On building killfiles into your communities...
October 27, 2003
One of the most commonly discussed (and employed) kinds of partly collaborative or distributed moderation is the simple killfile - a simple way of allowing users to choose to ignore posts by another that first emerged as a practice among early users of Usenet on Unix. The same technique can be employed (with caveats) in message-boards and mailing-lists and many consider it to provide satisfactory relief from troublesome users. If you want a comprehensive guide to setting up Usenet Killfiles, then the Killfile FAQ is the place to go.
But while they seem like an obvious solution to user-on-user fighting and troll-avoidance, killfiles (and other forms of 'ignore user' functionality) have considerable problems and by themselves are not particularly effective ways of helping a community self-manage. For a start they immediately and inevitably start fracturing the ways in which individuals see the community around them. If every user has a different killfile (or even if a substantial minority do) then each has a different view of the community around them, who has spoken, who is silent and what the gist of the current conversation might be. The consequences may not be catastrophic, but they are irritating - people start talking at cross purposes, individuals talk over one another, repeating suggestions, misinterpreting cues. In fact the only circumstances where killfiles work is where pretty much everyone on the community decides to killfile precisely the same people - or when the culture is strong enough that they simply won't be abused. These circumstances are ... rare ...
Fundamentally, in their devalued and abused form, killfiles are not about community at all, they're about individualism - they're about trying to find a way to minimise an individual's exposure to problems rather than (1) confronting and resolving the problem or (2) organising to minimise the community's exposure to problems. The clearest evidence of their basic redundancy as a structuring principle is what any community that has substantial killfile-usage looks like from the outside or to a new member - incoherent, fractured, troll-filled and consumed with infighting.
The killfile behavior, is simply put: "sweep-under-the-rug", "bury-head-in-sand" kind of behavior. Imagine that in a gathering where if everyone totally ignores other's voices except their own kind, then what cacophony would result? Similarly, if we ignore the problem of crime by simply using larger locks for our own doors, what consequence would result?
We are all human beings. Our surroundings are our organs and affects us dearly. In newsgroups, inevitably there will be certain individuals with foul breath at times. Killfile mechanism is a very good feature to battle such annoyances. This is not a reason for falling for the convenience of blocking your ears from dissenting voices or the nonconformists.
So is there any hope for killfiles, or have they been debased completely? In any community that allows moderation, then fundamentally full-kilter killfiles (or basic 'ignore this user' functionality) should be the last resort of the individual, and should be treated with suspicion by the person running the community. If the user is abusive enough to be a threat to the community as a whole or an overt harrasser, then community-wide measures should be taken. If they are simply annoying other individual users, then the community or the individuals concerned need to be encouraged to deal with the problem themselves. Providing spaces for this kind of quiet engagement can be useful, or it can make matters much worse. Another approach could be to institute a user rating scheme that individuals could feed into (along the lines of Slashdot's system).
If you're sure that you do want to try some form of user-on-user ignore functionality, then look specifically at what makes killfiles so damaging and try to mitigate those costs in some way. On the Barbelith Underground community that I run (currently closed to new members) we tried an cut-down approach to ignoring users that was designed to help the individual in the short-term without compromising the community in the long. Ignore functionality is readily available to all users, but you can only choose to ignore another user for seven days. During that week - from the blocking user's perspective - the troublesome presence is truncated but not removed. Instead of their post a message continually reminds the blocking user that "You have chosen to block this user. Click here to stop ignoring them".
The aspiration for this model was to that people would have a mechanism to defuse profoundly aggressive and socially dangerous situations but that they would be continually reminded of that decision, given the opportunity to change it and would be forced to renew it regularly should their aggression perpetuate. And the results? It's difficult to tell precisely, because of the level of information we chose to track, but the board certainly hasn't suffered from any fragmentation and the functionality still gets used each month...
Addendum: For a more light-hearted (although not necessarily funny) look at killfiles in general, try the song-stylings of Killfile ('Rawhide' parody) or the revised lyrics held at In my Killfile and other Usenet Odes.