I’ll start this post with an apology: it’s a long one, as there is a lot to cover!
If you are short on time, however, don’t be alarmed. I’ll start with an executive summary so you don’t need to read the whole dang thing.
We will soon be introducing some changes to how moderation works in the Stitch Community Forums.
- All forum discussions will need to fall under a Stitch Group (either already existing, or new).
- Discussion owners will no longer be able to block or moderate comments in the discussions they started; this will only be able to be done by the owner or organizer(s) of the Group to which they belong.
- We will be creating a Group called “General Discussion” which will be owned by the Stitch team. Discussions which fall under this Group will be governed solely by the Stitch Community Guidelines.
- Discussions which fall under other Groups will be moderated according to the wishes of the Group Organiser(s), but still must comply with the Stitch Community Guidelines.
For more details about the background and rationale behind this change, please read on.
This change has been on our plans for some time.
Our long-term goal has always been for Groups to evolve and eventually be how everything is organised on Stitch, with events, activities, and travel also being able to be allocated to a Group. Groups themselves will be extended to support private groups, invite-only groups, and more. It’s all driven by the goal of making it easy to connect with people around common interests, activities, and ideas.
We are starting with the Forums, however, as it’s been reasonably clear to all longtime forum participants that the current approach to moderation isn’t working as intended, and needs to be improved.
Since their inception on Stitch, the Forums have proved to be very rewarding, but also occasionally challenging.
They have been a great way for members to congregate around ideas, particularly those members who live in areas where the Stitch community isn’t very large yet.
But at the same time, they have also been a source of conflict and division, as in an online environment it often takes only one person to disrupt community harmony.
We have had numerous instances where a single individual developed a grudge against other members, causing a lot of heartache to all involved — and a lot of my time trying to figure out what happened and what to do about it.
(You might be surprised that anyone would act in this way, but sometimes the answer was that they couldn’t help it. We have encountered at least three people who had what turned out to be personality disorders: in one instance, the member involved became convinced that every single comment on the Stitch forums was being written by me personally, in an attempt to sabotage her. She believed I was watching her apartment and following her, even though we live on different continents. Sadly we haven’t yet found a great way to help members like this, beyond asking them to leave the community if they refuse to change their behaviour.)
When we created the forums, my expectation was that the Stitch Community Guidelines would be sufficient to handle any grievance that arose. After all, Stitch members should (by definition) be expected to be mature adults! My hope was that the community itself would be able to be self-moderating, without needing constant oversight from me or the Stitch team.
Unfortunately that proved not to be the case. Not just because of the occasional disrupter, but because the very nature of online communications means that inadvertent misunderstandings sometimes just happen.
So that’s why we expanded the member moderation features (i.e. the ability to block members or remove their comments) that existed for groups, travel, and events, and added them to the forums too.
The goal was to empower our members and give the community the ability to manage and moderate by itself.
We introduced that feature a couple of months ago, and it’s clear that while the intent behind the change might have been a good one, the end result wasn’t.
Differing expectations about how moderation should be used ended up upsetting many members. Some forum owners used the moderation features to create discussion areas for groups of like-minded individuals, to the exclusion of others. Some members argued that this violated principles of free speech; others objected to any comment that was posted in the forums that could not be supported by factual evidence.
And amidst all the disagreement, my inbox started overflowing with messages from members on all sides of the debate with the same message: “Andrew, what are you going to do about this???”
The most difficult part was that every position had merit — I found myself agreeing with each of the ideas listed above, even when some of those ideas were diametrically opposed.
Despite the anguish it has caused, however, the whole experience has been a very good thing. It has caused us to sit back and ask ourselves a number of really important questions about the role the forums should play on Stitch, and even about the fundamental purpose of Stitch itself.
And in doing so, it’s given us a lot greater clarity on what the path ahead should look like.
What is the purpose of Stitch?
My starting point when trying to figure out what the solution should be was to go back to basics, and start with Stitch’s very reason for existence.
Stitch’s purpose is very simple and very clear: to help people over 50 find companionship.
Nothing more, nothing less.
Anyone who knows Stitch knows we take this mission very seriously, as we believe it is tremendously important.
As a result, it underpins everything we do, and guides every choice we make. Even our commercial decisions, driven by the need to become financially self-sustaining, are so we can ensure we can stay in operations — and grow — to help as many people as possible.
It is also intentionally broad, meaning we have the goal of helping everyone, no matter who they are.
Regardless of race, religion, political affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, you name it … Stitch’s mission is to help everyone.
So what does that mean for the Forums?
The purpose of the Forums flows naturally from Stitch’s overall mission.
The Forums exist to help our members connect with each other on a personal level, around ideas, values, and conversations that they find meaningful. The Forums are the online counterpart to the events and activities on Stitch which bring members together in the real world.
They have been remarkably successful in this regard: some of Stitch’s strongest friendships started through the forums, and over half of the marriages we’ve had so far happened between members who met on the Forums!
That doesn’t mean that every member needs to agree with the content of every discussion, or that vigorous debate about intellectual ideas is not valued. It’s just that the purpose of those discussions is to help members find other members with whom they have a connection, whether that’s based on ideas, interests, spirituality, values, or anything else.
Understanding the purpose of the Forums helped us answer some of the questions that had been nagging us in the whole debate about how the Stitch forums should operate. Some of these were:
Should the forums have rules around factual accuracy?
The answer to this question is clearly “no”.
If we were to enforce factual evidence for everything posted in the forums, we would be limiting our members’ ability to use the Forums to connect around ideas that are important to lots of people: astrology, spirituality, superstition, even religion (as “evidence” undercuts the very concept of “faith”).
No matter what your views are on any of these topics, there is no denying that Stitch exists to help the members who find them important to find companionship.
Should Forum owners be able to block participants?
This one is more complex, and the answer is “yes, but only in some situations”.
Let’s use a patently absurd scenario to illustrate why. (I often find that using totally extreme examples to test out an idea can help us most quickly identify what the right approach should be.)
Imagine that some people believe that Harry Potter is the Messiah, and that Kim Jong Un created the world last week. Further imagine that some of these people join Stitch as members, and would like to connect with other people who believe the same thing.
Stitch’s mission is to help everyone find companionship, so it follows we have a mission to help them to do so.
That means the Forums need to be a place where they can discuss their beliefs (perhaps ranting about the evils of Lord Voldemort and his influence on global warming), free from harassment and interruption from anyone who wants to tell them what they are saying is absolute hogwash.
One implication of this is that they should have the ability to remove comments that they feel are disruptive, and block members from participating in their discussions if they want to do so.
We need to clarify, however, what is actually happening here.
When they block someone from participating in their discussions, they are implicitly defining themselves as a group of people who have shared values or ideas, and they want to exclude some people from that group. They need the ability to manage the membership and discussions within their group, not with the forum community at large.
The role of groups
As extreme and ridiculous as the above example is, it highlights a fundamental truth about the Stitch community. There is, in fact, no common set of values which applies to the entire community, beyond the recognition of every member’s right to find the companionship they need, and the expectation that certain behavioural rules — such as treating each other with mutual respect — are followed, as per the community guidelines.
Beyond that, every opinion, every personality type, and every group of like-minded people, has a place on Stitch. There is no universal rule for what a “Stitch member” is, just groups of people who are seeking to connect.
Some of these groups might have specific views on religion or politics, and want to use Stitch to meet people with similar views.
Some of these groups might be for people looking for a place for discussions around particular intellectual ideas, where opposing views are welcomed but any comments must be fact-checked and based on substantiated evidence.
Some of these groups simply want a place to chat to lighten the burden of their lives, free from the cares of their daily lives, unburdened by interpersonal conflict.
Each group needs to have the ability to discuss things they way they want to do so, according to the rules they feel appropriate for their group, and manage things as they see fit.
All of this is why we are going to be moving the moderation features of the Stitch Forums to Groups.
What is changing
The major change is that we will be removing the ability for an individual forum owner to moderate comments in their discussions, or block members from joining them.
At the same time, all forum conversations will need to belong to a Group.
Only Group owners, or co-organizers, will be able to manage participants of the Group (and the discussion topics they contain), or moderate comments in those discussions.
Most existing discussions will belong to the Group “Stitch Community Discussions”, which will be managed by the Stitch team, and run purely based on compliance with the Stitch Community Guidelines.
Some existing conversations, however, will move to new Groups.
Specifically, anyone who wants to manage the participants or content of their discussions will need to create a Stitch Group for it. We actually think this is a very positive thing, and are hoping it leads to the creation of lots of new Stitch Groups which will help highlight the diverse and varied nature of the Stitch community.
We might even see a group dedicated to addressing the issue of fake news online. (I, for one, would applaud that!)
And that’s pretty much the entire extent of the change.
It’s a reasonably subtle change, and for most discussions it won’t even be noticeable. It does, however, mark a philosophical change from the way the forums have operated to date, which is why we felt we needed to explain the rationale behind it in such detail.
It also paves the way for a lot of improvements in the community going forward.
Over time we’ll expand the features of Groups considerably, with the goal of making it easier to find and connect with the people most important to you on Stitch. This is just the first step on the path towards that goal.
If you’re a Stitch member, you can join in the discussion about these changes here.
Please let us know what you think!