Home > social computing, terms of service > Seat-of-the-pants online community management lives on!

Seat-of-the-pants online community management lives on!

This Tuesday was the class on managing deviant behavior in Design of Online Communities. My teaching notes say, in part:

* How are standards defined?
— Old days (example: LambdaMOO):
– Seat of pants, by volunteer

— Corporate sites:
– Company defines Terms of Service that users agree to

We read “A Rape in Cyberspace” by Julian Dibbell, and talked about how things are different now for most sites. In Dibbell’s account, volunteer community administrators (“wizards”) had to decide what behavior was allowable with only vague guidelines that were open to different, subjective interpretations. Today, volunteer community management is less common. Sites have written Terms of Service (TOS), and professional, paid customer support reps handle complaints and judge whether a person has violated the TOS. It’s not about a community searching for shared values, but about a corporation making strategic decisions with financial implications. Handling complaints takes staff time, and that costs money.

Later in class, we discussed the unfortunate students who were informed that they were violating the TOS of the site they had chosen to study for their class project. They aggravated the wrong person on the site, who contacted a volunteer moderator. The moderator decided what the students had done–asking people if they’d like to be interviewed–was a TOS violation, and canceled one student’s account. The site is a large, corporate one, but sub-groups within it have volunteer moderators. Was requesting interviews really a TOS violation? Not by my reading. So what happened? The volunteer moderator took some vague guidelines and made a subjective interpretation.

My general policy for site choice is that students should avoid sites focused on controversial topics–unless they have some strong personal connection to the topic. We’ve had some fantastic papers on health support groups, but written by people who suffer from those conditions or have close family members who do. In this case, I decided to make an exception and let student who were not getting a divorce look at a divorce support board. It didn’t work. The locals wondered–who are these women, and why are they bothering us? They didn’t say or do anything remotely disrespectful, but their presence there was unwelcome. I won’t make the mistake of allowing exceptions to the policy again. The TOS could be interpreted either way. In this case, the moderator used the letter of the law to get rid of folks she didn’t think should be there.

The parallel  between this and LambdaMOO incidents of old is striking. Was the volunteer moderator different from the LambdaMOO wizard of old? Nope, not at all. (“The more things change,….”)  And maybe that’s a good thing. It feels more like a real ‘community’ when a local leader can give someone the boot, whether their reasons are ‘fair’ or not.

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