Elephant folk dances

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Some years ago Eudora (a very nice email client) began including a tool that would put a little thermometer on an email that attempted to indicate how passionate (or flame ridden) the email was. Fun idea.

There is a lot of excellent liturature about how to make negotiations more effective, ethical, etc. This is extremely valuable when your trying to coordinate groups of people in the absense of strong heirarchy or other powerful players. The marvalous book on that topic is
Getting to Yes“.

Every online community I’ve ever resided in works to find a social contract about how to manage the passions, remain respectful of the people, and stay focused on the task. There seem to be a few standard schemes for addressing this problem. The social contract of good manners for example.

One technique is to have a few respected community members who provide an example of ‘good behavior’, new-commers then mostly model that behavior and occationally the respected members use thier authority to provide a little negitive feedback. This works ok, but it tends to be easy for it to get dragged down into a situation where these folks become powerful and then you get hierarchy and then that’s cheating.

My favorite story of this kind is about elephants. Apparently if your running the zoo and you put some young male elephants into a pen chaos results, but if you ad one elderly elephant then things work out just fine. Thought provoking.

One way people try to avoid that is they create a role: moderator. This guy then does only the process maintainance. In the negotiation liturature this is sometimes refered to as a “neutral third party” – a classic example was having the Swiss and the Nigerians (both land locked countries) play this role when negotiating the treaty about how to govern the sea bed. This works well, in the hands of a reasonbly skilled moderator, who is willing to take his reward in pride of a well functioning/coordinated group.

Another scam people use is rules. This is quite effective in if all players are reasonably constructive. It’s a big help for the moderator – I tend to think at this point of square dancing. It has a tendency to implode because there almost always seems to be one or two bad apples that decide that arguing about or playing with the rules is fun. Arguing with the umpire, so to speak. A second problem with this scenario is trust. People have to trust both the rules and the moderator. Maintaining that trust when powerful players are in the game is double hard.

Well, coordinated effort is a tough problem.

This blathering is all the triggered by Sam Ruby’s littleexperiment. He, I assume, was looking for a way to keep the conversation threads on his blog [by the way comments don’t work on my blog because I’m incompetent] from becoming a hearth for other people’s flames. You can see him trying it out in this thread.

His idea is that somebody, him in this case, would have the karma to mark portions of comments as inapproprate. That “somebody” would be manually doing what Eudora’s little automation was trying to do, or what a good moderator tries to do. It’s also what a good parent tries to do when they pore oil on the water and tells the kids in the back seat “No touching.”

My critique of the scheme, as implemented, is it involves public shaming. A serious flaw because it models for everybody else that the moderator has license to engage in just the type of behavior ones trying to avoid. It’s a bit worse then that because while the moderator does have that authority he should, in the best of all possible worlds, us a huge number of more subtle tools before he gets around to pulling this trick out of his bag.

It’s a tough one. Moderating is extremely expensive work. For example you can avoid the public shaming problem by having a moderator do a lot more work; just have him approve individual postings. The problem with that is it expensive, slow, and it increases people’s fear that the moderator might abuse his power over the forum.

Interesting problems. If I’ve teased you into thinking that an automated tool might help this, well maybe, but I recomend reading the list of dirty negotiating tricks enumerated in this outline see section IV, part c.. Collect the whole set!

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