META: Some Thoughts on List Governance

Date: Fri Jan 12 2001 - 08:21:18 MST

With the recent slight outbreak of relatively mild incivility and
hypertrophied posting relating to guns (mild by the standards of previous
"gun battles"), I thought I'd take a moment to make a few comments regarding
issues of "list culture."

<> Although it's been discussed in various terms over the years, it seems
that complaints about the quality and signal/noise ratio of this list (and
every other one I've participated in) boil down to some form of "tragedy of
the commons". The list, being essentially a free resource for its users,
doesn't automatically impose any limits on postings by any particular
individual. There is no feedback mechanism built into a list such as this
one to put a brake on self-reinforcing "flame wars" that can develop over
"hot-button issues".

<> Although discussion of design of mechanisms for some kind of "automatic"
regulation of list content that would improve the over-all quality of
postings is a perennial favorite (and one I think we should continue to
explore), the simple fact is that no one has come up with a way to make a
list server like this one work to somehow automatically filter low-quality
posts. Instead, the level of discussion on the list is a function of the
judgments made by all the list participants individually.

<> List participants come and go. As a result, unless someone takes the
time to carefully read the entirety of the archives before they post (which
it is unreasonable to expect people to do), there is a natural, constant
level of discontinuity in the awareness that many list subscribers will have
of the history of specific subjects. Thus a discussion that turns nasty,
spirals into a high-volume, low-quality flame war or simply turns off a large
portion of the list community can be reignited by someone unaware of how such
an incident has been worked out in the past.

<> In the "governance" of a resource like this list, there is a natural
trade-off between two values that extropians hold to be very important: the
open discussion of ideas, and the right of individuals to regulate their own
life and environment. As the guidelines for use of this list make very
clear, the forum for this list community is the "property" of Extropy
Institute, a private institution ultimately answerable only to the people who
support our mission sufficiently to become members of ExI. Accordingly, ExI
has the right to set the terms of subscription, regulate the content and tone
of discussion and generally run the list as its officers see fit. However,
the practicalities of the technology of a relatively open list server that is
managed by volunteer labor on a part-time basis, and our desire to maintain a
maximally open forum for non-members as well as members to discuss ideas and
issues related to the Extropian Principles dictate that we cannot closely
control subscription.

<> The above facts mean that "unsubscribing" people from the list is a
singularly ineffective tool for list governance. As has been proven on
multiple occasions, applying this "ultimate sanction" against someone who
repeatedly breaches the list's minimal rules regarding the content and tone
of messages usually just results in resubscription by the offender with a new
e-mail account. Attempts to screen subscriptions are prohibitively
labor-intensive, can involve invasive "background checks" and, in any event,
are easily circumvented. This means that it is essentially impossible to
stop through mechanisms of "list governance" someone who has a motivation or
agenda that can result in inciting disruptive flame wars .

Does this mean that we should allow people with an obsessive agenda or a lack
of self-control to dictate how more reasonable people carry on their
discussions here, or the topics we can discuss? No. What it does mean is
that responsible and reasonable members of this list community have to be
aware that individuals CAN hijack the list through the mechanism of
high-volume posts and the use of incendiary language and rhetoric. A key
ingredient in this unfortunate phenomenon is the natural human tendency to
become inflamed by aggressive and offensive words. No one is immune to
having their feelings hurt or their sensibilities enraged when another person
uses aggressive or insulting language. But part of what we seek to become as
extropians is more rational and more emotionally mature individuals.
Consider the phenomenon of the single-issue obsessive to be a test of your
commitment to reason and becoming a more emotionally sophisticated person.
After all, we all note that SOME posts which are off-topic or which don't
really challenge us to engage in valuable discussions are simply ignored by
the list. Most folks who post such material simply "go away", finding some
more suitable forum for their writing.

Ignoring an offensive poster probably isn't appropriate when the core subject
matter of extropian ideas or values is addressed by their writing. Also, if
you're new to the list or recently returned after an absence and don't
realize that an offensive poster is a "repeat offender", you won't know that
simply ignoring them is the best course of action. But it shouldn't take
long to realize you've stepped onto a "troll" if you do. Responsible list
regulars should take the time to warn -- offlist -- a "newbie" or a returning
"old timer" that they've triggered a repeat offender. Reason and good taste
should dictate that, once one has stated one's position and detected a lack
of reciprocal reason or good taste, simply discontinuing a dialogue with such
a person is the best course of action.

Finally, remember that the overwhelming majority of our regular posters are
"good citizens" and keep the discussion here on a consistently high level.
Given how easy it is to disrupt an online community such as the ExList, we
should all be proud of the fact that this is one of the longest-running and
highest-quality sources of information and discussion on the Net.

       Greg Burch <>----<>
      Attorney ::: Vice President, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
                                           ICQ # 61112550
        "We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know
        enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another
       question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."
                                          -- Desmond Morris

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