Academic journal article Yale Journal of Law & Technology

The Virtues of Moderation

Academic journal article Yale Journal of Law & Technology

The Virtues of Moderation

Article excerpt

TABLE OF CONTENTS  Introduction I. The Problem of Moderation       A. Definitions       B. Goals       C. Commons Problems       D. Abuse II. The Grammar of Moderation       A. Techniques (Verbs)             1. Excluding             2. Pricing             3. Organizing             4. Norm-Setting       B. Distinctions (Adverbs)             1. Automatically / Manually             2. Transparently / Secretly             3. Ex Ante / Ex Post             4. Centrally / Distributedly       C. Community Characteristics (Adjectives)             1. Infrastructure Capacity             2. Community Size             3. Ownership Concentration             4. Identity III. Case Studies       A. Wikipedia       B. The Los Angeles Times Wikitorial       C. MetaFilter       D. Reddit IV. Lessons for Law       A. Communications Decency Act [section] 230       B. Copyright Act [section] 512 V. Conclusion 

Building a community is pretty tough; it requires just the right combination of technology and rules and people. And while it's been clear that communities are at the core of many of the most interesting things on the Internet, we're still at the very early stages of understanding what it is that makes them work.

--Aaron Swartz (1)


If you've never seen the image known as "goatse," trust me--you don't want to. (2) But if you have, you understand why it was such a disaster when this notoriously disgusting photograph showed up on the website of the Los Angeles Times on June (19), (2005). (3) It wasn't a hack. The newspaper had invited its readers to post whatever they wanted. One of them posted a gaping anus.

It had started off innocently enough. Inspired by Wikipedia, the Times launched a "wikitorial," an editorial that any of the paper's readers could edit. (4) At first, readers fought over its position: should it be for or against the Iraq War? (5) Then one boiled the argument down to its essence--"Fuck USA"--touching off an edit war of increasingly rapid and radically incompatible changes. (6) By the second day, trolls were posting hardcore pornography, designed to shock and disgust. (7) The Times pulled the plug entirely in less than forty-eight hours. (8) What had started with "Rewrite the editorial yourself' (9) ended with the admission that "a few readers were flooding the site with inappropriate material." (10)

The wikitorial debacle has the air of a parable: the Los Angeles Times hung a "KICK ME" sign on its website, and of course it got kicked. Open up an online community, and of course you'll bring out the spammers, the vandals, and the trolls. That's just how people act on the Internet. But consider this: the Times model, Wikipedia, is going into its thirteenth year. (11) It is the sixth most-visited website on the Internet. (12) And despite being a website "that anyone can edit," it remains almost entirely goatse-free. (13) Anarchy on the Internet is not inevitable. Spaces can and do flourish where people collaborate and where all are welcome. What, then, separates the Wikipedias from the wikitorials? Why do some communities thrive while others become ghost towns?

The difference is moderation. Just as town meetings and debates have moderators who keep the discussion civil and productive, (14) healthy online communities have moderators who facilitate communication. A community's moderators can promote posts or hide them, honor posters or shame them, recruit users or ban them. Their decisions influence what is seen, what is valued, what is said. When they do their job right, they create the conditions under which cooperation is possible. Wikipedia, for all its faults, is moderated in a way that supports an active community of mostly productive editors. The Los Angeles Times, for all its good intentions, moderated the wikitorial in a way that provided few useful defenses against vandals. Wikipedia's moderation keeps its house in order; the Times gave arsonists the run of the place. …

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