The Peanut Butter Manifesto

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Let us begin with a simple premise.

Remarks that are black are not allowed here. If you make them, you will be banned. (In this sensitive age, let me stress this is not related to race, but merely color, for the purposes of a metaphor).

The community, surely, could agree on subjects that are “black”. They could be child pornography, or animal torture, or anything else repellent and vile. That’s simple. And how easy it would be, if human thought was along these lines:

Sadly, it isn’t quite so clean. Wait, sadly? It is not “sad”, because how shallow the human experience would be if our perception were so crudely granular. Instead, we experience life in an infinitely nuanced way. That, however, comes with a price, because human expression isn’t as simplistic as the graphic above, but is closer to this:

Tougher, isn’t it? Because if you had to ban “black”, it becomes far more subjective. What about dark grey? Or really, really, really dark grey, so much so that it’s almost black? There’s no clean line. It’s messy. People can’t always agree.

But there’s more to it. Let’s say in this hypothetical universe, people committed to white were really, really committed to white, and people committed to black were really, really committed to black. Grey was despised by both sides. It was one or the other. If you weren’t exactly like us, you were the enemy. It’s just like Theodor Geisel told us in our childhood…………

None of us live particularly long, but most of us have been around enough to witness the sea-change in social and political discourse. But hasn’t it always been this way? Not at all. When I first became really interested in politics, in the 1980s, there was generally a broad sense of cooperation from one end of the political spectrum to the other. You would never imagine, for example, fans of Ronald Reagan physically threatening to kidnap Tip O’Neill. Such a thing would be preposterous.

Going back even further, to the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Republicans had a very big problem: the parties were simply too much alike! It was sort of like the difference between the Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church. Sure, they were nominally different, but………..they were pretty much the same! (I know this from personal experience, as my family would happily change churches when we moved, depending on which church we liked better. We were denominationally disloyal).

There are plenty of reasons for this dreadful cleaving of the United States, and there’s no need to analyze those reasons here. The point of this post is ensure the United Slopes of America stays content, self-supporting, and self-healing. On occasion, the polarization of the nation has bled into my beloved Slope, and I’m here to have an open and frank disclosure of the history of my efforts and my belief about the best way to move forward.

You Have Been Harmonized

A few days ago, I listened on NPR to an interview of a man who just published a book called We Have Been Harmonized. It is about modern-day China and, among other things, how they are using technology to subjugate their citizens. I ordered the book at once, and I am reading it now. It is absolutely fantastic so far, and I’m only about 20% of the way through. You can rest assured a laudatory review of this book will be forthcoming.

In spite of globalization, the cultures between the East and West are fundamentally different. These differences go back thousands of years. They are deeply ingrained. As China has become increasingly capitalistic and prosperous over the past forty years, the assumption was that they’d become more and more like us. Nope. Their fundamental values and worldview are unchanged. They just happen to be rich now.

One important aspect of their dictatorial government is the desire to control the individual humans. Individualism and free expression are anathema to the CCP, and I’ll be writing at length about this in the future. I am simply bringing this up only because it reminded me of some of the things Slope has done in recent months with respect to trying to tamp down discord among its own users.

I have no desire to mimic the behavior of the Chinese government. Not even a little bit. Reading about the government and how it regards the 1.4 billion individuals within the Chinese borders is deeply disturbing to me, and it offends my personal sense of liberty. I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it once again, that I cherish my ability to speak freely and without meaningful consequence.

The desire for Chinese leadership to suppress free expression doesn’t come from an intrinsic desire to be evil, of course. They certainly have their reasons, no matter how abhorrent those reasons might be to us. Harmony is the end goal. But, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The rising political tensions over the past year have been a constant source of concern for me. After writing post after post after post on this topic, and pleading for civility (as well as the liberal use of the Ignore button), I began to despair that my appeal to reason simply wasn’t enough. So I began to take technical measures.

One of them was to “ignore” account pairs. In other words, if users A and B were constantly fighting, and my begging them to click Ignore fell on deaf ears, I simply did it for them. There was no announcement. No notice. As far as A and B were concerned, the other guy simply disappeared. And finally there was some peace.

My attitude was: if you’re going to act like kids, you’re going to be treated like kids. Paternalistic, yes. Self-evidently so. And I meant well. But I’d rather it not come to that.

Another major effort on my part was to create the Polite Conversation and Anything Goes dichotomy. My view was that if people insisted on fistfights, there might as well be a place for them. But this still creates silos within the community, and more than a few people have yearned for simply one unified forum in which the only rule is that if you’re obnoxious, you get the boot.

Have At You!

Setting up a community in which people are warned to behave themselves, or else they get the boot, isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds.

It has been suggested that just having clear rules of conduct, rigidly enforced, is the solution. But who is to say what a violation of conduct is? If a user says “X”, it is entirely possible that at least a few people will find “X” to be objectionable, even if it’s relatively mild. What’s the threshold? This all goes back to my black/white/grey images at the top of the post.

For instance, I noticed virtually all the invaders of the Capitol were men with beards. I was going to make a comment – – maybe even a post – – about this observation. But then I thought to myself, “Wait, there are surely some decent people on Slope who must have beards. I don’t want to offend them with this overly-broad observation.” So I didn’t say anything. Although, between you and me, I’ve taken of the habit of being extremely clean-shaven every morning now. Just to be as different from the invaders as I can.

Getting back to the subject of blocking obnoxious people: I would also hasten to point out that accounts that get blocked have a way of sneaking back in again, perhaps via a different email address. It becomes an absurd game of whack-a-mole. It’s quite tiresome, and frankly pretty absurd. I have better things to do with my time. Promise.

Now, to be clear, I am actually fairly content with how things are right now. There has been some rumbling about accounts getting blocked, and dissension about how censorship is in force, or else your account will get suspended. Want to know how many accounts have been suspended? Zero. With the exception of spam accounts, I can’t even remember the last time we blocked one.

Still, there continues to be some grumbling about a desire for a more free-for-all environment in which people aren’t always looking over their shoulder. And, frankly, reading this Harmony book is what pushed me over the edge and compelled me to re-open this old, tired topic, because quite frankly, the oppression of freedom disgusts me, and I don’t want my own behavior to bear one iota of resemblance to the acts of the Chinese autocrats. So let me share with you what I’m thinking.

The Self-Policing Community

We are in the throes of a completely new installation of the Slope of Hope website. Totally new technology platform. And, in the midst of that, a modernization of the comments system. We therefore have a golden opportunity to alter the behavior of the system to create a new community culture here, based on the desires of the group.

Take note that none of these changes are being offered as something I can do instantly. It will be a number of weeks away, depending on how things go with the new site. But this is definitely the appropriate time for me to make plans. Therefore, here are the changes I am considering for comments, and I very much want to hear what you have to say. There are three very specific changes:

ONE: The elimination of the Polite Conversation/Anything Goes dichotomy. Everyone would see everything. The only exception, of course, would be that you would not see comments from anyone whom you’ve Ignored. That is a personal choice that will be respected.

TWO: The re-introduction of the Dislike. People had mixed feelings about my elimination of it. As with so, so many things last year, the effort had something to do with Meano – – specifically, in the wake of the instance in which someone created hundreds of accounts just to downvote the guy. However, by removing the Dislike button, I took away a form of expression, albeit a negative form. But that is an essential component of………….

THREE: The introduction of self-inflicted shadow-banning. And this is the core change which merits more words than fit neatly inside a single paragraph, so let me just end my “three steps” here and focus on this particularly topic in the text below.

For those unacquainted with the term, being shadow-banned means you are invisible to everyone except yourself. You can comment morning, noon, and night, and get your jollies spouting out about anything you want, and no one can see you. You become the proverbial voice crying in the wilderness, if you’re into that kind of thing.

We actually don’t have that here. But the way I envision this working is very simple: every user would have a colored ‘light” next to their avatar sort of like this………

(It would look better than that, but you get the idea).

A green light means things are a-ok. It is based on some kind of formula whose details will be determined later than takes into account Likes you’ve received and Dislikes you’ve received. We might even incorporate likes and dislikes you’ve given. And it will be updated in real time.

If a person is a jerk, that’ll become all too clear by the votes. A growing quantity of dislikes will turn the color dot more toward a light green, and then yellow, and then pink, and then make its way toward red. At some point – – again, to be determined, the user will cross the event horizon, and bang, he’ll vanish. It’ll be like everyone has clicked Ignore on the guy.

This is a purgatory, however. After a certain amount of time – – two weeks, maybe? – – we’ll assign him a reasonable number of Like scores (not a total reset, but at least get him back into “yellow”) and then see how it goes. If he remains a jerk, well, back into the forbidden zone you go.

Simply stated, this creates a self-correcting mechanism. I’m not involved. It’s up to the group as a whole. Importantly, any given user will see plain as day that he’s slipping into a dangerous area. It isn’t the same as him saying something obnoxious, and bang, he disappears. You simply get voted off the island for a while by the group. I’m curious to know if you think the light should be private (so you can monitor yourself) or public (so everyone gets a sense as to how everyone is doing).

Two Other Considerations

The three items above are the meat of what I’m considering. I’m also toying with a couple of other ideas which, as with the above, I want to know your opinion about:

FOUR: Instead of automatically giving people military ranks, should we instead let them add “flair” to their comment entries? For instance, a person could give themselves a badge showing they were an options trader, and another badge showing they loved dogs. In other words, give them a collection of a few dozen icons, and they could choose up to 5 to “say” a bit about themselves.

FIVE: As a reward for paying customers, I was thinking of allowing paid members to have more up-voting and down-voting power. So, for instance, Slopers can have a single upvote/downvote for any comment, Bronze gets two, Silver gets three, and so forth. That way, if a Diamond member thinks some given person is being obnoxious, they could zap them with 5 Dislikes. I suspect paying members will like this idea the most, and, yes, it’s a small form of elitism, but I’m curious what you think.

I will be reading the comments below very closely. Please share your thoughts, and if you have other ideas, please tell me. Now is the time. The key requirement is that whatever we do not be time-consuming for me personally (e.g. “You should just moderate ever comment!“) We’re looking for automaticity here, as well as a better Slope experience overall.

Thank you.