An interesting thing comes up when designing/maintaining a website’s “community” - how it will address newcomers and meltdowns. Why Do Work describes this problem in the most modern parlance, that of the Eternal September, a term coined in remembrance of the 1993 addition of millions of AOL users to the growing population using, at the time, Usenet messaging groups.
Prior to 1993, Usenet had been a pretty humdrum affair. September had been deemed the worst time to be on, simply because of the influx of new college students discovering it for the first time. Fortunately, the “experienced” Usenet denizens were usually able to teach their new charges the social norms, and things went back to normal fairly quickly.
With Eternal September, and the addition of not just many more new people, but people whose current goal in life was not an education, that flew right out the window. As Clay Shirky describes it, “a group is its own worst enemy..
In modern parlance, website “communities” have come up with all sorts of governance, but they can pretty easily be categorized as follows:
#1 - Outright Anarchy - no rules. No restrictions. No deletions/bannings. In other words, just a mob. See also: 4Chan (or don’t, it’s scary there).
#2 - The Quiet Oligarchy - there are rules, but they’re relatively respected. For the most part, a single person or a few people handle the necessary duties (blockings, comment deletion, etc) as needed. Hit Coffee falls into this category.
#3 - The Loud Oligarchy - Get onto a larger forum (such as an MMORPG’s forum space, or a large scale internet forum) and the moderators become a bit more… active. Threats and “repeat warnings” become commonplace.
#4 - The Totalitarian - Here we get to Wikipedia. The best way to imagine this is the following: imagine if your entire “police force” consisted of 20-year veteran paranoid cocaine users with a badge, a gun, and orders to shoot first and ask questions later only if anything was still moving.
#5 - The Karma Fest - Sites like Digg and Slashdot. “Users”, either in their entirety or via random selection, are given the ability to “moderate” posts up and down on a point scale. The goal is that “good” posts get moderated up to the top, and “bad” posts down to oblivion and unseen. The actual result? Utter and complete enforcement of community-ingrained groupthink. Slashdot created “karma whores”, Digg gave us the “bury brigade.” Why the difference? Slashdot only allows pushing a post up or down so far (up to 5, down to -1, with 1 being the starting point), while Diggs and Buries moderate what’s seen on the front page of Digg. And of course, even Slashdot is still gamed; the latest trends are to either (a) find someone that they really dislike, mod them down, and then go back and moderate any other posts by the same user they can find down till mod points are exhausted or (b) to tag-team with someone else, modding “+1 Funny” (which mods up, but doesn’t actually add Karma points) and then have the tag-team partner mod down again, adding more negative karma.
As for sites that follow #2 through #4, usually in an evolutionary state (the number of admins rises with number of users and noise in the system, until the number of bad-but-entrenched admins begins driving away users and eventually more admins than users remain), little can be done once critical mass is hit. The most one can do is hope that growth is slow enough to identify bad admins before entrenchment occurs.
On the last, I believe that the overall flaw is in allowing karma to flow both ways. While it’s true that partisan upmodding happens, there’s probably less ill feeling if that is the only partisan behavior; the problems for Digg, and Slashdot to a point, come in from the partisan downmodding that allows a subset of the population to not just decide that something should be seen, but to actively censor things they think shouldn’t be seen.