Moderating social networks

I've been thinking a lot lately about how social networks have become hotbeds of hostility and how new networks are trying to position themselves to answer actual and perceived problems. I want to talk a bit about that.

But first, a true story!

Several years back, I created an online community for writers. It was an odd system, it didn't quite work perfectly, but it was fun while it lasted. At its peak, we were just under 100 members as I recall.

I had a single webpage for simple, no nonsense rules about how and how not to behave. Behaviors, or writing, that could get you banned. I wanted it to be simple, so when a person read them it just made sense. As I recall, it was one page long. Because, honestly, it doesn't take much to spell out what kinds of behaviors or posts you don't want on a platform. They were called Da Rules—here's a snippet of those rules:

Things were smooth. People respected Da Rules. And each other.

And then... I got an email.

One of our female members had been harassed on our platform by a male member. He had begun by leaving writing criticism on her stories, and then it escalated beyond criticism. And then, he began to send her private messages through our messaging system on the platform. He escalated it to threats and even threats that involved real life threats against her family. That's when she deleted her account and went running from the platform. She then decided to email me and let me know what had happened, as a warning, in case he went after other members.

It was one of those things where as a human I let out a big sigh. I don't like it when people mistreat people. Especially in a space I provided. It was very upsetting, and I was hopeful her days of his terror were over.

I restricted the guy's movements on the platform and sent him a private message. My first step was to try and be unbiased and get to the bottom of it. Provide him a chance to hear the allegations and respond. I did not tell him who it was.

Within the first few messages he had turned into a very critical, grumpy man. He had strong opinions about the fact I was even talking to him, basically. It was a personality and attitude I was all-too-familiar with. He was the victim, everyone else was wrong, and he was mad as hell about it. Despite the fact nothing had happened to him. We were just talking.

As his anger and retorts grew, it became clear this guy was trash—and just as hostile as portrayed. I banned him from the site and restricted site access to having to go through an admin approval before joining as a new member (assuming he'd come back). I took note of his IP address's location as well to help determining if a new member request was him or someone else. It wasn't perfect, but it was something.

Almost immediately, he asked to join with a different name (his email address gave him away). I rejected. He tried again (using feminine names and info, I might add), but his IP address gave him away. He tried several times, but his IP always betrayed him. Eventually he gave up.

Why did I tell you this story?

Because it almost always comes to my mind when questions of how to squash abusive users arise. And those questions have been everywhere as of late. People want Nazis off Twitter, Jack is all like, "But with a checkmark?" People want to squash the trash heap of trolls, racists, bots and filth of social platforms, and Mark Zuckerberg and others are like, "But what if they just don't know any better?" People just want to not have threats slung at them for being women, black, Muslim, Jewish, whatevs, and the response is "this does not break our rules of bad behavior on our crap platform."

WELL… I'm here to say that it should. You set the rules. So ask yourself, as a platform, do you want Nazis? Do you want racists? Do you want spammers? Do you want bots, trolls? Do you want the scum of the earth? Is that the kind of community you want to foster?

When I was first putting together our online writing community, the key thing for me for understanding what I was building was that it was a community. Yes, a community. We were going to live together. Work together, play together. Read and write together. A community cannot thrive, and be together, if it is divided. If you let people in who are angry, divisive, and there to cause a ruckus, it will become a hot mess. Good people will leave. You have to have your community's back. You have to know the difference between a good member of the community, and a bad actor. A bad actor is one who just wants problems, always argues, can't get along. Sure, they'll often claim innocence. Sure, they'll bemoan they're being attacked for having different viewpoints or whatever. But the point is that as a community leader, you have to make that choice of what kind of members you want. Ones that are there to build up, or tear down?

New, reformed, and future social media networks.

Like I said, at the start, I've been thinking a lot about this stuff lately. With all that's been going on, with all that's not been going on, and so on and so forth. But also I've been trying new and upcoming platforms, too, and I'm noticing some trends over there. No one can know for sure what the future holds, but here's some things I'm seeing and some things I'm thinking.

Some new networks are touting that they are pro-free speech and don't censor. This should stand out as a red flag, like a major one. You should probably stop, drop, and roll when you see this message. That probably makes me sound horrible, but here's what that means… people who got banned from Twitter, Facebook, and other networks for being human garbage can run free on these networks. Cool, right?

Some new networks are niche in focus. This might just be the future of networks, honestly. Think about it, if your network has a niche, like mine did so many years ago—it was a writing community—it stands a better chance of everyone being on the same page about standard behaviors. Some new networks are trying to meet this need times a thousand, by being group focused, which may work. But it runs a risk of trolls from other groups mingling into groups they don't belong to stir up trouble. Hey, when I was 13, I entered a Titanic (movie) chat on mIRC with a buddy and we trolled it until we got banned. Been there, done that.

Is reforming a social network even possible? Serious question. I want serious answers on that in the comments too. Look at Facebook who is frantically trying to reform in an attempt to regain the trust of their userbase and public perception. They're trying new things with how news and news stories are handled. They're trying new things with how content is pushed to users. But at the end of the day, when you're so many years steeped into a method like Facebook already is what are the odds of changing? Really changing? Without a major rehaul? Without pissing off your current userbase and chasing a bunch of them off—whether on purpose or not? Zuckerberg seems determined to keep every single user, gotta pay the bills, even when those users are those bad actors we talked about. In Google+, a place I love, there is a different sort of reform trying to take place. Spammers are horrendous on the platform, especially in Communities, and it's not an easy task trying to reverse those behaviors. Even when plucking out all the bad actors, when there's so many that have already infiltrated. It's an endless battle of reporting, blocking, muting and any other tool a network gives its users.

Wow, this escalated out of control.

But seriously… what in the world? Guess I had a lot in mind. This is stuff that's been spinning in my head about social networks, communities, and so on. I think so much of it is a perspective problem for leaders like Jack and Zuck. They aren't trying to build and foster a community.

And because it feels like we need to send off on a good note, and a theme song, here's the Tom Jones and The Cardigans' cover of Burning Down the House.