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Mishandling flame wars and personal attacks


John Anderson (top left), Russell Tavares (bottom left) and the digitally altered image of Tavares that Anderson posted on a photo-sharing website.

John Anderson (top left), Russell Tavares (bottom left) and the digitally altered image of Tavares that Anderson posted on a photo-sharing website.

This is a beautiful case to explain some points of hosting/moderating a community. Read this article Online Dispute turns Toxic by Stephen Hutcheon at The Age site, and then come back here so we can talk about it.

*drums fingers*….. *fidgets* ….. you finished reading yet?

The quotable quote is:

‘Just a small squabble resulted in one man coming down here and burning down another man’s house’

In brief, John Anderson (Johnny Darkness) and Russell Tavares (PyroDice) had what we call a flame war. The community, polarising as it always does across antithetical views, went into a full scale abuse, name calling attack mode complete with photoshopped photos and in real life threats. The hosts did nothing.

The Community:

Yafro – or Orfay as the site is now called – might have a worldwide audience, but it’s a small community in the scheme of things. Its space where people post photos of themselves, or photos they have digitally altered. The members chat, rate, and comment on, each other’s handiwork.

Sounds pretty normal so far. The mashing up of each others fotos is asking for problems but hey, that probably gives the site its edge. A few years ago, probably 6 or 7 years, Hot-Or-Not Photo communities were THE rage. Sort of like blogging today. 😛

The Leader:

About four years go Anderson was voted in by fellow members as the King of Yafro – an honorary title bestowed in recognition of his regular involvement with the online community.

There are a number of roles within an online community and they include host or greeter, cop, guru, leader, elder, brat, judge, event co-ordinator. These may not be formal roles – for example, the “event co-ordinator” is just a regular who is always saying “oh everyone be online at 7pm on Sunday night for SilkCharm’s birthday”. It’s usually the same person nominating similar activities each time.

In Johnny Darkness Anderson’s case, he was consciously voted a leader based on contributions made.

The Brat
The unacknowledged role of brat was possibly taken by Tavares and Anderson was sworn in to take control of the “haters” (or brats)

(Anderson) said that around the time he was crowned king, a group of members began picking on him. In a technique known as trolling, his critics insulted him and his online friends and goaded them into arguments.

These haters – as he calls them – would randomly choose their targets, then descend on them.

“They would all swarm like bees on one person and make them leave the site,” he said. “I was elected king of the site so it also gave me a reason to try and stand up from right and tell them to leave everybody alone.”

His statements already tell me this community is in trouble. Social networks try to be – on a superficial level anyway – egalitarian and democratic. They aren’t really, once you scratch the surface but members usually pay lip service to democracy. Especially American ones. As in “you can’t ban me/my friend because there’s such a thing as freedom of speech!” For an online community to vote in a King to protect them from trolls, you can tell it’s a community in trouble. They aren’t getting support from the formal moderators so they are setting up an informal power base to manage the crises.

Have a read of the code of conduct – it’s all about proper posting up of porn and nothing really about be nice to each other, respect each other, no personal attacks, no in real life threats. Nothing. And it’s important. Even if you, as the host, are going to ignore attacks, the rest of the community will quote it back to the miscreants in an attempt to shame them into behaving. Well formed Code of Conduct gives them ammo to self-moderate. If you don’t have it in the CoC, it doesn’t exist and the situation will deteriorate which is what happened in this case. (And no, don’t hide it in the ToS).

So the story goes on :

But despite his intervention and appeals to the site’s administrators, the feuding didn’t stop. In fact it got worse. Anderson said some of the haters began hacking into people’s pages, posting obscene images and revealing details about members’ real-life identities.

As one of Anderson’s online friends, Karen (who asked us not to use her surname), said she was also targeted. She said that the haters tricked her into revealing her real name and phone number and posted the details on the site along with photos of her car and her home.

“I was freaked out,” she told smh.com.au. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with online. I have screenshots of the site with threats from one man that he was going to kick my A-S-S.”

All pretty normal once a full-on flame war has started. And the admins did nothing. So let me give ’em a clue: if the community is in such a state they have organised their own moderators, give ’em some powers. Not many, just enough to settle down the flame wars. Or failing that, let a select few have a title and access to the email address of a real moderator. You should only hear from them every couple of months if the balance is set up correctly.

Note the polarised view I mentioned before:

Veronica Boehm lives in Seattle, Washington, and has been a member of Yafro/Orfay since October 2003. While she doesn’t condone Tavares’s actions, she said she was among a group of members who feel that Anderson is not the innocent victim he makes himself out to be.

She has forwarded screenshots of Anderson’s handiwork including grabs of some of the insults, showing that Anderson was giving as good as he was got.

In a posting on the site, another member who calls herself LyfsATrip, refers to Anderson’s “evil ways” that “prompted Russell to do what he did … I’m not saying it was right … just that the human mind is capable of snapping at any moment given enough ammunition”.

Incredibly, even after years of dispute that culminated in the arson attack, the bile is still flowing freely. Anderson said he was still getting harassed – both online and off.

Orfay looks un-monitored to me. I think the owners pay the yearly bill, collect the Google Ads income and then ignore it. So the Community runs into trouble, polarises into two or more subgroups/Swarms, can’t get any satisfaction from the site Hosts, self-heals by electing a vitriolic Leader, who gives as good as he gets to the Brats and Trolls, triggering off frustration and power issues in a military guy who travels thousands of kilometers to burn down his trailer. Beautiful. Sure your company still wants a social network? 😛 This situation is not outside of the norms – which is why I was bewildered when the Web 2.0 community was surprised by the KathySierra/MeanKids ‘namecalling and photoshopping’. Innocent members get picked on, war breaks out, people take sides. It’s all in a day’s work as a moderator/community host. The challenge is to judge situations that could become truly real life issues and not simply yet another nasty troll/flame war. Tricky.

Incidentally this was interesting:

How did orfay get started? We started orfay.com when we learned that the yafro.com website was going away.

If a company deletes a social network, the network itself will – if the members have enough of the friends list and content available – move themselves to their own site. Or another one nearby. Yours maybe?

hat tip to Clutterbells – sorry hon, Facebook email isn’t working for me. Strange error about try again later.

Laurel Papworth

Named by Forbes™ Magazine in the Top 50 Social Media Influencers globally, named Head of Industry, Social Media (Marketing Magazine™) and in the Power150 Media bloggers (AdAge™). CERT IV Training and Assessment certified trainer (Diplomas and Certificates etc) Adult Education. Laurel has manager Facebook Pages for Junior Masterchef, Idol, Big Brother etc. and have consulted on private online communities for banks Westpac, not for profits UNHCR & governments in SE Asia. Lecturer, social media, University of Sydney for 10 years and Laurel has 11,000 online students. Laurel Papworth personally connects to 6 million followers online and has taught around 100,000 people in the last 10 years how to be social media managers.

13 thoughts on “Mishandling flame wars and personal attacks

  1. Thanks for dissecting that very interesting story. I just thought it was a very powerful insight into a social network. There are so many positive examples, but these dark ones are a warning.

    Don’t you think that Facebook has been very buggy recently. Must be a function of scaling and popularity.

  2. *pinches Colin* *punches Colin*
    A pinch and a punch
    for the first of the month
    And NO RETURNS!!!

    hmm where was I? Yep, I posted a more positive story earlier today. One of me own. I get tired of the forumrage/paedophiles/stalkeh stuff.

    Facebook doesn’t use standard technologies they’ve developed stuff like their own subset of Html called FHTML or F-Markup or something. That’s gotta be dodgy.

  3. Although your comparison between yafro and orfay was natural, you made some bad assumptions.

    Unlike yafro, orfay has moderators. About 50 of them, and we work hard to keep problem people off the site and harassment down to a minimum. Also unlike yarfo, orfay’s administrators are very much present and involved with the day to day workings of orfay. At yafro, they were never, ever seen.

    Orfay did evolve from yafro, but it (and the owners) are completely different.

    I’d suggest you read the orfay code of conduct you linked to:

    http://orfay.com/conduct

    It’s all there and we enforce it diligently.

    Also, another point of correction: there were no moderators, kings, assigned tasks, or any other hierarchy at yafro. No one elected John Anderson, or anyone else, king there. I doubt he really said he was elected king. If he did, then he has serious problems with his memory. For whatever that’s worth.

  4. muzzlehatch, you know I did quite a bit of research before I wrote that piece and I stand by it.

    The CoC sucks. It’s not a proper etiquette guideime, more like a cover-ya-ass statement.

    An important part of moderating is to be ‘seen’ to be moderating. It’s a bit like putting cops in uniforms on the street. People see them and say “oh its safe here”. In the old days we called some of these tools things like “letter from the host”. Today it would be a blog.

    Where’s your backstory? Your About section? It looks like a house where mum and dad have left for the weekend ie. party city with no consequences. Get a backstory, show that you are alive and well on the site. Give your moderators badges and prominence.

    Do you have a link to a moderator profile?I went to Explore People and couldn’t find one. If you search “orfay” in people… well all those ppl aren’t moderators. Contact us is impossible to find (one small link on a few screens hidden at the bottom). I could go on and on.

    If you don’t appear to be present you might as well not be.

    I am very respectful of moderators and I know how hard a job it is. Usually for no pay. But orfay needs some real loving to get it to a state where you won’t continually be fighting fires.

  5. Laurel,

    I think your observations about control and balance of power at Orfay.com are spot on! One need to no further than origination of the site to understand why it is dysfunctional and will never rise above that.

    I distrust the statement “How did orfay get started? We started orfay.com when we learned that the yafro.com website was going away.” By Yafro’s owners own admission (posted on their site towards the end of 2006) they had agreed to let some of “their friends” take over the site once they ceased operations. Unfortunately, what happened after that set the tone. Those that created Orfay.com took from some of the worst of Yafro’s well known trouble makers, and made them Orfay Moderators. Amongst these new moderators was Pyrodice, and at the time it was already public knowledge what Mr Tavares had (allegedly at the time) done to Mr Anderson; both site admin and the new moderators knew this, yet that chose to make him a moderator anyway! A google search of archived yafro postings can likely confirm what was publicly known, and when.

    Fast forward to today. Although Orfay’s moderators regularly go to great lengths to publicly espouse their “even handedness” and “fair treatment” of the userbase, it’s nothing more than lip-service and it just isn’t so. Your point about absence of Democracy is deadly accurate here. What the site has devolved into is tantamount to an exclusive and non-representative High School “clique” that has power over others and regularly abuses that power in a punitive and spiteful manner. For a targeted user, there is no recourse, no debate, no chance whatsoever to defend oneself; the punitive process is nothing more than a sham of a secret vote in a private moderator forum (which more often than not is a place for heckling and berating mere mortal users) after which the user in question is summarily deleted; most often without so much as a peep from Orfay. No explanations, no warnings, gone!

    Case(s) in point: You quote user Veronica Boehm who goes by the name SnowVhit3 (among others). Although Veronica has been well known for posting hateful and threatening comments, dating back to Yafro– she is now a Moderator at Orfay; and part of the clique! All she had to do to join the gang, was at the behest of moderators existing at the time, delete “certain users” from her friends list and poof she was one of them! Veronica continues the target “certain users” but now with tacit approval from the website.

    I also note a hugely defensive comment to you from someone named “Muzzlehatch.” The comment is understandably defensive, as Muzzlehatch (Real name Eric) is far and away the worst offender of Orfay’s Mod Squad. He is the self imposed authority on anything posted on the site, and regularly attacks other users from the “comfort” of his Moddom, as well as from several “troll” accounts. Although he takes great strides to hide his escapades, it is widely known across the site that Muzzlehatch is involved in the majority of the drama, and unfounded deletions on Orfay. Care to put this to the test? Make an account and criticize something he writes or a photo he posts! 😉

    At the end of the day, your likely question here? If it is such an oppressive environment, why do they stay? Simple! The good people found on Orfay far outnumber the attention grabbers, trouble makers and social deviants– and in the end, the social interaction can at times become quite addictive!

    Parting shot: I do not wish the leave the impression here that all of the moderators on Orfay.com are abusing their position, because that simply isn’t true. Amongst them are some genuinely good people! Unfortunately the experience is tainted by a few bad apples, and you are once again correct; so long as the google clicks keep coming in? Nobody cares!

    Great piece! Thanks for listening,

    Concerned Citizens of Orfay

  6. Just found this article. Nobody voted JohnnyDarkness “King.” If a group of fawning admirers, the same “seventy year old women” whose pictures he claims to manipulate to make them look “twenty-two,” tell him he’s their king in order to flatter him into pasting their heads onto Hooters girls constitutes an election representing the entire web site, I’m Napoleon.

    And twenty bucks says that last post was John A. himself. As the self-titled “King,” I suppose he might think he could speak for the “citizens (plural).” Classy of him to reveal names and personal information about the aforementioned users, though. Given that sort of behavior, it’s no wonder his problems went from being online to manifesting in his “real world.”

  7. This article, like the AP one is understandable skewed, having been able to interview Mr Anderson, and not myself.
    Things that the report had gotten wrong:
    No, there was no “king” of yafro. Yafro had an ill-advised points system, which could be gamed through refreshes, altered URL links, and adding oneself as a friend. “JohnnyDarkness” as an account was gunning for ‘most points’, and claimed that such made him the KING of this particular anarchy. I had observed at the time that A) nobody ‘elects’ kings, B)he didn’t have the most points on (but he was harassing the man who did) C) they’re not even kool-aid points. You can’t do anything with them, and D) he ought to stop harassing people, and trying to literally ‘chase them off the internet’ (I think that’s a literal quote).
    As a serviceman at the time, under the Bush administration, I don’t deal well with terroristic threats… In fact more than one smart alec in prison said I ought to have used as my defense the doctrine of pre-emptive self defense, against the death threats we were getting.
    That brings me to my next point: He told reporters that this was over a “nerd” picture? I never even saw that picture. It was created long afterwards. But it’s a better alibi than telling reporters one was harassing, threatening, stalking, and flirting with underaged girls.
    I was actually breaking up with a long term girlfriend (partly as a result of all the abuse she was taking whenever I’d post a picture of hers on the site) and took a month’s leave to go visit my parents in Arizona, from duty station in Virginia.
    When I changed intended routes (Hurricane in North Carolina) I remapped, realized I’d pass within 60 or 70 miles of the address Mr. Anderson posted online in a comment involving “come kick my ass, you pussies”. I thought I’d go pay him a visit… The original plan was to show up, let him know that if I could find his address, so could anyone else, and maybe the next guy would have a gun in hand.
    He wasn’t there, and to be honest it was right then that I felt he’d taken everything from me I could give, even ‘closure’. I had a few minutes of rage, I threw the gas-mixture on his back wall, and lit it with a road flare. There was no gas-tank, no hole in the wall, and no conspiracy with other people, as he would have the media to believe. I left there, and went on to Arizona. When NCIS came to ask me about the incident, I admitted to it, cooperated with authorities, and after a month in jail spent a year on bail in Arizona, still working, but living with my parents. I went to trial, pled no contest, and made parole on second review. I spent 28 months in prison, earned my A+ certification, and will be on parole until my sentence expires.
    I’ve never been a stupid individual, I just can’t imagine what I’m supposed to do when death threats are reported to the police, and their answer is “Sorry, the internet isn’t our jurisdiction”. What do you do next, when the right way fails?

    As a postscript, Muzzlehatch is entirely correct. Actually, Muzzlehatch is a remarkably good example of “If you want respect, be respectable.” And I was a moderator, and never showed any favortism in such position. We had several jobs, rating postings for family-friendliness (up to adult hardcore, and total bans for certain things) reporting underaged users… or users interested in underaged people… Posted personal information (stalking, or cattiness), or harassment.
    I’ve never been interviewed on this, and the only request (ABC’s iCaught) was refused by the jail.
    I’d love to answer questions. You have my email. I can’t do a couple things, such as contact or influence my victim, of course.

    -Russ Tavares

    1. Four years later, you’ve never found it worth asking me a single question, so I can only assume you have nothing to dispute any of my corrections.

        1. Very well, I can keep it short. You call this “reporting”?
          You wrote what hearsay you came up with, and didn’t even offer a hint of skepticism when told that a house got torched over being called a nerd? Do you think only one guy ever called me a nerd? Did you wonder why we weren’t experiencing a housing shortage, alternatively?
          The man was a bully and a pedophile, and the cops didn’t DO their job. So what do you do when the right way fails? Cry about how the system failed you, then roll over and take it? I STILL have an archive of the threats he posted to people, because it’s still possible he’ll make good on one of them, someday.

          1. “So what do you do when the right way fails?”

            Obviously you go burn another man out of his house if you’re Russel Tavares.

            I mean seriously, Russ. No one resorted to real world destruction of private property here but you. No one thinks you’re a hero, and no one is buying the “pedophile made threats” defense.

  8. Also, the damage done to his trailer was actually fairly minor, and google earth has a roadside view that can show you the place. He stood in front of someone else’s house to pose for a more ‘dramatic’ picture.

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