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Anatomy of a Community Meltdown

Similar to society as a whole, online communities are not immune to the machinations of those who wish to use them for their own agendas, gain, or other individual benefits. The story of a recent meltdown of the MacSerial Junkie community is one with lessons for those of us working to build online communities, participating in them, or building tools to facilitate them.

The MacSerial Community meltdown has some big lessons, particularly in the context of these days of “Web 2.0” and “user-generated content”. It also speaks loudly to the questions raised, debated and debated again in the wake of the events leading to Kathy Sierra’s decision to stop blogging. It involves cyberbullying and power plays, and in the best human tradition, reads like a soap opera. But this meltdown is distinctive — it was over two years in the making and involved trusted volunteers. The genesis of the conflict appears to begin two years ago, when two moderators came into conflict with each other. One was ready to strip the other of their mod powers when they withdrew to their own server, voluntarily resigning mod powers. However, the underlying conflict was not resolved and was driven farther underground.

(It’s probably worth noting as an aside that the purpose of the community is to share hacks and serial numbers for Mac applications and games. It follows, then, that the members of the community probably share a somewhat anarchical and anti-authority philosophy which might be manifested in different ways and which could naturally lend itself to rising conflict)

The conflict

From the notice on their site:

Right now we are facing problems from another direction: they’re coming from a side where you’d least expect it. The “elite” Mac UnderGround scene, our own side. Or so we thought.

They go on to define their vision of the community:

MSJ is a community built upon openess and loyalty. People dedicating their time to help MSJ grow, dedicated members get to be moderators and dedicated moderators get to moderator moderators and so on. Until you reach the top mod levels and that’s where the real decision-making goes on.

Then there is a lengthy discussion of the details. Disclosure: I do not fully understand the machinations of underground hacker groups, the hierarchy or even the structure, so I won’t try to analyze it in that context. What is more interesting to me is how a well-structured and strongly-knit community was almost undone because the volunteer moderators were given the power and permission to moderate the community, but did not have absolute power, nor ownership of the domain, something they felt should have belonged to the community at large rather than a single owner or group of owners. They felt that they were sharecroppers tilling the virtual ground for an absentee landlord.

From their post:

His strongest complaints were that we, as founders, were still in charge while being absent most of the time; even though he himself had been hardly active at MSJ lately and we head admins rarely intervened with day to day business.

Contrary to his assumption, we head admins visit MSJ frequently though, yet we do not actively participate and decision-making, let alone take part in any topics. We only show up when there are crises at hand and real threats to MSJ’s existence. The reason we do this is because we still strongly believe in MSJ and the envisioned path. Other than that everyone was free to sculpt MSJ’s future the way they seemed fit. But to some moderators this freedom was not sufficient and, even though everyone had the access that was needed, more access was wanted… even owning the domain name was being discussed.

As time went on, the primary antagonist tried to co-opt other moderators who did not share his views by naming them in a claim to the ‘top mods’ that they were about to break off and form their own community. There was email flying, lots of lying, lots of names and lots of hostility, leading to this:

Between the two of them, they were really directing and manipulating a lot of moderators at MSJ into a certain direction…away from the sense of community which MSJ is about.

It’s difficult to discern what really happened with their site, but I did find a Digg.com post from about a month ago asking if the site had been shut down, indicating to me that there were some serious efforts not only to compromise the community, but also the host and the forum software — this is a community of hackers, after all. Shortly after that Digg post, there was a notice on the front of the site letting users know that they were down for maintenance, which was subsequently replaced by the notice on the front page. At this time, no other pages are accessible, at least not to folks like me who aren’t inside that community.

The Public Reaction

Over on Slashdot, the reactions are more or less a “shrug and so what”. One reader, who goes by the name “Anonymous Coward” has it right when he/she states that this is important from a sociological perspective and within the context of social networks. Over on Digg, it’s a non-event. There’s 4 diggs on the current story and over 40 on the month-old story. Barely a blip.

But within the community itself, the impact is as big as a 9.0 earthquake along the San Andreas fault. RavingLunatic.outblogger.com, a one-year member of MSJ, writes this:

But one thing this childish elitist group will never get is the fact they failed miserably in the end. MSJ members have dispersed all over the globe and will continue to Share The Wealth (STW).

Some will create their own forums, some will join others and some like me will continue to STW openly.

(snip)

No matter how hard this elitist group tries to control the Mac underground they will never succeed. Any of the underground Mac elitists are nothing more than hypocritical fools. They forget the whole point of being in the underground is to be an Anarchist and share the wealth , NOT to keep it hidden from the rest. Suppressing the truth only makes the elitist’s look like idiots pretending to be Big Brother (like the governments & police).

There isn’t a lot of public reaction out there. I’m guessing that the nature of the forums kept the majority of the reaction under the radar since the members are engaging in activities that involve the use of pirated software. Still, a couple of points do jump out. First, this community is one of the oldest and most well-respected of its kind. Not the only one, but definitely one of the highest-profile. Second, the group that comprises the community tends to be a group that prizes the concept of “share and share alike”, rejecting the notion that anyone should have unique claims to knowledge without sharing it with the community at large. Even pirates have their own code of ethics, and this community was no exception.

The Lessons I See

These are the lessons I see with regard to this incident. I’m not going to say that this could have or should have been prevented, but it is sad to see a strong community fractured, and I think there are ways that the damage could be (and is being) minimized with preventive measures for the future.

1. Visibly manage volunteers

Or said another way, make sure volunteers understand the scope of their duties and powers and are accountable to others. Put it in writing. Have them agree to it. And then watch to make sure they adhere to it. I am not a fan of volunteer-moderated communities, but in this day of user-generated content and self-regulated communities, it’s inevitable. If the community creators are relying upon the volunteers to tend and care for the community, they need guidelines, constraints and accountability.

2. Stay active and visible in the community.

Having volunteer moderators should not be a reason to stay away from the community you created. Despite the claims of the MSJ ‘owners’ that they were present, they were not visible by their own admission. That left their volunteers with the mistaken impression that they were running the place, which led some to be resentful that they had the authority but not absolute authority. That’s not entirely unreasonable. When landlords are absent and folks are doing a decent job running and growing the community, how could they not be resentful? This is one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of the volunteer moderator model or the user-regulated model without constraints and supervision. People are people and it only takes one antagonist to completely undo and fracture a group.

3. Don’t let resentments fester

The resentments at MSJ simmered over a two-year period. I don’t know if there was resentment or division among the moderators who were a part of or along the sidelines of the original conflict 2 years ago that went unresolved, or it bubbled up from the membership. To the credit of the ‘upper management’ of the MSJ forum owners, they did open threads to allow people to air their personal grievances, but it was 2 years after the fact, and those threads were then used as a weapon to attempt to garner support behind the dissenters’ cause. The time to deal with it was quietly and with authority 2 years ago.

4. Define community boundaries, communicate them, and enforce the rules

Even pirate communities need structure and boundaries. The structure might be to agree on having no structure, or the structure might be similar to what MSJ had — tiered groups of moderators and managers. Whatever the agreed-upon structure is, it should be reinforced by consistent administration according to a published set of guidelines. The moderators should be accountable via reporting methods and/or administrative cross-checking, and if they cross lines, the forum manager will have recourse to take steps to correct it quickly and with as little public flap over it as possible.


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