Thursday, April 24, 2003

Everything in Unmoderation

At Clay Shirky's ETech talk, he was kind enough to give me credit for the observation that in any open unmoderated discussion group, the discussion will eventually devolve into a discussion of whether the group should become moderated.

Since I've never actually written that down in a web-accessible place, I'll do so here so anyone who wants to annotate Clay's talk can point here.

It's obviously a generalization, and undoubtedly there are some counterexamples. It's intentionally meant to echo the famous Godwin's Law, which is that eventually, discussion threads will mention Nazis, at which point the discussion usually ends.

So why does this moderation discussion happen? A couple of reasons. First, because people are whiners. More specifically, because in a large enough group, some people will be unhappy with the conversation, because it won't be exactly what they want (and since different people want different things, someone will eventually be unhappy). Some of this unhappiness will be aimed at specific postings, topics, or posters, and these unhappy people figure that if only those posts/topics/posters could be excluded, then the group would be better. And thus, the desire to bring up moderation.

Once someone's played the moderation card, it becomes a hot issue, partly because people, especially in our culture (reading culture at almost any granularity you want) like to argue over rules, and partly because the whole issue of moderation vs openness strike very close to our beliefs and so invoke strong emotions.

Are there technological fixes? Maybe. Usenet has killfiles, so an individual user can block out people without moving the entire group to a moderated policy. Why didn't this solve the problem? I don't really know.

One potential tech fix to Usenet that I came up with is to have optional moderation. Under this scheme, any individual can appoint him or herself a moderator, and do the job of approving or disapproving posts. Of course, they can choose various policies such as default yes, default no, or whatever. Then, other users can pick which, if any, moderator they want to follow (or some union or intersection of moderators). In this view, moderation is a lens into the larger conversation.

There are hard details to this: what happens if threads migrate into or out of the moderated list? But still, I think it would be an interesting experiment to see if ends the inevitability of the moderation discussion.