Sunday, July 29, 2012

Article #11: Thrashing About About Thrashing
being a glance at recursion, thrash fatigue, and some notes toward possible solutions
One "feature" of online conflict is a relentless, numbing circularity. Easily solvable conflicts do not become thrashes, by definition, so a thrash is a conflict rarely resolved in a way that satisfies all parties, especially when the conflict crosses hierarchial lines or goes on across two or more communities, and the side that perceives itself as the losers are loathe to let it die. It's possible the winner will gloat and thus spark a new round, but generally it's those who think they're on the short end of the stick who keep thrashing.
For thrashing it is. Seemingly endless rounds of point-counterpoint-point-Jane, you ignorant slut, dragging in and debating points further and further away from the original dispute, fighting about how you're fighting, cutpaste word-by-word rebuttals. Furious flurries of post and riposte that seem to accomplish nothing, floundering in the murky water of Meta and crying "Damned be he that first says 'Hold, enough'!"
There are two primary reasons thrashes seem endless. One is that aggrieved parties will bring up their case as often as seems neccessary. The other is the addition of new people with similar grievances. If a community's policies (or the administration's way of carrying out those policies) are Meta prone, there will always be an influx of fresh thrash, leading to a recursive cycle of arguments with new cases and old being used as ammunition.
In your first few thrashes, it seems fresh and visceral and new and important. While it certainly is important, few if any Meta issues are brand new. Thrashes feed on new people with old problems. This can lead to a sort of thrash fatigue (not my term). "Oh, that again. Didn't we go through all this with wossname at The WELL, wasn't it all beaten to death by user:NobodyCaresAnymore at DotDash back in the 20th?"
There are three approaches to thrash fatigue. One is to ignore it, keep your meta-lance sharp and charge full tilt into any windmill which appears on the horizon. Another is to grow jaded and tune out thrashes as unimportant or unsolvable. For all but the most dedicated metaheads (and the person whose oxen have been freshly gored) this is an easy and appealing pseudo-solution. Filter out the unpleasantness and make your own way, after all, it's not your fight.
The third approach is the MetaCore. Metaheads love a good thrash, and what is a MetaCore group but a bunch of metaheads? The distinction between MetaCore and a bunch of thrash junkies is, MetaCore people don't start thrashes or thrash for the sake of thrashing. Instead of just lurching to the attack, or walking away, find solutions. Many of the more common sorts of conflicts can be resolved. Finding the root cause of the problem, rather than circling endlessly around the specific details, can help point to satisfactory resolution.
To illustrate a metacore approach, I'm going to pose a hypothetical situation at E2, in early 2001. {Suomynope} has several writeups deleted with no explanation by an anonymous editor. She complains about this in the chat module, and is silenced for a brief period. She comes up fighting every time, more and more combative, and ends up silenced for several hours. This leads her to post several anti-editor writeups, which are promptly nuked with XP loss, eventually costing Suomynope to temporarily lose a level. Some other users, seeing this happening, join in, some cautiously, some full-steam. They are also silenced in the chat module. These users find some of their own writeups being deleted. The editors doing the deletions claim that the writeups in question are weak or flawed and would not have stood the test of time (and, for purposes of this example, we'll assume this is true. I'm just looking at the mechanics of a possible thrash, not starting one). The users complain, claiming that it was a punitive measure, since the deletions may not have occurred at that time had they not called themselves to the administrative echelon's attention. At this point, the thrash can begin to spread, involving more users and spinning out of control for weeks (at approximately 6 hour intervals, as that's the approximate cycle time of chat module conversations), or a clampdown can ensue. Either way, neither side will be satisfied with the results.
From the perspective of Suomynope, it all started because she was singled out for unfair treatment. From the editorial perspective, it can easily be blamed on immature whining. From the perspective of the 5 or 50 new users who registered while this was going on, E2 is unfriendly to New Order, and they may well decide not to bother putting time and energy in.
Obviously from the metacore perspective, the problem was accountability. It was not the deletions or the whining, but the lack of accountability that started the spinning. Although this sort of thrash could still happen at E2, some accountability measures (such as a message bot informing users of deletions, which encourages editors to identify themselves and the reason for the deletion) have been put into place, making it less likely for this particular thrash to spin out of control or require draconian measures that would lead to the community voting with their feet.
Many of the thrashes at (and about) Utne Cafe are caused, in part, by a perception of closed ranks, by the idea that no matter what a host does, it will be backed unquestioningly by the administration, and by a perception of a double standard, where "ordinary" patrons are [hosted] for words and actions that are tolerated when said and done by members of the administration.
Two axioms: 1)Double standards are inevitably damaging to the health of the community, although it may not significantly affect the website's hits and revenues. 2)The perception of a double standard, if widely enough held, is nearly as damaging as a proven double standard.
Some thrashes are unsolvable because the participants have mutually incompatable terms. If a patron sincerely insists the only way to satisfy them is the resignation of the site admin, they cannot win, and the thrash will go on until everyone tunes it out. Although there may very well be unfairness and censorship going on, it's not realistic to expect someone to quit a paying or otherwise rewarding job over it. If the admin would be willing to step down over these sorts of issues, it's likely they would never have occurred.
Other thrashes will never end (although they may fade away) because the administration demands things the aggrieved party can or will not do. I have noted before the fist, the idiolect, the unique writing and posting style that can serve as an indicator of identity. If someone's style is considered disruptive (a very subjective judgement, especially if the system includes a filter or ignore user feature), and they are hosted for it, it's improbable the thrash will ever resolve. Your voice is your voice, and if you're kicked out of the party because you sound like Gilbert Gottfried or Fran Drescher, it's not likely you'll go in for speech therapy.
The "carrot and stick" system of administrative and built-in rewards and punishments (or, if you prefer more neutral language, positive and negative reinforcement) at E2 bear some examination here as a contrast with Motet and other similar systems, which have only sticks. Quantitative levels and reputations, C!ings and downvotes, blessings and cursings, allow positive reinforcement for patterns of behavior supported by the culture and the administration. Although it's not perfect (because no system is), it's more flexible and supple than a system like Motet, which has as its only formal carrot elevation by the administration to host status, and the informal carrot of favors from hosts such as images and banners in topic headers, or background colors or images. (One of the differences between Motet and eCore is Motet does not allow custom sitewide themes, but does allow hosts to customise the appearance of individual topics.)
I believe accountability of the administration to the community to be a key of thrash prevention and resolution. Transparency is another. One piece of evidence I have for this is an experimental conference I host at Neopoeia, called Plaza.ME. It's a zone with specific rules that give as much power to individuals as possible within the software. Each registered member of Neopoeia is allowed to have one topic, which they can set the appearance of; have open to all, open to some, or read-only; set the speech guidelines and hide or erase (with YOYOW protections built into the charter) others posts by contacting a caretaker host (an acknowledged sock puppet named "Igor") in a special administrative topic. The only opinion Igor holds is a commitment to service and free speech.
People have used their topics as intra- and inter-site archives, light chat, journals, political free-fire zones, semi-private personal conversation nooks, home bases, and angry soapboxes. Thrashes have been self-correcting and limited for the most part, with minimal hostly intervention. It's not a democracy (more a benevolent dictatorship), but so far it has been a successful experiment, in the sense of providing the maximum benefit to the largest group with the minimum unfairness.
A few disagreements are not bad for a virtual community. They serve to identify the weak spots, the places and policies that need fine-tuning to better serve the community. Continuous thrashes are not in themselves corrosive, but are an indicator that there may be a non-obvious problem within the structure of the community, and the only way to end the thrashing (as opposed to just stopping it, because it will come back) is to locate, define, and resolve (or prove the unresolvability of) the underlying issue.

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