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The State of the Tide Pool

2:44 pm

As most of you know, Augustlan, our intrepid Community Manager for so many years, has moved on in her career, and stepped down from her position. The Moderation Team has been managing Fluther for a several months now, as Auggie’s active involvement had already diminished considerably months before she officially announced her departure.

During some of the controversies and complaints that have recently arisen, some people have said that the Mod Team is too strict and that we’re not handling things the way Auggie did. That is, however, untrue. Augustlan selected and trained each member of the current Moderation Team, and most of us worked behind-the-scenes with her for year or more. We have been privy to her opinions on the different guidelines and have continued to moderate the site the way she taught us. We have archives of behind-the-scenes Moderation Team communications that go back a few years, so we have records of discussions about most issues that have come up on the site that we refer to when a question arises.

When Fluther had paid staff monitoring the site, moderation was part of their job duties, and thus was done promptly – which made it much less noticeable to the average Jelly. Site moderation now is done voluntarily, and has been for quite some time since the Community Manager’s salary was substantially reduced and then cut altogether. There are six of us on the current team, all of whom have personal, familial, and work and/or school responsibilities that leave us little time to spend on Moderation at Fluther, and we simply cannot comb through every Question and Comment that is submitted to the site. This is why we emphasize the value of user-input via the flagging system. You Jellies are the eyes and ears of Fluther, and we rely on you to call our attention to anything that appears questionable by flagging it with a brief note telling us what you see. We greatly appreciate all the Jellies who have been supportive and patient during this time of transition.

The evolution of Fluther and the Guidelines

The Moderation Team’s basic functions remain the same – removing spam and upholding the site’s guidelines and rules. Fluther was created as an educational site where the goal is to maturely and respectfully share knowledge and experience on various topics. While we neither limit the topics nor censor language within discussions, the Question Titles must be ‘safe for work’ to allow Jellies from the age of 13 years and up to scroll through the lists of Questions safely. Beyond that, the basic requirements of the site are: that people use correct English, that they are considerate of each other, and that they do not use the site for promotional purposes – whether a business, product, cause or agenda.

When the site started, it was only one section with the strict guidelines of the current General section, where the comments must relate to the question asked in the original post (OP). As the community grew, some expressed a desire to be able to have a little fun and let conversations wander and flow a bit. This was when the Social section was added, which allowed for some joking and sarcasm relative to the topic, and for conversations to evolve and broaden a bit beyond the OP. Meta was then added as a place to discuss Fluther itself, and to celebrate Lurve milestones.

For some Jellies, even the Social section was too strict, as it does not allow for chit-chat or off-topic banter. Since the creators never intended Fluther to be a ‘social network’ site, they still want the sections to stay true to the Q&A format and for comments to be respectful and not derail the discussion. They created the chat rooms, and encouraged their use as well as Private Messages (PMs) as the place where the various members of the collective can communicate more freely and share more casual conversation. As the site and Guidelines changed over time, the content from before any rule change was not moderated based on new rules. We have never retroactively moderated posts, except to remove spam we might have missed, or if a Jelly has concerns about personal information they revealed.

Although our founders have moved on to other career opportunities and now have families of their own, they have allowed the site to remain up, and free for members to use. Many of us have experienced the disappointment when other sites that have closed, so we owe it to the founders of Fluther to uphold their vision of what they want the site to be out of respect for what they created (which still bears their names), and out of appreciation for them allowing us to continue to use their servers and site. We have been in touch with them regarding this transition, and there will be no changes made in the Guidelines at this time.

The current moderation position on recent complaints

As previously mentioned, there are times when there is a gap in the moderation coverage on Fluther, which results in some items that are in violation of our guidelines to remain in view. People may have responded to a post and then it suddenly “disappears” because something in the OP needs correcting. Since, like our Mod Team, the members of the collective are in different parts of the globe and have various schedules and responsibilities of their own, it may be a while before corrections are made and the post reinstated. We have pondered whether there might be more efficient ways to handle this situation to minimize Question down-time, but there are no better logistics within the framework we have. PhiNotPhi has done a great job making some tweaks within the framework, like the Profile Flag, and we are so glad to have him on the team!

Since there was once a time when paid staff responded to violations almost immediately, but now we volunteers sometimes respond promptly, yet other times hours later, or maybe never if it hasn’t been flagged – people complain about our inconsistency. Again, we are doing the best we can with what we have, and we really do appreciate and rely on the flags from the collective – you are our “Neighborhood Watch” and your input is valuable to us and the site as a whole.

Several Jellies have complained about a “lack of transparency” while others want our moderation interactions with them to remain private. This is a difficult balancing act for Moderators. We have agreed to increase our communications with members involved about moderation actions – something that we’ve not been as diligent about because we are trying to do so much in what little time we have. Respecting the privacy of others is why we also prefer that people do not make mentions of other Jellies, unless it is in a positive light.

Most recently, the issue of keeping Question Titles safe for work (SFW) has come up. We have reviewed the previous discussions in the Mod archives and on the site itself, and we have also checked with the founders, who have again stated that we will not be revising the Guidelines at this time. Proper medical terms for body parts are allowed, as are proper names. Words with double meanings that are being used in their SFW form must be clearly placed within an SFW context in the titles, and the Topics must also reflect the SFW context. If the Question is of a more sensitive topic or mature nature, or if the responses are likely to contain such content, the Question Title must be phrased in a format that is safe for work and contain the [NSFW] disclaimer.

Controversial subjects and debate threads

One of the greatest challenges for moderators, and one that caused a big problem while Augustlan was still at the helm, is the issue about controversial topics. For some members, this is the most interesting aspect of Fluther. They thrive on the rough and tumble confrontation of ideas. There is most definitely a place for this here. Part of keeping debate alive is making sure that the rules and moderation provide a space for it; another part is maintaining a population where diverse views are represented and respected. However, the aim of debate shouldn’t be to run one’s opponent out of town, or to have members with opposing views leave the discussion in frustration or anger. That is harmful to the discussion and the community. The purpose of debate is to present your points and counterpoints in order to convince others (anyone observing, not necessarily your ‘opponent’) that your view is the most sensible.

The Guidelines and Terms & Conditions of Fluther state that we do not allow: trolling or propaganda; ego-centric or attention grabbing content; deceitful or deceptive information; hateful, abusive, bigoted content or harassment of others. They also state, “Feel free to ask questions on controversial topics; all we require is that you don’t just do it purely for the sake of it. Asking a question on a controversial topic because you genuinely believe in the question and want an answer is acceptable, whereas doing so solely because you want to spark off a touchy discussion is not.” And let us not forget the directive to “disagree without being disagreeable.”

Determining a poster’s intent when posting a question is a judgment call. All the moderators have been on Fluther for at least four years, and we do get a sense of people based on their actions on the site and interactions with us. In addition, we have their history of all content they’ve posted to the site – those that are visible to the public, and those that have been removed for violation of the Guidelines – and we can see patterns when some users repeatedly ask questions on particular topics or themes.

When making an especially ‘borderline’ judgement call, we do refer to the input provided by members via the flagging system as well as conferring with other moderators. We have all been chosen as moderators by Augustlan for being level-headed, and on the rare occasions that find our objectivity wavering on a sensitive subject, we will admit it and take a step back from moderating the thread. That is one advantage of having a team approach, there are checks-and-balances – and while the need for us to discuss issues amongst ourselves might prolong the process, it is better for the community that these tough calls are being considered from various perspectives.

The team has discussed this issue at great length and we feel that the ideal way for a Jelly to pose a ‘genuine’ question on a controversial subject is to phrase the OP in a way that is relatively neutral and open to hearing diverse opinions on the topic. We especially discourage the use of language that is demeaning to those whose views might differ from the OP’s. Similarly, whether in the OP or within the discussion, we will not allow ridicule to be used as a debate tactic.

Whether or not one judges a particular idea to be ridiculous or stupid, simply calling it ridiculous is not a strong argument and is disruptive to the community. What do we mean by ridicule? The etymology of the word is instructive: it comes from a Latin root meaning “to laugh.” There are many subtle ways to hold up someone’s idea as an object of mockery or derision.

Please note that pointing out the flaws in someone else’s commentary, or offering a critique based on reason is not the same as ridiculing that view, either in substance or effect. We can accept that not all ideas have equal merit. It is the nature of debate that arguments and counter-arguments will be presented. Those arguments might even include demonstrating how a particular idea would lead to absurd conclusions.

But ridicule is not an argument; it’s an assault on the dignity of one’s opponent, even if it appears to be directed at his or her point of view. The effects of ridicule can persist long after the substance of the debate is forgotten. We would ask, then, that members forego the use of ridicule in its various forms. If you see instances of ridicule, please flag it and the mods will take a look (we will not, however, be revisiting old threads).

We would much rather that you politely question, refute, and/or discredit ideas by exposing the conceptual flaws, rather than just declaring them irrational or some other derogatory adjective. It can be done without being aggressive or belligerent, and debate is usually more effective when it is clear that each party is listening to the other and contemplating their points, and not just coming in with a closed mind to attack the opposing views and push their own agenda. If you are joking with someone in a Social or Meta post, please remember to use the sarcasm tilde ~ to help reduce the chances of misinterpretations of your intent.

Expanding the moderation team

Please be assured that we Moderators truly have the Fluther Community’s best interest at heart. We love this site as much as anyone and want to see it thrive as a place where everyone feels welcome, respected, and can enjoy lively conversations. We recognize that the best way to serve the needs of the community is to have more moderation coverage — keep an eye out for another post in the near future, looking for new recruits!