Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Nanny Forums.

I participate in a facebook forum about boating issues. Its over managed and I don't understand the rational behind banning certain kinds of postings. Or entering into heated debates between consenting adults who choose to have a disagreement. People hate the 'nanny state' and it applies in any walk of life. When you have an outright ban it has to be implemented without exception, fear of favour. 

When I worked in academia I was involved in a research group called the Virtual Campus Project. Ultimately researching towards virtual Universities. Where virtual means on-line. The project was built around an integrated system whereby we could manage groups of up to 35,000 students. The theoretical limit was 300,000 students per system. The course work and appropriate lecture notes were delivered in this way. This was for students on and off campus. Encompassing distance, part time and full time learning.But the system had to fulfil lots of other functions that students enjoy as part of the university life experience.

As you might imagine the administration was quite intensive involving dozens of people. It soon became clear that we would need to manage the system much less proactive and to allow the systems to develop almost passively. So a second research project was developed to look at the social engineering of forums and shared work spaces. The initial period of the project was done to gather staff and students opinions and ideas on how the system should be developed. With each iteration things improved and support staff workloads reduced. Ultimately two members of staff managed the whole system from hardware/software and the staff student administration.

This helped to breakdown the very obvious barriers between student groups on full/part and distance learning. It also broke down barriers between the various disciplines. So that arts student for instance would interact with engineering students. Altogether it provided a very informative research project on social media. 

We thought that one of the simplest ways for staff and student to manage inappropriate content was to encourage the students to comment upon it, being the eyes and ears. Rather than the administration group having to seek, find and destroy. However, the anonymity that people who report items demand. This created more suspicion and discord. But we found that still proved to be a time consuming task. Then we decided to just leave it as is. A straw poll indicated that the vast majority of staff and students actually expressed the view that they would like to be able to make up their minds for themselves. They even agreed that there should be no anonymity when Item were subsequently flagged. What was very obvious what was deemed as inappropriate to one was perfectly acceptable to others. In retrospect when conducting a periodical review. There were less complaints, people just used common sense and ignored what had personally been deemed as inappropriate.

We also discovered that different administrators had different views. One admin would see an item as needing to be flagged for administration. While another thought it perfectly acceptable. This cause discord amongst the staff student body. Censorship of any kind is anathema to most people. There is usually considerably more discussion about the need for administrative action, creating angst between the three sides than the actual items posted. Some admin were seen as 'power crazy' thought to be flexing their muscles to frequently. This turned out to be a much bigger problem that might be imagined.

So we decided to revisit what we called 'the rules of engagement' Pruned them down to cover ethnic, bullying and pornography. (With 35,000 students most nationalities and religious persuasions were involved) The moment the rules were relaxed. The level of discord and discontent went away. What we thought were sensible precautions to protect the student body, turned out to be over zealous reaction by ourselves. We went on to create an 'Exchange and Mart' section which proved to be the most popular of all. What was clear was that as the shared workspace developed, individuals felt ownership. Trends and patterns would evolve flourish and fade over time. The whole system was dynamic and the users were in control.

If you need more than one admin person - you have operational problems.
If you have rules that cause discord between individuals - you have a bad set of rules.
If your system is not dynamic, evolving, flourishing and in a constant state of flux - then its time to rethink.
Forums are living breathing things that die if they are stifled.
If you system is not controlled by the wants and needs of its users - its broken.
If you need to operate a nanny knows best system - then its broken.

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