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Tuesday August 22, 2017
What Facebook and Twitter can learn from online forums
by James Pinnell | Aug 4, 2017 | Comment Now
The 3 pillars of civil internet discourse: How forum administration taught me the key to respect.
What Facebook and Twitter can learn from online forums

“He’s just jumping from thread to thread, following the poor guy, replying to all of his posts with abuse.” This was the report I received from a user seven years ago, a user who was not a perpetrator nor the victim, but someone who had manually noticed a trend. Overclockers Australia, or OCAU, is a popular PC hardware forum that started its life in the mid-nineties and expanded into almost every topic you can think of. It has survived the dotcom crash, social media and smartphones, has a large population of female members, and is renowned for being one of the most welcoming online communities in Australia.

From the beginning, OCAU was different from other online communities of its time. It’s long time overlord and owner, Agg, ensured that civility and respect were central pillars of the forum. Moderators, or “admins”, were carefully selected from the community by existing moderators, based on their contributions, behaviour and willingness to help. As the forums grew and branched out, the community feel grew and people began to test the boundaries. Strict rules, both forum-wide and sub-forum-specific, were put in place, via consultation from existing members, which basically came down to “Don’t abuse other members” and “Don’t screw over other members”.

The community involvement in rules, as well as the ability for users to bring up complaints or issues with the forum or other members privately, was essential. For contentious forums like “Current Events”, very long and detailed rules were put down. More moderation resources were applied. Complaints about strong-arming or “free speech” were quickly put down with a stern red line – this is a private forum, there is no right to free speech here. You follow the rules like everyone else. This consistency and consultation approach was key to ensuring people respected one another and the mods alike. People felt like they were part of the whole.

These three pillars – Moderation, Rules, and Community – were instrumental in ensuring that the forum didn’t break down into chaos. As the number of posts and threads grew, moderators could no longer manually survey every thread and relied heavily on the “Report” function that allowed members to report rule breakers. The rules were always complained about by someone, usually someone new or who was just there to troll, but admins were conditioned to notice repeat behaviour and any action taken was logged on that member’s account. Your first mistake was a short ban, your third was probably a permanent one.

On Facebook, there are two types of interactions – public and private. Private interactions, such as conversations on a friend or relative’s status, or within a group, tend to be significantly more civil (generally) and carry with them a sense of responsibility – what I’m saying holds more weight as it involves people I know and respect. Private groups also have administrators and moderators, as well as report button, so pointless or abusive posts or comments can be quickly and easily removed. Public interactions, however, rely purely on Facebook to moderate, which can be next to impossible.

Twitter is even worse – as there is no private functionality outside a DM – and where there is no functional “group” option. Conversations on Twitter are wholly public – anyone can join an ongoing conversation, which can be both fantastic and terrible at the same time, as Twitter’s search and hashtag functions allow abuse to appear quickly and constantly. There is no way to remove someone from a conversation thread, outside blocking them just from your view. Reporting is even harder. Any changes to moderation are clouded by the cries of “free speech”.

To solve the problems with public interactions on social media, the companies that run them need to clearly define what they consider to be appropriate or inappropriate uses of their services. They need to empower millions of volunteers who have been appropriately vetted and confirmed to help police their networks of abusive and gratuitous content when it is reported or just simply seen. They need to bring the ideas of respect and community back to these public spaces, and part of this involves a wholesale clearing out of pages and groups that incite violence, hate and division.  Using algorithms to remove accounts created simply to abuse members as well as their content – rather than just hiding it.

Right now, there are no rules for Facebook or Twitter, really. Anyone can make an anonymous account and immediately stalk, harass, abuse or threaten any other member. New members should be restricted from certain interactions with other members until they have completed several steps or time delays – such as completely filling out profiles, having confirmed, legitimate, email or phone numbers. They should be closely scrutinised by bots that search for standard abusive keywords or common threats. Prominent members of Twitter should also be empowered with the ability to report or temporarily restrict tweets or members with demonstrated abuse.

All of this is heavily controversial, and much of it risks alienating certain users who will bang on about their right to speech. But in many jurisdictions, this right does not exist – there are laws against inciting violence or harassing them. Even in the US there are plenty of laws that restrict hate speech – although both Facebook and Twitter claim that their Terms of Service are stronger than most laws anyway. But as anyone who’s reported racial slurs or homophobia would attest, the reaction from Facebook is usually less than desirable.

A minority of users will always attempt to subvert the system, especially when its boundaries are loose. OCAU built a solid foundation to the point where abuse and rule breaking is rare because everyone feels like they are part of a friendly, respectful community. Until Facebook and Twitter get series about combating abuse, forcing their users to respect one another around the three central pillars, the road ahead will still be the same. 

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