Let us talk about how we keep our online spaces useable. Let us talk about moderation, mediation, censorship, and tone policing.
There are probably also other techniques, but for now, talking about these four should suffice. And it is important to talk about them, because all of this is constantly happening online, for various reasons, and sometimes they get mixed, and sometimes one slowly descends into another.
Wherever people communicate with each other, they usually set up a few rules and mechanisms to enforce them. Mostly, these rules are a bit vague, ad hoc and have formed over time as social customs emerge. If people violate these customs and unwritten rules, they get some social feedback to correct themselves, or eventually get ostracized from their communities. So if I’m rude to my friends, they eventually stop inviting me for dinner. This is a gradual, informal process, but effective nonetheless. But what I did say keeps being said.
For a lot of our online communities though, the participants come together from so diverse places and customs that there is a need to formalize things a bit more, and to have designated people in place to enforce these rules. The result is usually a lot less gradual and also more formal and immediate. So instead of being less and less invited to dinners, I suddenly get formally shut out of the community by having my access to the online space revoked. Alternatively, my contributions to the space could get deleted, my voice silenced, even retroactively.
When we discuss these rules and their enforcement, we can break them down into four core concepts:
Moderation - here certain topics or media are excluded, with a benign intent. The idea is make a certain online space suitable for a specific audience or topic. An example would be a ban of pornography for a space catering to minors, or the exclusion of car discussions in a forum dedicated to bird watching.
Censorship - moderations evil twin. It basically is the same thing, excluding certain topics from a space, but it implies a sinister motive. A political party forbids the opposition to be heard, a group of people is to be shut out and marginalized. Still, it is important to realise that censorship and moderation are often technically the same beast. The main difference is that censorship is often also covert and opaque, whereas good moderation is documented and transparent.
Mediation - this includes a vast variety of techniques, but it boils down to the effort of making a friendly and productive communication possible. Mediation doesn’t prohibit a topic to be discussed, but tries to prevent an argument to devolve into a shouting match. This can be achieved by translating sentiments or ideas, by encouraging participants to use or avoid specific rhetorics, and so on. As with moderation, mediation has a benign intention, it is a tool to enable communication. It should be transparent insofar as that everyone knows that mediation is happening, and with which intent.
Tone policing is mediation taken too far or being misused. It is especially a thing used by people in power to shut down those who aren’t. Valid arguments or complaints get thrown out unless the person making them submits to sometimes arbitrary rules.Mediation and tone policing employ a very similar toolset, but as with moderation and censorship, the malicious or sinister motive is what makes it a bad thing. To be clear: Tone policing is a tool of oppression.
The problem with both of these two pairings is the huge gray area between them. Just two very simple examples: One can try to gently mediate and end up excluding a group of marginalized people through tone policing. Or one can try to keep pornography away from kids but in the same run also shut off any access to sex education.
Whenever we find ourselves in charge of designing policies on how any given social platform or online community should work, we need to think about these problems. At best alongside a friendly conversation with everyone who could be affected by these policies, especially those who are often marginalized or overlooked. There aren’t any perfect solutions, but a lot of catastrophically wrong ones.