Sunday, March 26, 2017

An unwanted trip down memory lane

I wanted to check that I hadn't accidentally borked things in such a way as to have a post not show up in the site's feed over at the Slacktiverse.  I don't use feeds, so this was more involved than one might expect.  Involved, but not difficult.  Also quite quick.  But it dredged up certain other results.  One was So you've just been turned into a zombie apparently because it was originally posted at the Slacktiverse and I noted that in the name.

Another was a post from Slackitvist which was just before the collapse of the Slacktiverse on typepad.

A sort of morbid curiosity had me looking back on it, and then I was caught up, and before long I was just habitually searching for a term in the comments, reading, and repeating, on autopilot.  Repetitive activity without any real thought on what I'm doing, if I should be doing it, or if I'm even capable of stopping is something that goes with my depression, and I tend to get trapped in cycles like that provided the activity is simple enough to do on autopilot.  I used to wear holes straight through otherwise pristine jeans with a finger motion along my inner thigh.

It was less boring to do "Next occurance of search term - Read - Repeat" than wear a hole through the skirt I'm wearing, but it definitely wasn't fun.

So, let's talk about the original Slacktiverse and the memories that got dredged up.

* * *

Fred Clark was a friend of the person who invented the term "Slacktivist" in it's original meaning, a meaning that some people seem to be (unknowingly) reclaiming.  The original definition from the person who coined the term was people derided as slackers because they weren't out doing big news-making things (for example: clogging the national mall with with a well-publicized march) but were in fact activists who got shit done.

Maybe they weren't participating in a national march because they where working at a soup kitchen, planting trees, helping local kids, volunteering at church, and (yes) writing shit on the internet to raise awareness.  Maybe they were just doing one thing.  But they were in fact making a difference in spite of the fact that they were viewed as slackers.

When Fred Clark started blogging he did it under the handle "Slacktivist", which he uses to this day.  Though it didn't start there, Slacktivist was at typepad for ages.  Then Fred got and took an offer to join Patheos a place that is . . . better in theory than in practice.  It was that way even moreso when he joined.

The commentariat was a vibrant community and a lot of people didn't want to lose that even though several prominent members flat out refused to move to patheos.  A compromise was reached.

* * *

The general consensus was that people trusted three commenters to take the reigns of whatever happened, and so Fred gave those three the keys to the site he was leaving at typepad.

Thus the Slacktiverse was born.

Of course, most people followed Fred away, only a handful followed both places, and a lot of those who said they would never go to patheos ended up going.

And there was a question of content.

Now the entire point of the Slackiverse was the conversion in the comments so the content of the main post never really mattered all that much (not to deride main posts, many were quite good) but there was some question of how to run a commenter blog.

So commenters submitted posts, and such.  But there were definite problems behind the scenes.

"Always" is a bit overstating it, but as far as most people were concerned Fred had always stayed out of the comments.  The three moderators of the Slacktiverse were chosen from the commenters.  There was definitely an attempt to make clear when the mod hat was on and when it wasn't, but for some reason it never seemed to work there the way it did in other places.

Fred is male.  The three moderators were all female.  The misogyny came in thick, but was mostly relegated to the spam trap so it was a while before people other than the mods were aware of it.

For some reason where things really came to a head was in the standards the community chose for itself as it was being decided how things would be run in the absence of Fred.  Specifically trigger warnings.

Fred doesn't use them, the Slacktiverse did.

Some triggers are obvious.  Death, torture, rape, self-harm, starvation.  Some triggers are not.  That's the things about triggers.  Consider the obvious ones of torture and rape.  (You have been warned.)  There is a form of torture by rape that uses a Coca Cola bottle.  It's actually a fairly standard practice in certain places.  Why?  It's done in hopes that Coca Cola becomes a trigger.  That way, even after the torture is over, the person will keep on suffering.  ("Coca Cola" is the second most commonly used term, regardless of language, on earth, if you're interested the first is apparently "okay".)

One would probably never think to warn people, "This is going to have coca cola bottles in it, so prepare yourself or avoid it if you need to," but if someone in the community has suffered that, the community would be wise to create such warnings.

Even when people don't use the term "trigger warning" or "content note" this does have a habit of happening.  I knew someone whose aracnaphobia was so severe that pictures of spiders would set him off bad.  So in a forum he frequented, people would, without ever being asked, have notes like "[name] don't click this, spiders".

The Slacktiverse wasn't a place where the "Without being asked" thing was done.  But when people did ask, it was something that would be noted by those who remembered in the future.  Well, the nice ones who remembered.

There was one case where someone who wrote about transumanism tended to go on topics that were triggering for another member and there was a detailed and civil back and forth over exactly what the warning should be.  It was hashed out that it was easiest to just warn for transhumanism in general (even though it wasn't what was triggering) than each and every individual subtopic of transhumanism that was in fact triggering.

When people saw warnings for transhumanism, though, good fucking god.

* * *

So we had the misogyny, including liberal use of the only English profanity I refuse to use, behind the scenes, and out in front we had people looking at every warning and being all, "You warn for X.  That's absurd.  No one could be triggered by X.  This is completely over the top Political Correctness police state shit.  Who is triggered by X?  How?  Why? X, X, X.  Justify your pain to me."

And that wasn't the problem.  The problem was that those people would then go to other places (sometimes first) and rant about the over-coddled special-snowflakes and there'd be an influx of trolls.

Looking back you'd really never tell.  The mods were good at catching the horrible fucking shit and getting rid of it.  You only knew about the times when you happened to load the page after the shit but before the mods axed it.

Of course, there was enough shit that as a regular you'd see it at least some of the time.

Somewhat strangely, the absolute worst came from Slacktivist.  We'd all been one group, many of us were part of both groups, and there'd been no bad blood in becoming two groups, but any mention of the Slacktiverse in the Slacktivist comments caused a massive influx of particularly toxic trolling.

PZ Meyers didn't help either.  (Yes, it was checked, it was really him.)

Anyway, this all put the mod team under a lot of stress, and there were other things too (I was originally going to go into more detail about one I had firsthand knowledge of, but I think I'll leave it confidential) and as a result of the massive load on them combined with human fallibility they didn't handle everything perfectly.

That drove some people away, which sucked.  Mistakes alienating good people always sucks.  But it also had another effect.  Every imperfectly done thing would be harped on elsewhere causing a fresh influx of trolls to the site.

And the imperfectly done things would be used to argue that the mods were horrible people which could then be used to cast things where there was no fault in a negative light, which was all then combined and presented as evidence they were monstrous internet tyrants.

And they were on the hook for things they didn't do.  The "This Week" posts, the one feature that completely survived the various transitions to the modern Slacktiverse have always been reader submissions.  Readers submitted their own trigger warnings/content notes.  And fuck did the mods at the Slacktiverse take a lot of flack for being the kind of oversensitive anti-free speech jackbooted net-thugs who would use certain content notes they never wrote.

Because, "I wrote this and I think you might want to know X is in it when you decide whether or not to read," really implies all of that stuff between "for being" and "who would use".

And there was the infamous post, not by the mods, in which an atheist criticized atheists who want to convert the entire world to their particular views on religion so that no one who disagrees will be left amoung the living.  (But, do note, conversion and natural die-off, not killing.)  Calling it "evil in one of its purest forms" was probably a poor choice of wording, but it was the first post in a conversation and it took all of three posts for someone to offer a loud, resounding "No, you're wrong," counter argument.

That had trolls coming in entirely unrelated to the other trolls in a stream that never, ever, stopped.

* * *

The final tipping point, though, was when someone said, out of the blue, that they didn't want Slacktivist turning into another Slacktiverse during a discussion of French imperialism in Morocco circa World War II in a comment thread to a Slacktivist deconstruction post of Left Behind book 3, Nicolae: The Rise of the Antichrist.

Massive influx of trolling.

Combined with the steady streams from other sources it eventually became too much, changes were needed, and a completely new moderation system was set to be implemented.

It was too late though.  The system never got a chance to really be tried because by now there was too fucking much trolling coming from too many directions and the original home of the Slacktiverse was closed to new comments and converted to an archive.  The moderators went into self-exile so they would neither have to suffer the shit moving forward nor lead the trolls to whatever followed.

In the scramble to set up a new home before the old one was forever closed (so there could be a link) we went with what one person (Ana Mardoll) knew.  Except . . . Ana knew Blogger for main posts and disqus for comments but some people couldn't use disqus and Blogger's built in stuff turned out to be insufficient (I don't get trolled nearly as much so it works for me) so the place was a bad fit.  Thus it became a redirect to the current home.

* * *

And my trip down memory lane really drove home how much people who weren't there fundamentally didn't get what was happening.  They saw two or three people who ranged from good-faith hostile to Trolly McTrollstien.  That was such a small part of it.

I kind of wonder if the effectiveness of the moderators ended up hurting them.  Most of the shitstorm was invisible unless you were engaged enough in a conversation to be refreshing the page frequently to see what new comments had been made in real time.  Otherwise the vast majority of the trolling was gone by the time you were reading.

That meant that the only thing you really saw were the non-trolls.  If the only people the moderators were visibly responding to were those who weren't that bad, it could seem like those were the ones they were coming down, which would mean everything they were saying about the trolling could seem to be directed at relatively innocuous commenters.

And without getting the stress the mods were under, you didn't understand why mistakes were being made, you just knew that mistakes were being made.

The trolls ended up basically invisible, and the only thing outsiders or casual insiders saw were people who weren't doing anything bad enough to be deleted.  And the mistakes that the mods were making as more and more stress was placed on them?  They fell into that category.  All the errors were visible, most of the correct things were not.

So for an outsider it looked like there was relatively little bad happening, no explanation for why the mods were getting more and more hair-trigger, some minor bad things that the mods dealt with, a fair amount of the mods talking about major bad things that didn't seem to have evidence, and some cases where that increasingly fine hair-trigger caused them to censure people who didn't deserve it.

But most of all what stands out is that people flat out didn't get that they were part of a larger group, one whose most active members they disapproved of.  Whenever people had a gripe-fest at Slacktivist it caused massive trolling at Slacktiverse, and instead of recognizing that that was a problem it was just completely ignored.

People were seriously saying things that amounted to, "Do we have to talk about this?  Can't we not?  Well, I don't want to, but here let me lob this troll bait out so they'll get swarmed over there while I stand safely over here and act like there's no such thing as trolls."

* * *

The whole fucking thing sucked.


  1. I kind of wonder if the effectiveness of the moderators ended up hurting them

    I kinda think so. It looked for all the world like the mods were freaking out over nothing at all, plus getting very angry at anyone who questioned that they were, indeed, combatting ceaseless soul-destroying abuse, and that's a pretty extraordinary claim to make to anyone who hadn't already been there for years watching things evolve. I was personally completely willing to believe the mods, but I still ended up leaving after an incident that left me feeling like I'd been nuked for being too moderate in defense of the mods against an offender whose crimes no one but them had actually seen.

    1. I agree with this and with the unwanted nature of this memory excursion.

      I have had a few similar experiences before and since and I guess I've at least learned stuff, but it has been so awful.

  2. I kind of wonder if the effectiveness of the moderators ended up hurting them

    *nods* I wonder this too. I saw just a small percentage of the trolling and it was BAD. Like, bad enough that reading this (accurate, excellent) recap made my stomach churn from the memory of it. And at least one of the mods was using her Real Name and facing professional consequences from the trolls.

    We were so new to ideas like doxxing and swatting. GomerGoat wouldn't be a thing for years to come. I think we honestly (as a community) just didn't understand how bad it was. And the moderators shielded us from it, which was good, but it meant others didn't see what they were under.

    I have so many regrets about all of that time period. I wish I could go back and have done more, been more supportive, helped more. I didn't realize just how PANICKY it felt, being under that kind of constant attack.