Jeff Atwood on Community Moderation

The last blog I posted here by Jeff proved controversial. It was about censorship and free speech, emotive topics, but evenso I was surprised how diverse opinions were on things that seemed to make good sense to me! Which is why I know I have to refer to all of you on topics like this one.

So, I shall not be surprised when Jeff’s, to me self evidently wise nuggets of wisdom evoke here, some of the very things he’s talking about!

I’m including a quote and a hint of what he’s advising, but recommend the article as I think it’s very relevant to us as a community, whether we agree with Jeff or not. And if you do or don’t agree with Jeff I would very much like, and need, to hear about it, because it is you guys, not Jeff, who I seek to guide me and the other mods in our task.

The article begins by stressing the importance of empathy between members, and things that support this as being the highest priority. Otherwise, what kind of community do you have, and what can it possibly deliver?

Jeff suggests some things are poisonous to a community, but easy to recognise and deal with:

Hate is easy to recognize. Cruelty is easy to recognize. You do not tolerate these in your community, full stop.

Things he suggests are not quite as easy to recognise but important to deal with are:

  1. Endless Contrarianism
  2. Axe-Grinding
  3. Griefing
  4. Persistent Negativity
  5. Ranting

See: What if we could weaponize empathy?

You’ll need to read the article to understand what Jeff means, and as always we’ll all have our own interpretation of when certain behaviors are a problem or not. And since I don’t consider myself a great judge of that most of the time, I still look to you to point out things you think need moderator attention, and to explain why.

The timing of your post is very unusual. I have been doing a lot of research on empathy lately.

I don’t believe Jeff’s solution is realistic. Non-Moderators pointing out a person’s unwanted behavior only works if the other person is empathetic. If the other person is not empathetic, they may escalate. Sometimes, the thread evolves into a flame war or worse. If both sides are empathetic, they usually resolve the issue without a moderator. Or just agree to disagree.

As a moderator, you’re given the responsibility and power to manage the escalations. If you’re a good moderator, the community will let you know. If not, we will let you know.

It’s hard to tell who wants disruption VS who is passionate about their point of view. Even a passionate person can annoy other members. If you want to manage these issues, that is up to you.

I think most people “want” a moderator to mediate extreme cases. Otherwise, we sort it out ourselves.


This isnt therapy. To me MaidSAFE with its main product is cast into the role of providing a cure for cancer. Its not ideologically neutral ground. There are people who want to keep cancer around. So if the founders are of the mind that: people can do whatever they like with our tech including promote and spread cancer… because we couldn’t stop them and wouldn’t have the wisdom… it makes me respectfully wish I was privy to whatever single malt epiphany brought that on. How is that brought up or discussed in a level headed way? Its awkward. I suspect the whole crypto world imploded recently and that could make for some humility and circumspection.

Agreed. This space has a definitive goal and that goal should be promoted and protected by all members of the community, including the mods.

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@warren & @kirkion I see this as useful guidance on how to have a good community, whether it is for SAFE or knitting patterns, so equating this with therapy or saying this forum should be moderated with SAFE in mind are not to my mind comments on the post or related to the topic. Of course mods should act to support SAFE, but in our role as mods, we do that by facilitating both the community and discussions of how the community feels we should act.

So while I welcome your comments, always, I think these ones miss the point of my post here, which is to present ideas on how to moderate well, in order for any community forum to work.

Or if you are not missing the point, I’d like clarity on what you are suggesting instead. For example, you might mean that mods should not censor anyone (because SAFE is uncensorable). But I don’t see you saying this, so I don’t take that as what you are saying.

If I’ve missed the point (as I often do) please clarify what in particular you want, that appears to you is not meat by the ideas presented in Jeff’s post.

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Well, what is empathy? Literally empathy is feeling the same thing that another person is feeling.

To me in this context, my goal is not to share my entire life, but rather the slice of my life that relates to SAFE. That is the basis for my participation. In order for me to interact profitably with someone else in this context, I want them to empathize with me, NOT IN A GENERAL SENSE. But specifically in the context of SAFE. That’s what I need them to empathize with me on, and what I want to empathize with them on. Its my emotional loyalty to the SAFE concept that motivates me to put time and energy into this forum. To listen and try to understand, which is empathy in the most literal and most productive sense.

But too often when we talk about empathy, there is this sense that we are opening ourselves up to the entire emotional spectrum of people’s lives, and that’s concerning to me, precisely because what I want empathy on, is not the whole spectrum of my emotional well-being. Thats why I would probably never put things into terms such as empathy. I would talk about focused spaces, goals, norms, and commonality. A danger in considering empathy in a general sense, is that it in fact detracts from the ability of people to make claims and take stands based on the communal norms. I don’t want to put words in @warren’s mouth but I read his comment, as wanting to push back on that possibility.

Perhaps this is prophylactic and unnecessary, but as soon as we start talking about empathy, I too felt the desire to clarify, what empathy does not mean, most particularly, it does not mean that we allow people to hijack the purpose, or denigrate the common values of the community because of their emotional issues.

Now I don’t think that is what Jeff is saying. But empathy is a word with a lot of baggage in our culture, and I think that its appropriate and necessary to provide these negative definitions, so that we don’t import an existing pop-culture definition into our discussion.

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I don’t think hate is so easy to recognize.

If you make the goal to not offend people rather than allowing free expression you will end up in an oppressive situation in which all controversial opinions are considered dangerous

I think that expressions of hatred on a personal level are pretty recognizable. If someone hates me as a person and goes after me on that basis, then that is pretty easy to recognize, because it will transcend a particular idea or context. Its an irrational opposition.

Whereas, if someone disagrees with my ideas and wants to try and persuade me that I am wrong, or persuade others that I am wrong and my idea should not be propagated, then they are free to do that.

The notable exception is the ideals around which a particular community is organized. Those ideas, which everyone either agrees to or consents to hearing about by joining the community, must be defended or the community will fall apart.

But personal hatred is distinctive because it transcends ideas. No matter what happens X opposes Y. I think that is pretty recognizable.

In theory yes this is right, but in practice there are often many ideas and allegiances which are bound up in our identity and which all of use will commonly conflate with ourselves beause it is ‘who we are’. For example criticism of things like religion are often taken as a personal attack or even ‘hate speech’, particularly with a specific context in which a person engaged in that discussion belongs to that religion and the religion may even be informing their opinions or attitudes on the topic, but personally I am vehemently offended by the idea that religion should be beyond criticism.

Edit: replaced ‘confuse’ with ‘conflate’.

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I think that the rational v. irrational distinction still stands. If am am rationally attacking your positions (This position is wrong because X, and this position is right because Y) and attempting to persuade you or others that I am right, appealing to you and others in a rational way, then that is not hatred personally directed at you.

I quite agree with your characterization of hate-speech, which at least in the US and Europe is simply a tool used by elites to enforce political correctness, and not to aid the victims of actual hate.

Though there is one thing to keep in mind. Nobody, at least nobody that I have ever known or heard of, believes that “religions” as a class are beyond criticism. Rather they believe that THIER religion, political view, social stand, ideology etc. is beyond criticism. For example, in Egypt, they have a law which prohibits the criticism of the “heavenly religions” which are apparently, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Leaving aside the inherent problems with sectioning off those three religions, that law has only EVER been enforced to protect Islam, because that is the dominant religion.

If someone conflates their own personal identity with that of a religion, then hopefully the mods will just ignore their foolishness. Because while you can refused to criticize one religion (though even this drastically restricts speech in ways that I for one would hope would be obvious), but you literally cannot not criticize any religion, or belief system, and still have conversation at all. On this forum, we are purposed to support SAFE ideas and concepts. That means that we are in practical opposition and criticism of the centralized, greed-based corporate models used in the conventional system. Thus in a Kantian sense (taking a proposed action to its logical universal conclusion) refraining from criticism of all belief systems is incompatible with a forum in principle, and this forum in particular.

@happybeing, the hate-speech scenario is an example what I was concerned about in terms of an overly broad definition of “empathy” being used to hi-jack a community.

But to identify whether something is rational or not rational may also not be so simple, and may actually involve a moderator having to determine whether a person is right or not.

To take an exampe from a recent controversy on the NXT forum, if I say that there is a conspiracy of Jewish bankers controlling the global economy then in order to determine whether I’m saying that because I hate Jews or because my experience suggests that this is true, you would effectively have to weigh up the evidence backing up this opinion – meaning that you cease to be just an a arbiter or ettiquette and set yourself up as the arbiter of truth.

Well, I think that there is a genuine sense in which racial distinctions are irrational, that is they are not based on rational quantifiable points. They are simply assertions. This is as opposed to ideological distinctions.

So for example “All germans are murderers” would be irrational.
But “Nazi’s advocate murder” would be rational.

As far as conspiracy theories in general, then thats why you have off topic. If people want to fight out the merits of the existence of a cabal of bankers controlling the behavior of governments, then use Off Topic as an outlet, and don’t let things get into the real or serious discussions.

Interesting debates. For me as a moderator, I know I can’t get it right because there is no right.

All I can do is make decisions, explain them, listen to feedback, and use that to maintain the framework for moderation (e.g community guidelines).

I find Jeff’s ideas useful, not because I want to adopt them as a rule book, but because they help me - as someone with little experience at this - to understand what I might come across and what I might need to do about it.

Any policy that we adopt as a community will be up to us, but in the end, moderation will never be perfect anyway - my aim is just to help as best I can.

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This would stand by way of winning any kind of rational argument but not really a moderation issue I don’t think. The same applies to:

There is nothing inherently racist in the claim, or the words used, therefore, not a moderation issue. It would require rational evidenced argument to determine the veracity of the claim, rather than a moderator.
These posts are also based on the premise that the moderator values rational arguments over faith arguments and scientific explanations over supernatural explanations too… which may not always be the case. This is why the mods should stick to being arbiters of etiquette, rather than arbiters of truth, as I see it.a :smiley:


I quite agree. But how do you quantify violations of etiquette? Other than as “I know hate when I see it.”

Perhaps you can’t. That’s why I prefer people not to try.

Yes, the subjectivity problem still exists to a degree. I would say it depended on the nature of the community and forum really to an extent, as to what would be considered “rude” or “offensive” etc. A Mother’s Union and a Students Union forum may have entirely different ideas about etiquette for example.
I don’t think it is a case of identifying “hate”, so much, rather “aggression”, if you are talking about "hate speech, (which would be incitements to violence, intimidation, disparagement etc of groups of people), I think this is readily identifiable.

And again the subjectivity problem. I know what incitement to violence is. I know what intimidation is. Disparagement? According to whom?

Well, this is true and while in some absolute theoretical sense its arbitrary, communal consensus is workable, for a while. It just makes me unhappy to put forward such an unquantifiable standard you know?

A society that monitors its citizens creates a self conscious one. An anonymous forum which is unmonitored promotes freedom of expression, a beautiful mess of ideas, thoughts, opinions, emotions that somehow creates a freezone in society.

This forum is a civilized, friendly, informative and relatively formal one, moderate the forum accordingly.

This is no freezone.

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