Venessa Paech
Lead Community Manager
What is an exile?
“Whacking trolls is, for some Wikipedia editors, a big
part of why they keep coming back”
-- Nicholson Baker.
“You can never go home again, but the truth is you can
never leave home, so it's all right” – Maya Angelou
is the
new black
Community culture jammers
“Now the mods have to read each and every post of mine before they
zap me. That’s awesome. In the past they would simply z...
Red Queen Hypothesis
Community theatre
2011: Venessa Paech (Community Engine) - The inevitable exile: success breeds serial pests
2011: Venessa Paech (Community Engine) - The inevitable exile: success breeds serial pests
2011: Venessa Paech (Community Engine) - The inevitable exile: success breeds serial pests
2011: Venessa Paech (Community Engine) - The inevitable exile: success breeds serial pests
2011: Venessa Paech (Community Engine) - The inevitable exile: success breeds serial pests
2011: Venessa Paech (Community Engine) - The inevitable exile: success breeds serial pests
2011: Venessa Paech (Community Engine) - The inevitable exile: success breeds serial pests
2011: Venessa Paech (Community Engine) - The inevitable exile: success breeds serial pests
2011: Venessa Paech (Community Engine) - The inevitable exile: success breeds serial pests
2011: Venessa Paech (Community Engine) - The inevitable exile: success breeds serial pests
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2011: Venessa Paech (Community Engine) - The inevitable exile: success breeds serial pests


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We spend so much time focusing on building successful online communities that we rarely stop to consider the complexities of that success. One such complexity is the ‘exile’ - the disruptive community member that exists between the boundaries and borders of membership. The loss of ‘regulars’ is a part of a community life cycle. These losses create ripples, particularly if that member has left unceremoniously or unwillingly.

A kind of ‘macro-troll’, exiles are inevitable in a successful, long term established community, and can turned jam social frequencies of belonging and trust with often toxic tactics. How can we identify an exile? Are there environments where they are more (or less) likely? How can community managers forecast and deal with their presence – and what might the implications be for a digitally powered, community centric future?

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  • American mathematician and scientist Claude Shannon changed communication forever when he invented the digital circuit and founded information theory as we know it. He’s often called the forefather of the information age, and laid the groundwork for the world of social networks and remote commons that we inhabit today. Much of our modern internet era takes its lead from Shannon’s thinking – from the popularity of algorithms for search and customisation, to the networked design of our exchanges.
  • James Gleick, in his recent book ‘The Information: A theory, a history, a flood’, highlights how, on this journey to technological utopia, we have squished what makes us human into bits, bites and 140 characters. That’s not a judgement call – and this is no technological beat up.
  • But within a fundamentally binary paradigm, the bits of us that bite are sometimes forgotten and usually messy to deal with. We are not binary creatures. And algorithms don’t like outliers.
  • Community managers are well placed to witness and understand the complexity of humans as social animals. We’ve worked with researchers over the years to create a family tree of the usual suspects in our worlds. They of course include, trolls, spammers, flamers, hackers, identity thieves, groomers, sock puppets, stalkers and pirates. None of these are black and white, but there’s a missing link that’s even less so. One that interested me so much I ran off an wrote a dissertation on it. One that a very large number of us have encountered.
  • What is an exile? They’re someone that has been permanently excluded from our community. Usually, banned. They may have voluntarily exiled themselves, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll focus on those exiles we’ve created ourselves, as community managers. The exile can behave like the usual suspects. They’ll flame and troll. They’ll attempt socially engineered hacks to identity. They stalk the collective. But they’re different. They have unlimited filters and unlimited lives. Their defining relationship to a singular community is a product of our success as community managers.
  • Part of belonging is unbelonging. Communities are rife with boundaries, and cultures that instigate, support or repel these boundaries. Some are fixed or clearly defined, others are informal or fluid. In most communities, members are looking for their place on a spectrum of ‘otherness’. Am I one of the crowd? An expert? A moderators pet? A troll? They’re also looking for others to fill these roles.
  • Established communities commonly need a villain. The power of a shared enemy reaffirms one’s sense of belonging (this is what we are not like!). A heretic lets members cluster in solidarity, shelter in shared practices, norms and rituals. And every heretic needs an audience.
  • To be an effective ‘other’, one must intimately understand the familiar. We know that the best online communities have a strong sense of place. Like many of you, I get frustrated when people call something a community that plainly isn’t. Like Facebook, for example ;-) While an online community has a group consciousness, a network does not necessarily have place, purpose or the everyday conviviality that characterises community. The online community exile is forged and distinguished by their one time active participation in this place. Rules, conventions, habits, posting histories, avatars and blow ups provide layers of cultural wallpaper for residents of an established online community. Members carry this sense of place beyond the safety of the community boundaries if and when they leave – or are expelled. When asked for examples of the exile experience in her community, a community manager for a prominent youth virtual world shared with me the following story. A member had turned sour and was getting in people’s faces, constantly causing trouble. They were doing everything they could to interrupt routine; including harassing individuals, hacking member accounts and deleting rooms of furniture to confuse and distress regulars. A onetime regular, this member shared a meaningful sense of place with their peers. When they fractured into dissident behaviours, they went straight for the shared ‘jugular’ – the virtual equivalent of burning the house down after a bitter domestic - and along with it shared memories and histories of community life. The drive-by troll doesn’t care where they shoot. While they enjoy embers, they don’t really mind what they set on fire. Whatever their preferred baitus operandi, it is considered a given that the more digital territories they cross, the merrier the ‘lulz’. For the community exile, in contrast, it’s all about place and the advantage it gives them. This, from an Australian community manager, on his ‘exiles’: “ Once users bond and are known among their peers - they've often formed an attachment that's hard to break and their status/reputation is not transferable to a new community. The importance of this aspect shouldn't be overlooked when examining the repetitious nature of their returns. Like all long-term or highly engaged members they've invested considerable time and effort into their online persona and they are not willing to "retreat" and accept defeat by going elsewhere. Couple this with the fact that loyal and engaged members have a heightened sense of ownership pertaining to a community - these serial pests are indignant and refuse to accept that anyone has the power to exclude them.” The interconnectedness of rich, bounded community makes for easy pickings. The actions of a single malicious user can provoke emotional fallout that rapidly diffuses throughout the community eco-system, undermining hard won trust and diminishing cooperative achievement. A casual troll with limited access to shared secrets and vulnerabilities will not succeed in compromising long term community wellbeing if ties are robust. But the exile understands precisely what will unnerve members the most – so can create maximum social carnage. All those important community tethers -- emotional security, affiliation and vocabulary – become levers for an exile to pull. Meanwhile, the toxic user is looking for familiar responses; validation and attention from the group. The reinforcement of a shared system and need fulfilment identified by McMillan and Chavis in their formative 1986 work to define community is still present, but it has become perverted. The practitioners I surveyed described similar observations. Respondents indicated that the most common types of tactics used by warring exiles are informed by standing in the community. By far the most common is ‘Big-Brotherism’; that is, making other members feel unsafe and unsettled about their ordinary interactions. By suggesting, as one of my exiles did, that ‘the mods gave me all your personal details’, they destabilise trust in peers and authority. Other popular techniques reported by managers, moderators and members include targeting vulnerable members and the stockpiling of accounts.
  • Let’s say I kick you out of our top secret community managers club and tell you can’t come back to the clubhouse because you did something terrible. If you decide I’m a Nazi and keep knocking on the door each day until I let you back in, ultimately I’ll probably call the cops. But there’s nothing to stop you coming back if that clubhouse is virtual. In the offline world, physical exiles are no longer present. The community cannot see, hear or touch the exile; the exile cannot laugh at, hug or punch those left behind. This is, of course, the point – and the punishment.   But for the virtual exile, place persists and remains accessible through the screen. When a member is purged from a digital tribe, there may be technical barriers put in place to prevent them from interacting with other members. However the (web)site that houses their online home is still active. The exile can surf there in an instant and browse, search and witness life proceeding without him or her. There may even be discussion about the exile and the circumstances of their expulsion. If the exile thinks they have been unjustly removed and that other parties are more to blame, it is a galling to see those parties going about their social business, unpunished, unaffected. Accessibility is rightly seen as an essential ingredient for both community sustainability and the preservation of social memory. So the exile becomes a phantom member – still present, but gagged. In theory, of course, these people could turn the computer off and go for a walk. But if you knew you could watch former friends (and enemies) live out their social lives, would you have the discipline to completely abstain? What if you felt you still had a score to settle?
  • The internet has long fostered a culture of identity experimentation, resistance and reinvention. Many scholars, including Sherry Turkle and Danah Boyd have explored identity play and performance at length, and the value it can offer to those uncomfortable with their real life identities and circumstances. Identity tourism can liberate, protect, educate and transform. But the downside to liquid personae is endless reincarnation for users devoted to doing damage – online identity can easily become weaponised. Anonymity gets a bad rap, but I’d argue its the size of the wardrobe that can create problems. It’s not that we can hide who we are, but rather that we can toggle between different characters rapidly and repetitively to suit our needs, no matter how aggressive or toxic. My exile used to create up to 100 new handles a day, some of them fully realised personalities. Other community managers I’ve spoken to have similar stories.
  • For your average online troublemaker, a ban is sufficient deterrent. Their return on investment of time and energy has been diminished and they’ll take their efforts elsewhere, or get a life. But when the actor is emotionally invested in the individual members of the community, or if they have a compulsion for the chase, a ban is unlikely to dissuade. Liquid identity opens the door for a ‘Streisand effect’ of retaliation (for those of you who don’t know that term, it was coined by Mike Masnick in 2005, in reference to attempts by Barbra Streisand to have an aerial photograph of her home removed from public online collection. Which of course, promptly backfired and saw it go utterly viral). To an exile who feels their social identity has been ripped away, a fitting response is to fight back against ‘censorship’, using a social version of DdoS to ‘clear their name’ or take revenge against accusers. Many community managers I talked to in my research reported feeling ‘helpless’ against the actions of a rogue member who will not let go. To quote one frustrated CM I talked to: “The laws in the USA are absolute shit, and for me to spend an hour elaborating on how I feel and all the experiences would be too upsetting, and also I have to get to work!” The permaban they had in place, was anything but.
  • If reincarnation is an everyday occurrence, so too is virtual death or ‘fragging’ as it’s known in gaming circles. There are two reasons to think about fragging in relation to a permanently terminated – or exiled – member. The first is that (just as in analogue life) it is necessary to give community “life” meaning and difference. The second is that death can make a hero of the dedicated player. When the online community member in exile decides to protest that banishment, they are banking on the ability to create multiple lives, and the mythic status this can afford them in community ‘folklore’. The permaban is a form of public torture. With each new handle, the exiled and their executioners replay the theatre of their original crime. Reincarnations of the exile form part of a federated meta-identity, whose stigma distinguishes them from other members of the community. Every time they come back, exiles become embedded in the social memory of the group. They become larger than themselves – something to riff off, and react against. The moderator of a large and longstanding online community told me: “It's interesting that no matter how bad their behaviour there is still always someone who wants to be their friend, disregarding warnings from everyone else.” If we’re not careful, we can turn the worst of our exiles into anti-heroes that command empathy or respect. I’m risking it myself, by studying their behaviour and talking today with you. I half expect one of them to tweet at us.
  • UK serial streaker Mark Roberts will tell you his legendary nudie runs through sporting events are performance art, but they’re also culture jamming. Roberts has run through hundreds of sporting events, often with thousands of eyes watching. Roberts’ art is also performed resistance; a middle finger to the theatre of sport and the community rituals that surround it. Breaking the bounds of the field (literally and figuratively), Roberts turns neatly organised events and groups into chaos. Whether creating fake news stories, planting surreal messages in other people’s products, or overwriting billboards, culture jammers are dedicated to a kind of guerrilla warfare, remixing and remaking the symbols of the cultural systems that hold them. Online community exiles are digital versions of these guys, ‘anti-branding’ the pleasures of community experience; obstructing exchanges that deliver value to those members who dispatched him or her. Carrying a profound grudge, they become obsessed with the disruption of social harmony and all that warm and fuzzy talk about democratising social technologies. They’re guerrillas in our community jungles, streaking through our perfectly conceived communities, screaming that they’re not as perfect as we’d like to think they are. An exile I was managing noticed that a supportive discussion was occurring between a member whose partner was seriously ill and their community member friends. Seeing a chance to ‘jam’ an intimate moment, he created a proxy account and launched a cruel interruption to the conversation. I won’t repeat it. Needless to say, the daily business of community ground to a very ugly halt, while we all mopped up the damage together.
  • This post, from one of my exiles, is total fiction. But you see what he’s doing - hacking away, trying to jam belonging and trust.
  • Looking to better understand these characters, I spoke to a psychiatrist about their behaviour. He reviewed the posting history of the most persistent and vicious of them, concluding that the exile was relishing the game of strategic attacks as he would a round of chess. The continued emphasis on gamification as ‘social juice’ may exacerbate this tendency in our serial pests.
  • This is all well and good, but how do we stop them? The short answer is, if they’re determined enough, we can’t. Our digital ecosystems are as vulnerable to parasitism as organic ones; viruses and pests that throttle flow and function. Consider, the Red Queen Hypothesis, coined by biologist Leigh Van Valen in 1973. Inspired by an exchange in Lewis Carroll’s, Through the Looking Glass where the Red Queen tells Alice, “It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place”, the hypothesis suggests that interaction between species is important in driving evolution. It argues that the interconnectedness of individuals and groups in nature is integral to the tactical behaviours of those entities, creating a co-evolutionary symbiosis. A predator invades an eco-system and that system evolves its defensive tactics in response. The predator then adapts its techniques to accommodate those defences, learning new ways to get at its prey. The experience of a relentlessly assaultive exile is similar. If you don’t capture and track the IP addresses of your registrants, an exile can easily create new identities from the same address. Let’s say you up the ante and prevent multiple accounts attached to one IP address. Your serial pest will move straight on to one of hundreds of IP proxy warehouses. The cold war goes on.
  • Community members develop habits and rituals. They’ll log on at particular times of day. Favour certain areas of the community. Be drawn to some members over others. Fall into patterns of banter. Anticipating the return of the exiled serial pest becomes another shared ritual. The exchange of blows becomes part of the community experience. A moderator confirms with me that members “will either pull up the popcorn and watch the action or in many cases try to keep it going or bring it back once it has passed”. Though this may sound dreadful, it is strangely affirming – and it’s more evidence of profound social cohesion.
  • If we find ourselves with an exiled community member that cannot let go, have we failed? I say no. I say we’ve succeeded as a whole – that it’s an inevitability of the sustained, true community organism. Without a real tribe there can never be an outcast. Authentic community provides motivation, context and opportunity. The exile acknowledges social norms by disrupting them. They acknowledge community boundaries and rituals by blocking or subverting them. Their investment in fusing the community circuit board is not casual; they obsessively care about its inhabitants and systems. Rather than revealing a structural fatigue or an Achilles heel, the presence of an exile proves the presence of an honest to goodness micro-society, complete with fringe elements and the annexed. The worst of their behaviours can be mitigated, but it’s unlikely we’ll design them ‘out’ of an established, bounded community. We can – and should – try to avoid breeding a serial pest where we can, but when they emerge, we shouldn’t berate ourselves, but instead, acknowledge that we’ve built something worth tearing down.
  • In cryptography there is something called Kerckhoffs's principle. It states that a cryptosystem should be secure, even if everything about the system, except the key, is public knowledge. Claude Shannon described this principle as ‘the enemy knows the system’. Our exiles know our communities. If we’re succeeding at our jobs, their intimacies will be public and their systems transparent. But this doesn’t mean they can’t be secure, even from those with the key to the safe. There’s a reason monsters are immortal. Our exiles are reflections of our members. They teach us about the communities we’re making, managing and evangelising, and make us better at what we do. They keep the humanity in the algorithm.
  • Bye 
  • 2011: Venessa Paech (Community Engine) - The inevitable exile: success breeds serial pests

    1. 1. Venessa Paech Lead Community Manager
    2. 2. What is an exile?
    3. 3. “Whacking trolls is, for some Wikipedia editors, a big part of why they keep coming back” -- Nicholson Baker.
    4. 4. “You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it's all right” – Maya Angelou
    5. 5. Panoptical Temptation
    6. 6. Reincarnation is the new black
    7. 7. Community culture jammers
    8. 8. “Now the mods have to read each and every post of mine before they zap me. That’s awesome. In the past they would simply zap me and wipe the slate clean of my posts, leaving no trace. Now, they zap me and only some of my posts. They leave the ones with the useful information. There are still a dozen up from previously banned handles. Is this place that desperate now that they’re allowing me back in partial form!? That might turn me off altogether. I have to admit I enjoy the adversarial relationship we’ve honed over the last years. This will be zapped, but don’t you worry, I’ll be back in 2 minutes and 45 seconds (amount of time it takes to register a new handle). “
    9. 9. Red Queen Hypothesis
    10. 10. Community theatre
    11. 11. @venessapaech