Research:Online Community Conduct Policies/Metafilter
Metafilter is an internet link aggregation-and-discussion site (a “community weblog”). Users post links to “the best of the web” for community discussion. The Metafilter domain also hosts a series of sub-sites for specialized discussion: Ask Metafilter (ask a question and get community answers), FanFare (for discussion of books, television, and other media), Projects (for development of and discussion of projects by community members), Music (for discussion and sharing of music tracks/playlists), Jobs (for members to advertise jobs), and Metatalk (a meta-level discussion forum for site use and policies). Users can also use the site to plan periodic “IRL” meetups.
Metafilter is considered atypical or anachronistic in the category of social media sites in a number of ways: it has been privately owned since its founding in 1999, its user experience and visual design have not substantially changed since 1999, and membership in the site is not free. Though anyone can read the Metafilter family of sites, users who wish to join discussions or post links, questions, etc to the subsites must make a one-time payment of $5 to create a user account. These new member payments are intended mainly to impose a barrier-to-entry for spammers and trolls, rather than to fund the site.
Clear numbers for Metafilter site participation and membership are hard to come by (though they can be derived from data available in the MeFi Infodump), particularly because the site has many more registered users than active ones, but the best estimates appear to be that Metafilter and its sub-sites have approximately 68,000 “active” users who log into the site, and about 7000 commenting/posting members who participate in threads.
According to Alexa statistics, Metafilter users are more likely than internet average to be female, and less likely than average to be male. A 2012 Ignite Media report quantified membership as approximately 55% female/45% male.
Metafilter’s seven-person moderation staff prefers to review behavior in-context and provide only general guidelines in descriptions of site policy, the gist of which amounts to "don't be assholes". The intention of this approach is not to have no behavioral expectations of users - to the contrary, Metafilter is generally considered to be one of the best-moderated communities on the internet - but rather to allow the moderation team to judge cases individually and use their experience and judgment about what action will serve best in a given situation.
Most moderation occurs after it has been user-reported via the site's in-thread flagging system, which makes the community active participants in shaping moderation: if, for instance, a comment receives no flags despite containing something potentially objectionable, it is considered a feature rather than a bug that a comment no community member objected to receive no moderator attention. Similarly, if something that appears on its face to be non-problematic receives a large number of flags, the loosely-defined site policies mean that moderators have the freedom to take action even if the flagged content would not violate a typical user conduct policy.
Some of the few “hard” etiquette rules of the site bar bringing other users’ personal or profile information into discussion threads, as well as racism, hate speech, doxxing of other users, and threats. The site’s FAQ page also provides some general examples of bad/deletable comments, and the flagging system preloads some options for why a comment might need moderator attention: offensive/sexism/racism, noise, thread derailing, and breaking site guidelines.
Metafilter's moderators are also active in the site's discussions and will nearly always publicly clarify behavioral expectations on a case-by-case basis in threads on the MetaTalk sub-site (for "meta" discussion of site governance) or in private communication with users.
History of the policy
Because Metafilter's explicit conduct policy is very general, it has changed little since the site's inception - both the January 2001 and May 2016 versions of the site's guidelines boil down to "follow the golden rule, treat others' opinions with the same respect that you would like to be afforded." The site's unspoken social mores, however, have changed over time: as an example, Metafilter's reputation as a "boyzone" has improved significantly as the site's users have become aware of the behavior and worked to self-moderate it.
Metafilter was initially moderated single-handedly by founder Matt Haughey; as the site and its userbase grew, Haughey expanded the moderation team accordingly. As of May 2016, the site is moderated in rotating shifts by seven paid staff, all of whom are also active community members. Jessamyn West, though now retired from an active moderation role, was instrumental in the formation of the site's community culture and moderation workflow and is considered to be a moderator emeritus.
Since Metafilter’s moderation policies are defined mostly at the discretion of a small and aligned moderation team, site policy is flexible but nevertheless quite actively enforced, both socially by site users and technically by moderation staff.
Site users have the power to privately flag comments and posts for both positive (“fantastic post”) and negative moderator attention, as well as to publicly “favorite” comments and posts (technically a bookmarking system, but commonly used to represent “upvotes” for posts that users agree with or find valuable). The MetaTalk subsite is also used to discuss behavioral expectations, specific comments or posts, and potential new community policies/mores. As a result, there is significant social pressure exerted on members by other members to meet behavioral expectations, and a user who violates those expectations will often see their comments both publicly objected to and privately flagged for moderator attention.
Moderators reacting to a flagged post will generally attempt to use the lightest touch that is effective, beginning with a "don't do this" note to no one in particular in the problematic discussion thread and progressing through private check-in and private warning emails to the user if the behavior continues, going as far as implementing technical restrictions on the account only if previous non-technical efforts failed.
Moderators have access to user information including IP address and email address, as well as information on the method of payment used for an account's $5 signup fee. In extreme cases, moderators can restrict user access to the site and delete or (very occasionally) edit comments and front-page posts. Problematic user accounts can be given bans (both indefinite and time-limited - the latter generally referred to as a “time out”). Banned users are unable to log into the site, or to make posts or comments to it.
Unusually among social media sites, Metafilter considers most of its bans to apply to accounts, not the users behind them, and site policy explicitly mentions a "brand new day" exception, in which a banned user may create a new account unlinked to their banned one and resume contributing to the site as long as they do not resume the behavior they were banned for. Users talking advantage of this exception are not required to disclose their account history, though if they are recognized by other users through their behavior, moderators will also not attempt to conceal the connection. Users who opt to take the "brand new day" approach but resume their previous problematic behavior may be subjected to firmer restrictions, including a permanent ban from the site applied to the person rather than the account.
Analysis of policy: strengths and weaknesses
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- In November 2014, for instance, approximately 1.4% of all comments made were deleted by moderators (though note that abusive user behavior is not the only reason for deletion, and a comment may be deleted for reasons ranging from poor user conduct to being off-topic to accidentally mentioning something non-public) - cf page 23 of this report
- "brand new day | MetaFilter FAQ". faq.metafilter.com. Retrieved 2016-05-09.
- "Advice for the accidental community manager", an article by retired Metafilter moderator Jessamyn West
- Metafilter Wiki, an unofficial site where Metafilter members contribute articles about site policy, notable events in site history, and commonly-used resources.