[LINK] To moderate or not to moderate - that is the question Re: I am no longer one of Link's Three Amigos

Robin Whittle rw at firstpr.com.au
Wed Mar 30 13:05:39 AEDT 2011

I am replying to Marghanita and Stephen Loosely, but first a note on my
last reply to Irene.

Since Irene indicated she was not intending to continue the discussion,
there's no way I or anyone else can be sure my response to her was based
on an accurate understanding of what she wrote, or of her intentions and
principles.  So anyone thinking of criticising her views should probably
focus on her words alone, rather than be swayed by what I or anyone else
wrote about those words.  I wrote not to try to coax her into
responding, but to provide my response for the potential interest of
list members.

Hi Marghanita,

You wrote:

> Hello Robin (Phil please indulge me),
> Tony could probably write more fully on this, but as I have
> established and still run another mailing list, I will
> provide my 2c worth.
> Moderation on a mailing list is a technical term. Link is
> not a moderated list. By not being a moderated list, the
> poster, rather than moderator(s) are accountable for what
> they post.
> Owners can get sensitive if people unsubscribe from a
> mailing list - but c'est la vie.
> Tony has from time to time given some guidance but also
> provided lots of leeway for members to wander down side roads.
> Owners may need to delete postings from the Archive (ANU's 
> website) and ban Spammers from the list.
> I hope you will recall why you put your hand up in the first
> place and reconsider your resignation and give the job of
> ensuring Link is still around in another 5 years a go.
> Marghanita

Thanks for your encouragement, but I won't be partially or wholly
responsible for a mailing list where I am expected to tolerate or
support patterns of grandstanding, insulting and presenting strong
opinions without supporting arguments.  Such things happen from
time-to-time with well-intentioned members, so I am not advocating a
strict regime which absolutely prevents this.  What I am opposed to is
continuing patterns of this or any other disruption - because that is
what makes people leave the list and so leads to the discussion being
strangled to death by the disruptions and the noise about the
disruptions together with a shortage of interesting contributions.

With hindsight, it can be seen how mistaken I was to think that my ideas
of how to run a mailing list could be applied to Link without a great
deal of fuss.

If I had been the sole volunteer, I would have proceeded to run the list
according to my standards.  Some people would be upset and maybe some
would have left.  But its a free service with a money-back guarantee -
and they can always start their own list and announce it to everyone.

My "moderation notes" to Tom Koltai were couched in terms of only being
binding with the support of the other two Amigos.  We haven't heard from
Martin and I think Ivan's idea for how to run Link is closer to Tony
Barry's, than to mine.  That's fine - I misjudged my fellow Amigo's
ideas and I was surprised by how a number of people responded.

Tom could have responded by saying "OK - its fair enough to expect list
members not to try to discourage others from discussing something.
Sure, I should supply reasoned arguments to accompany strong opinions,
because on their own, strong opinions are boring and lead to unnecessary
noise and disputes."

That's not what happened.

Call me a deluded optimist if you like.  I probably should have expected
some extremely negative responses from people who have spent a decade or
more fighting censorship, even though this is just an opt-in mailing
list, not the Internet itself.

The only way I would take any responsibility for Link would be with
others who shared my idea of running a list which supports a high
signal-to-noise ratio by discouraging and/or banning the worst excesses
of those few people who would otherwise repeatedly use the list to:

  1 - Use needlessly dismissive, insulting or whatever approaches,
      especially without supporting arguments.

  2 - Post excessive volumes of material which were in general of little
      or no interest.  This would include self-promoting about things
      which in fact were not of much interest to anyone, as measured by
      the amount of discussion which followed and also by the member's
      level of participation in discussions.

  3 - Any number of other things a member could repeatedly do which I
      can't anticipate now but which were deemed more trouble than they
      were worth by the moderators, generally in consultation with the
      list members, but whose judgement would be final, no further
      endless correspondence being entered into etc. etc.

The fate of the list would then be very much in the hands of the
moderators.  It would not be threatened by the excesses of any of
billions of people, no matter how well-intentioned or malevolent, who
happened to join.

This wouldn't suit every current Link member, but that's fine.  My
interest is more in who else might want to join and contribute to Link
and who would do so if it had a still higher signal-to-noise ratio, and
where the norm was civil, potentially very lively discussions, focusing
on constructive arguments.  Arguments for or against certain positions
are typically very interesting.  Insults, posturing and unsupported
opinions are boring and lead to more noise on the list.

Some people, I think Ivan and Tony Barry included, think the list can
ignore this stuff and it is better to let this happen than for
moderators to take specific actions.  For a low level of disruption, I
agree.  But still, the list remains vulnerable to degradation by its
most disruptive members.

I think mailing lists are something like LPs, CDs, airships and cars
which do not depend on electronics.  They are being largely or overtaken
by other developments.  These alternatives have their uses, but they
don't necessarily provide the focused and reliable service of older
technologies.  For instance:


A bazillion things on the home page, some of them flashing.  Fully Web
2.0 compatible - everyone gets their own free blog. (Whoopee-Do!)
Endless links, pages and comments.  Taglists and links to Twitter,
Facebook and LinkedIn on every page . . .

I am on dozens of mailing lists.  I read and participate as part of my
regular email checking throughout the day and evening.  There's no way I
am going to manually scour around the latest developments in dozens of
cluttered so-called "community" sites like autechheads.  I know RSS is
intended to help with this, but I don't feel the need for another
protocol in my life.

So give me Link or something like it, any day.  Messages one at a time,
in black and white Courier, usually not too many characters per line,
automatically in my Inbox, tagged for deletion whenever I choose to
expunge my IMAP Inbox.  All list messages are automatically sorted into
their own mailbox for each list.  (I can easily search my current Link
mailbox which goes back to late 2006.)

> FWIW There is a sufficient Charter on the Link homepage.
> < http://mailman.anu.edu.au/mailman/listinfo/link>

That was apparently sufficient for Tony Barry's approach to running the
list, given the actual threats to the list's health - which are posed by
a small, changing and sometimes non-existent subset of members whose
activities, in total, tend to diminish the lists capacity for useful
discussions and therefore lead to a decline in participation and

I do not regard that charter, or Tony's approach, as being optimal or
being up to the challenges faced by an energetic member such as Tom
Koltai who seems perfectly happy to do things which inflame and fail to
inform.  BTW I think Tom contributes significantly to Link, I am only
referring to certain things which I regard as excesses.

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for your encouragement.  If Link ever is so short of Amigos that
I and like-minded folks are the only ones prepared to take the helm,
then I will do what I can to keep it going.  But it would be different.
 If people want to fuss and fight, view and politely comment on other
people fussing and fighting, use it as a soapbox to repeatedly blast
their unsupported opinions into other people's consciousness, then they
would need to find some other mailing list than Link for those activities.

I think this is unlikely.  I think the most likely outcome is that Ivan
and presumably Martin will continue trying to emulate Tony Barry's
enigmatic and apparently nearly effortless algorithm for herding cats.
If there is little or nothing in the way of members repeatedly posting
crap to the list, then that will be fine.

However, please remember that Ivan tentatively offered his resignation
in the middle of the recent fracas, and that Martin hasn't been heard
of.  The remaining Amigos don't necessarily have endless patience for
unpleasantness, disruption - or ongoing discussions about alleged or
potential future disruption.

Link as a currently lightly moderated list is vulnerable to the actions
of its most disruptive member or member(s).  It only takes one person to
screw it up.

I have been reliably informed by two or more independent sources that in
the 1990s the entire Australian DNS list closed itself down because of
the actions of one member.  A new list was started with the express
provision that this person could not be a member.

That person was widely regarded as a PITA on Link for a number of years,
but one or more list members argued that at least some of his
contributions were valuable.  I recall at least one person arguing that
some of the allegedly worthless or disruptive actions did lead to useful
discussions.  Maybe so, but I think they also came at a cost in terms of
noise and so to the brain-drain of lost membership of people who really
do contribute.

Rather than ban individual members, which is like using a sledge-hammer
to deal with an individual mosquito, I think it would be better to
formally and consistently adopt new standards - so the disruption which
threatens the list's effectiveness and membership is strongly
discouraged and/or prevented.  Aggrieved persons can always run their
own list.  Some fear this would discourage lively and wide-ranging
debate.  I am sure this is not the case.

  - Robin

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