Handling Abuse Through the Community

In the days of message boards and forums, administrators had a real problem on their hands. Forums, if well-maintained, would often grow to very large proportions. Yet, there was only, at the most, a handful of administrators.

While this would not be a problem if all members of the forum were well-behaved, that was rarely the case. Usually, as the forum grew, trolls, spammers, plagiarists and other trouble-makers were drawn to it. This, inevitably, stretched the administrator to his or her limits. Unable to afford to pay for help, they turned to the community.

The idea is simple enough, take a few trusted members of the community that spend a lot of time on the forum, give them new, but limited, powers and charge them to help keep the forum clean. These moderators, would become extensions of the administrator, helping him or her police the group.

In many cases, it worked very well. In others, especially where moderators abused their powers, things took a turn for the worse.

However, it's an experiment that many professional sites have begun playing with, pulling the idea of community-based abuse out of the forum and into other kinds of sites. With this comes a series of pluses and minuses that users and administrators alike need to be aware of.

For the trend seems likely to grow and, as it does, its impact on those handling plagiarism matters will only increase.

The Advantages

Web sites are drawn to community-based abuse resolution largely because it is a free way to handle an unpleasant and unprofitable element of running a Web community. It also offers an easy way to reward loyal members and it encourages community togetherness.

Also, since moderators are a member of the community, they can often better judge the values of it than an administrator that doesn't participate or might be of a different background than the community's members.

For users and others that report abuse, community-based solutions offer a great deal of advantages as well.

First, once can usually assume that at least one moderator is on at any time of the day. This means that the abuse desk is working 24/7. Community members know exactly who they can turn to if they have a problem and take comfort that they are speaking to a real human being, not an autoreply.

This results in faster abuse handling. I personally have noticed that community-based sites respond to plagiarism notices within fifteen minutes, compared to 48 hours for traditional ones. It can also result in more fair resolution as the moderator can also act as a mediator, working to resolve the dispute.

To an understaffed and/or cash-strapped host/forum/site, community-based abuse resolution can seem like a gift from the heavens. It removes a tremendous burden and allows the admin(s) to do what they do best, work on growing their site.

However, it's not a system without drawbacks, some of which can prove very costly.

Drawbacks and Problems

Most of the disadvantages of such a system come from the fact that most moderators have very little abuse-related experience and that some have been known to either abuse their power or shirk their responsibilities.

In a traditional abuse setting, after a complaint is filed it is sent to a designated agent who assumes responsibility for it. In a community-based system, there is no such responsibility. Moderators are either contacted directly, like on forums, or they are handled on first-come-first-serve basis where the moderators grab complaints from a pool.

This can result in a lot of complaints falling through the net if the system is not set up well. On the other hand, duplicated efforts can waste a lot of time as well. It's very easy for these systems to descend into chaos and provide no effective support for the community.

Worse still, there is little that one can do to prevent a moderator from abusing their power or squelching on their responsibilities. Administrators can revoke the powers or ban the user, but not much more. While having a large number of moderators can help stop abusive ones and pick up the slack from those who walk away, it is still very hard to motivate a platoon of volunteers to do their job, do it right and do it consistently. Apathy and greed are often just too big of enemies.

Also, since moderators have little, if any, legal training. They will be unfamiliar with how to handle most matters of law such as DMCA notices. If a moderator receives such a notice and handles it improperly, it could be considered a breach of safe harbor and land the site in serious trouble.

However, the most common problem with leaving a loose-knit group of moderators responsible for handling abuse complaints is that it can lead to very inconsistent enforcement. Different moderators, invariably, handle cases different ways and that can be very frustrating, especially for an outsider who has to deal file an abuse complaint.

Despite these drawbacks, several sites, including a few well-known ones, have begun using moderators and other unpaid policemen to help them keep their sites clean.

Examples

AllPoetry.com, a site that allows users to post poetry and other literature, uses a team of about ten moderators and three moderator managers to handle most abuse complaints. Complaints are filed either using their trouble ticket form or by using the "report" form below each post.

Generally, complaints are handled quickly and consistently, usually within fifteen minutes. The longest wait I have dealt with personally has been about two hours.

Furthermore, the results of the moderator's enforcement is almost always fair and efficient. Only once, that I can recall out of dozens of instances of plagiarism, have I had any trouble and the matter was easily resolved by providing additional information.

AllPoetry seems to have a fairly consistent and stable moderator staff that is well-versed with the rules and eager to help. This staff earned them a "Hero" rating on this site and made them the subject of one of my first posts.

VampireFreaks (VF), the social networking site targeted "goth" and "dark" subcultures, also uses a series of moderators to handle most abuse matters. While the actual number of moderators is unknown, there appear to be quite a few. Most matters are handled quickly, usually within an hour, and generally are very fair.

However, VF has an unusual limitation in that moderators can not take any action against premium members, only the site's administrator can do that. While that is fine if the admin is notified and able to act quickly, many times complaints simply do not get passed on or he is unavailable. This gives premium members an extra layer of protection against abuse complaints and makes copyright infringement, along with other abuses, harder to pursue against them.

Despite that, both cases seem to be examples of a largely effective community policing effort. Certainly both sites are better off than if they relied solely on their official staff.

On that note, perhaps Xanga should take notice.

Conclusions

Using moderators and other community members to handle abuse matters is a tricky matter that can be a logistical nightmare on par with doing it all yourself. However, if done correctly and with good moderators, it can be a great boon for both users and admins.

If a site is understaffed or unable to fund an adequate abuse team, it should probably look at using community-based anti-abuse measures as a stop gap if nothing else. While it may not be as good as having a crack team of enforcers under your employ, it's a way to prevent a site from becoming an Internet cesspool without breaking the bank.

Still, it is unlikely that most high-end sites will turn to this measure simply because of the potential for legal troubles and logistical problems. There is clearly a point where it simply becomes more efficient to have your own abuse staff directly under your employ.

While it's impossible to tell where that mark is, it clearly resides somewhere in size between VampireFreaks and Myspace. Both clearly have the system that works for them and I doubt that either would or could trade for the other's approach.

[tags]Plagiarism, Content Theft, Copyright Infringement, Xanga, Myspace, VampireFreaks, AllPoetry[/tags] 

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