The Sociology of the Forum and How to Prevent Freedom of Speech Tragedies

Long ago, about 252,288,000 seconds ago in programming time, Clay Shirky gave a speech called A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy. In it, among other things, he talks about how group members’ (users’) behaviour can wreak havoc on an open social entity of any kind (open being the key term here). He talks about the need to control members of any group by having clear rules to keep order. He also says that people end up learning from their mistakes, instead of learning from other people’s mistakes, a much smarter approach.

So I will now try to help you learn from others’ mistakes when it comes to opening up your web site to the public — with comments, a forum, or any user-generated content (UGC). But first, two more concepts to contemplate.

Shirky’s article reminded me of a theory in social-psychology called “groupthink,” coined by Irving Janis in 1972. Janis’ groupthink is a complex theory, but suffice to say that groupthink causes groups to make poor decisions under certain circumstances (pressure, cohesiveness, etc.). Solutions to groupthink include rules and roles. In addition, being aware of the potential problem can (sometimes) help avoid it.

Fallacy of Composition

The third concept I will introduce you to before I get going is from macro economics: The Fallacy of Composition. Simply put, just because something is true for each individual of any group, doesn’t necessarily mean it is true (or good) for the group as a whole. A good example of this is at a sporting event when something exciting happens, everyone stands up to see better. But because everyone is standing, no one sees better. And if you sit down and you’re the only one to site down, the best way for everyone to see, you lose out, unless everyone follows your lead (at least everyone in front of you).

So how are rules, roles, groupthink and the fallacy of composition relevant to your website? User-generated content (UGC again) creates groups. If you are allowing conversations to exist on your site (and I highly recommend it), you are creating groups. If these conversations begin to make participants feel like they belong to something, they will start acting like members of a group. Their behaviour could, if not controlled, and especially if decisions are being made, cause groupthink make come into play.

User’s want to enable their right to free speech on your site. If you do not allow that, you may lose them. However, what may be best for any one individual, may not be good for the group as a whole, and eventually, they will work together to effect change on your site, whether you like it or not. This can manifest itself in several ways. They will complain when something goes wrong as if it was their property. They will act as if it their constitutional right to say what they want and how they want. And they will eventually vote by never returning.

When you create your site with the intent of having the common folk stroll in and leave their mark, remember that they may leave a black and blue mark. So you need to consider the following:


  • The Internet is the ultimate Democracy: People will express themselves, albeit they will also police themselves.
  • Spam is not meat: If there is a way for spammers to spam your site, they will. Do not leave everything open for all anonymous users.
  • “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Yes, I’m quoting Janis Joplin.
  • Three words: Moderate, moderate, moderate.
  • Have a great anti-spam program installed. In Drupal, that’s easy.
  • Have a system to easily remove unwanted trash, I mean users.

Running a Democracy doesn’t look so easy now does it?