Conversation about whether LW Moderators should express individual opinions about mod policy - 2019/12/22

by Ruby2 min read23rd Dec 201912 comments

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Moderation (topic)
Personal Blog

Copying over some comments from a different thread so as to continue the conversation here where it's not off-topic.

[Some relevant context: Speaking for myself (re: how the LW2.0 team communicates)]


Bucky wrote on one of my posts:

My other worry about including this in the 2018 review is a claim of what the default should be. If the post claims that nurture culture should be the default, does that then seem like this is how LW should be? This counts even more as the post is by a member of the LW team.

Included in my (Ruby's) reply:

My own thinking on the topic has been enriched by my much greater participation in LW discussion, including discussion around communication styles. I'd begun typing a paragraph here of some of my current thoughts, but probably it's best to hold off till I've thought more at length and am speaking alongside the rest of team. (An update in recent discussions of moderation and conversation norms is that the team should be careful to not confuse people by saying different things individually.)

To which Ben Pace responded:

>but probably it's best to hold off till I've thought more at length and am >speaking alongside the rest of team.

I was gonna leave a comment reminding you that you should always feel free to speak for yourself, and then I hit

>(An update in recent discussions of moderation and conversation norms is >that the team should be careful to not confuse people by saying different >things individually.)

If I read you right, this hasn't been my own update, so I guess I'll tell you to be careful what you say on behalf of the team without checking for consensus ;-) I agree some users have been confused, but the result mustn't be to retreat to only saying consensus things. I might be open to adding more disclaimers or something, but overall I really care that I don't give up the ability to just think for myself out loud on LW on basically all topics relating to LW. 

I agree writing about moderation in particular is an unusually careful topic where I want to take extra care to signal what is consensus/actionable and what is me just thinking aloud. But I still stand by that you should share your own thoughts, saying "I" everywhere (I just edited this very comment to own all of my thoughts more), is still pretty great and it'd be bad if you felt the general need to get team consensus.

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In a recent in-person discussion about moderation, habryka brought up the claim that people do way better work when they can build up social contexts around doing that work. Rather than have one moderator flying solo, have multiple moderators who can build up a complicated theory of moderation and work out decision trees and mid-level considerations and give durable labels to them. At the time, I didn't buy it, but after consideration decided that I did buy a related thing.

I buy that people organize their brains through conversation, but I worry that the "20-hour team conversations" make things more opaque instead of clearer. That is, if you have a social context of chefs developing lots of shared chef concepts, this makes food better instead of worse (because customers don't need to understand chef-speak but can taste the improvement), but if you have a social context of judges and lawyers developing lots of shared legal concepts, this makes the law more opaque instead of clearer (because citizens do need to understand legalese in order to interpret the law).

One of the things that was surprisingly helpful was to go on a walk with a friend, who hadn't thought much about moderation issues (but was familiar with the community and the Sequences and so on) and talk through some of the considerations; it both allowed me to organize thoughts and had the constraint of "I can't import any dependencies that aren't actually shared" and prevented me from accidentally doing so.

Relatedly, I think discussions on LW about moderation are probably net good, because they put moderators in touch with what the users actually care about, and responsiveness is probably more important for durable trust than initially having the correct position, so long as the presumption of the moderators (and the users?) is still something like "make sure the obviously-good moderation can get done."

One of the things that was surprisingly helpful was to go on a walk with a friend, who hadn't thought much about moderation issues (but was familiar with the community and the Sequences and so on) and talk through some of the considerations; it both allowed me to organize thoughts and had the constraint of "I can't import any dependencies that aren't actually shared" and prevented me from accidentally doing so.

I share this experience. I regularly pretend to write emails to old friends, explaining some topic I'm thinking about, which causes me to be far clearer and helpful than if I try to explain it to a colleague or housemate.

Continuing the thread:

I was talking specifically about about moderation and matters of LW policy and norms. I think I see the value of being able to freely express our thoughts without concern for consensus, but I now think there are factors whose importance competes the value of being able to talk freely online.

The update (which I kind of contributed to the team, but which I think Ray first crystallized and propagated) occurred in the wake of a number of lengthy (20+ hour?) conversations we were having with people on- and offline a few month ago about moderation stuff. I think you were on Sabbatical then, Ben, which might be why you didn't share this update as strongly as me or Ray. The update was that notwithstanding caveats, people remained confused (and very concerned) in the wake of us "thinking aloud".

To quickly sketch out some factors I don't think we can ignore and might warrant be more carefully what we say:

  • The five of us are extremely powerful custodians of a public commons that many people are heavily invested and care deeply about . By "extremely powerful", I mean that structurally we are able to govern it and enact our decisions without requiring any kind of affirmative assent from the community. The community has informal means of complaint (which are quite powerful), but this isn't obvious to everyone and I think that many people fear that if we start taking things in the wrong direction, there goes LW.
    • In light of that, I think it's a reasonable reaction for people, in the face of hearing a LW moderator espouse a view about how LW might go (one they like or fear) to make an update that LW might actually enact such a view and therefore have a reaction of pleasure, fear, or panic in response to hearing it; or at the very least update their models of what might happen.
    • 1) It's non-standard or members of an organization to freely express individual ideas of policy, 2) It's cognitively difficult to keep track of five (six if you include Vaniver) models of moderation when trying to model what LW policy is. I don't blame people if they end up lumping things we individually say together, losing track, and getting confused about what's going to happen with their public commons.
  • In a world where any opinion we express gets taken seriously by people as expression of what LessWrong is, we're subject to unilateralist's curse. A and B of us might hold back from expressing an individual opinion we don't want people to mistakenly to attribute as proper LW policy, but then C thinks it's fine and does so, at which A and B feel obligated to swoop in and correct the record, leading to . . .
  • Appearances of breakdown of internal team communication. This is gnarly consideration, but if people are to trust as a team, they need to believe we're capable of resolving disagreements and deciding joint policy (especially for high-level vision stuff, culture, and mod policy). It can be both good and risky for us to debating this publicly. Good because it allows others to participate in our discussion, bad if it looks like we failed to communicate internally and are now duking it out publicly, trying to correct each other, etc. I think it's fair for people to update a big negatively depending on how that happens.

 

My analogy for punchiness:

Suppose you're a farmer who fled your old kingdom which was ruled by an incompetent tyrant to a new kingdom ruled by the council of "five fairly-wise men." You believe the rulers are well intentioned, but also they're not elected and get to enact their wishes almost immediately without restraint. 

When you hear one of the men of the council opining in the town square about grain taxation and water quota policies that would seriously affect you, you have reason to get worried that this might soon become reality– even if the council elder proclaims "this is just my individual view, I'm just thinking aloud" It's worse if you only stumble upon the conversation part way through and missed his disclaimers that were three comments earlier, or you forgot in the midst of the lengthy rant. 

I think that the council situation is totally fine, if there's a public process of decision-making. Perhaps the law gets argued out in the town hall / courts, and all people have the option to provide counterarguments, or in a larger country elect people to represent their interests to provide arguments. In general, if the decision-making happens in public, then I think the people involved speaking honestly about their opinions is far better, allows more opportunities for others to correct them, and generally increases the informativeness of the system.

Currently, the main place on LW where law gets formed is in actual decision announcements, and key decisions in that realm are always public, explained, and have comment sections, and everyone is allowed to write comments and posts critiquing those decisions.

I think it can be more clear and easier to interface with, and I've had a bunch of moderation posts I've wanted to write for a while, and that should improve things.

I strongly believe that "Thinking out loud" is one of the key virtues to cultivate in the technological era we're in, and has major positive externalities, and any moves to hide discussion and thought, especially when simultaneously centralising power, often have surprisingly disastrous consequences.

I think that the council situation is totally fine, if there's a public process of decision-making. [emphasis added]


I can imagine a system where individual council members speak their mind freely yet the subjects of the realm know that no law gets passed without appropriate process to possibly work quite well, but that "if" is doing a lot of work, and I think it currently does not hold of the LW team.

Certain topics get debated from time to time, but so far as I can recall, not in the context of "we're laying down the law now, come weigh in." I fear that people get anxious whenever those topics come up because they feel it might be their fleeting chance to make things go right.

Currently, the main place on LW where law gets formed is in actual decision announcements, and key decisions in that realm are always public, explained, and have comment sections, and everyone is allowed to write comments and posts critiquing those decisions.

I think this is false. For the most part, we have little announced law. We've got a few posts on Frontpage vs Personal blogposts, we've got the Frontpage guidelines, but nothing that much broader about what's okay vs not okay communication, what happens if we don't like something you're doing, etc. Though individual team members operate in accordance with a number of solid underlying principles, they're not really publicly or in agreement across the team, and so I'd venture that many decisions seem quite ad hoc. 

Most moderation decisions get made behind the proverbial closed doors (in practice we keep our door open to keep CO2 down, but you know– proverbial), and I wouldn't even call those decisions even law, though maybe they count as precedent.

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I'm optimistic we can rectify this and I think most of the team think it's likely a top priority for Q1. Yet till we do so, I'm feeling that until such a time as we build trust (and this is difficult to do) and firmly establish a process of law getting developed in public, we don't necessarily get to have the privilege of sharing random thoughts here and there that are of pretty large significance.
 

I think this is false.

You might be right, the thing I said was oversimplified.

we don't necessarily get to have the privilege of sharing random thoughts here and there that are of pretty large significance.

Let me be clear, that I am mostly modelling this as having strong positive externalities, distributed amongst many other people, not as being 'personally easy'. I don't find it as hard to do nowadays as I've practised it a lot, but my internal motivation isn't just fun or ease or something like that.

Everything quoted below seems pretty plausible, but I'd be keen to get more gears.

I strongly believe that "Thinking out loud" is one of the key virtues to cultivate in the technological era we're in, and has major positive externalities, 

Is it a virtue because of the positive externalities, or for other reasons? How does "technological era" factor in?

and any moves to hide discussion and thought, especially when simultaneously centralising power, often have surprisingly disastrous consequences.

There's probably something to that, but just because there's a rock on one side doesn't mean there isn't a hard place in on the other.

There are also details which affect the situation, such as there are different ways you might have people share their thinking:

1) Everyone shares thoughts whenever they feel like it, even when it's likely to misconstrued and be difficult to correct.

2) Everyone shares their individual thoughts, but only after care has been taking to ensure there's no misunderstanding, e.g. sharing a group statement about moderation to which individuals appends their individual thinking.

The latter does add some friction and is stifling, but for some topics that might just be the correct balance? It's not clear to me yet that your considerations outweigh the others.

I've had a bunch of moderation posts I've wanted to write for a while, and that should improve things.

This makes me a bit anxious. My inner story is that you'll post various posts about moderation policy, intending them as "thinking aloud", but many people will relate to them as official announcement since they come from a LW mod. I'll then feel compelled to weigh in where I disagree and have a lengthy comment exchange trying to clarify the overall [incomplete] state of thinking of the team. And it'll be exhausting and stressful. And I imagine it feeling unilateralist curse-y too, because in your mind it was fine to do and in my mind it wasn't, but now I'm committed to this conversation when I'd have preferred a higher bandwidth, in-person one first. 

I did intend them to be official announcements, and planned to make sure each team member saw them (as well as a number of non-team members) and had the space to disagree and talk through them.

I'm glad to hear you planned to run by the team before posting. I know you don't mean to make them announcements, but my fear is that it might be very hard to make them not come across that way.

To be clear, did you read that I said "did" in that sentence?

On the inquisitive side, I would be interested in hearing your full models, Ben, of the value of being able to "think for myself out loud on LW." Not improbably that your model is richer than mine.