How the Tango-L List is Moderated

This is the contents of an email posted by the list administrator, Shahrukh Merchant, to the Tango-L mailing list on 6 February 2008, as part of a [now largely successful] effort to start enforcing the list rules and the quality of the postings, and make it a more welcoming place for people to share their opinions. However, this page may evolve in the future to reflect changes in the moderation algorithm (which are not anticipated to be major).

 

Date: Wed, 06 Feb 2008 17:03:57 -0200
From: Shahrukh Merchant <tango-L-owner @ mit.edu>
To: tango-L@mit.edu
Subject: How the Tango-L List is Moderated

Since the subject comes up once in a while, and some people have some misconceptions about how it works (or just plain curiosity), here is the gist of it.

In general, it is greatly to the advantage of the moderators NOT to have anyone on moderation status, as it just creates more work for them. There are basically two ways people get on moderated status.

a. When anyone first subscribes to the list, he is automatically on moderated status. This is mostly to prevent spammers from subscribing and then sending spam, and was implemented recently on Tango-L. It has the side benefit of catching most newbie errors as well (e.g., unnecessarily attaching the entire content of the previous email). After a few postings (sometimes as few as one), the person is removed from moderated status.

b. Someone is put on moderated status by the moderator for intentional and/or severe and/or repeated list abuse or rules violations, or for a statement of intent to do so.

c. There is actually a third category, which I use once in a while, sort of a blend of (a) and (b), which is to get the attention of someone who has some relatively minor violation (e.g., unnecessarily attaching the entire previous email), but who seems to ignore the repeated emails I send to them pointing this out. It generally gets their attention when they HAVE to read and act on the reminder email in order for their posts to get through. This is really more like putting someone back in category (a), since they are newbie type errors, rather than intentional or severe rules violations.

Hence, most of the rest of the discussion will focus on category (b): "Intentional and/or severe and/or repeated list abuse or rules violations, or for a statement of intent to do so." (As usual in such cases, it is 1% of the posts or posters that end up needing 90% of the maintenance effort.)

To put things into context, let me mention three points:

i. There are, at this point in time, more people in category (b) than there have every been in the history of Tango-L, and this number is a large whopping THREE (3). I.e., it's an insignificant problem as far as I'm concerned in terms of list membership but a significant nuisance in terms of my time, because it's 0.3% of the list membership demanding significantly more than their share of the moderators' time.

ii. Since I started enforcing the rules, particular the "no flames" rules, the exodus of about 10 people per month leaving because they are sick of the bickering and rudeness has been stemmed (and they are generally the civilized people one would LIKE to keep in such a group).

iii. I am not prepared to devote more than 1 month of my lifetime to attending to list-member requests (particular those that come out of intentional rules violations), which if you take the simplistic view that 1000 people will request some kind of assistance at 15 minutes each, well that's thirty 8-hour days right there. (I can't imagine being on my deathbed, saying, "My only regret in life is not having spent more time administering Tango-L ....") And I am much more willing to push that number for people having genuine technical or other such problems with their postings, than people who arrogantly demand my time because they feel that they are above the rules.


So, with these preliminaries out of the way, here is the approximate algorithm for enforcement of the Tango-L rules.

1. If someone is in category (a) (temporary or default moderation) and the posting is fine, I let it through and generally clear the moderation flag after a small number of good postings. If there is a problem, even a small one, I point it out along with a summary of the rule in question and a link to the rules page, and invite the poster to correct and resubmit.

2. Every so often, I scan the Tango-L postings and send reminders to those who have violated the rules. Most common are "unnecessary quoting of entire previous email," "unrelated to tango" and "1-liner trivial posting" (which for some bizarre reason seems usually to be accompanied by "unnecessary quoting of entire previous email"). NONE of these results in someone being put on moderation--it is just an attempt to improve the quality of the postings a little. The usual response I get to these is (a) none (which is fine--it's a reminder) (b) an "OK, thanks for the reminder" or (c) some kind of justification ("I'm a Buddhist haiku poet and MY 1-liner was replete with meaning, but fine, if you say so ...").

3. If it's a flame I see on Tango-L, then it depends on the nature of the flame and and posting history of the poster. Recall that it has been stated strongly in the rules and in postings by me to the list that flames are the most strongly enforced rules and that my limited time does not allow me to be subtle in my response to them (i.e., expect a sledgehammer approach). Even so, if it's a mild flame, "OK, who died and made you Tango God?" or "Is your tango as bad as your postings?" from someone who has stepped out of line the first time, but is generally a good contributor, he or she gets a warning. Anonymous or possibly anonymous posters get treated more strictly in this regard as they are, intentionally or otherwise, hiding behind their anonymity. If it's a full-scale rant against someone, or a repeat offence, they get put on moderation immediately. I.e., they get put in Category (b) above: "for intentional and/or severe and/or repeated list abuse or rules violations, or for a statement of intent to do so."

4. If someone is in category (b), it is because he either (i) posted a vicious flame (or a repeated one) or (ii) have declared that they don't consider the Tango-L rules valid (or applicable to them) and don't intend to follow them (i.e., a future flame-thrower or nuisance).

In all these cases, he would get an email that says that before posting any more to Tango-L, he would need to do all the following steps:

- Read or reread the Tango-L rules;
- Send an email stating that they have done so, and intend to follow the rules henceforth;
- Actually follow the rules henceforth.

Most people who just stepped out of line "in a moment of passion" do so, and get taken off moderation (not necessarily immediately depending on their history of violations), but their legitimate posts get through meanwhile.

Those who refuse to send the mail (saying they agree to abide by the Tango-L rules), or send a mail stating that they don't intend to, or are above them, or consider them illegitimate, or consider such a request patronizing, or that their pride is hurt or whatever, don't get any more mail from me, nor do their postings get through anymore. It was stated quite unambiguously what they need to do to get off moderation, and this is nothing more than what all list members have agreed to implicitly by joining the list, except they have been asked to state it explicitly since they have violated the implicit trust. That offer remains open more or less indefinitely, but since they have by then used up their lifetime supply of "15 minutes of moderator's time that he's willing to spend with problem or arrogant members," they don't receive any more communication from me, but they know what they need to do (send the mail or unsubscribe).

What about "MY RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH?" (visualize trumpets, halos, Statues of Liberty ...) It is rather puzzling that someone would interpret this as applying to Tango-L ("A victim of an incompetent high school civics teacher," chuckles an attorney friend, but more likely just an attempt to appeal falsely to a higher ideal to justify boorish behaviour.) When I see that kind of response as an excuse for violating the Tango-L list rules, I instantly translate it to, "I want to post what I want, without regard for the rules," sort of like wanting to spray-paint graffiti on someone else's building ("It's free speech, isn't it?"). Answer: You'll have to find a different place to do so.

As the creator of the list, I fully realize that the list is the sum total of the contributions by its members. And that some leeway in interpretation and enforcement of rules is warranted and beneficial in instilling a welcoming ambience and one open to discourse. But anyone who thinks that it is a forum for them to say what they want and behave as they will without regard to the list participation rules is doomed to frustration on most Internet mailing lists or discussion groups, and certainly on Tango-L.

A far better model for Tango-L (than a soapbox to demonstrate ones "Freedom of Graffiti") is perhaps a party--let's say a Milonga, for even easier identification. No admission charge for the Milonga. You can even leave your flyers at the designated flyer table (Tango-A). As with any party, there are rules of behaviour that are expected. The host takes a light touch with enforcing them since he wants to be welcoming, and besides he wants to dance a few tandas too and doesn't want to spend the whole time watching (or having to watch) to see how people are behaving. Besides, he wants a lot of people to come to the Milonga (any party is, after all, the sum of the presence of the guests, with the host just enabling it and perhaps setting the ambience to some extent), even those who dance different style of Tango than he does. He doesn't want it to be like one of those uptight Milongas he's heard about where everyone gives you dirty looks if you do anything that hasn't been done for at least 20 years in Buenos Aires. But of course it has to be done respecting other people at the Milonga, the venue, etc.

But every so often someone comes in and insists on dancing against line of dance, colliding into people, reserving tables for 16 people even though they never show up just so he can spread out, tracking mud into the dancehall, ... The host knows that this diminishes the enjoyment of others, and that the regulars are going to stop coming if this antisocial behaviour continues, and certainly are enjoying themselves less as a result, and that people are looking to him to control it. It takes away time from his own dancing, sipping champagne and socializing, but he knows that he needs to do it to keep the Milonga from spiralling downwards into a place that only the boors come to, because only they can put up with each other. So he reminds the errant guests of their obligations, and most apologize and accept (they had just got carried away with the energy of the Milonga, as it turned out). But one or two refuse, claiming that, "No one owns Tango and it belongs to the world and hence I can dance the way I want. And no one owns my soul and hence I can behave the way I want."

They proceed to start insulting people and acting like they owns the place, forgetting that they are really guests. They spit at people and pinch the women's (and men's) bottoms and laugh when they shriek. And even if they don't, they insist that they have the right to do so, and that they will whenever they feel like it. So the organizer tells the person at the desk not to let them in until they have agreed to observe all the rules of the Milonga and of acceptable social behaviour. One chooses to do so, the other stops coming ... no one misses him and after a while people start to comment on how the Milonga has become more pleasant recently ... One or two say, "Well, actually I do kind of miss him in some ways, obviously not for his behaviour, but some of his jokes were funny, but true, we'd have lost 50 other regulars if he'd continued the way he did." Perhaps the one who doesn't come back will start his own Milonga (he can even put out his flyer on the table if he does). Perhaps it will wither away or perhaps it will be successful and cater to a different, more "in you face," crowd. Perhaps the original Milonga will wither away and the new one will become the dominant one (the "boor" turned out to be a "visionary"--who'd have guessed?!). Who knows? Diversity and Darwinism will ultimately prevail.


Returning to the Tango-L world ... So what happens if someone doesn't agree with the list rules? Well, they have a right to leave the list; in fact they have an obligation to do so. As stated in the list rules, "Any members subscribing to this list agrees to unsubscribe immediately if they do not agree with all the usage rules stated here, and agree to seek help in unsubscribing if they cannot do so themselves by sending an email to tango-L-owner@mit.edu requesting such assistance." They are also free to send an email proposing changes in the rules to tango-L-owner@mit.edu, but the rules have served the list well for 10 years now (an eternity in Internet time) and while some fine-tuning still gets done to cover the occasional new situation that comes up, whole-scale changes are unlikely.

Shahrukh
tango-L-owner @ mit.edu
Tango-L and Tango-A home page: http://www.tango-L.com/
Tango-L rules: http://www.tango-L.com/tango-L-rules.htm

P.S. This email is not written for the benefit of the errant few (it is usually a waste of energy to do so)--it is written for the benefit of the majority of the list members, so they understand the process I go through in moderating the list. I would hardly claim it's a perfect process by any means, but it's the one we have. There was a time when there were three moderators and an "appeals" process for those whose posts were rejected by one moderator. There was perhaps ONE posting where this process resulted in a reconsideration, but this fell apart, mostly because most of the time was spent on clearly inappropriate posts that didn't merit the time spent on reconsidering them, given the limited time availability of the moderators.