As a moderator, I'm often staring at a list of the most offensive content currently available on the site. I keep seeing certain patterns emerge, and I think these patterns are potentially dangerous.
At least once a day, I see a comment chain that looks like:
User1: (unconstructive criticism of potentially low-quality post)
User2: (defensive or ignorant reply)
User1: (aggressive reaction to defensive or ignorant reply)
UnrelatedUser3: (seconding aggressive reaction and reinforcing it)
I'm singling comments out here, but I see the same patterns of non-constructive feedback in chat as well.
If there's a disagreement between users about something, there are only a couple of ways it gets resolved. One is that the "minority" user accepts or "deals with" the majority opinion, and the other is that the minority user leaves voluntarily or by moderator intervention.
Leaving aggressive or non-constructive comments does not get us anywhere close to either of these goals. When confronted by aggressive behavior on the internet, most people's reaction is to get indignant or angry - we've all been there and know this to be true. (In fact, I imagine some of you are reacting that way right this second...) Once angered, there's a very low probability that they're going to agree with the posted opinions, and they're emotionally invested and unlikely to leave.
Further, once opinions have been stated by both sides, it's time to take it to meta if there's not a resolution. Frequent long, drawn out comment arguments aren't helpful.
I'm sure if pressed we could come up for a one sentence summary of the Stack Exchange network. Many such sentences exist. If we had to distill it to just one word, a single word that represented everything this site stood for, I would have to go with the word Help. If I had to extend that to two words, I might pick the word Thanks to go along with it. As a Q&A site, requests for "help" take the form of questions, and when answered they elicit "thanks."
As much as we have other conflicting desires and forces acting upon us, I want us to focus on those two words. Is what I'm posting helping? Is the response likely to be thanks? If not, perhaps some careful consideration of words and appropriate responses would be of use.
Disagreements are going to happen. Learn to manage them in constructive ways, and take breaks to avoid stressing out.
As a corollary, When you see someone not being nice, don't return their unkindness with unkindness of your own. Take a deep breath, close the tab, change the subject, disengage. Don't contribute to the problem in your attempts to fix it. Don't encourage unkind words, even if you feel they are warranted or correct. "But s/he started it!" didn't work in kindergarten, and it doesn't work here.
Handling Problem Users
Periodically, the community cries out for someone to handle a problematic user or users who they view as disruptive or disrespectful to others.
The problem with handling these users is, the site is full of this type of vitriolic content. Daily, I'm tasked with looking at and dealing with the worst content on the site. Often I see regular users be aggressive, caustic, or downright mean to other users, both regular and new.
When problem users are brought to me, I can typically point to instances where the accuser has engaged in similar behavior to the accused. And yet, when confronted with this, the accusers tend to want to plead ignorance, say "everybody does it," or downplay the effect of their actions. "I was only kidding" or "I'm just that way." They plead for leniency and understanding, while simultaneously wishing the opposite on others. "My transgressions are minor, but theirs - theirs are serious, clearly premeditated and intended to inflame, and worthy of immediate action" they say.
Essentially, by being aggressive and unfriendly, you're tying our hands - I can't intervene when everyone is guilty or the standard for guilt is not consistent.
Further, even if there are problem users, we need you guys to give us time to handle them. In my 18 months as a moderator, I've seen only a few really serious suspensions, and even then the evidence was overwhelming, there was significant discussion among the team about how to handle it, and the investigation took days or weeks.
The point here is that we're all going to have to have a high tolerance for ignorance - there's a lot of it out there, and educating or removing ignorance takes time.
The Sense of Urgency and the Long Game
I frequently hear cries of "this is urgent, and must be handled/stopped immediately or bad things will happen." The content of the site really doesn't work that way, though. Those of us who have invested in the site and are here for the long haul should know that there are very few issues that require immediate resolution. Here are some capital-F Facts:
- Moderators can delete stuff really fast. Juan is particularly good at this, I've seen him delete hundreds of things in minutes. If a user posts 5, 10, even 50 really terrible things, we can take them out in the blink of an eye. Except in really exceptional cases, there's no need to react quickly against a user. There's certainly no reason to get upset over 2 or 3 low-quality posts.
- Most of the views on the site (The best I can do is rough numbers, but it was 90%+) are on questions that are at least a week old. Not an hour old, or a day old, but a full week old. Handling something within seconds of posting is not a requirement.
- Downvoted content is not a broken window - it is your enemy's head on a pike. It is a clear indication to everyone that sees it that a post is not up to spec. There's no need to curb-stomp with an angry comment or pile on a post or user. They're dead, Jim. Might they request & can you give constructive feedback? Sure, and I'd encourage you to do so.
- Editing is cheap. When really dedicated to the task, I've seen massive edit sprees to improve content site-wide. If we let things cool off a little, we can come back later when tensions are lower to clean up things that were left in a bad state.
When you start to think "I must act immediately, or the site is in peril!" remember that the state of a question or post today or in this second is not terribly critical - it's easy to change, and we're less concerned with the transient state of affairs than the long-term status quo.
Conclusion & A Call to Action
Education of users is a slow process, and we should always be open to the concept of being wrong ourselves. Instead of rushing to judgement and ganging up on users, focus on finding ways to be helpful. If a user is causing trouble, raise a flag and let us handle it, but be aware that the process takes time. In the meantime, try not to engage so that we have room to work.
I want to believe that most of the site's users are kind people who want to help, and that the hostile cross-section I'm exposed to on a daily basis is a small, vocal percentage of the overall community's opinion. If that's the case, the "silent majority" needs to speak up - step up and say "we are a welcoming community of friendly members, who value respect and inclusion for all." Flag non-constructive comments, don't participate in vitriolic arguments - suggest kind alternatives instead.