Among my other pursuits, I am a moderator and administrator of a large
community-based website devoted to swing dancing and swing music called
Yehoodi.com. By far our most popular feature is our discussion boards,
which brings together more than 9,000 registered users from around the
Early on in the development of the site around eight years ago, we decided to open up our discussion boards to talk beyond just swing-related subject matter. This was a decision that led to dramatic growth in our level of community involvement and engagement with the site, quickly growing from hundreds to thousands of users.
The "Kitchen Sink" forum, where all non-swing-related banter was channeled, is always in danger of taking over the entire forum space. Of the 68,000 total posts we have received to this version of our discussion board, 394,862 are in the Kitchen Sink, or roughly 60% of all board activity.
A couple of years ago, the level of political debate got so heated and intense that we decided create another forum just for political talk and debate. In two short years, it has garnered 34,126 posts.
So, people like to talk. More importantly, people like to argue.
Our discussion board is an interesting study in technology-facilitated social dynamics. We allow people to post anonymously, which has the well-documented effects of creating less social incentives for people to behave civilly while also engaging in creative online persona shaping. (Read John Grohl ‘s recent essay on "Anonymity and Online Community.") At the same time, since we are a social dance community, there are often just two to three degrees of seperation between any user and another user in meatspace. If I don’t know someone on the site, I probably know someone who dances with that person.
If an unknown user of our boards starts engaging in socially destructive behavior, starting flame wars or spamming the site, the usually question people will ask is "who is this person?" A couple of possibilities present themselves:
- Sometimes it will turn out that the person is a bot, programmed to infiltrate sites that use similar software to ours, which is readily apparent upon cursory inspection.
- Other times the user is a known user who has created another account to engage in less-socially-acceptable behavior. For example, they might attack another user on the site using their alternative user account to avoid any negative fallout on their main identity on the site.
- And sometimes it’s just a new person on the site who doesn’t know how to play well with others.
We do have volunteers moderators on the site. But there are also lots of community self-correcting responses (shunning, "don’t feed the troll", mocking, etc). Much of the time, by the time I have been informed of a flame war or a personal attack, the parties have already resolved it among themselves. Only in rare instances do I have to engage in typical moderator behavior — sending warnings, closing threads or banning users from the site.
Part of what I think has been the strength of our community site is this blend of anonymity and personal connections. Social dancing creates strong incentives for maintaining good relations with people, since there can be definite real-world effects of bad behavior online. You don’t dance with people you were recently in a brutal flame war with.
On a larger level, we have a strongly felt shared connection to a large population of swing enthusiasts that crosses age, geography and social and political boundaries. We might not agree on what’s the best swing music to dance to, but we all love dancing and great music. That’s a pretty strong bond that I think mitigates potentially destructive online fights that have destroyed other online communities.
In other words, shut up and dance.