Censorship on a public Blog?
September 18, 2000 4:54 PM   Subscribe

Censorship on a public Blog? - When someone posts a link to content that others find shocking to a public blog (in this case Flazoom.com) how should the blog-master handle it. This got me thinking about how we handle the content at MeFi - which is better? Removing the post a few layers, or bereating the poster with lots of mean comment posts?
posted by DragonBoy (24 comments total)
(this is quite meta, but I'll let it stay)

Zeldman brought up something interesting at dreamless, who owns what you do? Is this site completely mine? Is it partially yours? If something of yours gets deleted or "censored" (censorship in a private setting such as a personal community website doesn't seem like censorship to me), did you actually lose something?

I don't know about the usefulness of moving something a level down instead of removing it entirely. I've always just deleted things outright that didn't fit the aim of the site. I didn't want to introduce another interface problem either, should there be a link saying "this thread removed" that leads to it? Doesn't that just encourage off-topic links that deleting would not? Berating the poster doesn't seem like the right thing to do, but sometimes it's what happens and it seems appropriate at the time.

I'm biased, because this site is here thanks to my work, but when you post something to a site maintained by someone else, I don't understand the protests of censorship if it is removed. It should be fully up to the person or persons maintaining the site what stays and what goes, not the audience or the poster.
posted by mathowie at 5:46 PM on September 18, 2000

If the blog were mine (in the sense that I had constructed it) I would just leave it there. Things disappear under the bottom of the screen after a few days anyway. Why not leave it in the blog as a testiment to future generations about how crap early 21st century humans were?
posted by davidgentle at 5:53 PM on September 18, 2000

This is a good question. I run a small public news log which allows submissions from readers, and have had occasions where people posted inappropriate items on the front page.

It has been my experience that as soon as the participants in an online community feel like their interests and those of the people who pay the bills diverge, the community's stagnation is inevitable. So I don't want to be the uptight censor, running around determining what is and isn't OK; I might as well not allow public comments at all. At the same time, I did establish edgecase for a particular purpose, and I continue to pay for it because it is accomplishing that purpose. I don't really want to be supporting things that have nothing to do with the site's mission; if people want to advertise their book or whatever, they need to do it on their own site.

So thus far (two instances) I have stepped out of my just-a-normal-person role and used server-god powers to nuke the offending posts. But I'm not happy about that. It doesn't scale and it separates me from the people I'm trying to converse with. There ought to be an automatic, technological solution to the problem, but I'm somewhat at a loss to determine what it might be.

Why not just leave it there? Well, because of the "broken windows hypothesis" I guess - the idea that broken windows left unrepaired bring more serious crime, because they give the impression that nobody cares. I fear that if I let anyone post anything, whether it had anything to do with edgecase's mission or not, eventually it would ALL be spam and irrelevant fluff because the crap would chase away people who might post interesting stuff.

A nice compromise might be a boolean field on the record in question, allowing the sysadmin to flag it such that it doesn't come up on the main page anymore, but it stays in the archives and its URL continues to work. So anyone who knows it's there or goes looking for it can find it, but it doesn't break up the purpose of the site.

Just some random thoughts from someone who will probably never figure it out. :-)

posted by Mars Saxman at 6:00 PM on September 18, 2000

The technological solution may be the slashdot model, where people can filter out the junk and moderation and meta-moderation distributes the work such that it scales nicely.

the problem being the broken windows theory is still in effect. If you look at a slashdot thread at -1 moderation, many posts are pure stupidity, but there's also plenty of replies to that stupidity. Since they don't get removed, people feel it's quite alright to post them.

I never felt "above" others by removing a post, I usually felt that I was doing everyone else a service by removing a pointless post. I think sticking to a topic or a vision is more important that letting anything on earth be posted to your site. If things were to stray far from what I originally thought this site was going to be, I'd shut it down, or pass it on to someone else.

If you want to see what censor-less posting looks like, check out the fuckedcompany.com boards. I would never run anything remotely like that, I wouldn't put my name on garbage like that.
posted by mathowie at 6:24 PM on September 18, 2000

I've never actually looked at fuckedcompany.com so I can't comment. But isn't it reasonable to assume that different sorts of site will have different readers and writers? Maybe to avoid censoring people you should have a site where people mostly don't talk crap? Like this one. I suppose the threat of censorship is the best way to prevent yourself from having to censor people.
posted by davidgentle at 6:38 PM on September 18, 2000

> Maybe to avoid censoring people you should
> have a site where people mostly don't talk crap?

But how do you keep people from not talking crap? that's the core problem. Is it a policy thing? A technological thing? A feeling people get from the site that no one should act that way?

I've talked to a lot of community site owners before, and many agree the first few posts when the site goes live, or when something new shows up generally set the tone for the things that follow. So if a new thread comes up here and the first comment is "this is fucking stupid!" then the following 10 comments may be people telling the person they were wrong, or debating whether it was in fact stupid. So if someone comes along and sees these posts, they're not likely to post something thoughtful given the things that exist on the board. Deleting the first post can prevent that and return civility to the thread, for if the first three comments that followed were thoughtful and engaging, good conversation is likely to follow.
posted by mathowie at 6:48 PM on September 18, 2000

I suppose I agree. I wasn't originally trying to tell you how to do your thing. I was just trying to say what I would do. And I've never tried to run anything like this. I suppose the fact that you have to register to use mefi has some effect on the posts. Maybe a sort of 3 strikes and your out sort of policy (for the more extreme material) would work. Maybe someone should set up a site specifically to answer these sorts of questions. Experimenting with what does and doesn't work?
posted by davidgentle at 7:14 PM on September 18, 2000

What the H*ll is a "BlogMaster"? People who edit web sites are editors.
posted by camworld at 7:22 PM on September 18, 2000

I think a BlogMaster is a machine that tones and strengthens your Blog, for just 10 minutes a day.

Maybe I'm thinking of something else.
posted by mathowie at 7:58 PM on September 18, 2000

It strikes me that the answer to the original question is very simple, and very Darwinian:

1. The owner of the system can do anything he wants with it. No overriding rule; deal with each case as it comes up, based on its own merits.
2. If people don't like it they'll stop visiting
3. If it reaches the point where no-one visits, the web owner will have learned that he used too heavy a hand.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:10 PM on September 18, 2000

How would you handle it Steven? I've built an entire area of this site to discuss and comment on the opinions of others. If I'm doing anything wrong, by all means bring it up there (or here, while we're talking about it).
posted by mathowie at 9:21 PM on September 18, 2000

BTW, I'm not challenging you Steven (or anyone else for that matter), I just want to do the best I can, and if there are any problems with the way I've done things, I want to know. That's all.
posted by mathowie at 9:36 PM on September 18, 2000

Steven: that's a reasonable answer, but how do you scale it? If the sysadmin does a good job, the site will probably grow, and then there will come a day when the sysadmin just doesn't have the time to read every post. What then?

posted by Mars Saxman at 9:48 PM on September 18, 2000

Mars, I could see the work being spread out to a group of trusted moderators once the load becomes too great.
posted by mathowie at 10:02 PM on September 18, 2000

Matt: I think you're doing a great job here... don't change a thing. As the formerly-appointed "king of off-topic discussion", I found it irritated people, and I did my best to stop it on my own initiative... not because I was forced to, but because I wanted to.

This whole crap about censorship gives me the willies. People have stretched the first amendment to basically mean: "I have the right to piss you off, and you can't do anything about it". That's not what it was all about. But so long as folks want to abuse this basic (American) right... the end result is going to have to be someone stepping in and controlling the flow of content before all hell breaks loose.

If people would just excercise some common sense and courtesy, moderation (or "censorship" ::shudder::) would be unnecessary.

Eric's Golden Rule: Don't ever write/blog/email anything you wouldn't say to someone's face...
posted by EricBrooksDotCom at 10:45 PM on September 18, 2000

Matt, the whole point is that my opinion doesn't matter in the slightest. If someone posts something which you find off-color but acceptable, leave it there. If someone posts something so offensive that you can't stand to have it on your board, delete it. But what I think doesn't matter, because it isn't my system. If I wanted control, I'd set my own system up.

If you piss enough of us off, we'll all leave. Otherwise everything works fine. But the point is that you are not under any obligation at all to defend your actions to any of us; you can delete anything you want anytime you want, and our only recourse is to "take our business elsewhere". (Like, say, /.)

By my definition, Matt, within this small universe you can do no wrong. Therefore describing what you've "done wrong" is the null set.

Mars, scaling is usually handled by taking on a second or third sysop and dividing the job up. That seems straight forward enough. For example, if MeFi got too busy, you break it into subject groups and find a different moderator for each one. That's how they handle it here, for instance.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:32 PM on September 18, 2000

By the way, I don't visit Winer's site any more because I found him intolerable. But it's his privilege to run his site any way he wants.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:41 PM on September 18, 2000

I have to agree with Steven's comment about Darwinism. No one ever tells a species whether its doing right or wrong, while it survives then it's doing right. This site is a success because in the ecology of other sites, its policies work.

A major determiner of policy is scale. As the number of users goes up new problems emerge. People tend not to spam or here because it still has the feel of a fairly small and intimate community, people don't feel anonymous enough here to be antisocial. User accounts serve as repositories of kudos rather than karma (slashdot).

This is not to say that this will go on forever. For example, Mefi could become so popular that the value of user accounts goes out the window and the sense anonymity rises.

Also, it could become a target for a predatory spamming attack. This happened to kur5hin.org, who have only just been able to come back online after being struck down for several months by automated attacks.

Slashdot has developed policies which differ very much in nature from this one. You don't have to surf at -1 to know that its readership consists of tens of thousands of compete and utter dickheads. Try level 3... ;-j

posted by lagado at 12:17 AM on September 19, 2000

Censorship, I wish!

(har! har!)

Here's a story. I'm an ex-user of Everything2.com who left a month ago when I became aware they were editing my posts. As you read this, or this, my name is on many many things I never even said. Some had puns corrected (ahem) or the wording of sentences changed, or, say, links pointed elsewhere. It's worse than censorship - they're putting words in my mouth.

The general opinion was that unrestricted editorship was the best way to trim the fat from Everything2.com.

Uhuh. I quit, and left a list of posts I wanted removed (just personal information) and scampered off into the wilderness.

I obviously raised the hair on several editors who went back through my old posts adding swearwords and rearranging sentences to make them rather goofy. (The site features an daily `Editor Log'; these changes weren't listed).

I came back to discover this, and also that my old posts hadn't been removed (users can't remove posts, you do have to ask), so I went about Everything2 harvesting and filling in blanks to all of my posts. My account's password and email address were quickly changed, and my Everything2.com homepage was modified with insults as a final Nyah! Nyah!

I'm not interested in Everything2.com anymore, they've gotten rather petty and i've since found greener pastures, but I don't want my name on things I never said. So it seems i'm screwed.

I don't bring this up to bash Everything2.com, (i've done that enough elsewhere ;) it's just that it's circumstances I haven't seen mentioned above.

A common response to users wanting rights is that it's private property and the owner can do with it what they wish. I agree, but unlike most private property they're inviting people to participate. A few rules that say no one messes with your shit, unless entirely necessary, could only benefit everyone participating.

"All posts are © their original authors."... *sigh* lovely.
posted by holloway at 6:07 AM on September 19, 2000

The thing is Matt, we all trust you to maintain the community spirit here - you only intervene when things get out of hand, and only in such a way as to calm things down (I think regular MF'ers can think of one recent occasion....).
It's kind of like going to a party where you don't really know anyone - if it's a good party, theres a good atmosphere, you are able to join in with conversations and get to know people, and when the troublemakers turn up and start pissing in the punch the host steps in and calms things down.
It's your party Matt, and so far you've been a good host - just keep doing what you've been doing.
posted by Markb at 6:18 AM on September 19, 2000

I agree with Mark on this - the few times that Matt's stepped in in the four or so months that I've been a regular reader seem to have been either at community urging or with pretty much consensus that he'd done the right thing. For better or for worse, his sensibilities seem to match the majority of MeFi folks - so we stay with him. I have no problem with the concept of an editor who takes his power seriously and so isn't afraid to use it when he feels its required.
posted by m.polo at 6:37 AM on September 19, 2000

I thought Matt was doing an exemplary job of maintaining an informative/entertaining site and a good web community... that is until he allowed THIS to be posted:

>(I think regular MF'ers can think of one recent occasion....)

MF'ers?!?!? Who's calling me a "MF'er"?!?!?
posted by wendell at 10:29 AM on September 19, 2000

After thinking about it, I think the "Darwinian" sysop-can-do-no-wrong approach has a significant flaw. Anytime you provide an environment in which people can communicate and connect with each other, you lay the groundwork for a community to develop. That community develops through investment of time and emotion by the community's participants, and is enabled by but not created by the establisher of the venue. It's no longer wholly the sysop's property; there is a sense, not currently recognized by law, in which the participants also own the space.

By creating a space in which people can create a community, the site owner brings on themself an obligation to maintain that space. It's certainly within the owner's legal rights to shut the space down, or modify it in such a way that the community is no longer viable, but it's bad karma to do so. If nothing else, you'll piss a lot of people off and hurt their feelings; a reflection of the instinctive feeling that something theirs has been taken away. So there *is* a sense in which the sysop can do wrong: when the sysop does something that hurts the community, that is the wrong thing, from the perspective of people who have invested in the health and success of the community.

All of which is to say, the darwinian thing only works if you ignore the motivation of the sysop. If part of the point of the site is to develop a community, it is important for the sysop(s) to pay attention to the interests and desires of the community members. Part of that is to set limits on the use of "god powers" such that people can understand the rules and live accordingly, without having to fear arbitrary reprisals from an unhappy sysop.


p.s. I refer anyone interested in this idea to Talk City as an example of the wrong way to do things.
posted by Mars Saxman at 4:58 PM on September 19, 2000

Mars, I'd say I'm involved in this community as much as any other participant (if not more) and overall I'd say I spend my time 95% as a participant and 5% as a sysadmin (seeing how editing/deleting comes up rarely). So I'm not just a bloated god sitting back and playing with the controls on this evolving world.

There's one major barrier to your solution though:

"Part of that is to set limits on the use of "god powers" such that people can understand the rules and live accordingly, without having to fear arbitrary reprisals from an unhappy sysop."

it's not easy (I'd say not possible) to articulate exactly what makes for a good or bad post here. It's not entirely black and white. Sure most rules can paint broad strokes, but there's so many edge cases here, it's hard to say concretely what you can and can't do here, mainly because I can't predict what some people will try.
posted by mathowie at 5:42 PM on September 19, 2000

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