Blog: Online Communities

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

The Value of Aspirational Rules

In my part of the physical and digital world, discourse has gotten a lot more polarized in recent years. People are less likely to presume good intent and are more likely to take the worst possible view of another’s words. People are less likely to consider nuanced positions and instead take binary views: either you’re fully on my side or you’re a bad person. People are more likely to take things out of context or ignore the time and place in which something now objectionable was said.

People aren’t doing this for jollies; it happens because people are hurt, have been systematically hurt for years or decades or longer (personally or as part of a group), and want it to stop — and because fast, available, many-to-many communication has finally given people a platform to raise their voices. People want to make society safer and less hurtful — worthy goals! People want to be heard.

Owners and moderators of platforms and public spaces are now more mindful of their roles in public discourse. Many have concluded that aspirational rules like “be nice” or “treat others as you would like to be treated” or Victorian Sufi Buddha Lite don’t work. Instead, rule lists and codes of conduct grow more detailed as new ways to cause discomfort arise. Unfortunately, the authors of these tomes don’t always follow their own rules or consider how those rules can be misused.

We need to stop doing that. I don’t mean “don’t have rules”; I mean we need the aspirational, nuanced, people-oriented rules to be front and center, even though they don’t come with easy checklists. We need to use them with a dose of humanity and thoughtfulness, and we need to be willing to examine individual cases with transparency, working together with our communities. Read more…

Building Codidact Communities

ArtOfCode, the team lead for Codidact, recently wrote Building Codidact: Not Just Tech. It begins:

I’ve been working on Codidact for the last 18 months or so. We’ve built up from nothing, planned what we wanted to do, put systems up, started work, changed course, re-started work, switched systems, and welcomed and lost a whole load of team members along the way. We’ve served just under 5 million requests and 50GB of data in the last month — which is not vast scale, but it’s certainly much bigger scale than anything else anyone on our team has worked with. We’ve all learned a lot along the way: our team is still small, and we’ve all got other commitments; while everyone has things they’re good at, we’ve all had to learn bits of other areas to be able to support each other as well.

Art wrote about evolution of the platform and team, and of the things that happen to grand plans when they make contact with reality. In this post I’m going to focus on the community side — people and sites and features and evolving needs and what I’ve learned along the way.

I’m Monica Cellio, Community Lead at Codidact. Read more…

Trolling Wall Street

This is oddly fascinating, even though I don't understand all of it. If I understand correctly:

A "short" is a bet that a stock price will fall: you promise to sell it on a certain date at a certain price, but you don't actually own the shares. On that day, the idea goes, you'll buy the shares at the lower price you expect and then turn around and fulfill your contract, pocketing the difference. I don't know if regular folks like you and me can do that, or if only investment funds and professional stock-market people can. There are some rules that are different for the big players and the little folks; I don't know if this is one of them.

So... some big Wall Street hedge funds (one often mentioned is Melvin Capital) placed vast quantities of shorts on a gaming-gear company that isn't doing well (GameStop). A bunch of people on Reddit observed this and said to Wall Street: hold my beer.

They bought the stock. Hundreds of thousands of people on Reddit bought the stock. At that scale, any individual participant doesn't have to buy a lot; you could play this game for $20 back when it started. And it's not like you can spend that $20 going out to a movie right now, so there was probably an untapped market of bored people looking for fun. Read more…

Social-media platforms and their manipulations

A friend, in a locked post, talked about leaving Facebook because of their manipulation of what you see. "That's a lot of power for one company to wield", the person said. I wrote the following in a comment:

I was never comfortable with Facebook. I had an account for about two minutes, under the belief that if I created and then deleted an account, nobody else would be able to create a fake account to impersonate me. Ah, those days of naivete.

I don't trust platforms that give me a selective view of activity without letting me turn the knobs. On Dreamwidth (and LiveJournal before it turned evil), I know that if I read back until I hit something I recognized, I've seen everything on my subscription list (modulo author-deleted posts). I wasn't going to miss stuff. On Facebook, and Twitter and Google+, that isn't/wasn't true. Twitter now has a control for "show me stuff in order" versus "show me selections based on what's likely to interest me", but I don't know that the former doesn't also filter stuff out. I use Twitter, but knowing that I can't rely on it for consuming stuff. For the people I want to see everything from, I get notifications. That doesn't scale, so I miss a lot, and therefore it's not reliable. But I'm there because that's where some important-to-me connections are, presumably like why you were on Facebook.

Not being on Facebook has cut me off from some stuff, I know. Too many people think "well, I posted it on Facebook so you should know about it". I can only hope that, now that more people are becoming aware of how Facebook filters content out, some people might stop assuming that. We'll see.

When you use someone else's platform you're at risk of them flaking out or changing their rules or them just being dishonest. Facebook, Twitter, Stack Exchange, Reddit, LiveJournal... they control the servers so, ultimately, they control your activity. They can be arbitrary (recently saw someone get booted without appeal from Twitter for content that their algorithm said was bad, that wasn't), they can be capricious (Stack Exchange, need we say more?), they can be evil (LiveJournal, now in thrall to the Russian government)... we make the best decisions we can at the time about where to participate, and sometimes learn we were wrong and have to move.

But striking out on your own has costs too. If you set up a blog on your own, a few of your friends will subscribe by RSS but you won't have the community aspect. When LJ imploded I didn't set up my own blog; I moved to Dreamwidth. I decided to trust Dreamwidth, and believe they are more worthy of that trust than LJ was. I like to think that Codidact is more worthy of trust than Stack Exchange is, and that people can participate with more confidence that they won't be treated sneakily and viciously. Disclosure: I'm one of the people in charge at Codidact, so I'm biased. But operating in the open and not having stockholders makes a big difference too, I think.

If we want to be part of Internet-connected communities, whether small groups of friends or huge international groups, then we have to either build our own platforms or rely on others. Usually the former is impractical, so it comes down to remaining vigilant about the practices of the providers on whom we depend. And sometimes we need to pick up and move (or leave), disruptive as it is.

2020

Somebody on Twitter asked:

What did you learn in 2020 (besides how to make bread)?

I responded there:

  • To grow food in pots.
  • To cut men's hair.
  • To cook more new things.
  • That my cat loves me being home all the time.
  • More about community-building.
  • How to set up a nonprofit foundation.
  • To cut people w/no morals or human decency out of my life.
  • And yes, sourdough.

I was up against a character limit there, but I'm not here. Read more…

Community philosophy: centralized structure or self-determination?

A few days ago I wrote about moderator selection in online communities, and somebody asked in a comment which is a better approach, Stack Exchange's centralized control or Reddit's anarchy, where the founder of a subreddit is in charge and communities can have whatever rules they want about content and moderator selection. I responded:

I hope we're drawing on the best of both and avoiding the worst of both. On our network we have a community-proposal mechanism, which is much lighter-weight than Stack Exchange's. (Stack Exchange now makes it very difficult to create a community, which fits with both their business model and the fact that they've got 170 of them already.) On Codidact, we'll create a community if -- hand-waving ahead -- there's "enough" interest. "Enough" is a fuzzy mix of number of people, people's specific interests (e.g. if nobody's prepared to answer questions that'd be a problem), and level of enthusiasm. The Judaism community had several enthusiastic people within hours of being proposed; we launched that in a few days. A proposal for role-playing games feels like it ought to have support but people aren't participating much in the discussion so we don't know if we should create it or wait. And, of course, we're new to this and learning as we go. Read more…

Election mechanics (not about the US)

A few days ago I was musing elsewhere about some online elections. Specifically, Stack Exchange has been running elections to replace all the moderators who have quit, and it's highlighting some weaknesses in their election scheme. Ranked voting is much better than "first past the post" but you still have to put the right checks in place.

If your election system uses ranked voting, think about how voters can reject candidates. The Hugo awards have "no award" as an automatic candidate in each category and you rank all candidates. My local SCA group lets you mark candidates as not acceptable and any who get 35% NA are removed, which gives the voters a veto when needed. Systems in which you pick N candidates lack this safety check.

"Cast N votes" doesn't let you distinguish between "this candidate is ok but not in my top N" and "I oppose this candidate". And even if you allow "not acceptable" marks on candidates (like my SCA group), you still need to allow ranking those candidates so voters can express "the clueless candidate before the evil one". If I recall correctly, my SCA group gets that part wrong; if you vote "not acceptable" you can't also rank the candidate, so you can't express degrees of unacceptability. If your goal is to deter NA votes that's a positive; if your goal is to elect people who are broadly acceptable then it's a negative. Read more…

New Codidact communities

I am delighted by how well things are going on the Judaism community on Codidact. We have a lot of active people and interesting questions. I have my people back. And in time we'll broaden our activities; there are discussions of an on-site blog (for torah commentary) and a dictionary or wiki of Jewish and halachic terms and concepts. We've also integrated with Sefaria, the big online collection of sources, which is cool and produces bidirectional links.

Paging Dr. Whom and other linguists: Languages & Linguistics is a new site and currently has questions about Hebrew, Arabic, a comparison between Arabic and Chinese, English, and (language-agnostic) linguistic concepts.

People have been asking us for a programming site for a while. Friday we launched Software Development, which has a slow start so far presumably because of the weekend. We wouldn't normally launch on a Friday, but this was the best timing for the SRE-type who would be keeping an eye on things for the first few days. Its scope is broad; we're planning for spin-offs from the start but we're starting with one big tent rather than creating specialized communities that struggle more to achieve critical mass.

Now we have to get the word out. I have a draft of the next newsletter for our mailing list, so that should go out soon.

(Our other communities: Writing, Outdoors, Photography & Video, Scientific Speculation, Cooking, Electrical Engineering, and the "town hall", Meta.)

New Judaism community on Codidact!

I'm so excited!

Last Wednesday, an active user on Mi Yodeya asked on meta about trying out Codidact. By the end of the day it has something like 18 votes, which is a strong show of community support on this site.

On Thursday (by which time it had picked up a few more votes), this same user proposed it on Codidact's "site proposals" section. Several people participated in that discussion, including Isaac, the founder of Mi Yodeya (who is one of the moderators there). Isaac also posted an answer on the Mi Yodeya meta question commending my involvement.

On Friday it was pretty clear to us on the Codidact team that the proposal had the support it needed to go forward. We tested Hebrew fonts and the lead developer added a Hebrew keyboard for typing posts, adapted from a userscript a Yodeyan had written for use there. (Eventually Stack Exchange took that script and built it in, so not having it would be a regression for our users on Codidact.) We tried to figure out what to use for a logo.

Saturday night after Shabbat we talked about some final details. Sunday morning we launched the site.

Monday I had a brief conversation with somebody at Sefaria about their source linker, a server-side package that finds citations (like "Genesis 1:1") on web pages and turns them into links to source texts on Sefaria. After a bit of poking and a code review we turned that on. Much excitement on our site ensued.

It's now been a few days, and Judaism Codidact is going great so far! We're still having some initial meta discussions, including what data to import from Mi Yodeya and whether to broaden scope in certain ways, but that doesn't stop us from asking and answering questions right now, which people are doing. People I miss from Mi Yodeya are showing up, and I hope in time more will. I've missed my friends. I've missed being part of this community.

We asked Isaac to be an initial moderator on the Codidact site, and he wrote a thoughtful explanation of why he accepted on Mi Yodeya. This is the model of collaboration and cooperation. Online Jewish learning is not a zero-sum game; Mi Yodeya and Judaism Codidact can exist side by side, working together to spread knowledge and build community. I'm delighted to have him on Codidact along with Mi Yodeya.

"Click here" is usually weak, but not always

It's generally held among professional writers (and presumably some others) that constructs of the form "for more information click here", with "here" being a hyperlink, is not good style. It's far better, in general, to incorporate some clue about the content into the link -- "See the formatting help for more information", with "formatting help" being a link to documentation, provides more information at a glance and just reads less clunkily.

When answering questions on sites like Stack Exchange and Codidact, one sometimes wants to refer to another answer (for example to elaborate on it or disagree with a point made in it). I posted such an answer recently and used link text of "another answer" instead of "Joe's answer". If I had said "Joe's answer", somebody who's just read that answer would have context without having to go look. Someone who knows my general writing style asked me why I used the vaguer formation.

This is my general style on sites like these now, and I do actually have a reason. Two, actually, the more significant of which is caring about people's feelings.

On Stack Exchange, Codidact, TopAnswers, and presumably others with which I'm less familiar, users can change their display names. Using a name as text rather than an '@'-reference in a link can thus decay. I've seen too many posts that mention "Joe's answer" but there's no Joe evident on the page now, years after that text was written. So that's confusing and I try to be careful; some people change names frequently, leaving trails of dead references in their wakes.

But it's not just about avoiding confusion. For me this name-avoidant practice crystalized some years ago when a prominent SE user transitioned gender. I realized that old posts of mine (from before I was careful about this) now dead-named this person. Ouch! Also maybe dead-pronouned, though if you write posts in a gender-neutral way like I try to in such contexts, you can minimize that damage.

We don't know who's going to be someone different later. My desire to attribute properly is at odds with my desire to account for future changes that affect writing I might not actively maintain. For in-page references the post is right there; omitting the name in favor of a generic reference is not harmful and is more future-proof. For regular citations, I attribute by name because giving credit is important, and just do my best.

I know that people who transition -- even just names, let alone gender -- just have to deal with the fact that they had lives before and those references don't vanish. My friend Owen understands that sometimes we need to talk about Zoe. But sometimes we can do a small thing to alleviate a little bit of unnecessary frustration and not make people's lives more difficult. It seems worth doing in these cases where the cost of being mindful of these possibilities is small.

I don't do this everywhere. My blog, being more personal in nature, is more likely to refer to people by name, use gendered pronouns, and otherwise bake in current context. My blog isn't a public knowledge repository like Codidact is. We write differently for Wikipedia, Codidact, blogs, and email, and that's ok.