The American Caliban (substitute) wrote,
The American Caliban
substitute

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Nostalgia and Paperwork: How LJ is like AOL

The LJ mess over censorship gives me flashbacks to AOL in the 90s.

I used to do "remote staff" work for AOL, semi-volunteer stuff. A few years were spent on the chat patrol, and later I had a full-time job for another company that included a lot of message board and chat management. I was doing this work in some way or another from 1990 to 1995.

During this time, AOL grew from a small business to a huge one. In parallel, the community of users started as a town and ended as a nation. It all happened way too fast. Growth rates of dotcom companies and online communities are a cliche now, but this was the first time, and no one knew what to do or even what was happening.

The community standards of discourse, including what was out of bounds in public communication, suffered. People with limited social experience and no background in language or youth culture suddenly had to make decisions about what was appropriate in chat, on message boards, everywhere. Staffers were supposed to chide people who broke the rules or knock them offline, but the rules kept changing. Meanwhile, so many people were pouring in that the variety of possible problems was disorienting. It was hard to get any consensus about community standards when the community was doubling in size every month. The lists of unapproved words and phrases and activities grew long and ridiculous. I wish I still had some of those lists.

Nervous chat monitors and board supervisors were presented with social and linguistic issues beyond their knowledge. GLBT people were booted for discussing their lifestyle outside GLBT forums. Discussions about the role of drug use in society were knocked offline for "drug use promotion." The rules were applied inexpertly and unevenly, and some staffers appeared to make up their own. The flood of teenaged users brought a whole new set of problems: minors mixing with adults, incomprehensible teen culture, suicide threats.

The situation was handled poorly. Years of arbitrary decisions, ignorance, dissembling, and prejudice went by. By 1994, anyone on "chat patrol" was completely snowed under with constant reports of rule-breaking. It was impossible to catch up and clearly pointless to try.

In the end the problem was solved with money. The company had grown so much that they hired good attorneys, professional senior managers, and more people inhouse to deal with community management issues. Bad behavior that presented a legal threat was still pursued, but they wisely gave up most attempts at regulating discourse in a gigantic community.

LJ is right at that breaking point. They've become huge, and there's no village any more. Large groups within LJ have their own community standards, and don't appreciate regulation from outsiders who don't understand the context of discussion. Pranksters and civil libertarians will test the limit of any rule. Outside pressure groups will demand the impossible, and news media will report on anything that looks odd and give it a lurid tabloid spin.

People who enjoy blogging and are good at computers can build services like LJ and make them a roaring success. These aren't necessarily the right people to manage a community the size of a city. They will be inconsistent, arbitrary, socially inept, prejudiced, anxious, and worst of all ignorant.

LJ needs some people with professional expertise in communities and the law. They need one or more attorneys with a very good understanding of the civil and criminal liabilities of a company like this. And they need a sociologist or its near equivalent who can grasp the nature of LJ's culture and subcultures without reflexively applying standards that don't make sense.

Most of all they need to be consistent, which is the first thing the attorney or sociologist is likely to tell them.

With luck it won't take three years the way it did for AOL.
Tags: aol, censorship, community, doh, growth, law, livejournal, six apart, sociology
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