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Community Standards for iMechanica

As a moderator here on iMechanica, I have deleted a few posts recently that were clearly spam. As iMechanica grows and becomes more visible within the mechanics community and the broader internet community, we can expect the frequency of these kinds of posts to increase.

I think we might also expect to see posts turn from a spirited intellectual exchange to one that is personal. What should the moderators do in this instance? What is the appropriate response? Should we ban members that do this repeatedly? Are there other types of behavior that are deemed unacceptable here?

Many online communities develop "community standards" or a "code of conduct" to provide guidelines to address such situations (and try to prevent them in the first place). As a point of discussion, I would like to draw your attention to the Blogger's Code of Conduct being developed in the Blogging Wikia. There are a few suggestions there that seem appropriate:

  • Responsibility for our own words: We take responsibility for our own words and reserve the right to restrict comments on our blog that do not conform to our own standards. Notice that this includes a wide range of things, from personal attacks to copyright violations.
  • Nothing we couldn't say in person: This is tricky, isn't it? The internet provides a degree of anonymity. It may be easier to approach a prominent mechanician with a question on iMechanica than it is in person. We certainly don't want to discourage that. However, it also makes sense to think three times before posting or commenting once.
  • Connect privately first: If tensions escalate, we will connect privately before we respond publicly. I think this makes sense as well. If we see a member post something inappropriate, we will contact them privately first before deleting or editing their post. In some instances it may make sense to give the member the opportunity to delete or edit the post themselves.

There are many other "modules" listed there which I do not mention here. I welcome discussion and thoughts on other aspects. iMechanica is clearly a very different entity than most blogs, due in no small part to its technical emphasis. I'd like to think that something like this wouldn't need to be developed, but perhaps it is something we should consider carefully.

Comments

MichelleLOyen's picture

Interesting points on the difference between spirited intellectual exchange and personal attack.  These issues come up at conferences but certainly even more so in this type of online forum.  More than anything else, I hope that we can make iMechanica a place where the discussion is positive, is scientific, and is polite.  We as scientists will (probably necessarily!) always disagree on points, but if we can recall the "playgound rules" of our youth and be constructive in our discussion, there is no reason for iMechanica to be anything other than a  friendly forum. 

I think the standards for iMech already exist outside the blogosphere and in print, in that no comment published here should deviate from the style of a "Letter to editor" in a technical journal in attacking a single person or concept.    

Mogadalai Gururajan's picture

Recently, I have also noticed a couple of comments where there is no ambiguity at all -- the comments are personal attacks and not spirited discussions; to be fair, they are isolated incidents at iMechanica--but they leave a bad aftertaste when they occur. So, I believe it is a good time to evolve a code of conduct, and strictly enforce it, which, in course of time, will make sure that such attacks will be minimal, if any. 

Pradeep Sharma's picture

John,

Your post is quite timely. As Mogadalai has already stated, a few (certainly isolated) comments do cross the line of acceptable etiquette.

We have all read posts that we have found to be silly, a little offensive or perhaps just irritating. However, despite being less than our favorite, they never cross the line where we (as a community) would wish them to be deleted. Such posts and their authors (I suspect) follow Darwinian dynamics....they are not taken seriously and and reduce the credibility of the authors.

Some of the more vicious comments that we have all noticed contain personal attacks and offend all of us and not just their intended targets.

John: your suggestion of contacting the author of an offending post is quite good. In rare cases, we can follow up with a more public action. I don't believe we need a lot of debate on what is considered "acceptable". It seems that most of us clearly know the distinction.

Teng Li's picture

John,
Thanks for bringing up this issue, which becomes particularly important as iMechanica grows to the current capacity. The online community of iMechanica evolves from an existing academic community, the degree of anonymity in iMechanica is much lower than many other online communities. Theses factors made positive impact to the fast growth of iMechanica at the early stage. Nonetheless, as iMechanica becomes popular, it's under spam attack from time to time; as the number of post and comments increases, contents rather than scientific debate emerge and come to the concern of many of us. This is a timely discussion on the "Code of Conduct" in iMechanica. The third bulleted item in John's post can also serve as the guidance on our actions on certain contents of concern.
-Teng

Zhigang Suo's picture

This is a rather difficult topic for me to discuss, because my views seem not perfectly aligned with those of the several most active iMechanicians, whose opinions I have come to trust, often more than my own opinions. After reading theirs, I thought I should at least write out my views. Perhaps mine are not really different from theirs after all.

At issue is what the iMechanica community should do to the posts that contain personal attacks and to their authors. It is a great idea to start a thread of discussion. Thank you, John, for taking the lead. I've added a link to this thread in the section "Quick guide" on the right side of iMechanica, hoping more users will participate in this discussion, and hoping new uses will see what have been said on this important topic.

Like all communities, on- or off-line, iMechanica will evolve a set of social norms over a period of time. These norms will ensure that iMechanica to be an effective and pleasant place to discuss mechanics. However, a few users will not follow the norms, and other users will have different levels of tolerance for an out-of-norm behavior.

My own views are as follows. iMechanica is likely to become a large community of mechanicians. I believe that more people are better to accomplish the mission of iMechanica:

  1. to use the Internet to enhance communications among mechanicians, and
  2. to pave a way to evolve all knowledge of mechanics online.

Given a lot of people, it is inescapable that we will encounter people quite different from us who follow the social norms. Some of their words take us by surprise and are even hurtful.

To people who follow the social norms, I'd say, be more tolerant. After all, once you have identified a user who regularly attacks other users, you can always avoid reading his posts. You may even write a comment below his offensive post to lend your support to the victim of his attack. Of course, you should only be tolerant if you judge the overall value of iMechanica to you outweighs occasional unpleasant encounters.

To people who disobey the social norms, I'd say, search in your heart and ask a simple question, will the substance of your post be compromised if you follow the social norms? If the answer is yes, and if you believe that your post makes a positive contribution to the iMechanica community, by all means go ahead post your offensive post. Most often, I suspect, the answer is no. Then why not modify your post and be not offensive? You might make your message more effective, once personal attack is removed.

Social norms are norms. In a diverse community, there will always be people far from the norms. In old days, we would say they are in the fringe of a community. Now we may say that they are in The Long Tail. The Internet provides ample space for all kinds of opinions and all kinds of people. Even people in The Long Tail may make useful contributions to our understanding of mechanics.

I grew up in a country that had extremely narrowly defined social norms, enforced often by coercion by severe public opinions or by the state. I'd love to be in a tolerant community, with healthy social norms accepted by most members, on a voluntary basis.

Given my own qualm about deleting any post except for things like ads for porn websites, I sincerely ask you to express your opinions on when you think moderators should delete a post.

Alan Tan's picture

I agree with Prof. Suo.  If we were to delete somebody's posts, people will always feel bad of being censored. we are engineers and scientists here. We are educated people. We should not resort to violent objections and personal attacks.  I am hoping that we won't resort to personal attacks but sometimes it happens. But hopefully they can use private mails.  

ADVICE: If ever you feel slighted by a post or a reply, just take a deep breadth and remember that not all of us are native english speakers. We are an international group and sometimes people dont really want to be mean. They just cannot express themselves in a second language. 

Although I dont want censoring posts, I believe that the community should also be vigilant that if ever anybody is becoming a real problem, then we can resort to censoring or removing them from the group.I think we should not scare people in objecting to other people's ideas.

 

regards,

alan 

An alternative to deleting posts would be  to move them to a  different part of imechanica called  "Trash".

 

 Amit Ranade 

Pradeep Sharma's picture

Dear Zhigang,

I, at least in broad terms, share your viewpoint. However, what if the post offends members of the community who (as a direct result of the consequent negativity) simply elect to stay away from iMechanica? We should be very reluctant to delete any posts (yes, even offensive ones) but for habitual offendors I see no harm in say requesting them to tone down their comments (at first) and then eventually deleting those (if they don't comply). I suppose, in some sense, I see little difference between an ad for a pornsite and a comment containing personal attacks----both are offensive to a large majority of the iMechanica readership.

I would not mind reading more posts by the "fringe" of our community. Many mechanicians perhaps won't take them seriously and perhaps some may. Bottom line though, most "fringe" opinions and their originators are often harmless and offend no one. As you said, the readers will learn to recognize such authors and simply not read their posts. The posts that contain personal attacks however are more serious....and in my subjective opinion, no better than porn, racial or nationalistic slurs. One or two recent offensive posts that I have in mind at least contain the latter two.

Roberto Ballarini's picture

I agree that some of the postings have been offensive at best. Our, a am a firm believer in freedom of expression, and therefore would not recommend deleting of posts or any sort of castigation. Our society struggles daily with the issue of whether speech, art, etc. should be subjected to some level of censoring. At the end, censoring is not the way to go.  Irritating discussions that we can choose not to read or respond to are worth the price of free speech. One may argue that Imechanica is a mechanics blog, and that therefore posts that involve only insults and not mechanics should be erased. I would rather see such posts; they speak volumes about the scientist that writes them. Newton and Hooke wrote lots of nasty stuff; can you imagine how less interesting scientific history would be if someone had purged their discussions for all time? With respect to all of you wonderful mechanicians, Roberto.

Roberto,

Your point about being able to see such posts, because they speak volumes about the author, is well taken - I've had similar thoughts on many an occasion in quite different contexts.

However, while I believe in allowing equal opportunity for people to express their opinion, I also believe that not all opinions are of equal value. Personal attacks are at the bottom of the scale, clearly, regardless of the author. I'm sure some people find garbage interesting, but that doesn't mean we should keep it lying around. A call for civility is not the same as censoring a voice.

 

Your still on-going discussion only makes one curious as to what contents of what posts you all are talking about.

From some of the posts, I gather that the offensive posts have already been deleted. From John Dolbow's above post, there is a hint that perhaps they are still lying around.

I am curious about the "offensive" contents--as is (and not its abstract characterization).

In other words: "Give me the facts, ma'm!"  

So, could some or the other moderator let me know the offensive contents by email to me so I know what this is all about? (If you want, you can delete the name of the author and simply forward the content). Thanks in advance!

Another point. Refer to Prof. Ballarini's comment just above (I mean the very last one). He talks of how the offensive posts can speak volumes about the "author". But, Sir, what if the "authorship" cannot at all be established to any individual--i.e., if his membership profile contains no education details, no photo, no affiliation, no contact email (or the possibility of sending one), but just a floating abstraction called "profile"? Will the potential loss of reputation mean anything to such a "person" or "author"?

But more important than that is the irrepressible curiosity I have now developed about the *contents* of the offensive posts? Can they be shared in a discreet way? Moderators ??.....

Roberto Ballarini's picture

Dear Ajit:

I too do not know what specific posts have led to this discussion. My statements are based on the assumption that those that post comments provide their name and background. I was not aware that certain individuals do not provide such information on Imechanica, and as a result it may be possible, as you pointed out, that at times authorship may not be established.

I support your request to know more about the specific comments that led to this discussion, even though it may lead to some additional uncomfortable discussion.

Roberto.

Henry Tan's picture

I saw some porn ads posted several times; they should be 100% deleted, and were deleted on-time. Thanks to our moderators for making iMechanica clean.

Henry Tan's picture

I believe that free speech is a gift from God to every human being, since everyone is made in His image. The only requirement is that the author of the post should be a real human being, i.e., a physically accountable person. Once this humanity background check is passed, I think he/she is free to post.

The other thing is that the post should be mechanics related. I think basically there is mechanics in everything.

Then the question remain is quite concrete: how to effectively check that the registered name is of a physically accountable person?

I don't think that the registered name should be that of a physically accountable person. This smacks of control, and is an impediment in the expression of unpopular opinions. Numerous websites (for example see slashdot http://www.slashdot.org , the USENET, operate perfectly well without verification. One always has the option of ignoring malicious/personal attacks. If a person/ID is a blatant troll, then the moderators are well within their rights to ban that person/ID. Using imechanica is not a fundamental right. But, to require a policy of background check/verification will be counter productive for imechanica.  Why not require people to disclose their Social Security number/Passport Number while you're at it? A better policy would be system of moderation by the community itself. Again, this has been implemented on slashdot and I'm guessing that it will make its way into the next version of Drupal. 

Anyway, I don't really see the point of requiring an accountable person behind the ID. The only malicious, bitterly personal attacks, insinuations, generalizations, I have seen on imechanica have been posted by a verifiable, real person or a troll pretending to be a verifiable, real person.

   Amit Ranade 

Zhigang Suo's picture

While the use of your full name in iMechanica is voluntary, here are some simple reasons why you would like to use your full name as your username.

In the early days of the internet the Usenet ruled supreme as a means of communicating with likeminded individuals.  A number of groups were formed and discussions were generally civil and highly informative.  As more and more people began to access the internet, the level of discourse degraded until it was dominated by people with the loudest voices and the most controversial ideas.  At some point most reasonable people stopped frequenting these groups.  The primary reason was a lack of moderation. 

The current incarnations of these groups are the Yahoo groups and Google groups among other Web 2.0 applications.  The discourse is much more restrained in these groups because of moderation.  I believe that the reason for the degeneration of forums over time is due a form of the tragedy of the commons.

Arun Gupta's blogpost  on the various forms of discourse in the blogosphere gives a succint idea of why a discussion forum degenerates over time.  What I want on iMechanica is vaada (or talk).  Discussions turn nasty when there is jalpa because "a discussion between two people, both of whom are committed to certain beliefs, is purely a dialogue between two missionaries.....each person
always comes back with better arguments. Jalpa discussions are useless,
they have no value
." 

There is also the vitandaa argument "where one person makes a statement and the other person always disagrees, merely because the other person said it. Such a discussion is also useless."  Some amount of moderation is needed to cut short discussions that border on jalpa or vitandaa.  Otherwise these will dominate over time and the forum will degenerate.

Biswajit 

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