The Problem As I See It
I became a member of ATS in July, 2004 (not long ago), but had lurked on and off for much longer before that. Many of my visits to ATS were
precipitated by links from other websites, which used ATS as a credited source for news that most other websites either didn’t have or wouldn’t
So while it may seem like I’m a relative newcomer to ATS, I have actually been using and watching the development of this site for a while, and I can
say that it is, without question, one of the best websites on the Internet. When I criticize ATS, it is with this fact in mind.
Over the recent months, I have been watching as ATS has been hijacked by an increasing number of trolls -- members who repeatedly post in violation of
the ATS Terms & Conditions of Use
, inject off-topic noise, sloganeering,
hatred, bigotry and propaganda into almost every thread and frankly, I have finally had enough.
No this isn’t an “I’m leaving!” drama queen thread, it’s just feedback. The feedback is that I am spending less and less time on any ATS forum because
I am sick and tired of being greeted by the same brainless crap in every freaking thread in every freaking forum. But I do intend to keep coming back,
even if I must force myself to put on my game face before doing so.
It is not the fault of the ATS staff that the board is being flooded with fools, ideologues, mindless drones, children being raised on the Internet,
people who can write but apparently can’t read and paid provocateurs. Not even close. My heart goes out to the exceptional, professional and talented
staff who have to sort through this garbage day in and day out.
If you are an ATS staff member, please don’t misunderstand my criticism -- it is not directed at you directly, rather, I am hoping that this thread
may alert you to a very real problem threatening the future of ATS.
All public discussion forums can be thought of as having a “signal-to-noise ratio” (SNR). Loosely applied, it refers to the percentage of posts that
are in line with the purpose of the forum. The rest is generally considered to be a cost of doing business, but when the SNR gets below a certain
threshold, the noise tends to take over and dominate the board. I don’t think ATS has reached that point, but I do believe it is coming dangerously
Board traffic does not measure SNR, just membership and post volume. Trolls are prolific posters, gaining emotional and sometimes sexual gratification
from abusing and annoying others. The more success they have in doing this, the more they post, and the result is a vicious cycle which ultimately can
destroy a discussion forum.
I know, because I was a moderator on a forum this happened to. That forum is now long dead, and was never even close to ATS’s popularity or size, but
I see the same warning signs on ATS that I saw there, and I could not live with myself if I didn’t warn you. So consider yourself warned.
So what to do about it? That is always the $64,000 question, isn’t it? At first glance, it would seem simple, but I know that it is not. After all,
the obvious solution: cracking down on flamers and trolls, often drives legitimate contributors from the board. An overly heavy-handed and
authoritarian stance by the staff would probably drive ATS into the ground as fast and as certain as allowing the flamers and trolls to run wild.
I love the ATS “ignore” feature, and wish it weren’t capped at ten entries. However, ignoring one another might curb some flame wars, but still won’t
maintain ATS as a world-class source for information on the Internet.
In my humble opinion, if ATS is to survive as a destination website, the content must be diligently policed for compliance with the
Terms & Conditions of Use
. If this is not workable, then the T&C must be
rewritten to make enforcement unambiguous and their fairness indisputable.
Recognizing that my advice comes from a person who was not
aware and capable enough to save another forum from being destroyed, and that these
suggestions are not new or necessarily even practical to implement, that the staff may already be implementing some of them behind the scenes already
and that some or all of these may be too sketchy or impractical to implement as written, I nonetheless offer the following recommendations for
cleaning up the board:
Majic’s Recommendations For Cleaning Up ATS
1. Emphasize and Toughen the Terms and Conditions of Use.
emphasize them during sign-up. There should be no doubt in the
mind of any ATS member as to what the T&C are. While requiring “I accept” for the T&C during sign-up is good, it may be worthwhile to hammer it home
with “Are you sure?” buttons and constant reminders. I know ATS has already done some of this, I’m just saying you can’t really overdo it. Ignorance
of the T&C cannot be an excuse for misconduct. Whenever the T&C are revised, all members should be greeted by an “I agree” screen for the new T&C when
they login. The T&C should always represent the uncompromising and unapologetic requirements for participation on ATS, and should be so written as to
make it clear that those not willing to comply should post elsewhere. Period.
2. Enforce the T&C consistently and without exceptions.
The T&C should be written in such a way that no one, staff or members, can claim
loopholes or capricious enforcement. They should be concrete. Writing concrete T&C is an art in itself, but they are the heart and soul of a
discussion forum, so it is worth the effort. If questions about a T&C policy continue to arise, the policy should be clarified. T&C should be both
written in stone and constantly evolving -- a classic paradox, perhaps, but such is the world in which we live.
3. Standardize the enforcement process, and publicize it.
I imagine the staff already have done this to some extent, but I recommend
demystifying the process. All members should know where they stand in the ATS disciplinary process, and if they are banned, it should come as no
surprise to anyone
. Thus if a member is one warning away from being banned, all members should be aware of it. Yes, this can be abused, but
crime and punishment are public affairs in every law-abiding society, so it should be with ours.
4. Ban members only after they have received three public warnings that they are about to be banned.
Banning is an important part of being able
to manage a discussion forum, but it should be used as a last resort, and should never come as a surprise to anyone. The warning system is a step in
this direction, but one member can pile up warnings seemingly without fearing being banned, while another can be banned seemingly for having a bad
night. Maybe you already do this in U2U’s (“one more strike and you’re out”), but I think it should be public. I strongly recommend that no members be
permanently banned at first, but temporarily so, as follows:
5. Allow temporarily banned members to log in, but not to post in public forums.
This may be counterintuitive, but there’s a reason why this
makes sense. If a member is banned, it is reasonable to give that member a chance to communicate with the staff and appeal the decision. This policy
allows for a progression of temporary bans leading to permanent bans. While this may not seem desirable (who wants banned members coming back?), it
builds some justice into the system, and allows staff to use the ban option without hesitation when it is warranted. Communication can be limited to
staff members, or perhaps U2U’s can be continued so that banned members can communicate with fellow members. These allowances would only apply to a
temporary ban, for the express purpose of giving members a last chance, and nothing more. Also, temporarily banned members should be required to agree
to the T&C every time they log in, as both punishment and instruction.
6. Only “perma-ban” members who fail or abuse the appeal process.
If a temporarily banned member abuses the staff or fellow members through
U2U, then they are perma-banned. Once that decision is made, it can never be reversed, so it should, like every disciplinary action, never come as a
surprise. Perma-banned accounts will still exist, but cannot be logged into or modified except by staff.
7. Label temporarily banned or perma-banned members accordingly, but do not obscure their names (unless the name itself violates T&C).
posts should be attributed to the original author. I recommend making a user’s red-letter title read “Temporarily Banned” or “Permanently Banned”
depending on their status, so everyone knows the deal. Seeing multiple posts from “(banned member)” is confusing, in my opinion.
All this may seem like more work for the staff, but there is a madness to the method. Staff members have a very tough job, especially in light of how
much brainless crap they have to read through every day. While my recommendations may seem to add unnecessary steps to the disciplinary process, each
step should require less discretion on the part of a staff member, and thus ultimately reduce the workload by using system design in place of blood,
sweat and tears from moderators.
In other words, just spell this stuff out in black and white, and a moderator can deal out justice without having to give it a lot of thought. Having
an appeals process allows for mistakes by a busy moderator to be dealt with later, so a mod who might be holding back can “go nuts”, but in a good
way. We need
to bring trolls and flamers under control, not let them slide.
Discipline And Ignorance Are Not Compatible
There will always be whiners and drama queens who will beat their chests at any attempts to reform or control, and it may seem counterintuitive to
call for a system that is seemingly more tolerant to them and cumbersome in an attempt to staunch trollery, but my sense is that staff members do not
have enough guidance and options to be able to dish out justice without regret, and that leads to laxity and degradation of the community.
On ATS, the battle to Deny Ignorance continues and is far from over, but I must report to you from the battle front that at this point, it seems that
ignorance is winning. I find myself drifting away from ATS, but I don’t want to lose this indispensable resource.
I am hopeful that by recognizing that ignorance is temporarily gaining the upper hand, we might somehow turn the tide and make ATS even better than it
I invite my fellow ATS members and staff to comment on this post’s subject and recommendations, and, as they may see fit, to add recommendations to
the staff for improving the quality of discussion and content on ATS.