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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

JokersUpdates, Where Did You Go/Where Are You Going/Where Art Thou?  

I received the following in my mailbox and wanted to share:

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

Under the surface of the seemingly impressive numbers at JokersUpdates.com (JU), things are not so happy. Membership is promoted as being large and growing, but the quantity and quality of posts is dropping off as the most reliable and creative members are being slowly driven away. The membership numbers themselves are suspect, since the owner has explicitly adopted the strategy of Numbers-as-the-path-to-success. She is willing, even eager, to sacrifice long-time and prolific contributors in the quest for 'new blood' and the all important Numbers. With Numbers she believes that she can attract the high profile interviews and scoops. With that she can attract more Numbers, sponsorship and assured profit. Profit and success are not objectionable, as long as they are earned; but this approach resembles a pyramid scheme, with, perhaps, some fraud thrown in for good measure.

Theoretically, JU has 9,319 registered members at this moment. However, an analysis of its Membership List reveals that 6,101 have never posted. That's 65.5% who don't participate, or don't exist. This is in spite of the fact that guests do not have to be registered members to read or post in most forums. Looked at from the other end, only 694 of the registered members have posted 100 or more times. After all these years, there are less than 700 active posters at JU, and a large number of those have already left the board or have severely curtailed their participation. There are also a number of entries for high participation 'members' who are known to not exist, are actually duplicate ID's used by other members for game play, or are generic identities used for anonymous moderator functions (eg, ForumAdmin, Moderator). Kinda makes you go, Hmmmmm, doesn't it?

Dissatisfaction Grows

Big Brother Updates (editors note: not to be confused with BigBrotherUpdates.com), the centerpiece of the board, has faded to a shadow of its former self, and even Big Brother Discussion (formerly the PX) has degenerated into mindless squabbling and Top Posting that borders on trolling. There, and elsewhere on the board, voices are being raised in protest, but posts of protest don't last for long. It's difficult enough to ask a legitimate question without it being deleted or receiving a rebuke. Moderation is as inconsistent as it is sometimes ruthless.

Numerous Moderators and Administrators have quit their duties over past months. These were not people who needed a break from their volunteer duties, but dedicated members working diligently for the betterment of what they believed was their community. Many of these resignations were a result of direct conflicts with the owner over the inconsistencies in policy application and tinkering with board operations. For their troubles, they were often ignored and sometimes publicly undercut on the open forums. Former staff are almost universally excoriated by the owner as ungrateful traitors and worse, just as soon as they resign. It's a wonder that replacements are ever found, but most of the bashing goes on behind the scenes. Most of those who witness these outbursts have learned to say "Um hum" and let it flow off of their backs.

There has begun to be a diffuse insurgency action against the administration by some in the membership. Some of this seems to be co-ordinated, or at least co-operative; but other instances are more isolated and spontaneous responses to the lack of consistency in operations. Of particular concern are the failures to control some disruptive behaviour, and the ruthless deletion of any protest or questioning of these practices. JU is crippling itself with dissension and rift. A few long time members hang-on out of loyalty to the ideals of the past, but that can't last indefinitely. Posts are deleted in seemingly wholesale lots, sometimes with a PM of brief explanation, more often not. 'Old members' are subject to the brunt of the deletions on the assumption that they know better, while the coddled newbies are allowed to carry on with nary a frown from on high. Presumably the rules will catch up with them once they become old-timers, or otherwise fall out of favor. In the meantime, they are Numbers to swell the success of the board. If they are good and loyal little posters they may be selected into the inner circle to help stem the hemorrhaging of staff and active posters.

Privacy and Accountability

One of the most serious deficiencies at JU is the compromise in security of board PM's (Private Messages). These are routinely read by some on the Admin staff, and the contents shared with others. This has even gone so far as to have portions of PM's posted in a public chat room, without the knowledge or permission of the holder. Private sharing is more common. The issue was once raised in the public space, were it was at first denied, then explained as a single instance under extraordinary circumstances. The matter was then removed to the private Admin. forums, where it continued to be hotly debated for awhile. The practice continues, and has become something of an open secret on the board, as one member warns another. Because public discussion of moderation practices is ruthlessly suppressed, the matter has never again been discussed publicly. This leads some general members to assume that it is merely a rumor. Nevertheless, many members continue to off-load then delete their PM's, and 'confidential' matters are discussed through other services.

Multiple user ID's are tolerated and even encouraged for 'select' members. This practice not only artificially inflates board membership, but more ominously, it allows certain individuals to avoid public responsibility for their posts. Out of favor posters are sometimes 'outed' when they try to post under a different name, even as part of play in the general forums. However, the staff has been known to cover for and even defend a favored poster when they use this technique. The true identification of users is available to the staff through the associated IP numbers, so there should be no mistakes.

Fair and Balanced

A particularly frustrating application for this 'false flag' operation is in the political forums. JU is somewhat unique in providing forums for political discussions. Predictably, those forums have been some of the most difficult to moderate and control. Nevertheless, the owner considers these forums her special 'baby' and insists that they be a place for open exchange of views. Unfortunately, much of the vocal participation is not from the same side of the political spectrum as hers. Therefore, she has been known to solicit for more active participation from those of a compatible persuasion, and has encouraged people to stir up activity from that side. False ID's make it possible for them to salt a thread with 'fresh' opinions from 'new' posters who hold a compatible position.

The owner does not actually participate in the political forums herself, and seems to only read there on occasion; such as when the staff call her attention to a problem. Regardless, her influence and preferences are felt by those with the unfortunate task of actually trying to moderate the 'baby'. Violations of the rules seem to be much more gently treated when they come from the 'preferred' side of the political spectrum, but an occasional sharp word or other punishment to a false ID can serve to demonstrate unbiased moderation.

The Twisted Reality

One good example of much of what is wrong with JU is the case of a poster known as Twisted_Mom (aka, TM). She seemed to come out of nowhere one day and to gravitate immediately to the political forums, where she made most of her posts. Odd behaviour for someone attracted to a reality TV board. TM's signature line for a long time was, "See that post count .. I have a LIFE." The implication being that anyone with a higher post count was a loser who spent too much time on the board. Charming.

Twisted_Mom was a particularly virulent proponent of the same political persuasion as the board owner, and she came along at just the time that she was 'needed' to present things from the other side. She could be as relentless as any troll or spammer that I've ever seen, and even at her best, her posts dripped with barely concealed contempt for those who didn't agree with her. There were many, many Report To Moderator actions and PM's of complaint made against her posts. The owner was the only one with authority to moderate the political forums at that time, and when the protests and demands for discipline fell on those deaf ears, people started writing to other Mods and Admins. Nothing was done for the longest time. When action was finally taken, it was a mere slap on the wrist. Meanwhile, other posters where having their angry but usually controlled responses deleted, and they were receiving threatening notes and time-out bans.

At the height of all this, and the very day after TM made a homophobic post that complained about "whiny Queers" (a post that was not removed), the owner chose to feature Twisted_Mom in the Poster Spotlight on the home page. Many were outraged, and I'm sure that many of them complained directly to the owner. Others, those who knew better, wrote respectful PM's to various Moderators and Administrators to complain about how that reflected on the board, and how much of an insult it was to other members, especially those who had suffered the brunt of TM's verbal assaults and insults. I know of at least two different cases where the Mod/Admin in question wrote back to say that they totally agreed and had passed on the same objections themselves, but they were powerless to do anything about it. Not only that, but they requested (pleaded, more like) that their PM of response be deleted immediately after reading. Is any other confirmation necessary to show that PM's were being read in the background? Even senior staff were concerned about the consequences of disagreeing with the owner (or agreeing with the peasants) in supposedly private communications.

Twisted_Mom was eventually banned from the political forums, although it's unclear how long that ban was for. She has now stopped posting at JU, or so it seems. Perhaps she just changed her name and toned down her style.

So What?

One thing you can say about JU is that it's never dull. Perhaps that's what draws all those non-posters to the board but also keeps them from posting. Perhaps it's even what keeps the disgruntled coming back for more. The question remains, can JokersUpdates.com be made back into a welcoming and friendly board, and is that even wanted, or, should it continue on its path to becoming the largest and most hostile board in Reality TV?