Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

The Wrong Fork

Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia has a great riff I’ve heard him deliver in several interviews. It goes something like this: A community site is like a dinner party. Most will kick you out for using the wrong fork.

Wales uses this metaphor to describe how much more elegant wikis are. And while I may quibble about the metaphor (when someone uses the wrong fork at a wiki dinner party, does everyone have to go into the den to discuss the merits of various fork sizes in a global context?), he’s got a point: oft-times community tools are optimized for extreme action (the hand of God smites the evildoers) and not optimized for the messy nuances that are required in human interaction.

Case in point: Recently, LiveJournal deleted over 500 community sites. This is, to my knowledge, the first time LiveJournal has ever deleted a block of communities with no warning. The community, of course, freaked out.

Most of the discussion has centered around the wrong questions. Can LiveJournal do this? (Of course they can.) Did they have to for legal reasons? (Probably not.) Did the communities deserve to go? (Maybe.) But the most important question, I think, is this:

Did LiveJournal handle this in the best way possible? My answer: Emphatically no.

It is every community site’s responsibility to set, maintain, and enforce, their own set of guidelines. Web communities are not governments – they have no obligation to support “free speech.” They’re private companies. If you don’t like their terms, go play elsewhere.

The legal issue is also a red herring. In everything but the rarest of occasions, internet postings are considered speech and site owners are protected by the 1996 Communications Decency Act. And don’t even get me started on the “think of the children” groups like Warriors for Innocence and their hyperventilating, self-righteous crusade (as if all those kids don’t have parents already).

The real tragedy here is that LiveJournal (a pioneer in online community) and their owners at Six Apart (who also make excellent blogging platforms Vox and Movable Type) are supposed to get this whole blogging thing. They’re always brought up as community-forward companies, made by and for the people. This kind of heavy-handed tactic just doesn’t seem like them.

What they should have done is have an open and honest conversation with their community. They could have said to all members: “Please remember that, as a community, there are some things that are just not allowed, including child porn and anything even vaguely related to pedophilia. If you run a community that contains that material, please take it elsewhere or we may delete it for you.”

A warning like that would have sparked a lively discussion, for sure. But it would have resulted in the community coming together in agreement – that stuff is ugly and wrong. It may have even resulted in members moderating it themselves, which is always better. Only after guideline violators had a chance to do the right thing and didn’t should you boot them from the party.

It’s easy to program a big fat DELETE button. It’s much harder to make a system that keeps track of warnings, monitors changes, and tracks good behavior. But that’s the system you need to serve a gigantic diverse community.

When it’s your dinner party, you can always kick a guest out if they’re being a jerk. But if you do it over something seemingly minor, with no warning or explanation, it’ll just make you look like the jerk.

UPDATE: The CEO of Six Apart responds, and responds well.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.