On the joys of being part of a small online community

From Joseph Seering, 2020, Reconsidering Community Self-Moderation: the Role of Research in Supporting Community-Based Models for Online Content Moderation:

In May of 1978, the “CommuniTree #1” online Bulletin Board System (BBS) launched in the San Francisco Bay area [95 , pp. 88–92], [ 96]. Built from the CommuniTree Group’s idea to structure online conversation in threaded, tree-style structures based around core “conference” topics, it was the most successful entry into the very new space of online social spaces; while the first set of these virtual bulletin boards, developed in the mid-to-late 1970s, only displayed messages either in alphabetical order or in the order messages were posted [96], CommuniTree #1’s tree-style design allowed for conversations to move fluidly in multiple directions. The CommuniTree #1 platform and its subsequent iterations were infused with its creators’ philosophy of the grand power of social technology – the first discussion thread (called a “conference”) opened with the bold statement, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it”. The participants (mostly academics, researchers, and computing hobbyists) saw themselves “not primarily as readers of bulletin boards or participants in a novel discourse but as agents of a new kind of social experiment” [95, p. 90]1. In 1982, Apple entered into an agreement with the United States government to provide schools with Apple computers as a substitute for paying taxes, which caused a huge influx of teenage, mostly male users into virtual spaces previously reserved for the intellectual elite. Upon discovering CommuniTree, these students filled the board’s allotted disk space with “every word they could think of that meant shitting or fucking” [ 96 ], an onslaught for which existing users were completely unprepared. CommuniTree had been launched with minimal moderation tools; an “anti-censorship” philosophy was written directly into its code, with features that prevented system operators from proactively filtering messages as they came in, made it difficult to remove messages once they were entered, and granted any user access to commands that controlled the host computer, so the students’ incursions forced system operators to completely purge the system almost daily. Within a few months, CommuniTree was dead. The online, self-governing utopia that was CommuniTree lasted for less than half a decade. Relying almost entirely on the goodwill of its homogenous user-base, it had managed to survive and even thrive, but when confronted by a new set of users with different values and goals it collapsed. This may be one of the earliest major failures of online moderation documented in research literature, and, at least in hindsight, was a major blow to the dream that the internet could function simply as a ‘marketplace of ideas’ where better perspectives would naturally rise to the top.

1 Like

Ain’t that the rub…

I often wonder if there is merit in anonymity despite its obvious pitfalls. After spending many hours digging through reddit threads I’ve decided that there is a certain freedom that comes from being unidentifiable as an author and an upvoter. While the former seems impossible in a small community the latter is certainly possible and might be worthwhile. The like button is only as valuable as it is representative of real support and in an environment of almost zero anonymity it seems hard to show support for anything that cuts against the current zeitgeist lest you be labeled a non-believer in the current thing… A marketplace of ideas requires a currency and, for better or worse, likes are the coin of the realm. Perhaps we should grant the ability to spend them anonymously…. Just my two cents.