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Flagging and Fairness

This article is a reply to a comment byJoAnna Stansby, who recently wrote in the thread she started "Life Ban Deserved?"

The BW reply about the inexperienced 1♦ opening is obviously BS and I viewed BW giving such a response as not at all addressing my biggest issue: that 2 different people can write pretty much exactly the same thing but get treated by BW admin differently because they are reacting to the author rather than the content of the message.

I feel this is a serious charge of bias that is of important general interest, so I’m moving my reply to a featured article so that it won’t be lost amongst the many other replies in that thread. For those of you who haven't been following the thread,here's JoAnna's argument, and my recap of the admin perspective on this issue. She acknowledged my recap as accurate,but qualified it as incomplete (as if anything would ever be truly complete!)She then wrote the above comment accusing us of treating people differently for the same offense. Below is my reply.

JoAnna --

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that two different people can write the same thing and be treated differently by the admins when it comes to deciding punishment. It's because the number of previous offenses is a critical factor. First-time offenders almost always get explanations of our guidelines; repeat offenders will get put on probation with a warning; someone on probation who offends will get suspended. But this is fairly standard practice in justice systems, so I believe you are not objecting to unequal punishment, but to unequal conviction.

First, conviction isn’t handled solely by the admins. It’s handled by both the community and the admins: the community brings up posts for our inspection, and once a certain number is hit, unless we see something seriously wrong, we remove it. We don’t have time to read the hundreds of comments a day our site generates. If Dean, or anybody else, were to post and nobody flagged, we wouldn’t act at all. True, we have an idea of what tone we want on our site, but the implementation is left to our users. We do not want to interfere with content if no one in the community thinks it’s a problem. Instead, we want the community to bring problems to our attention.

Now, I went back and looked at the e-mail that you call “obviously BS”. The comment you quoted as cause for his supposed “bad treatment” at the hands of admins :

West's 1♦ opening was very inexperienced. If this isn't a 3rd seat vul vs. nonvul. 3♦ opening, then such opening doesn't exist at all…

wasn’t even removed, because it didn’t get enough flags to be removed! (It did get one flag for offensiveness, but one flag is never enough to trigger action by an admin.)

To see for yourself, here is the comment in question, which is still visible for all to see:

And here is the beginning of the comment for people’s convenience:

JoAnna Stansby writes:

Dean is unable to reply directly in the thread, sent me some comments via private mail and said okay to post them here.

Nice and very instructive problem. Since I'm in the cage, I have to answer you privately. :)

West's 1♦ opening was very inexperienced. If this isn't a 3rd seat vul vs. nonvul. 3♦ opening, then such opening doesn't exist at all...

Notice that the comment was actually “authored” by you, JoAnna, because you were posting on Dean’s behalf while he was suspended. You properly attributed the comment to Dean, so everyone knew who was actually speaking (and some people criticized you for that).

In the private email the BW admin sent you that was quoted out of context, he was explaining to you that this comment was an example of the type of language Dean consistently used that led him to getting suspended. Moreover, the reason he cited this comment in particular was because it was filtered through you. Even though it could be interpreted otherwise, he didn’t mean that this specific comment caused the suspension. It couldn’t have, because Dean was already suspended at the time the comment was made (the whole reason why you were posting for him). The words in the link above are proof.

In your e-mail reply back to the admin, you cited a second comment in the same thread, written by another author, which you felt was similarly rude but did not get acted upon. You then stated your big issue, which is that you felt people react to the author instead of the message. Guess what? I personally agree with you that that second comment was rude. Butneither comment was flagged enough by the community, and we didn’t take action on either of those comments. This is not different treatment, this is the same treatment: letting the community evaluate.

Why didn’t the community flag either comment even though we both felt it was rude? Maybe you and I are more sensitive. Maybe it’s because the flagging system was new at that point, and so the community hadn’t decided how rude was too rude. But there’s rude, and then there’s *rude*. Dean was suspended for earlier public comments like claiming another poster was pimping his wife, or implying that a junior bridge player was a crybaby, comments that our community thought were over the line. These generated enough flags, and since Dean had been warned many times in the past, he was suspended. No bias, just following through on the community action.

Now, just because this particular thread didn’t show any particular sign of bias, doesn’t mean that community bias doesn’t exist. Although we would like to have an ideal society where everyone is treated exactly equally by the community, that’s impossible. People build a reputation, both with their real-life accomplishments and their actions online, and that reputation influences how they will be treated. This is no different from a real community. You act badly in a consistent manner, you’re going to get less slack from others. Similarly, champions like Jeff Meckstroth or yourself, JoAnna, are going to get more respect than the average poster. It’s human nature, and we can’t change it.

Although bias is unavoidable, are people significantly overreacting to the name “Dean Pokorny” and going on a witch hunt? No -- I could see that whenever Dean made a comment just about bridge, the community never flagged him. Maybe the bar to flagging was lower for him than other people, but every single post that was flagged had a legitimate reason, like the two I mentioned above. At the same time, there was another user who was generating almost as many ignores and flags as Dean. This user was in the exact same boat as Dean, generating warning after warning and then suspension after suspension. Like Dean, we privately told him that his next offense would be his last. From the community viewpoint, he was almost as offensive as Dean, as they were neck-and-neck for “most ignored user”. However, unlike Dean, after we gave him his final warning, this user cleaned up his act and has been a model poster since. In roughly a year’s time, despite heavy posting on his part, I’ve not had a single comment from him that has reached the flag threshold, and almost all of his comments have no flags at all. If our community were inherently vengeful or vicious, we’d know.

Furthermore, Dean did come back under a different account a couple of months later, and make some posts. Not only did this account get flagged again the first time he was rude, but his second account was also ignored by enough people to make our internal list of most ignored posters. Nobody in the community knew that it was Dean at the time -- except possibly his friends -- so it was as fair a trial as he was going to get. It was only when I got summoned by lots of flags that I recognized his writing style, looked at the technical evidence, and realized it was also Dean. The problem is not his name or his reputation, the problem is Dean.

To conclude, your big issue is not an issue. The example you cite was not a case of malicious targeting by community or admins, because it wasn't removed, nor was it ever a factor in any punishment, because he was already punished at the time of the comment. Sure, it’s possible that the community might judge two people differently. But Dean is the only person who has been banned for offensive posts over a long period of time, despite other people with similar bad behavior, and he continued to generate flags even when he came back anonymously and people didn’t realize it was him.

Flagging is not perfect, but we don't expect a perfect system that highlights every rude comment. Such a system is impossible anyway, as one person’s rude is another person’s acceptable. We just want one that identifies clear problems so that we can get closer towards realizing our goal of a open, yet civil community.

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