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"Exactness and neatness in moderation is a virtue, but carried to extremes narrows the mind." Francois de Salignac Fenelon

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.

One of the best descriptions of the problems with killfiles on Usenet was written on comp.lang.lisp newsgroup and was titled (the rather unhelpfully generic) Killfile Considered Harmful:

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.


Tom Coates said:

I'd be interested in how issues like individual one-on-one irritation is handled in MMORPGs. Does anyone know anything about this? Do people simply try and avoid troublesome people, taking advantage of the extensive geography they have available, is there overt moderation around this stuff, or do they find a contextually applicable methology (like 'casting a spell' on someone?).

Jacob Martin said:

I decided to try and ignore a player on an MMORPG not so long ago and, having never done so before, found the experience intolerable; it disturbed me that by ignoring a person I had now way to see if they ever redeemed themselves.

A few days later I un-igged them and have no intention of every ignoring anybody again. For me, it seems to make sense that disruptive people should be judged by their peers and issued some kind of "sin bin" ban - even if this is only for half an hour or so.

Henning Koch said:

Some time ago I invested a lot of work to implement "killfile" functionality for a forum I run (www.netalive.org).

Strangely the ability to ignore other user was not accepted at all. People always seemed more eager to duke out an issue rather than to squelch a troll.

Half a year later there was only one user ignoring one other user.

Gay Gilmore said:

We've considered allowing people to see (not who, but) how many people are ignoring them, as feedback for how well they are fitting in, feedback they might get in the form of arguments were they not being ignored. Thoughts?

We worry that the people that might ignore the idiots are precisely the ones that should be warning us of "inappropriate posts" and their continued posting on these threads (because they don't see the bad stuff) will result in everyone believing such behavior is acceptable.

We don't have an Ignore feature yet (thought not for want of requests), but your post helps articulate reasons why i don't like it. I do think your compromise is interesting though.

Tom Morris said:

I've had different experiences with killfiles or 'ignore' lists. On one forum we had a group of racist homophobes who would repeatedly come and post in the politics forum. They weren't expressing any real viewpoint, just doing it to wind people up. So, like a good user, I added them to my ignore list.

But, they still fundamentally change the discussion that they come in to. If you compare a thread where these users had posted with ones where they hadn't, you could easily distinguish between them - the majority of users didn't notice that these people were trolls or abusers and so responded in good faith to the comments. And quoted the comments.

In the software I am currently using on my site, it enables you to ignore users who post entries (blog posts). Therefore, if they try to monopolise the home page or category pages with posts that you find offensive, you just add them to your foes list. I'm considering adding a function so that you can ignore "friends of foes" easily - just by clicking a box, all the people on your foe's 'friends' list would also be excluded from display. (It's not really important at the moment, but it would be a neat programming project... :D )

Killfiles aren't a cure-all solution - in some communities they work, but in certain structures they don't. The linear, flat board is probably far more open to abuse than a fully threaded board (where branches of conversation can easily be killed without the overal flow of conversation being interrupted) or indeed distributed conversation (weblogs etc.).

I find on sites like Slashdot it is useful, but on other sites (like most simple vBulletin-esque systems) it is quite ineffectual.

Eric said:

Gay, how about making public the "killfiled by # members" info, and even put that info onto every post they make. That way it works as an automatic warning of (the probability of) "innappropriate posts".

It might also work to tip off other users not to engage them, and so dampen their impact on threads.

Then, make it one-click easy for a reader to also add that user to their own kill file. With any luck you'll get a snowballing effect and the miscreant will realise they might as well leave.

Shunning works really well when it occurs in public.

Tom Morris said:

Eric, I have something like that running. When you add someone to your "foe" list, that persons profile page is updated with "You have x people on your foes list." I might, in the future, add a 'hall of shame' page with a list of the 20 most ignored users, although I'm not sure whether that will serve to reinforce negative behaviour (as in: I want to piss off so many people that I hit the top 20).

Public killfiling is a damn good idea though, as it should tell troublemakers that as they become more annoying, their behaviour becomes more ignored.

Dave said:


The problem is that it opens a new form of attack. The trolls can put you in their kill list. By creating lots of accounts they can give anyone they want a high killed by number.

Tom Coates said:

Yes - that's a prime example of gaming. That's not to say that the concept isn't a good one of course, but simply that in order to apply it you'd have to find a suitable mechanism by which to make sure that it wasn't easy to abuse. Like all kinds of political apparatus, online moderation systems are not simply based on clean, pure principle alone - but on the application of (often) multi-layered, fiddly and difficult layers of mechanism and process. Online, you can make the process seem effortless, because the server can do things like collate statistics and only offer certain choices in certain circumstances. But that doesn't make the mechanisms any simpler...

With regard to killfiles per se - in my experience there's a lot of difference between making a community space that individuals can interact with on their own terms and making a community space that creates its own culture and rules. In different circumstances you'd want to employ different mechanisms or different balances between the two extremes. Personally, I tend to err on the side of communal decision-making supplemented by individual nuance - Slashdot and Kur05hin go the other way, I think. Both models work if you go in with your eyes open....

Eli the Bearded said:

By the way, "$FOO Considered Harmful" is a naming convention that has been in use for some time. I think the first was "CSH Considered Harmful". The regular form of these is $FOO may seem to be really useful, but it has hidden traits that make it more harmful than useful.

The state of trolling being what it is, I seldom employ user based killfiles on usenet. Kill by subject or posting site, sometimes. Auto-select by known good sometimes. Thick skin most of the time.

Eric said:

For the record, the first $FOO Considered Harmful was "Goto", or more exactly "Go To Statement Considered Harmful", Communications of the ACM, Vol. 11, No. 3, March 1968, By Edsger W. Dijkstra.

Ironically, there exists an essay entitle: "Considered Harmful" Essays Considered Harmful

As a rhetorical tip-off, it sits right up there with the phrase "A Modest Proposal". Explaining that will be getting way off topic, so I'll stop now ;-)

wonderyak said:

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.

Jeber said:

In the forums I mod, SFNL Forums and Lockergnome (both pretty active forums), we've found it's better left up to people (moderators and admins) than to software the ability to judge the nuances of behavior. But this requires active, daily participation on the part of the mods. Should their attention wain, the board is pretty much wide open. But having humans making those judgements also adds to the feeling of community. We have demoted mods based on their inability to do their work in such a way as to promote the sense of togetherness. And if the moderators stay in touch frequently and become a sort of sub-community, there's even more commitment to the forum.

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