Discworld drama

If you're not familiar with the Discworld MUD, you might want to skip this post, since it's not really relevant to the outside world. Or read it if you like, I'm not the boss of you.

Firstly I just want to link to this great blog post by Drakkos@Epitaph about the situation.

That out of the way, the main reason for this post is to share this post that Maelin@Discworld posted on the MUD's Flame board. Since the boards tend to scroll off pretty quickly and there is no archive accessible to normal people, I wanted to grab a copy of the post here, because it's great.

Bulletin Boards: Flame - Wallsy ban posted by Maelin on Sun May 20 13:52:00 2012

This is awful. This is a really awful, unpleasant, nasty thing; a negative community-hurting thing, that has happened here.

(long post. tl;dr version: wallsy ban, bad)

There is a cognitive bias known as the Halo Effect. This bias causes people's overall opinions of a person to colour their interpretations of other things that person does, even if they're totally unrelated. Put simply, people have a built-in assumption that positive qualities correlate. This is why you wear a suit to a job interview, and why political smear ads always have harshly colour-balanced shots of their target doing something that makes them look unpleasant - the ad makers are trying to foster a negative impression of that politician, because they know that it will make you interpret the politician's actions more negatively. Of course, it's not a universal. You have plenty of people whom you know closely, and you know that they have faults and qualities like everyone else. The effect is most pronounced in people you _don't_ know very well. That's why first impressions matter so much.

If you don't think that you, personally, fall victim to the halo effect, then you are wrong, and there are plenty of studies to prove it to you. Cognitive science trumps your own personal introspection. Sorry, your brain doesn't work the way you think it does.

The halo effect means that if you see someone like, say, Wallsy, doing something that seems obnoxious (and I'm not claiming that this doesn't happen), then you are more likely to read obnoxiousness into other things he does. If he later says he doesn't understand something you've said, you are more likely to read his comment with a sneer in his voice, like it's an obstinate refusal to even try to understand you. Your perceptions of the things he does will be coloured negatively by your impressions of him as an obnoxious person. His actual obnoxious behaviour will seem worse, and his non-obnoxious behaviour will seem more like low grade obnoxiousness.

There's another cognitive bias called Confirmation Bias. This is where you will weight observations that confirm your beliefs far more heavily than those that contradict them. Put simply, you will _notice_ and _remember_ instances where your beliefs were correct far more often than you will notice instances where they were incorrect. Confirmation bias is (part of) the reason that people who believe in horoscopes always remember the horoscopes that made accurate-seeming predictions, but don't really notice the days when their horoscope doesn't seem accurate.

If you don't think that you, personally, fall victim to cognitive bias, then you are wrong, and there are plenty of studies to prove it to you. Cognitive science trumps your own personal introspection. Sorry, your brain doesn't work the way you think it does.

Cognitive bias means that if you have developed an impression of someone like, say, Wallsy, as an obnoxious person, then you are more likely to notice all the times he does something seemingly obnoxious; and those instances will come more readily to mind when you are thinking about how obnoxious he is. When he does something obnoxious you are more likely to think, "oh look, more obnoxiousness from Wallsy!" but when he does something non-obnoxious you are less likely to think, "hmm, more non-obnoxiousness from Wallsy."

When you combine these two cognitive biases, you end up with a runaway feedback loop. People who begin to think of Wallsy as obnoxious after they see a few obnoxious-seeming behaviours (and, again, I'm not saying these don't happen) begin to read obnoxiousness more readily into the things he does. And every time they perceive obnoxiousness in his behaviour, they mentally add to his obnoxiousness score many more points than they deduct when they don't perceive obnoxiousness in his behaviour. And so they are even _more_ likely to perceive obnoxiousness into the _next_ thing he does.

I'm bringing these biases up because I think they go a long way to explain why some people seem to find everything Wallsy does _so_ unbearable, and I think being aware of the ways your subconscious might be colouring your judgements is an important step on the road to making better ones.

Back to the matter at hand.

I didn't see the whole Work Woes thread. By the time I checked it out it had already deteriorated badly into hostile meta-argument in which Wallsy tried to explain that he didn't understand something and people insulted him for it. There were _several_ single line posts in which people just flatly said "Wallsy, you clearly don't understand" or "Wallsy you have missed the point" and then made _absolutely no effort whatsoever_ to clarify or indicate how he was wrong. There were other posts in which people just seemed to be competing to say the most negative, unpleasant things about him they could think of. Haug lampshaded this, but then people continued to play it straight. One person actually called him a "despicable human being". Someone else said they actually wished to commit violence against him.

What good does this kind of post do? How does it contribute to the discussion? All that it does is frustrate Wallsy further. Wallsy actually does an _admirable_ job of maintaining civility in arguments. Look how long he lasted, in spite of open hostility and hatred, before he finally broke and did _one_ blatantly uncivil thing. In fact, this is perhaps part of the reason some people find him so frustrating. Most people, in the face of apparently unproductive argument, either resort to insults (which makes the argument burn out rapidly), or make a retreat mumbling about agreeing to disagree. In either case, the argument ends once it becomes too frustrating to continue. Wallsy doesn't do that. He stays on task. If people misinterpret him, he corrects them. When they say something he doesn't understand he asks for clarification. When people insult him he ignores it, keeps calm and carries on. Sure, maybe he doesn't do these things in the _most_ polite way that there is; perhaps he could find better phrasing. But I earnestly believe he does not choose inflammatory wording on purpose. And let's certainly not forget that his opponents are hardly ideal debaters of perfect manners, either.

So he doesn't give up or back down, and when only one side is flinging insults, the argument doesn't burn out quickly. And this, combined with the cognitive biases above, is why people get so frustrated with him. The usual escape valves that prevent arguments dragging on once they become sufficiently frustrating don't work with him, and people don't think to stop the argument themselves until it has become far _more_ frustrating than they are used to. So people can have far more frustrating experiences with Wallsy than usual.

And in fact it wasn't in that thread that the big crime happened. It was in a totally separate thread on Fluff, where he posted a completely inoccuous comment and then several people - the same people, in fact - jumped on him immediately with more insults and provocation. That was when his composure broke and he posted a picture of a man giving the middle finger gesture. This was edited out by Sojan, so he posted a link to an _actual on-MUD help file for a real in-game command_ ("help bird") and his posting privileges were promptly suspended. Also, he was accused of behaving like an immature child.

Did any of the people calling him a "despicable human being", any of the other people provoking him, lose _their_ posting privileges for _also_ behaving like immature children? Not as far as I can tell. And so Wallsy was the only 'immature child' punished, even though he was the one who _didn't_ resort to namecalling, even though his only failure of basic civility was posting a link to a B&W clipart picture and one to a MUD help file. You can see the picture yourself with a GIS[1], it's pretty harmless. There are some pretty offensive pictures on the internet, and this barely rates. And which straw actually broke the camel's back? Not even the clipart. It was posting that link to an actual in-game help file.

Everyone sees themselves as the hero of their own story; nobody ever thinks of themselves as the bad guy. So how might Wallsy have seen this situation? He would see himself trying to carry on a debate in the face of open, brazen hostility and insults. It's usually a vocal minority who take a perverse joy in hating on Wallsy on the boards, but their plurality means they validate each other in their abuse. Wallsy's supporters are generally more timid and cautious, seeing themselves as voices of balance and reason; people rarely leap forth to throw vitriol for Wallsy's side of an argument. So after another argument like this, in which (in Wallsy's view) he did his best to stay civil while people called him a "despicable human being", he went to a new thread on a different board, made a harmless comment about a link someone posted, and immediately those same people started antagonising him again. He lashed out in a pretty harmless way (posting the image link), which was edited out. He tried to point out what he saw as inconsistency in the response (posting the help file link), and lost his posting privileges. The people who were insulting him didn't lose theirs. He ignored their insults as always, and when he finally lashed out, he was immediately punished and they walked away laughing.

Small wonder he vented his frustration by mailing the same picture to Sojan. Still no namecalling, still no insults, just a link to a picture. In the face of such obviously prejudiced punishment, so selectively and unjustly applied, it's a wonder that that was _all he did_. And the response to this email was so incommensurate with the crime it is staggering. Six months' suspension? Six _months_? For mailing a milquetoast picture of flipping the bird to an administrator who punished him for finally responding in kind to sustained abuse?

Every time something like this happens it is bad for the MUD community. This ban is vindication for all the bullies who provoked Wallsy, who publically insulted, mocked and wished violence upon him. This makes the place a little less of a community that applauds calm, rational discussion and a little more of a community that applauds picking out one unpopular individual and goading them into lashing out. We don't want that. We don't want bullies chortling gleefully because the guy they don't like finally succumbed to their provocation and copped the banhammer for it. We don't want a MUD where venting your frustration, in private, at bad administration is grounds for a six month suspension.

We want a community where insulting and offensive behaviour on the board is punished for ALL participants fairly. We don't want it held off indefinitely, until finally the unpopular guy joins in and then just he gets punished for it. That is not a good community.

Why did I spend two hours of my Sunday writing this? Two reasons.

Firstly, despite all his faults, Wallsy is my friend. No, scratch that sentence.

Firstly, Wallsy is my friend. I know him in real life, and while sometimes he's frustrating, he's not a bad person. He makes an earnest, if imperfect, effort to stay civil and on-task in any debate he participates in. He doesn't aggravate people on purpose, or deliberately try to poison a debate. That's a lot more than can be said for some people here.

Secondly, I care about this place. Sure I just treat it like a chat room these days, but I've been a DWMUD player for half my life now. It's a community I'm invested in. And I don't want to see it go down a bad road. I don't want it to be a place where people like Wallsy are discouraged and people like the ones who insult him on the boards are encouraged.

Please join me in wanting a better MUD.


[1] Google image search for 'flipping the bird', it's in the first few results. The black and white lineart picture of the smiling man in a suit and tie.

1 comment:

  1. Me and Wallsy may not get along, but I do not appreciate this bully the angry person mentality than scapegoat our problems on him mentality that has been on the mud for years. It is honestly toxic.

    To tell you the truth, DWMUD is not the only place where this mentality exists. It is rampid in our society. Used for everything from self satisfaction to personal gain. We have become a society of bullies who cower behind the self-righteousness of I am right.

    What is particularly ironic here, is Wallsy is often accused of being a self righteous GIT. If bullying and scapegoating a self-righteous GIT is something you feel should be vindicated, Guess what that makes you?

    Sometimes I think Wallsy is really just sick of it all, and I honestly believe Wallsy is one of these people and I respect that. I honestly think he had a bad day. So he had a bad day, delete the post block his access to the boards for a week for his own protection. Good enough solution. 6 moths suspension is excessive, even for a repeated offender.

    Excessive punishment only leads to anger and lashing out. This is a known fact of human psychology