Sunday, July 29, 2012

Article #5, Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodies?

Who watches the watchmen? -- Juvenal, Satires. In any hierarchial system, this is an, if not the crucial question. It has implications and applications online and in meatspace. On an international level, the 2003 conflict between the Pax Americana doctrine and the United Nations over the right of unilateral, pre-emptive wars (or, as they were called back in the height of the Cold War, "First Strikes") is an immediate example of dispute. On a national level, the McCarthy HUAC hearings come to mind as an element in a hierarchy operating without oversight with damage to the community as a result.
In online venues, especially sites that are virtual communities, the question tends to be much more immediate and intimate. One thing that all community sites requiring registration share is the ability for administrators to boot users. If there is a community where users cannot be censored for any reason, in any form, I've never run across it.
On a private site such as a personal web page with a forum, the golden rule (version 2) is unquestioned --"It's my site and I say what goes." The hierarchy is in essence autocratic, the author of the page has the final say regarding content, and no one expects them to give any reason or justification. A personal web page, no matter how popular or commented upon, no matter how sophisticated the forum, is unlikely (nearly, IMO, impossible) to foster community. There are no checks or balances other than voting with your feet.
On a very tightly monitored site that is designed for some level of community building, where the power lies with an individual or very small hand-picked group, such as Bare Knuckles Politics1, the hierarchy is unquestioned, and any dissenters are invited to dissent away. Preferably far away. The admin team is unquestioned, unwatched, because on the internet, you can always walk away clean, and, more importantly, the policy is clearly posted, right up front.
The waters get murkier on a site like Cafe Utne. The front page bans sock puppetry and calls for civility. The host staff (who can hide or erase posts, or restrict posters' ability to write but not to read) is, as you would expect, at times under attack for their actions. Although some forms of citizen oversight have been proposed or even experimented with, at this writing there is no real effective oversight. The Cafe has the advantage of a large patron pool (from the magazine Utne Reader, a sort of Reader's Digest of the "alternative media"). One of the reasons for the thrashes at and about Utne, IMO, is the essential dichotomy between the ideals of being alternative and liberal and greeny, and the realities of corporate ownership and trying to cater to market forces. Axiom: Inconsistency, real or perceived, in the actions and words of the upper levels of the hierarchy is a prime source of conflict online. One feature of the hierarchy on this software (Motet) is that the site is divided into autonomous conferences monitored by hosts, and the conferences are divided into user-generatable topics with up to 10,000 unthreaded posts permitted in each topic. Hosts can freeze topics in their own conferences, but have no power over other conferences. Sites with this or similar software (such as Conferencing On Web, or COW) do not have a built-in chat module.
I've been staying away from too much discussion of E2, but it does fit into the continuum I'm discussing here, as the example of eCore software I'm most familiar with so if there's something substantially different at, say, Perlmonks, I'd like to hear about it. The hierarchial system of E2 is undivided, with administrators and editors having more power over individual patrons than Motet, being able to delete or alter posts/writeups, or temporarily silence people in the built-in chat module. The user involvement in post moderation (voting, and the general but not absolute, in cases of contraversial nodes removal of posts/writeups with downvotes outnumbering upvotes by 5 or more) tends to limit (but not totally end) thrashing about erasures. More egalitarian in theory and practice than the systems above, it is still open to abuse and perceptions of abuse.2 The lack of differentiation between areas, with all writeups going into a common pool, and all editors/admins responsible in measure for the entire site instead of rigid partitioning changes and to some extent anonymises interaction between levels of the hierarchy, although the empowered do have the option of being non-anonymous in the exercise of power. Individuals taking personal responsibility for use of power, on any site, tends to reduce general levels of conflict, except in those cases where personal onus is perceived -- and even then the conflict is more likely to remain between individuals rather than overrunning an entire site.
When the hierarchial gradient is very high or very low, there is little conflict based on rank and power. To make an undoubtedly hyperbolic and inaccurate meatspace comparison, there was nearly no dissent in Stalin's CCCP (absolute power) nor in certain small Polynesian groups (where the power figure was very weak, and conflict was with other groups rather than within the group itself).
No WWW website will ever be perfectly egalitarian, because at some level, someone has to pay for it. On a so-called "free-hosted" site, where the admin can set up a site, assign all users equal power, and vanish, the webhost itself will retain the right to scuttle the site if it feels it is neccessary, due to copyright violations or complaints of egregious offensiveness. Abdication of responsibility does not produce instant freedom. At P&W magazine's SpeakEasy (another Motet)3 there was, for a while, a period of semi-anarchy, with one conference having no hosting or moderation whatsoever. Many of the topics there were dominated by people with strong personalities. They could, if they chose, dominate discussions, flood topics with multiple posts, disrupt conversations, and make people feel unwelcome, but they could not exercise any power over other posters that the others did not give them. This period was finite, as there is now an administrative presence and the board has become much more tightly moderated.
In a truly egalitarian system, anarchy, the answer is, "We all do, for we are all the watchmen." Although this state cannot be achieved online, it can be approximated as closely as the culture and administrator(s) choose to.
True community can be fragile or robust. The software has a lot to do with it, but the prevailing culture of the site is important as well. If the level of moderation is agreed to by all participants (which, really, can happen relatively often, via the "voting with your feet" principle) the conflict level is low. As communities grow in size and complexity, so does the need for consistent oversight and useful, honest feedback from the lower but more numerous levels of the hierarchy to the smaller but more powerful. The watchmen watch over the site, and make the decisions that protect the patrons from disruptive outside forces. The rest of the site watches the watchmen to make sure that they do not start protecting us from ourselves.

1 -- the front page of BKP states, "Welcome to Bare-Knuckles Politics, a forum for the discussion of political matters from a liberal Democratic point of view. Republican lies, Greener whimpering, and other matters not consistent with the purpose of this forum will not be tolerated." I am not knocking this site's approach, it seems to work for them, and the people who post there seem to be happy with the system. They are protected from trolls and assured a forum where they can debate the finer points of their own views without having to deal with the opposition. If that's what you want, that's what you get. I make no claims or accusations regarding the fairness of this sytem, I am merely using it as an example.
2 -- The possibility of abuse does not mean there is proven corruption afoot. It simply means abuses of power are possible. Perceptions of abuse certainly exist -- who among E2 users has never been upset when an early, favored node was deleted? On the other hand, proven cases of false accusations of abuse of power do not mean that all such accusations are a priori without merit.
3 -- I write a lot about Motet sites because a lot of my experience with Meta over the last three years has been at or about Motet sites. Write what you know. If people have insights about other software community systems, I want to learn about them -- that is one of the many reasons I have for writing this metathread. I know next to nothing about the dynamics of mailing lists or USENet, to list two obvious examples. I am not an expert on virtual communities, merely a very interested observer. I'm no Howard Rheingold by any measure.
I am not obsessed. I am not obsessed. I am not obsessed.

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