On Moderation

The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making laws abridging the freedom of speech and generally has been interpreted to apply to state and local governments. In my experience, it does not provide untrammeled rights for an individual to say anything, at any time, in any context. The First Amendment also does not apply to a community on Facebook which was created and maintained by a private individual.

There are many public spaces and contexts in America where moderation by judges, speakers, teachers and other community leaders leading discussions can and must make decisions about speech.

To put it another way, moderation is not the antithesis of open government.

Many parliamentary procedures are based upon Robert’s Rules of Order, which require whomever is leading the meeting to effectively serve as a moderator, wielding a mighty big gavel.

Courtrooms are moderated by a judge, who maintains order in the court. Town halls are conducted by mayors, councils and/or media, all of whom serve as moderators. Classrooms and libraries are moderated by teachers and librarians, who lay out rules for participation and use that enable all students and members of a community to have the opportunity to learn and participate.

In each context, there are rules and consequences. People in a courthouse may be held in contempt after sufficient outbursts. If someone keeps making off-topic comments at microphone at a town hall, for instance, a town councilor running a meeting might ask him or her to answer the question that was posed or to cede the space. Students who insult other students or the teacher, interrupt a class, answer questions with off-topic subjects or threaten others with violence are asked to leave a class — or even suspended or expelled.

In online forums, I think a team of moderators who rotate and adjudicate decisions based on a transparent set of rules would be appropriate. I generally think of the blogs and communities I maintain as classrooms and moderate accordingly.

As the creator and moderator of the Google Plus Open Government & Civic Technology community, I’ve been faced with decisions every week since I clicked it into life, including removing posts or, unfortunately, sometimes banning users. Spam has been an ongoing challenge. I’ve shared my own standards for communication moderation online, which inform how I handle comments on social media and blogs in general

It’s critical for online forum creators and moderators to be clear about the expectations for members of a community, from topical focus to frequency of postings to commercial content to behavior towards others, and to act transparently to address the concerns of those communities. It’s not easy, as we’ve seen on Wikipedia or Reddit or blog comments, but if we’re going to have any hope of fostering civic dialogue online, it’s critical that we all figure it out together, building better tools and models that neither amplify the loudest voices in the chat room nor chill voices speaking truth to power than need to be heard.

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Filed under government 2.0, journalism, social bookmarking, social media, technology

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