Thursday, June 4, 2015

Musings on Forceful Methods to Bring "Heated" Forums Back to Health

I think everyone can agree that the atmosphere over on BlenderArtists has been quite "heated" and problematic over the past few years. There has been much written about this - pages and pages by the same cabal of 3-7 "usual suspects" (*) who are largely responsible for most of these very issues. These "forum addicts" spend their time trotting out the same few complaints over and over like a broken record, getting into some rather heated/vindictive/nitpicky+pedantic debates that at times border on outright slander.

A few measures occurred to me earlier about ways that such issues can be alleviated. The forum rules introduced late last year have already gone a long way towards keeping things under control a bit more, but some additional measures which may prove effective may be:

1) A posting quota per day - Hard Limit
- The main culprits post a lot each day. As in, several times an hour, for however many hours a day they are awake and can access an internet connection (which can be quite a lot in some cases, especially if they are in on the whole polyphasic sleep thing ;).  Therefore, limiting the number of times they can post on the site per day could limit the amount of back and forth they can post per day. (Also, we'd want to limit edits to posts per day too, since they could just switch to editing their posts within a single thread to reply to each other that way instead)

We need to be careful about collateral damage here - that is, the "innocents" such a measure would affect. There are 2 specific types of users we want to protect:
- Users asking for help with stuff, specifically when it's somewhat urgent to find a fix
- "Support Angels" who go around answering as many questions as they can

Tweaks to avoid collateral damage:
- Posting quotas could be per-thread, per-day. This doesn't stop support angels from helping people
- Support threads could be given a looser limit. To counteract the potential for abuse, moderators should have full power to "censor" off topic material in these cases.
- Thread starters could be allowed to mark a thread as needing an "urgent" resolution (within say 1-2 days), and during that time, within that thread, the restrictions are eased for them in that thread.

2) A posting frequency cap - Hard Limit/Hellbanning
Closely related to a posting quota is a posting frequency cap. That is, if a particular particular user posts quite a few posts into the same thread, or one of several threads (i.e. to counteract the tactic of just starting multiple flamewars at once and bouncing between them to get their argumentative fix for the next quarter-hour), then restrictions start to come into place for that user:
- For the first violation of this posting cap, all their subsequent posts will be auto-collapsed/muted in the thread - they will still be noted, but the content won't be shown. All of these will go direct into a "moderation queue". Until posting activity dies down, and stays down for 3-6 hours, no new attempts to post will get past this moderation queue soft-ban.
- For each repeated violation, the "cool down" period that must be waited out will increase
- If behaviour improves, restrictions will be lowered down to the next highest level - that is, good behaviour sees a reduction in time needed to wait for next restoration.
- If no activity occurs for 1-3 months, cool down periods are reset.

3) Content Similarity filter - Hellbanning
The main culprits say a lot of similar stuff at some point. If the content of a post regurgitates much of the same words/phrases as a previous post by the same author (in the same thread or another thread), the new post is automatically marked as being a duplicate of a previous post. A similarity rating + a link to the prior post is displayed in place of this new post (whose contents are not displayed), and the real contents of the new post will be marked as requiring moderators to approve it for display.

- This will stop frequent posters from repeatedly campaigning for their various viewpoints, over and over again, in whatever thread crops up

- False Positives

- Posts from repeat offenders (both of content sensitivity, and/or other quota/frequency violations, + IP address) will be given lower priority in the moderation queue over newbies who may have accidentally made this mistake. This means that moderators are not bogged down dealing with crap from serial offenders to the disadvantage of innocents accidentally caught
- Mitigation for the mitigation: Users with low numbers of posts (and/or maybe some IP filter/check) will also have such offending posts low on the priority, to act as a disincentive for serial offenders to just create a new account and start posting the vitriol from that account instead.


Our course, these measures are just for consideration, as they do require forum software modifications to be feasible. Having said that, I have heard from various sources that changes are in the pipeline for BA, and that these will be rolled out in the near future...


(*) For the record, I do maintain a fairly healthy sized ignore list these days. At last count, there are 14 names on that list for BA (and 3 on IRC). If anyone wants a copy, let me know :)  There is nothing quite as satisfying as loading a page, seeing that most of the posts on it have been collapsed/blocked out, and then learning from whatever replies are left visible nearby that there really wasn't much missed. I do still check some of these from time to time to see if there's anything new that's been said, but not having to wade through it to get to the interesting stuff is a huge bonus.

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