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.