The Shitlord in the Forum Problem

November 11, 2016 •

There is a problem that I think every online community inevitably must face. One with potential to destroy the community from the inside; the Shitlord.

For better or for worse, online communities are born out of like-mindedness. That’s different than our geographical-based communities. These communites grow and people on the fringe of this like-mindedness will no doubt arrive. The guiding principle begins to fall apart. This state is ideal for diversity of opinion, but it is only a matter of time until the Shitlord appears.

The Shitlord has a singular societal function: to provoke. Crass language and jokes, hostile opinions, contrarianism for controversy’s sake, even rape and death threats. They squelch the peacekeepers and embolden the extremists. Unmanaged, dissidence grows and grows. The traditional advice to “ignore the trolls” doesn’t work here. I say this from experience, it’s not easy to fix.

The Shitlord has a single superpower… they don’t care. They are immune to criticism. They don’t feel empathy or reprocussions for their words and actions. This makes people who do care extremely vulnerable. The only way to win on the Internet is to never care.

I think communities are defined by how they respond to this inevitable problem of abusive behavior. Both in action and inaction.

When I was much younger I ran a forum. One day a new member joined and began posting hostile remarks about everything. People started getting frustrated. The pot boiled over when this person started being an asshole about grammar. For the good of the community I banned them. I don’t know for sure who this person was, but I’m fairly certain it was my own uncle.

In May of this year I left a Slack community of web professionals because I repeatedly found myself discouraging sexist remarks in #general. I exhausted myself telling grown-ass men why dickjokes are inappropriate in a professional setting. There was no Code of Conduct to back up my assertion. I don’t speak at conferences without a Code of Conduct in place, so I departed based on principle. Since my departure I’ve heard about conversations in backchannels between men (whom I used to respect) suggesting fellow women in the community were on their menstrual cycle. Recently the community shut its doors due to unmanageable in-fighting.

Twitter is maybe the prime example of the Shitlord in the Forum Problem. They are experiencing the consequence of their inaction as their stock price slips and they look for a buy out. The world’s second largest social network –where you can tweet about your breakfast or topple an oppressive foreign regime– is unable to find a buyer. The rampant harassment is being cited as a primary issue. It’s clear Twitter valued new user signups over a healthy community. Short-term stock market gain over long-term peace.

Lastly, it appears America has chosen to let the Shitlords run the board. For most, it’s frightening to watch this play out in the political forum. Lives, families, and well-being are at stake. This is not the first time in history this has happened. This has consequences. Namely, “Truth” and “Justice” are now irrelvant in our post-fact world.

In some ways, the great failure of the Web is that it has balkanized us into opposing factions with stronger, more skewed, and more radicalized views. The cursed invention that tied the world together also drives us apart. Our echo chambers amplify. In this new reality the uncaring Shitlord, the one with the most radical views, the one most immune to criticism, is King.