Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

How to get banned from Lubbock Online

A few months ago, I took over moderation of the Lubbock Online forums.

I’d like to say I was mature about it; that I accepted my duty like a responsible adult and applied myself with stoic professionalism.

In reality, I whined like a little girl and threw a tantrum that lasted three days.

When I realized I couldn’t shirk my duty outright, I started finding passive-aggressive excuses not to do it. Every time the subject came up, I was ready with a new one.

“I forgot my password.”

“What was that link again?”

“I’m a Unitarian; censoring people is against my religion.”

And my personal favorite, “The link didn’t work; I think it’s the firewall.”

The excuse “I think it’s the firewall,” is good for three to six days of delay time at any business in corporate America – six to 12 in government or the Fortune 500.

I even gave the job to an intern for a while, until Jeff Walker reminded me that the guy was a sports intern. I wasted 20 minutes trying to convince him that “debate” was a sport and that Don Williams should write a six-part series about Academic Decathlon.

I didn’t want to moderate the forums and I couldn’t find anyone to do it for me, so for a week or so I just ignored them – the digital equivalent of swearing off diapers and letting your baby run free in the back yard.

Forum moderation is a thankless job. You end up taking personal abuse for enforcing broad impersonal directives. Do this for a month and I promise you’ll never be rude to a cop again.

I don’t make the law, man; I’m just the guy with the stick.

The previous forum admin is a friend of mine, and it was interesting to see how our personalities affected our approach to the job.

My friend comes off as strong and assertive in person, but when it comes to forums he’s kind of soft. I come off as a gentle, jolly kind of guy in person, but when I sit down to moderate things, you would think Hitler and Stalin had a son.

“That man questioned my authority! Seize his children and burn his home!”

It got so bad, my friend had to call me out. “You’re always spouting this libertarian stuff; I had no idea you’d be such a Nazi.”

If you think that’s a contradiction, you haven’t met many libertarians. There is an infinite variety. For example, I am a libertarian because I believe in private property rights.

And in this case, the forum is the “property” of Lubbock Online. Free speech is great, but not in my living room.

Say whatever you want in public spaces, but contrary to popular belief, an Internet forum is not a public space. In practice, it’s more like the lobby of a bank.

A lot of people pass through, chat and do business here, but it’s private property, and there are some things you just can’t do here.

You can’t run around randomly slapping other customers. You can’t walk around behind people holding up signs containing their real names and phone numbers, and you can’t shout rude words at the tellers when you don’t get what you want.

It’s frustrating because if this was my forum, my personal forum, I would allow just about anything. I really do love the Internet and I really do love free speech, but when I sit down at my desk in the morning, I am representing a company that has been publishing news since 1900.

I’m representing a publication that is read by people of all ages and backgrounds, on a Web site that is read in all kinds of professional environments.

I go out of my way to cut people slack, and lord knows social standards have changed since 1900, but I’ve got to enforce a minimum standard of decency and civility here, even when it means censoring things I like.

We enforce the same standard in all our forums, including blogs and story comments.

(The exception would be in our community blogs, which are moderated by their hosts.)

The rules aren’t perfect, and of course I’m not perfect, but here’s a quick list of things that will get you banned from Lubbock Online:

• Racism: Nothing will get you banned faster than racist remarks. Making derogatory comments about someone based on their race, creed or sexuality will get you banned almost immediately.

• Profanity and Vulgarity: This one is hard to define because it can be contextual. Beyond the obvious bad words that everybody knows about, there’s a level of implied vulgarity that can exist without using any bad words at all.

Each blog item and each forum thread exists in its own context, so comments that would be allowed in a sports blog may not be appropriate for the religion blog.

• Personal Insults: As a general rule, it’s okay to attack ideas but never appropriate to attack people. This is the difference between saying a policy is dumb and saying the person who advocates the policy is dumb.

Most adults understand this; they just pretend not to when they get on the Internet.

And if the last few categories aren’t vague enough for you, sometimes I have to delete posts based on general rudeness.

Every thread occurs in a context, and sometimes that context is an obituary, a crime story or the report of an accidental death. Comments that may be overlooked when you’re talking in broad general terms take on a whole new depth when you apply them to a specific case.

And of course, everyone loves to make fun of celebrities. Public figures exist in a weird moral universe, somewhere between the land of real people and the land of vague ideas. Politicians and celebrities become more than people; they become representatives of ideas.

Paris Hilton isn’t just a person, she’s also a symbol – a kind of conversational icon that represents a certain kind of person with a certain kind of attitude.

Celebrities are people, too, of course, particularly when you talk about local celebrities, but most of the time, people who make generalizations about celebrities don’t mean what they say literally.

The people who can’t recognize that difference are called stalkers and end up, quite correctly, in jail.

I hope this column will give you some insight into the sordid business of forum moderation, and maybe even some sympathy for the people who do it.

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Written by Michael B. Duff

February 6, 2009 at 07:59

Posted in Columns

12 Responses

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  1. Good post.

    Steph

    February 6, 2009 at 09:35

  2. I just recently joined the forum and am looking forward to participating. I think it’s a great service that the AJ offers, alongside their other electronic features. That is really the future. Props for moderating MD and great column, as usual.

    earth

    February 6, 2009 at 12:39

  3. Thank you both for the kind words.

    Michael Duff

    February 6, 2009 at 12:41

  4. Rock on, Duff.

    Kenny Ketner

    February 6, 2009 at 13:59

  5. I got banned for putting a cute swastika on Terry Greenburg’s head aftere my pic was swiped from my personal blog TWICE and AJ refused to remove the pic that had been altered to make me look like a Halloween character. Later I used my blog homepage link for signature on basic re’s of AJ articles just like Lubbock Left guy does. I got banned for two reasons that to this Scott Phillips has never justified. I later had to disable comments on my blog to keep Lubbockonline “sickheads” from using foul language on my blog. I did moderate for a while but I learned that Lubbock online forum users were not my type of people that I wanted their contributions. It’s up to the moderator on who gets banned and I am ppobably the only one to be banned twice for a swastika and homepage link. My picture as a Halloween character TWICE forced me to do a Greenburg picture once with a swastika to show the AJ how altered pictures can be annoying. I proved my point,Ask Terry!!!!

    Clif Burnett

    February 6, 2009 at 21:17

  6. People repeatedly mocked my sexuality, and not one word was EVER said to them. Yet, when I chose to defend myself..I was the one reprimanded. For Duffy to get on here and say that making fun of anothers sexuality will get one banned is a complete LIE! As far as I am concerned…Duffy thinks it is ok to make fun of and ridicule certain people…but that person will not be allowed to defend him or her self. You have ZERO cred Duffmeister…or shall I say HITLER!!! And the rampant racism on the board was incredible! Soooo, kiss my butt and shove your forums up YOURS!

    divine

    February 7, 2009 at 09:51

  7. Michael,

    got a kick out of your column. You seem to be channeling the writing persona of the late Erma Bombeck. (if the comparison is awkward, please understand that it’s meant as a compliment-I really miss her!)

    Take care…

    bobby

    February 7, 2009 at 10:41

  8. Divine,

    I’m very sorry that people on the boards mocked your sexuality, and I did what I could to stop it during my tenure.

    You could argue that I didn’t do enough, but I can’t ban everybody who says something homophobic.

    Using derogatory terms for homosexuals, obvious bad words, will get people banned, but if they use more subtle methods, it becomes a judgment call, and it’s a very difficult line to draw.

    But you weren’t banned for merely “defending yourself.”

    Everything is a matter of degree. Things that started out as a nasty, but relatively minor insults, would quickly escalate into flame wars once you started calling people trailer trash.

    And in your case, virtually every post you made was sexually-oriented or contained references to sex acts, that, however oblique they were, were not appropriate for a family forum.

    I held off banning you for weeks and ignored several forum complaints about you because you went out of your way to be clever with your language and avoid outright profanity.

    I personally enjoyed your posts and felt the forum needed a representative from your point of view.

    When I told you to get a blog, I wasn’t just blowing smoke at you. Your posts were clever, funny, and “naughty” in a very entertaining way.

    Take that style to a blog and you’ll have no shortage of readers.

    I’d read it myself, just not from the office.

    Michael Duff

    February 7, 2009 at 12:21

  9. unUSA, to answer the questions you raised in the comments I am about to delete:

    No, calling Kenny Ketner a three-letter word referring to homosexuals would not be acceptable.

    Nor is the kind of sexual reference you mention in your second comment.

    Unfortunately, this is a matter of audience. If this blog was read ONLY by a group of 18-34 year olds who were comfortable with the Internet and accustomed to the kind of unfiltered content you see there, comments like that would be no big deal.

    But this blog is linked from the official site of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, so it has to be held to a higher standard.

    Determining that boundary can be very difficult. We spend a lot of time debating about what is and is not appropriate for print and online and sometimes we get it wrong.

    I’ve had to edit or remove posts after consultations with editors and co-workers.

    Heck, it happens every week. Every generation loosens standards a bit, but we’re dealing with an organization that has to cut across ALL the generations, from age 8 to 80.

    Michael Duff

    February 7, 2009 at 13:19

  10. Why does the tagline for this blog state that you are *exploiting* hurtful stereotypes since…? Does this particular blog entry about getting banned for *exploiting* hurtful stereotypes seem a little sanctimonious? I don’t mind your blog entry and I agree with it, but why not think about changing the tagline to something more appropriate to what you are trying to get across? Just a thought.

    caesar

    February 9, 2009 at 09:11

  11. The tagline refers to using the word “Geek” in the title of my blog.

    Some people think the word “geek” itself is offensive and I go into that in some detail on my About page.

    Michael Duff

    February 9, 2009 at 09:14

  12. I get your point though I can also see how anyone might take that either as a positive or negative in terms of * exploiting*. What I really came to say is, I know a lot of people who will not interact in the forum because of the history of vitriol. Most agree, in my small circle, that the forum is for wackos and extremist. Occasionally I peruse through it, but often I am discouraged to join it because of the level of hate talk, disrespect and general negativity. So, for all this awareness of banning, I like others just don’t take that seriously. It seems that some people on there are allowed to express certain disturbing views without fear of punishment. Now that may be more of a belief than a fact on my part, but it is hard to see it otherwise when some are clearly objectifying people, race, etc. And I just don’t see 8 year olds having any kind of constructive conversation there. I know its not your fault, but perhaps there is way of dealing with all the flamers on there.

    caesar

    February 9, 2009 at 09:43


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