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Author vs community (II): Hostage taking and reaction

Some of you may have read a previous post about a user who was erasing messages on the Macuarium boards, and the debate that arose among facilitators. Indeed, some of the comments were prescient. Here is the story of what happened afterwards. Long, twisty and debatable, as it is a raw account and not a use case.

To show a more complete picture, let’s add that the user was in the list of candidates of our yearly prize to the user with the most valued contributions. He was appreciated mostly by patrons of the social (off-topic) forum, where he spent most of his time in the last few years, and many votes were popularity-based rather than contribution-based, but you can hardly help that in an online poll. Also, he was a recognized active and long-time user, with several thousand messages to his name (about 6000 in total, some 3000 in technical forums).

To cap it all, this time last year we were considering asking him to step up to be a facilitator. We didn’t, because at the yearly gathering all of us had the same impression: face to face, he didn’t have it. He was not the right material for such a job, the way we do it. Too happy to have met himself, to put it mildly.

And when I repeatedly say «we», I mean the consensus of facilitators and admins.

About the time when you and I were discussing here what could be learnt and done, another Macuarium admin, and a facilitator that was a friend of the mentioned user, sent separare private (backchannel) messages to the deleter, asking about the matter. We were aware of some disconfort on his part, which we though due to his perception that we were not enforcing political correctness in the forums (and we aren’t) whereas we enforced rules that he didn’t like (like avoiding duplicate messages and offtopics in technical forums). As I said, he was known to be a bit on the narcissistic side, although we appreciated his contributions. We didn’t think there was any serious problem with him.

He answered his friend with a vague and angry letter (apparently she had expressed her displeasure at having a particular thread mutilated) and the administrator with a vague and polite one (she’d been kind, as usual) in which he gave no specific quarrel. While we were commenting both answers, we found that he’d started a thread in the social forums to express his «protest and disagreement»… in a completely vague way (i.e. not mentioning the specific actions or people that had caused his protest, or the actions he wanted implemented).

We were quite surprised. In Macuarium, it is customary to avoid those public threads because they become unseemly brawls, with a dozen people championing different issues and everyone playing to the gallery instead of finding common ground. We stress the use of backchannel conversations to solve whatever issue, with the admins acting as «last resort» when there is a disagreement with a facilitator that can’t be solved.

This thread promply went the way of others. We initially let it proceed and asked for specific issues that were a problem and could be corrected, but didn’t get any (meaningful) answer. At the same time, we found out that the user had edited the last of his messages, which sort of rattled a bit (we were trying to understand the problem and he kept raising the stakes with his other hand while answering messages as if nothing happened). After getting no answers in the thread, and reading a particularly painful message from a user with a different axe to grind, the thread was closed and frozen (we have a «frozen storage» area for threads that are deemed «records», and took it there).

The facilitator team was a bit confused, to put it mildly. What we all agreed is that the user needed to be prevented from destroying further threads, and thus removed that right from him.

As far as I could see the issue then, we had a case of a user who was exercising his control on his messages to force the community managers to change policies (the fact that we could not understand what he wanted changed was a different issue). It was worse than blackmail. He had deleted his messages, which in my mind was a direct assault on hundreds of threads. So while we kept asking him for a clear explanation of his problem, I decided to cut him out of the above-mentioned poll to select the most appreciated contributor.

Of course, I explained the decision in the poll’s thread. That led to a public debate of whether that was right or not. Most people approved heartily, but we got sharp rebukes from three sides: two friends of the deleter, two people with different axes to grind (their appearance was constructive, since they were writing under new nicks, pretending to be different users… unveiling them and their private quarrels destroyed their credibility and helped ours), and several nicks registered by the deleter (pretending to be different people: unfortunately for him, forum management does give some useful tracking tools).

The friends subsided, the interlopers slunk away (having earned a new e-speak name, «zombies»), and the false nicks were banned. Indeed by that time the issue was preposterous: 24 hours later, no coherent complaint or proposal had emerged, either in public (where the deleter was given a channel to write through a «neutral» user) or in private.

We were quite fed up by then. I said so and stated that we would not continue listening by noon that day. At 14,04 I received a private message where the deleter showed very constructive engagement and rejected every interpretation of his behaviour that was other than positive. At 14,15, while writing a constructive answer, I was made aware that he had not, in fact, erased his messages.

He had substituted the texts with a link to a transparent image, hosted on his server. We found out when he changed the image to a different, protesting one.

I felt that he had been playing (again) with us, and let free rein to the facilitator team. Every single «showpiece» of the deleter was made invisible, over 6000 messages, by hand, in some 12 hours of coordinated, night-shift-including work by several people (by which time, the deleter had changed the image into a «manifesto» that stated that the original texts were «not deleted, but safely kept, and would have been soon restored to the community» had we not reacted so badly to his «constructive complaint».

That incensed the whole team. First, we did not believe it for a minute. Second, it changed the situation from an angry user taking his content with him by deleting it (something bad, but arguably legitimate in the end) into a hostage situation. He was saying he had withdrawn them as part of the protest, to reinforce the message.

To cut a long story short, we were not having that. We are proud to hold no favouritism: rules are the same for all, appreciated contributor or newbie. Trying to push us through that content was like adding insult to injury.

We refused to play ball, completely. Now, he’s been banned thoroughly, his messages invisible and to remain so, even his PDF guides to be deleted. He roams out there badmouthing us :-).

We have to thank him for a lot of lessons learned, though, about user content management and even early conflict management. We have also to thank him for the inmensely satisfactory experience of feeling the backing of the community along all this issue.

In these nine years, there have been clashes with users and groups of users, but few where we could so clearly pinpoint so few people trying to coerce so many to do as they wanted… and where we could prove that they were actually that few, and that contrary to the shared ethos of the community.

I dare say that without the content mutilation, he’d have got some backing: he was popular, he was appreciated, he might have had some real grievance (I still can’t say) and there’s other people with bruised toes. But by proving that he didn’t care about the damage wrought to all, he confirmed what we concluded in the previous post of this story.

Community content is sacred to the community. Even if it is still property of the author.


Un comentario en “Author vs community (II): Hostage taking and reaction

  1. Thanks for sharing these stories from the trenches Miguel – they keep us grounded!

    Publicado por Patrick Lambe | febrero 2, 2008, 2:16 am

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