rusty, k5's deadbeat dad, eventually agreed with Ta Bu, admitting that sponsorship "was a stupid idea."

Users also might be asked to rate the degree to which they trust their fellow users, a system prominently employed by Advogato. While prominent Bay-area musicians have advocated adoption of a similar trust metric for k5, the idea was rejected. Our resident 'low-budget Filipino horror story' took time off from speaking for the vast majority of international governments, civilians, and people of Myanmar to speak for the rest of k5's users regarding the negative consequences of trust metrics: they focus on the individual rather than on their contributions (comments, stories), the outcome being neither community nor society but class conflict and stifling monoculture. As Paul Graham notes in his assessment of lessons learned from administering Hacker News: "It's bad behavior you want to keep out more than bad people. User behavior turns out to be surprisingly malleable. If people are expected to behave well, they tend to; and vice versa."

Furthermore, Advogato's trust metric is not, in fact, attack resistant. Because of the problem of pseudonymity, a troll posing as Richard Stallman was able to gain Master certification from 288 users without independent verification of his identity. Moreover, the attack resistance model is built only to resist multiple dupe accounts under control of a single user. This overlooks the more common internal-culture-war problem, 'attack from within': sites populated by multiple independent trolls, in which destructive behavior can come from multiple actors not necessarily acting in concert, and even from long-running members of the forum.

Alternately, moderation systems like Slashdot's Karma and Digg's approval-style voting put moderation of content (as opposed to moderation of users) into the hands of the userbase as a whole. While viewing Slashdot comments with an appropriately high threshold is effective in displaying only high quality comments, a vast amount of material that is high-quality yet counter to Slashdot's groupthink remains below the threshold. Slashdot's moderation not only separates the signal from the noise in terms of general comment quality, but also in terms of the degree to which the comment appropriately venerates group icons. Moderation abuse is hardly countered by offering these same users incentives (more moderation power) to moderate moderations. Meanwhile, Digg's uniformly pathetic comment quality is barely a step above YouTube's, despite the existence of moderation.

The bottom line is that no active moderation system, no matter how many users are empowered to rate each other and each other's comments, can preserve community in the face of the multiple identity syndrome inherent to online forums. Incentives, barriers, and moderation cannot counter trolls and dupe accounts—in fact, they may make things worse. If we cannot return to John Allen's Eden despite Shirky's formulas for success, then we must plan for life in Shii's Nod.

3 — "Technological solutions for social problems"

Shii's optimistic conclusions about the value of anonymity for social interaction are easily rebutted by the hideous, festering cesspool of 4chan's /b/. Not the content subject matter per se, because the extremes of its content matter are the essence of /b/. The problem with /b/ is the unbelievable rate of shitposting: the same topics over and over, retarded incoherent posts, repetition of tired forced memes. The very occasional strokes of brilliance are rapidly drowned out by noise. 4chan's rapid growth is made possible by the complete lack of barriers to entry. There are no technological barriers—no registration of 4chan Gold Accounts—and no cultural barriers (at least, for any idiot that's discovered the compendium-of-degenerate-culture Encyclopædia Dramatica).

While there may not be technological solutions for social problems, there may be institutional solutions for social problems. Shirky is correct insofar as social dynamics on the web have a technological base: patterns of interaction are shaped by the software used to interact. Knowledge of the capabilities and constraints imposed by forum software conditions how users act, what possibilities they perceive, what type of behavior they expect, and (most importantly) how the system can be gamed. Software is the institutional context within which users act, and within which the collective action problem of maintaining a culture of quality interaction is (hopefully) overcome, despite the problems of scaling, multiple identities, bad behavior, and limited capacity of moderators.

What are the technological (really, institutional) problems that need fixing then?

  1. Design with multiple identity syndrome as an unavoidable condition of operating on the internet.
  2. Provide effective selective incentives for constructive behavior.
  3. Keep barriers to participation as low as possible.
  4. Moderation that better reflects quality, as opposed to simple agreement.
  5. Moderation that lightens the load on admins.
  6. Reduce the ability of users to game the system.

The first condition requires making the identity of the poster less important. Slashdot, Wikipedia, and 4chan all allow anonymous contribution, but go out of their way to distinguish the accountless from users with identity. Slashdot allows 'Anonymous Coward' to post with a -1 moderation penalty. Wikipedia allows anyone to edit (nearly) anything, but their edits are identified by IP address and filtered when viewing recent changes. 4chan defaults to 'Anonymous' but allows namefags with secure tripcodes. However, an approach that truly de-emphasizes identity would do the opposite of the above sites: all comments would appear without any indicators of identity. Users with or without accounts would be indistinguishable. Unlike FORCED_ANON on 4chan, which did not allow for persistent identities, such a system would allow for user identity, but only in private. A user could have an account, but there would be no public acknowledgment of their identity linked to their posts.

In such a system, there would be a lesser incentive to trolling. Without particular individuals to follow, persistently baiting and harassing individual users would more difficult. The attention whoring and unwarranted self-importance of trolls would be more difficult to sustain in forced anonymity. Of course, this would not prevent more generic trolling (starting flamewars on partisan politics, operating systems, religion), but it would mitigate some of the more abusive forms.

Second, selective incentives ought to be provided for constructive behavior. Unlike sites that use social status to indicate constructive users, and thereby focus on individual vs. individual comparisons (giving new targets for griefing, trolling, and anti-social behavior), the incentives provided to users ought to be private in keeping with the forced anonymity. Slashdot gives users with 'excellent' karma automatically upmodded comments, Hacker News briefly highlighted good users with orange-colored usernames, kuro5hin used to have trusted users with special rating abilities, and so on. Just as user identity ought to be private, so too must incentives/status be private. The incentives for retaining one persistent identity are usually related to personalization and a record of all of one's comments, bookmarks, and other activities. Incentives for constructive behavior generally revolve around granting users more influence: more moderation power, more prominent comments, more access to control, more influence over the front page. Most of these are fine, but the focus is off: instead of rewarding good behavior with unique opportunities for more constructive contributions, they reward good behavior with opportunities for control, influence, and negation.

The third condition requires making it as easy to comment as possible. Don't make the user register an account to post a comment. Don't make the user learn a markup language to format their post correctly—Google's rich text composed in Gmail is a good example of avoiding the problem of making a user learn HTML, BBCode, or Wiki markup. Don't prevent the user from posting by making them jump through hoops such as the impossible-to-satisfy Slashdot "Lameness Filter" or the mute-banning Robot 9000 from xkcd's IRC channel and 4chan's /r9k/ board. Obvious and strict wordfilters encourage users to game the system rather than work to write better posts. The result is a commenting system that favors those that spend the time to master technical details over those who write useful contributions without knowing the intricacies of the site's parochial commenting system.

Fourth, moderation systems ought to be geared toward identifying quality contributions, rather than signaling agreement. Current moderation systems are based on the premise that better comments will end up with better scores. This approach is wrongheaded and flawed. As anyone familiar with Digg's wretched comments can attest, clicking 'thumbs up' on a snarky, flamebaiting, or erroneous one-liner signals almost nothing about the actual quality of the comment. Approval voting systems, wherein comment worth is represented by a raw number score, create an "I agree with this post" dynamic to moderation. There is precious little difference between numerical score-based moderation and the <AOL>Me too!!!</AOL> posts that began flooding into Usenet in September 1993.

Slashdot is the only major forum with a comment moderation system that takes a step in the right direction. While all of its moderation options are either +1 or -1, they all include some kind of descriptor allowing the moderator to assert why the post deserves a higher (or lower) score: insightful, informative, interesting, funny, offtopic, troll, flamebait, etc. Yet they're still wedded to a score-based moderation system. A set of moderation options that reflected quality rather than "I agree with this post" would be a further step in the right direction. No numerical score ought to be visible. The moderation options would be the descriptions of the comments we'd like to see—informative, informative links, engages parent directly, witty—and of the comments we'd like to see less of—one-liner, personal attack, flamebait, troll, abusive links, spam, offtopic. Options to express agreement could be provided too, in order to prevent the descriptive moderation options from standing in as proxies for agreement (moderators rating comments they disagreed with highly in terms of quality might be given extra weight, assuming they're moderating in good faith). Score-based moderation systems foster groupthink and the promotion of content-less one-liners to the detriment of actual conversation. Moderation centered around what makes a good post provides an institutional foundation for altering the dynamics of users' moderation behavior.

To further emphasize the quality-not-agreement aspect of moderation, scarcity ought to be applied. Slashdot's system of dispensing a few moderation pellets to its users on occasion works on the basis of scarcity, but suffers from being arbitrary and temporally contingent. A moderation system that operates on scarcity could value a user's moderations at a certain weight over a period of time—the more they moderate, the more they dilute their influence. The stock of moderation weight (ranging from pro-ana to rpresser) assigned to each user could vary according to criteria such as length of membership and quality of their contributions. Unlike Digg, where persistent users can set up scripts to digg hundreds of stories a day, thereby rewarding hideously pathetic levels of persistence, a system in which individual influence is scarce reduces the returns to becoming a 'power user.'

Fifth, and closely related to the above point, moderation systems need to be designed to lighten the load on moderators, whether they are admins or the regular users themselves. Paul Graham has become a believer in the "broken windows" theory of maintaining order: small violations of the spirit of expected behavior, if persistent and unchecked, can undermine broader adherence to those norms. To wit: if a rule is unenforced and constantly violated, is it really a rule? The solution that xkcd's Randall Munroe hit upon after reviewing the standard options faced by all rapidly scaling communities—restricted entry, moderators, user moderation, and sub-communities—was a system of passive moderation. Moderation would be automatically applied according to a predetermined set of criteria specifying what qualities a good comment would have. In Munroe's case, originality was the key, and any commenters attempting to say something that had already been said before would be penalized by increasing mute times. A similar project, the StupidFilter, being developed by one of our own, uses Bayesian logic to identify stupid comments based on a seed group of human-identified stupid comments. The criteria for stupidity include: over- or under-capitalization, too many text message abbreviations, excessive use of 'LOL' or exclamation points, and so on. Spam identification systems for email and blog comments (e.g. Akismet for WordPress) do much the same thing, identifying commonalities in junk messages and containing them in a junk/spam purgatory awaiting moderation.

Passive moderation can help solve the problem of moderator overload, just as spam filters aid managing one's email inbox or blog comments. Reducing the number of full-time admins to do moderation reduces the proclivities toward the "iron law of bureaucracy" and toward user-moderation abuse. Like the above passive systems, a Robot9000++ could be set to identify general characteristics of comments that make them good or bad: not only originality, but also ideal length of the post (with diminishing returns after a certain point), presence of links, paragraph structure, and so on. Likewise, it could identify posts that the typical profile of destructive or idiotic behavior: one-liners, ad hominems, common insults, links to shock sites, etc. False positives would be an issue, hopefully less of one over time if it had a Bayesian capacity to learn. But effective admin intervention and/or user moderation could correct erroneously downmodded comments.

Sixth, effective moderation systems will function best when pushed as far into the background of user interaction with the forum as possible. Munroe discovered, as did moot shortly thereafter, that announcing the rules of the game results in conversations and threads being overwhelmed by meta discussion and boundary-testing. Those with a stake in circumventing moderation (trolls, griefers, spammers, crapflooders, the usual set of malcontents) quickly discover the limits, whereas those who don't have the time to invest in circumventing the controls remain constrained ("when moderation is the law, only outlaws will be unmoderated"). Passive moderation and wordfilters ought not be immediately perceivable by the user: instead of blocking the user, muting them, or denying the comment from being posted, the systems should let the comment through. An automatic downmoderation ought to be applied to the offending post such that it will be below the threshold of normal comment viewing. However, downmodded comments ought to be discoverable and corrected by user moderation in the case of false positives. By obfuscating passive moderation systems, forums can achieve 'society through obscurity,' preventing moderation criteria from easy discoverability and gaming.

4 — The lowest common denominator

If it is indeed possible to construct a functioning scalable society within Eternal September, the question becomes, can we work backwards from society toward a reconstruction of community? Can communities discover themselves within society, without the creation of formal sub-groupings? Can Gellner's 'modular man' reenter a network of communal ties without the totalizing, exclusive, and oppressive aspects of Shirky's vision of online community?

There are two aspects to this problem:

  • what links between users are indicative of community; and,
  • what mode of content creation and consumption will sustain a coherent community?

Constructive conversation is central to community, not ideological like-mindedness or commonality of interests. Too many forums attempt to provide sub-communities on the basis of user self-selection, allowing the user to place themselves in categories of ideology, allegiance, or taste (e.g. Facebook groups, Last.fm groups, Wikipedian userboxes, etc.). Just as trading flames and ad hominems does not make for lasting interaction, groups of like-minded users decrying offenses to their objects of veneration and offering 'me too!' posts are among the least interesting forms of interaction on the internet. (Shirky discusses these self-destructive forms of group interaction, citing psychoanalyst W. R. Bion's 1961 volume Experiences in Groups.)

Placing conversation at the center of analysis changes how we think about constructive interaction. Current moderation schemes focus on discrete comments as the unit of analysis: a comment is either good or bad in and of itself. Slashdot's foster care practice of reparenting highly moderated comments attached to poorly rated parents is indicative of this comment-as-island-unto-itself mode of thought. But if constructive conversation is the goal, the comment itself is the wrong unit of analysis. The conversation—the series of comments responding to one another—is the proper unit of analysis, and the most important aspects are not inherent to the comments themselves but are relational.

Conversation and moderation are not just content creation or judgments. Replying to other users and moderating comments are expressions of relationship. A one-liner, flippant, or flaming reply expresses at best a weak relationship, but usually a negative relationship between two users. Likewise a negative moderation is an indication of one user's low esteem for the contribution of another user. Conversely, a longer post that directly responds to another user—not necessarily agreeing, respectfully disagreeing or providing informative links are just as good—or a positive moderation provides an indication of constructive relations between two users.

Changing the unit of analysis from comments to conversations is the first step in determining how community might emerge from an anonymous society. We can take a two comment dyad as an example and apply an AND logic to the pair of comments' worth (as judged by both passive and user moderation):

  • Low value: a short snarky comment with an equally short snarky reply. Throwaway comments are throwaway interactions.
  • Low value: a constructive comment with a flame or one-liner reply. An unconstructive response doesn't indicate potential for a relationship.
  • Low value: a flamebait or troll garnering a nonetheless long and thought ought response. Feeding trolls, even if done calmly and patiently, is not constructive interaction.
  • High value: a medium- to long-sized thoughtful comment followed by a thoughtful response of similar length.

Constructive comment dyads are the best indicator of a potential relationship between two anonymous users. Positive moderation of one user for another user's comment does express relationship potential, but less so than commenting, because moderation is quick and one-way, whereas writing a comment that engages the other user signals greater potential for interaction. The implicit relationship forming of commenting is also a better indicator of interaction potential than self-selecting membership in groups. Even people with common interests or common ascriptive identities will not necessarily interact fruitfully. In this sense, grouping along a priori lines is based on the dubious assumption that people will interact best with 'their own kind.' The reality is that providing people with labels and identity/interest groupings is more likely to artificially divide users against one another and to reinforce the negative modes of group interaction identified by Bion.

Communal groups ought not be based on self-selection by users into predefined ascriptive categories, but will function best when they emerge from proven ability to interact constructively. Father-of-sociology Émile Durkheim labeled these different organizing principles 'organic solidarity' (in which individual differences are minimized) and 'mechanical solidarity' (in which differentiated individuals cooperate). The problem then becomes, how can the forum determine, on the basis of comments and moderation, which users belong in the same community as other users?

If we reconceptualize commenting and moderation behavior as links between users expressing a relationship, a method for community's emergence from the broader social milieu becomes clear. Just as hyperlinks between web pages express a relationship of value, as Sergey Brin and Larry Page realized by 1998, so too do replies and moderation create a network of interlinked users. The problem of scaling rendered Yahoo!'s categorization scheme obsolete, and the problem of fraudulent/malicious tagging left AltaVista's meta tag crawling fatally compromised—Google introduced a system capable both of scaling and resisting attack (significantly, resistant to a greater degree than Advogato's trust metric). A modified PageRank algorithm could take into account the positive and negative links between users, establishing overall assessments of users useful for distinguishing malicious users from normal users and for dispensing selective incentives to users producing valued contributions.

Analyzing user interactions as a network of positive and negative links also opens up further possibilities for assessing and grouping users. Small-world network theory is premised on the study of network nodes that exhibit clustering behavior. A clustering coefficient can be used to determine how self-contained a group of interlinked nodes is (what Durkheim would have called the group's dynamic density). A substantial number of software projects aim to analyze social networks in this manner. The advantage of analyzing networks rather than relying on ascriptive categories to generate communities is that each user's community will be a different set of users—preventing systemic groupthink and the negative group dynamics that occur in closed/exclusive communities. The key criteria in maintaining a given user's community group will be their ability to maintain a level of consistent, constructive interaction with the users in their network neighborhood. (It would be interesting to see if this form of organic communal grouping can confirm Dunbar's number.)

Kuro5hin provides a good, but limited, model for the emergence of community from society. On k5, interaction in the queue and on the front page constitutes 'society,' whereas interaction in the diary ghetto constitutes 'community.' K5 was the first major forum (as far as I can discern) to provide this kind of separation between social content (for the discussion of the whole userbase) and communal content (diaries with personal content that can be followed on a per user basis). However, mashing all users together into a unified diary ghetto ended in tears, as different subgroups of users came into cultural conflict, and the griefers drove off the beautiful souls to Hulver's diary-only site.

For community to emerge from anonymous society, communal interaction and social interaction ought to be separated as they are on k5. But, whereas on k5 all communal content is placed together, leading to conflict between different communities and daily content overload (back when there were more users), on our hypothetical forum each user's community would be a unique set of neighbor users determined by their prior constructive social interaction. Because each user would have a different set of users constituting their community, the strategy of setting up dupe accounts for the purpose of harassing specific users would be rendered ineffective. Within the community section, it might be possible (even positive) to allow users' to have and display identity markers (username, icon, signature, homepage, etc.), while still maintaining forced anonymity in the society section of the forum. Thus identity would emerge alongside community, allowing affective bonds between users to develop.

Constructive interaction between users does not occur in a vacuum, however. All web forums are premised on discussion of content and—according to SEO 'gurus'—content is king. But not all content is created equal. We can categorize content along three lines:

  1. Original content - most queue content on k5, for example.
  2. Links with blurb - Slashdot, MLPs on k5, Digg, Reddit, Hacker News, Fark, and so on.
  3. Personal content - k5 diaries, HuSi, 4chan's /r9k/, LiveJournal.

Personal content, as above, is content suited more for a community audience than a forum's society as a whole (perennially flaccid HuSi excepting). That leaves us original content and link-n-blurb content for general consumption. While there's nothing particularly wrong with being yet another echo chamber for entertaining links, production of original content ought to be favored. Precious few forums, aside from k5, place content creation at the center of interaction. That's not because they want thin content, but because it's hard to build a social dynamic favoring substantial content and content creation.

Long form pieces take time to write, time to read, and time to judge. Links to top ten lists, funny images, and the latest sensationalized scandal-mongering headline on the Huffington Post take no time to post, a few seconds to read, and no discernible thought process to judge (or write). Paul Graham, observing this problem at Reddit and attempting to avoid it at Hacker News, calls it the "Fluff Principle: on a user-voted news site, the links that are easiest to judge will take over unless you take specific measures to prevent it." Graham's solution has so far been to explicitly ban fluff stories and rely on moderator intervention to kill fluff stories as 'offtopic.' But this solution, like using moderators to enforce comment quality standards, does not and will not scale. One need only peruse the thousands upon thousands of links submitted to Digg's upcoming stories section every day to realize the futility of reliance on admin enforcement.

Three institutional changes to content handling can help alleviate the Fluff Principle:

  • Get rid of voting;
  • Change the criterion for front page placement; and,
  • Discriminate by content type.

First, voting to approve new stories for forum-wide consumption and comment is a central feature of most forums: k5, Digg, Reddit, Hacker News, and so on. Slashdot still relies on editorial omelette selection (assisted by voting in the trying-too-hard-to-compete-with-Digg-abortion-that-is-Firehose). On the other extreme, 4chan allows anyone to start a new thread. But just as +1/-1 moderation creates a proclivity towards "I agree with this post" moderation rather than moderating on the basis of comment quality, +1/-1 voting on stories creates a similarly destructive dynamic.

Take Digg as a case study. Controlling for the fact that they siphoned off the most retarded Slashdot readers and alloyed them with the most credulous and shrill Ron Paul and Obama supporters, Digg displays Graham's Fluff Principle perfectly: without fail, the top dugg stories each week are uniformly links to the same set of images that your mom will forward you three days later with the subject line "FW:FW:FW:FW:FW:FWD:FW:FWD:Funny Pics LOL!!" Engaging long-form pieces rarely make it very far, if at all, because +1 voting is equally weighted whether the story is 'sprawling New Yorker shit' or a picture of a cat hugging a dog, and because the picture is easier to judge than detailed investigative journalism.

The Wikimedia essay 'voting considered harmful' encapsulates the solution neatly. They grapple with many of the same problems considered here: the problem of multiple identities (dupe voting), tactical/malicious voting, avoiding groupthink, and the stifling of constructive discourse. But whereas Wikimedia aims for consensus decisions, a healthy web forum might settle instead for constructive conversation. That is, instead of voting +1/-1, users would vote with their comments.

Two extreme cases of commenting demonstrate the value of this approach. First, fluff submissions (e.g. images on Digg) tend to get very few comments, and the majority are of low quality ("cool pic! thanks for submitting!"). Second, sensationalist flamebait articles will rack up high numbers of low quality comments, as users post indignant one-liners, flames, personal attacks, and trolls. With passive moderation as described above, a great deal of these comments would have a hard time making it above a normal viewing threshold. With user moderation focused on comment quality rather than 'I agree with this post,' and an evaluation of quality that depends on comment dyads rather than single comments, back-and-forth flamewar threads, even if they racked up an impressive quantity of comments, would still have a very low quality of comments.

Constructive conversations (dyads of highly moderated comments) would be the key determinant of story promotion, not throwaway comments or flames. Because thoughtful comments take longer to construct and are premised on there being substantive content in the article (whether original content or a link), basing story promotion on comments will mitigate the problem of fluff articles on the front page. This method would also place the emphasis on the things important to sustaining a good site: user involvement and interaction. Any site can offer a collection of links, and those that do make commenting take the back seat (e.g. Digg and Reddit). Better sites offer a mix between being story driven and comment driven (e.g. Slashdot and k5). Still, a move toward being fully comment driven needs to take place.

Second, Graham contrasts the top-down vs. bubble-up front pages of Slashdot & Digg and Reddit & Delicious/popular respectively. Top down front pages are a simple temporal ordering of new stories, with no regard to the quality of conversation they produce. Graham notes that these encourage gaming of the story submission and promotion process, because new stories will occupy the top spot on the page and automatically command attention and clickthroughs. Bubble-up front pages allow the forum to decide on a criterion for a story's ascent to the top of the front page, balanced by a time-decay function. Delicious/popular pushes links up based on the number of bookmarks they've received, whereas Reddit and Hacker News move links based on up or down voting. (4chan occupies a median point between top-down and bubble-up methods, bumping threads to the top of Page 0 when they receive a new comment, tempered by limits to the max number of posts and images, and times each unique user can bump the thread.) Our hypothetical comment-driven forum would push stories up based on quality of conversation. Even if gaming the system could promote a story, it would not capture the top of the front page without being able to sustain users' interest enough to post thoughtful comments in response to the story and to one another.

Third and finally, users submitting stories can tag their submissions either as 'original content' or 'link-n-blurb.' The former should have a slight advantage in terms of front page hang time (perhaps a stricter time-decay function for link-n-blurb stories). Moderators won't be wholly responsible for killing fluff links, as they are on Hacker News, but for the more scalable task of fixing miscategorized submissions. Passive moderation may even be employable in flagging potential miscategorizations by analyzing submissions according to overall length and to ratio of links to text.


There are serious problems with existing web forums' institutional capacity to sustain constructive interaction over the long term. The foregoing has been an attempt to rethink what constitutes community and society on the web, and what the requirements for sustaining them are in an environment of rapid scaling.

The conclusions reached about the weaknesses of current forums are:

  • Eternal September presents web forums with an inability to avoid the dilemma that scaling creates for socialization.
  • Community and society, as forms of interaction, are not just different in scale but also different in kind.
  • Community doesn't scale, and society is difficult to enforce.
  • User registration and barriers to participation do not prevent community-destroying behavior.
  • Scale quickly outpaces moderators' ability to enforce socialization of new users.
  • Current forms of user moderation and trust ratings are vulnerable to gaming and attack.

Recommendations for a hypothetical forum structure are summarized as follows:

  • Forced anonymity fosters society by countering vanity, making users modular, and placing the focus on the content/comments.
  • Moderation can be improved by making it passive, scarce, and focused on comment quality rather than agreement with the substance of the comment.
  • Conversation, not isolated comments or voting scores, must be the central criterion of user interaction.
  • Communal groupings can emerge organically from society based on demonstrated constructive conversation.
  • Forums should discriminate between original content, link-n-blurb content, and personal content.
  • Story promotion and front page position should be determined by quality of conversation not voting.

It should be stressed that none of these are radical innovations. Most are already implemented piecemeal in some form or another in the various web forums, bulletin boards, chat rooms, and newsgroups throughout the internet. But there is no forum providing a coherent combination of these elements. I believe that these factors will provide the institutional foundation for a web forum that can achieve a greater scale-free status than any that we currently possess.


Voxel dot net
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Which of these ideas are any good?

Votes: 0
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Related Links
o Slashdot
o Kuro5hin
o Yahoo
o Google
o stasis
o mythology
o Eternal September
o constructi ve conversation and engagement
o endless and unwinnable war
o if you're anonymous, you'd do anything you want
o through another person
o The problem that Eternal September presented
o socializat ion
o internet-w ith-training-wheels
o lurk moar
o Clay Shirky
o attack from within
o post-Etern al September world
o pragmatist
o large nose
o Jürgen Habermas
o Eternal September [2]
o fall from grace experienced by the liberal public sphere of the Enlightenment
o civilly
o Ferdinand Tönnies
o difference between 'community' and 'society'
o Gemeinscha ft and Gesellschaft
o form an oligarchy
o flounce
o braindead editor
o quickly gave up on effective moderation, 'mojo,' and trusted users
o newfags
o Dunbar's number
o defense of Dunbar-on-the-web
o monthly diary usage
o community doesn't scale
o griefing Scifags
o k5 has reduced
o Shii
o Localroger
o Delirium
o argues
o Metcalfe's law
o asset specificity
o selective incentives
o shady accounting practices that allowed Enron to shift all its losses onto the balance sheets of fictive subsidiary corporations
o $300 million in sales
o gated dysfunctional community
o [1]
o [2]
o [3]
o [4]
o bad money drives out good
o LiveJourna l
o favorite
o site
o should we form sub-communities
o implemente d independently
o Shii found
o lessons learned
o abject failures
o habit-form ing business models
o retarded edit wars
o How can you kill that which has no life?
o egolessnes s
o the person saying it
o Ernest Gellner
o Gellner
o communicat ion symbols
o semantic
o collective action problem
o Mancur Olson
o The Logic of Collective Action
o iron law of bureaucracy
o The Cabal
o new users might be asked to find sponsors among existing users
o perverse incentive structure that sponsored users would create
o hysterical
o was a stupid idea
o trust their fellow users
o prominent Bay-area musicians have advocated adoption of a similar trust metric for k5
o speaking for the vast majority of international governments, civilians, and people of Myanmar
o negative consequences of trust metrics
o assessment of lessons learned from administering Hacker News
o troll posing as Richard Stallman was able to gain Master certification from 288 users without independent verification of his identity
o approval
o YouTube's
o Nod
o 4chan Gold Accounts
o social problems
o filtered when viewing recent changes
o namefags with secure tripcodes
o orange-col ored usernames
o Robot 9000
o wordfilter s
o rpresser
o has become a believer
o broken windows
o passive moderation
o StupidFilt er
o developed by one of our own
o criteria for stupidity
o Akismet
o moot
o Constructi ve conversation is central to community
o Wikipedian userboxes
o self-destr uctive forms of group interaction
o W. R. Bion
o Experience s in Groups
o AND logic
o Émile Durkheim
o Sergey Brin and Larry Page realized by 1998
o resistant to a greater degree than Advogato's trust metric
o Small-worl d network
o clustering behavior
o clustering coefficient
o dynamic density
o software projects aim to analyze social networks
o beautiful souls
o MLPs
o Fluff Principle
o omelette
o Firehose
o top dugg stories each week
o cat hugging a dog
o voting considered harmful
o top-down vs. bubble-up front pages
o scale-free
o Also by anaesthetica

Display: Sort:
Attacked from Within | 75 comments (59 topical, 16 editorial, 0 hidden)
Becaus of a migraine, I didn't actually read it... (2.75 / 4) (#1)
by mirko on Thu Mar 12, 2009 at 04:01:53 AM EST

...but I like to see new articles in the queue and I will encourage you once this has been moved to vote.
Finally I managed to make the decision that I would work on it. - MDC
we had to huddle together - trane
Amazing. +1FP from me (2.80 / 5) (#2)
by bodza on Thu Mar 12, 2009 at 04:09:32 AM EST

I'm about half way through this well-written well thought out piece of internet anthropology and looking forward to the rest. I'll try and do some proofing for you before it gets to vote.
"Civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest." - Émile Zola

Agreed. An excellent treatment of the subject, (none / 1) (#12)
by infernalmajesty on Thu Mar 12, 2009 at 01:31:34 PM EST

as judged by a newfag to these case studies.

You have a surplus of interesting ideas here for future development, concrete enough to get the programmer's mind churning pseudocode as I read through.
[ Parent ]

lulz intarnet (2.00 / 7) (#3)
by Mylakovich on Thu Mar 12, 2009 at 06:24:36 AM EST

1994 called and wants its idealism back (1.85 / 7) (#7)
by circletimessquare on Thu Mar 12, 2009 at 10:36:12 AM EST

the first "netizens" and "digerati" of the "blogosphere" (vomit) in the 1990s imagined the internet as a sort of philosopher's lounge, where common citizens would come together and engage in a vast and fruitful ideological debate

but mostly, the internet has become graffiti on the door of a bathroom stall

the proper response to this ACCEPTANCE

furthermore: there is no TECHNOLOGICAL fix to a human SOCIAL problem. want to weed out all of the undesireables? ok, then read every message, and moderate by hand. you want this moderation to be automatic and objective, not subjective, so there is no bias in the moderation? IMPOSSIBLE

because the only way to judge any human social commentary is subjectively

this whole exercise is an exercise in futility. just accept the fact that human thought is mostly a wasteland of juvenalia, and you have no way to protect your oh-so-precious intarwebs from that fact

deal with it. move on. shut the fuck up with your lame, tired, old ignorant idealism from 1994

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

this low value reply brought to you by CTS $ (3.00 / 9) (#10)
by infernalmajesty on Thu Mar 12, 2009 at 01:13:43 PM EST

[ Parent ]
its also the iron clad truth. truth is often ugly (none / 1) (#33)
by circletimessquare on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 10:34:40 AM EST

deal with it

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

[ Parent ]
just cus its ugly doesn't mean its truth (none / 0) (#43)
by loteck on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 04:22:52 PM EST

truth is never low value, which is why i know you're full of shit.
"You're in tune to the musical sound of loteck hi-fi, the musical sound that moves right round. Keep on moving ya'll." -Mylakovich

[ Parent ]
intelligence, retard (none / 1) (#47)
by circletimessquare on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 06:32:17 PM EST

you take my point, change it and turn it into another point i didn't make, then you refute that new point i didn't say

why don't you just lock yourself in a room and argue with your low iq self and save us all a lot of time?

fucking moron

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

[ Parent ]

ABOVE POSTER IS A RETARD (2.50 / 6) (#35)
by circletimessquare on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 10:48:46 AM EST

i actually read it now. above was posted after one 3 second skim. i regurgitated some boilerplate response, having nothing whatsoever to do with the valid quality story above

for this, i'm a fucking retarded asswipe




The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

[ Parent ]

Text is likely to be stupid. (none / 1) (#50)
by Nimey on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 11:08:00 PM EST

Never mind, it was just the dog cumming -- jandev
You Sir, are an Ignorant Motherfucker. -- Crawford
I am arguably too manic to do that. -- Crawford
I already fuck my mother -- trane
Nimey is right -- Blastard
i am in complete agreement with Nimey -- i am a pretty big deal

[ Parent ]
yes-ish (none / 1) (#66)
by aphrael on Sun Mar 15, 2009 at 06:27:34 PM EST

the first "netizens" and "digerati" of the "blogosphere" (vomit) in the 1990s imagined the internet as a sort of philosopher's lounge, where common citizens would come together and engage in a vast and fruitful ideological debate

but mostly, the internet has become graffiti on the door of a bathroom stall

the proper response to this ACCEPTANCE

all true :) except that nobody used the term 'blogosphere' until well after the idealism of the early 1990s vanished.

there's part of me which is still disappointed that the internet didn't remain the philosopher's lounge it looked, in the early 90s, like it could be. But i'm over it; it is what it is ... and I'm more interested in the question of why I, and so many other people, got the future as wildly wrong as we did.

[ Parent ]

its called idealism. early communists didnt know (none / 1) (#67)
by circletimessquare on Sun Mar 15, 2009 at 07:08:42 PM EST

they were just building the ultimate dictatorship either

plenty of utopianists have come and gone. all of their dreams dashed. human nature is what it is. it resists all efforts to speak highly of it... and also all efforts to sell it short

its the ultimate yardstick. and the one who understands it best knows truth better than anyone else

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

[ Parent ]

It's a lot more complicated (2.66 / 9) (#8)
by tdillo on Thu Mar 12, 2009 at 12:54:16 PM EST

There is a difference in culture. The types of people that had access to the Internet pre-1993 are much different than the types of people that have access to it now.

One can't blame it on cluelessness, that is just elitism. The fact is that not everybody views a forum the same way. Their reasons for using it are not the same, what they expect to get out of the forum are not the same, even the devices they use to access it are different and that makes a big difference.

When Jimbo got Wikipedia going it never even occurred to me to vandalize. I was actually shocked when I found out that some people I knew were actively vandalizing 'just for the lulz'. They weren't 12yr olds either or AOL rejects, but young professionals. They just look at the Web/Internet differently than I do.

Even here at K5 there has been an evolution. Used to be the Front Page was the focus of the site and modsub had some type of importance. The Diary section on the other hand was just something that was there. It was even called the "Ghetto". At that time I rarely read anything in the Diary section unless things were just really slow.

Now, I can tell from comments that for some the FP still has some importance. From my point of view however, the Diary section has become K5 and modsub is the ghetto. I don't really know if this is better or worse, it's just different. All I know for sure is that the users here now view K5 differently than the users did when I started.

Look at MeFi, although it appears very similar to what it did say just 5 yrs ago if you are a member of that community it has a different feel today than it did previously. AskMe is now a larger focus than 'the Blue'.

As for community, I think there is plenty of community. Now, true somebody that is not inside might look at k5 and go, wow these people have no respect whatsoever for each other and come away thinking if there is any community it is dysfunctional at best. Still, the interactions that occur on K5 are pretty damn close to the interactions that my friends and I engage in in real life. So actually from where I sit K5 has more of a community than it did previously.

Same with Wikipedia, same with Mefi, same with Slashdot, there is community there although it most certainly is not the same community that was there a few years ago.

Now, how does all this apply to the greater web and forums in general? Well I guess I have to agree with CTS on this. It's just something you have to accept. That the forum you set up no matter what you do, once you add people into the mix you have lost control.

Like a Hollywood movie it can be sort of pointed in a certain direction but what you end up with may have very little to do with what you started out with. Similar to authoring a story, I understand that once the characters are on the page oftentimes the story begins to take on a life of it's own and may end up very different from what the author intended.

What seems to me is that what kills many sites is a small group of people that fight hard to keep things just like they always were. But the environment changes and so the denizens of the environment have to change or die. And sadly, sometimes despite everything, things just die. And as we are now seeing with many businesses sometimes it is best to just let them die rather than attempt to keep them on some sort of life-support merely prolonging the pain.

In the conclusion you say that "There are serious problems with existing web forums' institutional capacity to sustain constructive interaction over the long term. Perhaps this isn't a problem so much as it is just the way it is, that nothing lasts forever.

Actually if you think about it, we used to talk about web-related things in terms of
"Internet Time". Well, if you look at it that way then K5 and many other forums like MeFi, Slashdot, etc. have been around a HELL of a long time.

I think that a paraphrase of Spafford's quote concerning USENET is appropriate;

Web forums are like a herd of performing elephants with diarrhea -- massive, difficult to redirect, awe-inspiring, entertaining, and a source of mind-boggling amounts of excrement when you least expect it.

The stories and information posted here are artistic works of fiction and falsehood.Only a fool would take anything posted here as fact.

it was better before the diaries existed (3.00 / 2) (#26)
by boxed on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 04:16:04 AM EST

I think a big problem with the diaries is the name. It used to be k5 was for writing and submitting stories, and the diaries were thought of as a way to expand that so you could solicit feedback on rougher drafts or more vague ideas before submitting to the queue. Instead of choosing a name like "drafts", "discussion" or "ideas" the name "diaries" was used and suddenly people started actually writing diaries. That was a mistake imho.

[ Parent ]
I think your comment illustrates well (2.40 / 5) (#37)
by tdillo on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 12:21:07 PM EST

what I was saying in my comment above.

You viewed K5 as a forum for writing and submitting stories.

What I saw when I first came was a kind of spin-off of Slashdot where people wrote and submitted articles and MLP that were voted on by the users rather than the mods.

Of course, only rusty and Inoshiro I reckon know what this site was really intended to be.

Either way, K5 has changed and evolved and is now something much different than what it started to be.

I can't really say if it is overall any better or worse.

There are certainly things that I don't like so much but there are also things that I like much better than before so for me overall it is a wash.

The article here speaks about community and methods to grow a community over time and the same basic problem we've had since USENET; how to scale and still keep a good signal to noise ratio.

To my mind K5 really has done pretty well.

There is a lot of what some might call 'pure crap' being posted. But I submit that oftentimes the crap is in the eye of the beholder. It may not be "technology and culture from the trenches" anymore but people are reading this stuff.

Some people believe that no one here gives a shit about anything and there is no community.

However, the community still responds very aggressively to Spam and Spammers, y'all.

New (let us call them 'tot'lers') members are brought into line with the current 'norms' pretty quick and if they find it is not to their taste, we have Hiphopopotamus to direct them to HuSi.

K5 has certainly changed but it also certainly fills some kind of niche and I would be hard-pressed to think of another site that provides the same utility as K5 provides.

(P.S.) I apologize for the typos in my previous comment particularly where I screwed up the "it's" I know that is like fingernails on a chalk board to some of you anal fucks.

Now go take a damn hike in the woods.

The stories and information posted here are artistic works of fiction and falsehood.Only a fool would take anything posted here as fact.

[ Parent ]
I disagree. :) (none / 0) (#65)
by aphrael on Sun Mar 15, 2009 at 06:25:25 PM EST

The K5 diaries as a means for discussion of personal shit were brilliant, and did not undermine the writing and submitting of stories; it took years - an aeon in internet time - and a large-scale turnover of population before the switch happened from being a story focused site to being a diary focused site.

[ Parent ]
For some reason bits of this... (none / 1) (#29)
by rlazur on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 07:41:59 AM EST

For some reason bits of this reminded of some tidbit about game design from SubSpace:

"Finally unlike a single player game don't try to tell the players to "go this point, do this, then go to this point." it ain't gonna happen. People instinctively know how to play, they don't need to be given too many rules. Put some humans in a room add a ball and they will have fun."

[ Parent ]

Re: It's a lot more complicated (1.50 / 2) (#41)
by anaesthetica on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 02:17:49 PM EST

I agree 100% on the modsub-diary switch, and I wrote a similar sentiment in a diary of my own a while back. I never paid any attention to the Diary section—the front page was moving too fast for me as it was.

You're right that k5 today is a community (and this is the point that LilDebbie made in his "community doesn't scale" article). I think back in the heady days of 2003-2004, we were look big to be counted as a community. What k5 lost in social scale we gained in community.

Also, I think that you, me, and CTS are in agreement on the inability to control who's in and who's out anymore. That's the central meaning of Eternal September to me: you can't keep bad people out, but you can keep good people out. So there's no use setting up barriers to participation and expecting (like Clay Shirky does) that this will preserve your utopian web community. People who are too wedded to this static view of who and what communal culture is will attempt to form an oligarchy/cabal to enforce it, but this is doomed to failure, either by being ineffective in the face of scale or by being too effective and driving off too many users.

Because community can't be preserved with barriers and oligarchical control, this article tries to examine how passive moderation and per-user-community-sans-barriers might solve these problems. I think they would stand a fighting chance.

Compare the comments on 4chan's /b/ with those on /r9k/. /b/ is an ochlocracy at best, anarchy at its worst. Sure, it can be brilliant, but it takes persistence and a hard stomach to mine /b/ for those rare threads. /r9k/ actually has pretty good comments and good conversations, even if they do all end up being about "BAW WRY CAN'T I GET A GIRL??" Passive moderation is a pretty effective first cut at reducing signal to noise.

—I'm the little engine that didn't.
k5: our trolls go to eleven

[ Parent ]
sounds good (none / 1) (#14)
by ljt on Thu Mar 12, 2009 at 07:07:51 PM EST

where do i sign up?

I actually read all this and (2.20 / 5) (#16)
by mybostinks on Thu Mar 12, 2009 at 08:16:14 PM EST

I thought it was an excellent effort.

FP when it goes to voting.

Fantastic article (1.66 / 3) (#17)
by eavier on Thu Mar 12, 2009 at 09:11:21 PM EST

and probably the most coherent piece yet identifying how to blow Kuronia out of the doldrums.

Front page vote from me.

Whatever you do, don't take it into your house. It's probably full of Greeks. - Vampire Zombie Abu Musab al Zarqawi

Ufology Doktor in da house

Sounds like usenet crossed with a magazine. (2.57 / 7) (#25)
by Pentashagon on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 01:23:32 AM EST

Usenet had all the society and community you could ask for; just pick the group where each mode of communication was appropriate and cross-post if it mattered enough to multiple groups.  Troll handling was by kill-file or moderation.  Anonymity was readily available if desired.  Article/story/comment rating was lacking, but generally people tried to choose newsgroups that they could read the entirety of new posts in order to personally rate all the content.  Perhaps the failure of such models ties into your analysis of stable group sizes; when the good newgroups got too popular, they died because no one could keep up with the amount of content, and quality suffered.

The thing that made k5 different from usenet (as far as I can tell; I never spent much time on either in the "good" old days) is that people would post much longer and more detailed articles or stories on k5.  More journalistic than usenet, in a sense.

The problem with a community that wants well researched, interesting articles posted daily is that it takes a lot of authors a lot of time to write them, and the people who once had time to write them will eventually get jobs or families (or die) and disappear.  The community has to gain new members at approximately the same rate as it loses old members, and most importantly it needs new members from the same demographic as departing members to maintain the balance of the community.  This, I think, is ultimately where every forum, newsgroup, and community site has met its end.

Another problem, as you said, is the eternal September that raised the noise floor above the signal in most places and made it difficult and discouraging to do anything of any value on the Internet without some sort of moderation.  Moderation requires people who care a lot about it to spend a lot of time moderating.  The stupid filter is a great idea, except there would likely be no penisbird or ascii art re-enactment guy.  Automatic filters require essentially human intelligence, or at least human augmentation to work well.

I like the idea of completely anonymous posting.  The problem is that it's not enforcable; people start adding signatures or signing their posts with pgp to get around anonymity and attract a loyal following.

A further problem is that trolls generally have the upper hand when it comes to time they can devote to trolling.  To make this worse, many of the contributing members of the community or society take it upon themselves to fight the trolls instead of kill-filing them, which detracts from their overall usefulness to the community doing other things.  This multiplies the troll's advantage, because the troll only has to collect a few normal members as anti-trolls in order to magnify their trolling effect many times.  Additionally, the community can be caused to eat itself via trolling, by introducing infighting between the members who fight the trolls and the members who just want to ignore them.  I think this is an important part of healthy communities and societies; they need effective ways of dealing with trolls that don't eat into normal activity.  Moderation, filtering, and anonymity can't protect a community from itself.  Get a bunch of smart know-it-alls together and it's generally trivial to troll a good percentage of them.  That is, essentially, the demographic that a site like k5 tries to attract.

So anyway, is this the next obligatory k5 coding project?  Code up a working replacement for k5?

"Usenet Magazine", from Condé Nast (1.50 / 2) (#38)
by anaesthetica on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 01:39:12 PM EST

Usenet had all the society and community you could ask for... Perhaps the failure of such models ties into your analysis of stable group sizes...

Yes, that's what I'm driving at. Usenet worked brilliantly for its time. (And now that no one knows about it anymore, it's currently not so bad.) But human capacities for moderation or socializing can easily get overwhelmed.

The thing that made k5 different... is that people would post much longer and more detailed articles...

I think this is still k5's comparative advantage compared to just about every other major forum out there. Honestly, are there any others that have this type of original content production as the central institution of their community?

For all its flaws, I think it's apparent that k5 got a lot of things right, and was well ahead of its time when it was launched. Its principal competitors have outstripped it now, but still haven't matched a number of its core competencies. It divided social/queue and communal/diary content before anyone else did (and Slashdot did a lame imitation with its Journals). It fostered every type of content, whereas almost all major forums focus on link-n-blurb content, tacking on an anemic commenting system in order to let the hoi polloi whine. And k5 does have a level of comment-centered-ness in that story promotion (in the event of a hung vote) is then determined by the conversation that the story produced.

community has to gain new members... from the same demographic as departing members...

Exactly. This is why existing communities face survival problems. If you put up barriers to prevent too many new people from different demographics, the site dies a slow death as people naturally stop participating for one reason or another. This is like the 'public sphere' and how it was premised on exclusion, but eventually destroyed by the entrance of lower classes into politics. For a time being, it works, but either it withers with generational change or it's overwhelmed as the floodgates open.

The stupid filter is a great idea, except there would likely be no penisbird or ascii art re-enactment guy. Automatic filters require essentially human intelligence, or at least human augmentation to work well.

Sadly, you're 100% right. I ran the last three K5ARP posts through the StupidFilter's demo and it flagged all of them as stupid. Whereas Slashdot's Lameness Filter and Robot9000 actually block your comment from being posted, my idea is not to block anything that's flagged by passive moderation, but to let it through with a downmod of some degree. Users and admins could still see it at a certain threshold and mod it back up, just as 'Anonymous Coward' comments are frequently modded up on Slashdot, despite their automatic posting penalty.

I like the idea of completely anonymous posting. The problem is that it's not enforcable; people start adding signatures

People will do this on 4chan's /b/ on occasion, not really because they want to be identified, but because they want to troll newfags who want their own .sig and enrage oldfags who are firm believers in forced anon. Never lasts more than a thread or two occasionally, but you're right, you can't 100% stop identifiability.

I would hope that trolls and anti-trolls would have a harder time of baiting one another within the confines of forced anon, but I guess the proof is in the pudding.

—I'm the little engine that didn't.
k5: our trolls go to eleven

[ Parent ]
The next Great Experiment (none / 1) (#48)
by Pentashagon on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 07:20:16 PM EST

Your mention of Google's page rank made me wonder if a similar method would work for posts.  Allow users to rate posts on a scale from "boring" to "extremely thought provoking".  Calculate the first level ratings from the User's own ratings.  The second level would combine the first level ratings with the ratings from other users, weighted by the percentage of posts that the User agreed on the rating of posts with the other user.  The third level would add the weighted ratings of the third-degree users to those of the second-degree users, and so on.  Each user could tweak the weight of each level of iteration, as well as the strength of the agreement function so that they can easily broaden or restrict the scope of posts/articles they wish to see.  The primary purpose of this method would be to allow a single site to host an unlimited number of users who control the size of their effective community by adjusting how many posts and articles they wish to see.

Groupthink would obviously result if the ratings went from "I disagree" to "I agree", since users would only see posts from the users they agreed with.  By forcing to users to rate posts based on their level of interest, communities of posters who liked talking about the same things would form.  Very important issues would be rated highly by most people, and therefore be displayed to most people.  Side discussions about the mechanisms of calculating comment ratings would only be seen only by the boring geeks who like that sort of thing.

Since the rating would be based on other users' input, it would be difficult to perform the equivalent of google-bombing.  If comment ratings by a user are visible, it would be easy to add a permanent low value of high weight to individual users attempting to promote spam or troll comments.  The mob's urge to suppress all that is unholy would be tempered by the popular free thinkers who will rate thought provoking but anti-social posts highly, essentially using their existing rapport with the group to support free speech.  As it is now, the mob rules in almost all moderation schemes.  By tying everyone into what is essentially a web of trust for comment ratings, it becomes difficult to improperly punish the comments of others without compromising one's own position in the community.  Additionally, mobs would simply drive themselves into sub-communities when they disagreed on something, an event which generally happens to forums anyway, but in this case the users would not leave the original site, only the original community.  Interests that were shared between the two mobs would still remain visible to both, but whatever annoying topic (vi/emacs, etc) caused the split would tend to be invisible to the majority of users in the mobs that didn't like it.  I think anonymity could even be enforced in such a situation by allowing users to disagree with the effective rating of a post, causing the system to apply a negative weight (for that one user only) to the users who rated the post differently, but without revealing anyone's identity.  In effect, there would be two ratings; of other comments, and meta-rating of other users, although the latter would have to be hidden in an anonymous system.

Upon further thought, I bet a rating system composed of only two scores, boring and interesting, would be sufficient given enough users to get good average ratings.

Now I probably am going to write some code.  In fact, I should probably just write a bot to crawl k5 and compute some overall ratings for posts for each user, based on how they've rated other posts.  k5's encourage/discourage is close enough to interesting/boring that I think it would work.

[ Parent ]

You're describing something similar to the... (none / 1) (#57)
by anaesthetica on Sat Mar 14, 2009 at 02:37:19 PM EST

...social-circles model of network theory. I think you're right to anticipate an 'I agree with this post' moderation leading to groupthink. But as long as individual ratings of "uninteresting" to "very interesting" were not used as a public score but as a private indication of interest, I think it would be relatively free from malicious moderation. Users would essentially reap whatever they sowed, so to speak.

—I'm the little engine that didn't.
k5: our trolls go to eleven

[ Parent ]
tl;dr +1fp $ (2.20 / 5) (#27)
by th0m on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 05:19:22 AM EST

+1AWTP $ (none / 0) (#31)
by Enlarged to Show Texture on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 08:42:49 AM EST

"Those people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do." -- Isaac Asimov
[ Parent ]
tl;dr (1.20 / 5) (#28)
by Wen Jian on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 05:51:34 AM EST

It was an experiment in lulz. - Rusty
ok, i actually read it this time before posting (1.00 / 2) (#34)
by circletimessquare on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 10:43:56 AM EST

i have no criticism

i bow down before your genius

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

-1, way too fucking long (1.00 / 2) (#36)
by LilDebbie on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 11:28:25 AM EST

and yes, i did read the entire thing. the last third of the article could be cut without affecting the overall narrative.

since it will probably post anyway for the same reasons i plan to critique about the content of the article itself, i'll reserve that detail for my after lunch rebuttal.

My name is LilDebbie and I have a garden.
- hugin -

FW:FW:FW:FW:FW:FWD:FW:FWD:-1 Not enough horsecock$ (1.42 / 7) (#39)
by schlouse on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 02:08:38 PM EST

previous comment should've been editorial (2.28 / 7) (#40)
by LilDebbie on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 02:17:16 PM EST

first off, what you set out to achieve isn't a forum. it's a newspaper, or a journal if you prefer; something with all the trappings of propriety and academic pretense. i invite you to make comparisons to the offline versions of your subject. examples of offline forums would include congress and parliaments, which as you are no doubt familiar are all a far cry from the forum idealized here in this article. the british house of commons, for example, makes the diary ghetto look civil in comparison.

why is the distinction important? you incorrectly identify the emphasis on discussion when it is really publishing that interests you. not that there's anything wrong with that. far be it for me to question another man's pretenses, but you are confusing content with style, the article itself being exemplary of the sort of discourse you wish to achieve.

again, let us compare to an offline version. in keeping with the user-generated spirit of things, i submit nature as the closest approximation of your intended result with the normal editorial department replaced with either an automated or user-oriented moderation process.

the filters you propose will merely automate the consolidation of groupthink. the bayesian "stupidfilter", for example, would no doubt penalize my style of writing even though you seem to think it worthy enough to quote. furthermore, setting it up as a passive moderation system will do little to deter people from gaming it. users will quickly infer the metrics by analyzing the result. we're clever monkeys that way.

and finally i fail to see the purpose of building a scalable, anonymous queue. ostensibly, you would want it to scale in order to promote its profile over smaller sites, but what incentive would users have to contribute? if your only concern is the promotion of memes, then you shouldn't sweat stylistic details and learn to live with the one-liners and crapfloods, which as a beltway insider you must grudgingly admit are legitimate means of promotion. that leaves resume building which you obviously can't do with anonymous submissions.

of course, i'm of the opinion that most people who bitch about trolls and crapflooders are whiny little bitches who never contributed much in the first place, but that's just my opinion.

My name is LilDebbie and I have a garden.
- hugin -

oh my droog (1.50 / 2) (#42)
by anaesthetica on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 04:15:39 PM EST

you incorrectly identify the emphasis on discussion when it is really publishing that interests you.

I don't think this is correct and I'm not sure how you came to this conclusion. The bulk of the article is about user interaction and commenting, not about the articles/links/diaries. While it's clear that I favor k5's original content and links to longer articles over content like on Digg (i.e. clever pic, sensationalist headline, top ten list), I'm not terribly concerned whether the content under discussion is fit for Nature or is "Fuck Natalee Holloway." The main criterion is whether the article spurs conversation or not. If all an article foments is a flamewar or "nice link broseph!" comments, then I guess I'd rather it not see the front page.

in keeping with the user-generated spirit of things, i submit nature as the closest approximation of your intended result with the normal editorial department replaced with either an automated or user-oriented moderation process.

While I don't really care what the substance of the content is, I wouldn't want to make story promotion subject to any moderation. The idea I put forward above was that a story's ability to generate conversation would determine its promotion and ascent up the front page. I think this is workable, as most stories here on k5 start to get topical comments even during the editorial stage, before they're submitted to voting. A few people have noted that the bulk of comments nowadays are made while the article is sitting in the queue waiting to be promoted, a factor that influences the "auto-post" outcome for stories that can't achieve a critical mass of votes.

the filters you propose will merely automate the consolidation of groupthink. the bayesian "stupidfilter", for example, would no doubt penalize my style of writing even though you seem to think it worthy enough to quote.

I don't think the StupidFilter would actually have the degree of effect that you think it would. It generally catches the formally stupid comments that are about one sentence long. I ran 7 of you most recent comments through the StupidFilter, not including your comment above, and only 2-of-5 were flagged 'stupid.' Anything longer than a full sentence will usually get through. Also, if you look at the discussions on /r9k/, they have a tremendous amount of argument and divergent viewpoints, despite the Robot9000. Because the Robot filters repeat posts, it arguably helps foster originality.

And, your article was one of the key inspirations for mine. Just because I disagree with you on certain points doesn't mean I don't appreciate it.

i fail to see the purpose of building a scalable, anonymous queue... but what incentive would users have to contribute?

Yeah, I see why anonymity may discourage submission of content much less creation of original content. In theory, it shouldn't work, but in practice it might. People contribute to Wikipedia even though their username will never be attached to the article text and their contributions will likely be erased and rewritten by someone else. And Wikipedia has been fairly successful. People write diary-length entries on /r9k/ and contribute to threads on /b/ without any recognition whatsoever—they're anonymous and the thread will sooner of later 404.

On the other hand, having your username and icon attached to your submissions creates an unhealthy dynamic after a while. People on Digg game their way to dominating the frontpage—MrBabyMan, MSaleem, Zaibatsu, badwithcomputer, etc—and people start burying otherwise good articles simply because they came from a certain user. The focus is taken off the content and off of conversation, and is placed on disputes between users instead.

—I'm the little engine that didn't.
k5: our trolls go to eleven

[ Parent ]
boggles the mind (1.66 / 3) (#44)
by loteck on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 04:47:53 PM EST

this is obviously actually written for k5 and is not some kind of academic research paper... i stand in awe that people actually take the time to put these thoughts together, much less coherently put them down and modsub them.

very good article, somebody someday will use it to build a community, but it will certainly not be rusty's k5.
"You're in tune to the musical sound of loteck hi-fi, the musical sound that moves right round. Keep on moving ya'll." -Mylakovich

You're right about education/knowledge (2.25 / 4) (#46)
by anaesthetica on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 05:54:03 PM EST

I don't have any illusions that internet forums are going to produce enlightenment, any more than the millions of monkeys with typewriters. Education or knowledge production is not that goal—we can safely leave that to academic journals. The aim is improved institutional ability converse, whatever the subject, despite having low barriers to participation. I think that conversation is a more achievable goal that education/knowledge production. Original content produced for the queue doesn't need to be an elaborate proof or detailed empirical examination—cultural product or opinion is just as good as long as it gets people engaged and talking.

—I'm the little engine that didn't.
k5: our trolls go to eleven

Excellent (2.14 / 7) (#49)
by localroger on Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 07:53:51 PM EST

Extremely well-reasoned, I'm sold for now (though I do see the potential for some second-order problems, they come under the tomorrow can take care of itself tag). If I was running K5 I'd take this very seriously.

Unfortunately, the folks running K5 have ignored a lot of other stuff I'd have taken very seriously, including some stuff I wrote and even travelled to Maine to say in person, so this probably won't change anything. But thanks very much for trying.

And that is what is so great about the internet. It enables pompous blowhards to connect with other pompous blowhards in a vast circle jerk of pomposity. -- Bill Maher

wrong approach (2.57 / 7) (#54)
by circletimessquare on Sat Mar 14, 2009 at 08:48:05 AM EST

you build your own damn site, get the cash flow of digg, then go up to rusty in maine, give him a check to buy a nice yacht, and walk away with kuro5hin.org

rusty: what's the magic number? ;-)

then go cmdrtaco at slashdot (or whatever that alien linux business conglomerate is called that owns that site): buy that too

the issue is, if you have the right formula, you will become the google of comment boards, while slashdot and kuro5hin are the altavista and yahoo of comment boards

you just go out and buy all of the pioneer sites. in fact, at which point, with the success this article promises, at that point you wouldn't really be interested in in rejiggering them at all, but simply preserving them like museum pieces of important waypoints in the evolution of the internet that they are

but we must act quick. rusty will come down with spongiform encephalopathy soon enough from the deer on his property, and then the site will become rudderless

why do you wackjobs like living in the woods?

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

[ Parent ]

Rusty has answered the magic number q before (2.50 / 6) (#55)
by localroger on Sat Mar 14, 2009 at 12:34:21 PM EST

I believe he said $200,000, and followed up with he knows it's not actually worth that much. If I actually did build the google of comment sites I probably wouldn't bother buying out the competition.

I do have localroger.com. What I don't have is time to build or maintain a site. I bought the domain because I had a potential partner interested in the project. That fell through because it turned out he didn't have as much free time as he thought either. I keep it paid up because whatever. Occasionally such hosting comes in handy. I had intended to mirror all my stuff from here to there but I haven't even been finding the time to put that together, much less something that requires daily or even more frequent attention.

Ironically, I think that is also Rusty's problem. He has a real job that makes actual demands on his time, and once a site like this gets to a certain size keeping it up becomes a full time job too. Only it doesn't pay as well as a real job.

Which brings me to an interesting realization. Some sites of this scale were successfully monetized and support their creators -- Fark, DailyKos, somethingawful, Slashdot, etc. Yet other very similar sites defiantly resist monetization; check out this interesting piece on 4chan. I was quite surprised to see that such a huge and popular site can't pay for its own hosting.

And that is what is so great about the internet. It enables pompous blowhards to connect with other pompous blowhards in a vast circle jerk of pomposity. -- Bill Maher
[ Parent ]

Well, this article isn't really about k5 itself (1.66 / 3) (#56)
by anaesthetica on Sat Mar 14, 2009 at 02:32:20 PM EST

I feel similarly that there are reforms that could or should be made to k5, but the changes outlined in this article would probably be too drastic to get included into Scoop.  Now that other big sites (DKos) depend on Scoop, its development will probably be driven by them to the same degree if not more than k5 drives it. Hell, it's not clear that k5 gets any attention at all (i.e. cancel bug).

If one were to undertake a project along the lines suggested in this article, it would probably have to start anew, either from a fresh codebase, or forking an existing codebase.  But certainly not one already operating as the basis for an existing community.

—I'm the little engine that didn't.
k5: our trolls go to eleven

[ Parent ]
Damned interesting. (2.42 / 7) (#51)
by The Amazing Idiot on Sat Mar 14, 2009 at 06:34:36 AM EST

Even though I havent an essay about this topic, I've seen it in action on Usenet and other web forums.

Your big idea is that anonymity would generally help many forums as it would counteract vanity. I would be interested in your take on a usage of GPG signing as to re-create a identity.

Case in point: I used to talk to a bunch of people on Usenet. It got to the point that others were getting on hacker newsservers and trying to clone us. After that, we ended up settng up GPG (back then it was hosted at MIT), privately sharing keys and then signing/encrypting our posts.

Of course, group-encrypt was very frowned upon, as Usenet was a medium "Available to all", and we turned it upside down to "Available for a few". But our goal, to thwart the tards, was successful. After not being able to even read what was being said, they left for better pastures.

But, after the run-in on Use oh-so many years ago, signing would still be very useful in recreating a stripped identity. What's your take, and how/if/why would you get rid of it?

Credit where it's due: Anonymity is Shii's idea (none / 1) (#73)
by anaesthetica on Mon Mar 16, 2009 at 04:41:36 PM EST

Well... FORCED_ANON was Shii's idea.  Anonymity for a major forum more broadly should be credited to 2channel, like zenofchai pointed out.

In my proposal, registered users that maintain quality interactions with one another in the 'society' area would then be able to see one another in the 'community' area of the site.  So, you and the other users with common interests discuss an article on the front page—you all make a bunch of constructive, well-moderated comments and generally enjoy discussing XYZ topics.  The system would look at highly moderated comment dyads to determine who to expose to one another in the 'community' area of the site.  Your quality interactions while anonymous would then create the possibility to interact with one another in the community setting with identities.

This would obviate the need to use signing and encrypting in the 'society' area, and hopefully obviate people engaging in identity theft.  Since every user's 'community' would be based on their prior constructive interactions, no two users would have the same users in their community, making it very difficult for identity thieving trolls to follow you and your organically-developed interest group.

The same problem exists in 4chan.  Since anyone can sign their name and their are no user accounts, people using names can be easily imitated by trolls who adopt the same name.  This led to tripcodes, and later secure tripcodes, attached to a person's name in order to prove identity.  People who value anonymity generally dislike 'tripfags,' in much the same way that Usenet denizens disliked encrypted conversations.

My solution is to make each person's community group organically generated by their interactions, and therefore unique to each user.  It's harder to set up the infrastructure and calculate it, clearly.  But I think it might strike the right balance between public anonymity and emergent private identity.

—I'm the little engine that didn't.
k5: our trolls go to eleven

[ Parent ]
ever hear of wikipedia? (none / 0) (#52)
by circletimessquare on Sat Mar 14, 2009 at 08:33:39 AM EST

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

Technically Wikipedia is not supposed to... (none / 1) (#58)
by anaesthetica on Sat Mar 14, 2009 at 02:41:41 PM EST

...produce knowledge (Wikipedia:No original research), although it certainly can be quite educational. And MMM is right that they (as a "populist Internet forum") still have very serious problems with maintaining reputability, despite their widespread use.

—I'm the little engine that didn't.
k5: our trolls go to eleven

[ Parent ]
missing from your analysis: fark (2.28 / 7) (#53)
by circletimessquare on Sat Mar 14, 2009 at 08:37:55 AM EST


it has a good sense of community, very witty content (albeit, in terms of witty one liner headlines)

its the link-blurb you talk about taken to high frat boy art form

users vote on submissions, there is also heavy moderation, automatic and human

and the comment interaction is actually quite rich, even though it is depressingly flat (no nesting of comments)

too bad i got banned. what's wrong with korean dog bbq images in a dog lovers thread? LOLWTFOMG

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

I guess I'm content to let Fark continue to (2.25 / 4) (#59)
by anaesthetica on Sat Mar 14, 2009 at 02:59:59 PM EST

dominate the area of its comparative advantage. I enjoy their photoshop contests and their boobies links as much as the next bored-at-work-looking-to-procrastinate internet surfer. I guess I just don't know enough about how their community works. Are there barriers to posting? Paid accounts? Who moderates—admin, users, filters? Can users self-publish content (diaries/journals)? Are there few enough people that users know and interact with each other on the basis of username, like we do at k5, or is it large enough that that becomes difficult (like Slashdot & Digg)?

—I'm the little engine that didn't.
k5: our trolls go to eleven

[ Parent ]
i don't know that much but (2.00 / 3) (#60)
by circletimessquare on Sat Mar 14, 2009 at 03:19:46 PM EST

there is a paid user mode, total fark

paid user mode is able to see the raw stream of link suibmissions, and vote them up/ comment them before they go fp

there is hardcore paid admin moderation going on. i think drew has a little army of paid mods. obviously, because of images. so everything stays squeaky clean

there is a user home page- a few images, some quotes, nothing like a diary

as for community, there is a vague celebrity effect, for example: bevets, who plagues other sites, but its mostly society:


bevets is apparently is quite hardcore (continued vigilant high volume "high quality" arguing posting effort) in defending the evangelical christian line when it comes to abortion, evolution, etc.

he has his own image:

http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&safe=off&q=summon+bevets&btnG=Sea rch

as for fark photoshop, that's a friggin gem of the internet. and THAT is where community exists. it has spawned things like lolcat (4chan?) (and many other memes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photoshop_contest)

you can see it in the comments, all the photoshoppers know each other and there are a few subcelebrities and there's a lot of high fiving and backslapping

the best photoshop event ever (fark's answer to "fuck natalee holloway") was lukket, some danish dude, made a picture of a guy near an old computer, and a whole host of serious computer pundits fell for it, including scott mcnealy, who actually used it in a serious presentation


So it made the rounds. Maybe you even got it in your inbox. And it eventually made its way to Snopes.com, where it was debunked 19 days after being posted on Fark. Since the debunking, various outlets such as Popular Mechanics, About.com, and a host of other Web sites have been examining the image. Even uber-dork Moby posted the image on his web site's main page, and Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy also fell victim to the image.

no barriers to posting except registration. additionally, quixoitcally and amusingly, is their way of dealing with first post:

"First Post" time warp

For whatever reason message boards on sites like Fark are forever plagued with morons posting "First Post" anytime a link is posted. Fark automatically turns the words "first post" into the word "boobies" and resets the timestamp on the message to some time in the future so that it isn't the first post anymore.


the whole point is: examine fark. its a rich case study for your line of thought here

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

[ Parent ]

do you teach media ecology at nyu? (1.00 / 2) (#61)
by circletimessquare on Sat Mar 14, 2009 at 06:20:27 PM EST

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

Nope -- live in the mid-atlantic region (none / 1) (#63)
by anaesthetica on Sat Mar 14, 2009 at 11:47:54 PM EST

I'm still just a grad student, and my field is international relations.

—I'm the little engine that didn't.
k5: our trolls go to eleven

[ Parent ]
weird (2.25 / 4) (#64)
by circletimessquare on Sun Mar 15, 2009 at 03:14:42 AM EST

you're interest is pure media ecology. and you mention nyu, where they have a program right up your alley

ps: i'm programming my own site, in fits and starts, moving about the same glacial pace as a certain filipino horror movie, or ogg frog ;-P

some of your observations i've already taken to heart: for example, no ratings of comments, comments rated simply on number of responses (still possible to game that, but i have my mathematical tweaks)

but i took to heart your observation about anonymity. i was going to make ids visible all the time... you've destroyed that notion in my head

but then i thought to back up a little to posit this: people with a lot of comment affinity actually have their identity revealed to only those other people over time. which i think you alluded to in passing, but didn't explicitly explore

that would be pretty neat: there is no global karma, only karma against other people whom you respond to, without knowing who they were at first. so the reward is community... out of society ;-) and many different communities can even overlap each other, invisible to each other

the same page of comments would look different to different people. to those who you have established comment affinity with in the past, you would see their names pop out in the sea of anonymous comments. newbies would simply see everyone anonymous

the rewards of sticking around and making quality comments is simply: identity

anyways, that was my grok after reading your essay, sorry about the lameo prejudicial first response i retracted below. this was really excellent and i've been meditating a lot on it

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

[ Parent ]

glacial pace indeed (2.00 / 3) (#69)
by zenofchai on Mon Mar 16, 2009 at 01:13:27 PM EST

you announced your effort in late 2006:


Anyway there I talked about anonymity a bit, and low barriers to entry.

As far as anonymous on the internet goes, I am fairly surprised that 2channel wasn't mentioned, as the "philosophical defense of anonymous posting" topic to me is sort of "theirs":

Q: Why did you decide to use perfect anonymity, not even requiring a user name?

A: Because delivering news without taking any risk is very important to us. There is a lot of information disclosure or secret news gathered on Channel 2. Few people would post that kind of information by taking a risk. Moreover, people can only truly discuss something when they don't know each other.

If there is a user ID attached to a user, a discussion tends to become a criticizing game. On the other hand, under the anonymous system, even though your opinion/information is criticized, you don't know with whom to be upset. Also with a user ID, those who participate in the site for a long time tend to have authority, and it becomes difficult for a user to disagree with them. Under a perfectly anonymous system, you can say, "it's boring," if it is actually boring. All information is treated equally; only an accurate argument will work.

I mean, the topic comes up again and again, on old forums and new.

What you say here is interesting:

the same page of comments would look different to different people. to those who you have established comment affinity with in the past, you would see their names pop out in the sea of anonymous comments. newbies would simply see everyone anonymous

The "how to implement this" part of my mind has started ticking.
The K5 Interactive Political Compass SVG Graph
[ Parent ]

You're right about 2channel (1.50 / 2) (#70)
by anaesthetica on Mon Mar 16, 2009 at 02:26:01 PM EST

I wrote about what I knew, and there are some major forums that I just couldn't cover. 4chan I know well enough that I could write about it. Of course, 4chan is based wholly on 2channel, so there's not too much missed by discussing 4chan.

—I'm the little engine that didn't.
k5: our trolls go to eleven

[ Parent ]
you mean 2chan? japan's Id? (none / 0) (#72)
by circletimessquare on Mon Mar 16, 2009 at 03:48:32 PM EST

2chan gets huge play, major press coverage in japan, since suicides and homicides have been verifiably preannounced there a number of times, and the population base in 2chan is huge

its 4chan, with much more influence

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

[ Parent ]

if someone want to implement and admin it, (2.25 / 4) (#62)
by Morally Inflexible on Sat Mar 14, 2009 at 10:51:02 PM EST

I'd host it and cover bandwidth.  it sounds like a good theory, but it needs to be tested.

hard hitting and insightful (none / 1) (#68)
by GrubbyBeardedHermit on Mon Mar 16, 2009 at 10:52:57 AM EST

at least, the first paragraph was.

the rest, not so much


Only one point I have time to discuss... (2.00 / 3) (#71)
by codespace on Mon Mar 16, 2009 at 03:30:03 PM EST

...and that's the "enforced anonymity" you suggest. I personally think that even allowing anonymity on the internet is what fosters the type of troll personas that seem so prevalent in internet communities. 4chan is a prime example of that.

today on how it's made: kitchen knives, mannequins, socks and hypodermic needles.
Conversations (1.50 / 2) (#74)
by levesque on Mon Mar 16, 2009 at 06:43:41 PM EST

Conversations. I've found myself, because of the quality of the thread, rating every comment in it and then thinking "hey even the one liner that started the thread deserves a +3".

Even on their own, one liners without replies can be valuable. So I'm sure conversation is a main point but it certainly is not the point, though I've felt that "conversations" do deserve better standout, preservation, access, or classification. (Not saying you said, I'm just flying over the issue of moderation)

Not directly related but sometimes I've thought it would be good if I could tag other's comments and posts.

Diaries and queues. I like your distinction between "Society the large" and "Community the unit". Maybe users could be diary tested for a while and if you pass you can post to "subject queues", and maybe others could move you there too (though I've vaguely alluded to this before). I think having a real diary section is good and also contrary to what I've implied before I think a fiction section is fine.

I consider most of my comments as drafts drafts, or brainstorming, or whatever and diaries doesn't seem the right place, i.e. as you say maybe a "draft/idea cue, it could have a max of one post per week, or something.

I was all behind real anonymity --everyone has the same user name-- but then it occurred to me it would be easy to id yourself in comments anyway. Still sounds useful but I just read codejack's comment and the parts of your story that speak to anonymity, and not sure anymore if I follow what you mean.

I go on because I do believe an "open environment" has the best grounding and potential to harbor high value discourse of relevance.

I like your article, lots of good content.

Thanks (none / 1) (#75)
by anaesthetica on Mon Mar 16, 2009 at 07:27:10 PM EST

I'm willing to admit that a pithy one-liner can be a valuable contribution (although, Voltaire held that "a witty statement proves nothing"). Having passive moderation automatically applied, and then user moderation to correct false positives is a workable system. In general, most one-liners are not worth your time, despite the few diamonds-in-the-rough. Same goes for the 'Anonymous Coward' posts on Slashdot. Low signal-to-noise ratio. But, user moderation generally highlights the interesting or informative posts by Anonymous Cowards despite the -1 moderation penalty. I think the same could apply to one-liners penalized by passive moderation—users could mod them back up if it was valuable after all. Picking out false positives is a far more scalable proposition than wading through a sea of low value comments.

Maybe users could be diary tested for a while and if you pass you can post to "subject queues"

While I'm generally opposed to raising barriers to participation, I can see how having a completely open and centralized queue would run into the same signal-to-noise problem that Digg's 'Upcoming Stories' section does: endless reams of spam links and shit stories to wade through. Perhaps a solution would be to impose a scarcity limit: each user can only submit X number of articles per month. But this immediately runs into the problem of multiple identities and dupe accounts. I'm not sure how to effectively approach the queue signal-to-noise problem.

I'm also not against a fiction section—I don't have any a priori objections to any form of content, as long as it gets people talking. A good story would do just that.

it would be easy to id yourself in comments anyway

I think users would realize the very limited utility of signing their posts and trying to defeat forced anonymity. 4chan, even though it has a name field and the option of secure tripcodes, doesn't have very many namefags. Naming one's self might actually have very obvious disincentives, like attracting the attention of trolls and imitators and ad hominems, instead of letting one's ideas stand on their own apart from one's identity. In the last resort, a standard of anonymity may simply come down to a cultural norm rather than a strict technological requirement.

—I'm the little engine that didn't.
k5: our trolls go to eleven

[ Parent ]
Thanks (none / 1) (#76)
by levesque on Sun Mar 22, 2009 at 06:44:26 PM EST

Good points. I just checked digg and 4chan

and max weber too

[ Parent ]

Attacked from Within | 75 comments (59 topical, 16 editorial, 0 hidden)
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