It’s a simple idea in concept, but an insidiously difficult one in practice: who moderates the moderators?
Two summers ago – the last time I participated in the Google Summer of Code – the announcements list was wrought with students who, I have to assume, simply don’t know how a mailing list (or perhaps, mailing list etiquette) works. Two summers ago it was bad, and this year it seems even worse. It often begins (speaking generally, not limited to GSoC) with a straightforward question:
“Hi everyone, I’m new here, how do I do xyz, thx”
90% of the time, xyz is something that is answered directly in the group’s FAQ page, or documentation collection, or user manual, and it’s usually a question that has already been asked on the list over 9000 times – hence its presence in all those forms of static documentation. This starts the barrage of responses: someone will post a link to the FAQ page, someone else will outright say “RTFM”, someone else will extol the virtues of reading the documentation thoroughly before posting, someone else will start a discussion with poster #1, and it’ll be another 50 messages before an administrator (who has better things to do, hence his/her late entrance into the fray) cracks down, closes the thread, and sends everyone home. At least, until the next newbie posts.
Of course, on the GSoC mailing list, we also have threads that have started with (paraphrased):
“Stop getting upset over simple and honest questions and patronizing everyone.”
Which, of course, totally doesn’t start another out-of-control flame war.
So what can be done? Obviously, some sort of moderation is needed. In GSoC, that consists primarily of Carol, who is the overall administrator this year. She does an excellent job patrolling the mailing list, but obviously it’s a tad much for one person to handle over 1,000 students and almost that many mentors.
One moderation system I’ve always admired is that employed at Slashdot. It’s a system that is built first and foremost on the concept of karma, or somehow building up a factor of “trust” through worthwhile contributions to the site. It’s somewhat of a fad on Web 2.0 sites that are built around community interaction, and while there is a certain amount of inflation inherent to the system, for the most part it works fairly well.
Slashdot takes it a step further, however. Rather than employing the skills of full-time moderators (along with the small band of permanent administrators), Slashdot will randomly assign a small handful of “moderator points” to groups of users with decently high karma. These users can then use these points to moderate discussions as they see fit. But here’s the catch: not only does the limited number of moderator points limit the number of moderator activities a user can undertake at once, but the points also expire after just a few days. So there’s a random, ever-changing group of moderators on the site who are guaranteed to be decent contributors to the site’s community. Not too shabby.
It’s certainly not a perfect system by any stretch. Just today there was an article posted about how one online newspaper is handling its deluge of spammers and trolls, and this sparked several discussions in the comments about the advantages and pitfalls of Slashdot’s own moderation system. It has its weaknesses, but it’s arguably head and shoulders above the system the newspaper will be implementing: forcing posters to reveal their full names, and pay a one-time $0.99 fee. Not exactly something that encourages thoughtful discussion, or really, discussion of any sort at all.
The upshot, I suppose, is that there is no perfect system. There will always be trolls:
There will always be folks who just don’t have a clue:
hi im new to the internet how do i browser
STOP BEING MEAN, GUIZE. IM SRS.
And there will always be biased moderation, and even admin abuse. It doesn’t even have to be intentional; everyone has their own personal biases about what constitutes a worthwhile contribution to a discussion. Many users on Slashdot have sentences along these lines in their signatures (apologies to anyone I blatantly ripped off, please feel free to claim credit and/or provide the full quote, or even additional examples):
“There is no ‘-1 Disagree’. And no, ‘Troll’ and ‘Flamebait’ aren’t substitutes.”
“There should be a ‘+0 I Don’t Get It’.”
Until we find the silver bullet of internet moderation – filters out the trolls and spammers, while still allowing everyone their due bandwidth – we’ll have to make do with Internet heroes like Carol and the Slashdot moderation system, which are extremely proficient at doing this to pointless noise on lists and forums: