John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
* Note: This article reads best as hypertext. If you plan to read it offline, use your browser to save the file in its source form. Then, when offline, use your browser to read that source file. Unless otherwise indicated, all links in this article will jump you to other points in this article. Use your browser's "back" key to return to your previous place in the article. To help you navigate through this manuscript, I've numbered the subsections along the right margin.
A condensed version of this article was published as: Suler, J.R. and Phillips, W. (1998). The Bad Boys of Cyberspace: Deviant Behavior in Multimedia Chat Communities. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 1, 275-294.
Ain't Misbehaving: The Lower End of Deviance
Graffiti -- Adolescent Antics -- Parodists
Wizard Wannabes -- Deviant Enclaves
Sleepers -- Ghosts -- Commercials
Trouble-Makers: The Higher End of Deviance
Pros and Cons of Setting Avatar Standards
Intervening When a Naughty Av Appears ("propgaging")
Second Opinions about Avatars
Flashing and Prop-Dropping
Hate and Violence Avatars
Abusive Blocking -- Eavesdroppers
2. Speak No Evil: Deviance Involving Offensive Language
The Purely Human Intervention with Foul Talkers
"I Can't Hear You!" (the mute command)
Wizard Meets the Foul Talker (gagging and killing)
Time Out in the Rules Room
Automated Mouthwash and Word Substitutions
Unbecoming User and Room Names
Breathers -- Verbal Exhibitionists -- Stalkers
Guest Bashers -- Wizard Bashers -- Self Destroyers
3. More Complex Social Problems
Freedom Fighters and Other Tenacious Debaters
Identity Theft, impostoring and Switching
Detecting Impostors -- Intervening with Impostors
Genuine Identity Disturbances -- Depressives
Pedophiles -- Scam Artists
Gangs -- Banning the Gang
Getting to Know You (befriending the gang)
Rehabilitating the Gang?
Divide, Conquer, and Cutting off the Gang's Head
Tough Love for the Gang (kill, three strikes, ban)
4. Techno-Crimes (Hacking)
More on Intervention Strategies
Talk is Good! -- Whisper -- Be Polite, Be Dispassionate
Don't Argue, Don't' Bait -- Humor and Deflection
Snert Rehabilitation -- Circumventing Anonymity (spooking)
Bring in the Real World -- Undercover Work
Blackball Lists -- Restricted Areas and Traffic Flow
A Home for Bad Boys (Dodge City and the Pit)
Time-Out Room and Automated Lessons
Sent to the Corner (Pinning)
The Kill (disconnecting) -- Killing Machines (bots)
Exile (bans) -- Tracking -- Keeping Records
Formal Training of Wizards
Conclusion: Sticks and Stones
(1)SNERT... That's what they call the real trouble-makers of cyberspace. Attributed by some to Kurt Vonnegut, the term stands for "snot-nosed Eros-ridden teenager." It concisely captures much of what many cyberspace deviants are all about. They thumb their impudent noses at authority figures and smear their ooze of discontent all over themselves and others. Frustrated drives seeking an outlet may fuel their misconduct - frustrated aggressive drives as well as sexual ones. They often are adolescents. If they aren't, then they are regressed adults acting like adolescents. In some communities, the term "snert" broadens to include any acting out, annoying, disruptive user.
The title of this article also suggests that they are males. Of course, there are bad girls in cyberspace too, but they do seem to be outnumbered by the males. Why? Maybe males - especially teenage males - have a more difficult time restraining or constructively expressing their Eros-ridden nature (i.e., they aren't as mature). Maybe they tend to be a bit lacking in the compassion and interpersonal sensitivity that's needed to realize how other users aren't Donkey Kong targets, but real people. Maybe there simply are more male users out there on the internet.
The purpose of this article is to explore deviant behavior in a multimedia chat community and strategies for dealing with that behavior. The observations here come from my early field research on the Palace communities (see the Palace Study) - especially the communities at the server sites that were run by The Palace Incorporated (TPI), which later merged with Electric Communities (EC). A very large majority of the people I've met there have been pleasant, thoughtful, and helpful. However, like all online communities, snerts and other deviant types wiggle their way in. In some cases the misbehavior at the Palace will be similar to other online groups, in some cases different. There are universal forms of deviance that will be recognized anywhere on the internet, as well as specific forms that are unique to each community.
Almost all the techniques for handling misbehaving users that I mention in this article were discussed or implemented by the TPI officials and the volunteer managers of the sites known as "wizards" (see the article about wizards). As old-timers with a lot of experience and some special powers that other users don't have, wizards are the experts at this task of maintaining order in the community. Their devotion and insight is to be admired. This article is dedicated to them. At times, the techniques I am suggesting can be applied by any user, wizard or not. At other times, I focus specifically on intervention strategies for wizards.
Two factors will account for the universal and specific types of deviance - one technical, one social. Every chat community is built upon a unique software infrastructure that offers unique technical features for how people experience the environment and interact with each other. Misbehaving users will find a unique way to abuse almost any unique feature you offer them. If you build it, some will exploit it. For example, in the world of multimedia chat, snerts can use sounds and visual images to harass others, which would be impossible in text-only environments like IRC or AOL.
The social factor may be partially or completely independent of the technical aspects of the environment. Every culture and subculture has its own standards about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. According to the theory of "cultural relativity," what is considered normal behavior in one culture may not be considered normal in another, and vice versa. A particular type of "deviance" that is despised in one chat community may be a central organizing theme in another. For example, at the TPI/EC Palace sites, taking and wearing someone else's avatar (see avatar article) is akin to stealing their identity, while at non-TPI sites (e.g., servers purchased and run by individuals) it may be the game people love to play. Standards may be generally more restrictive in one community as compared to others. At the Welcome site, where new and often naive Palace users arrive for the first time, the rules about wearing inappropriately sexy avatars are much more strictly enforced than at the Mansion site, where the more experienced members hang out. Some critics have even suggested that the people at Mansion have become so desensitized and caught up in the "let people do their thing" philosophy that they don't see the smuttiness as an outsider would. Even though Palace is one client/server chat program, PalaceSpace consists of hundreds of different communities, each being culturally unique, each with its own values and standards.
Many Palace sites are privately owned. Some are commercial. This distinction can have an important impact on the deviance that is permitted. Some owners of private sites have strict policies about misbehaving users. Get out of line, and you quickly are booted from the community. The overseers of the site are more concerned about the congeniality and integrity of the community than about the rights or psyche of the ill-behaved user. At some commercially owned sites, there may be more leeway. The business depends on sales, so a "customer is always right" philosophy may lead to a greater tolerance of impoliteness and mischief. Booting someone from the site may be viewed as the measure of last resort. After all, snerts do buy, like anyone else. Of course, if they get too snertish, they may drive off other potential customers. So, ultimately, it's a delicate balancing act between maintaining a congenial community where strict rules weed out the snerts, and a "customer's always right" attitude that encourages sales. It's a business. It's a community. It's a business AND a community!
It's also important to remember that the large majority of chat communities are a leisure activity for most people - i.e., the community and all that is happening there is entertainment in the form of a recapitulation of the "real world." Deviant behavior may be a disruptive turnoff to some people, but for others it is part of the show.
The strategies for managing deviant behavior also can be classified according to the "technical" and "social" dimensions. At the Palace, software features such as the ability to mute, pin, kill, and gag were specifically designed to help members and wizards deal with annoying visitors. The more social interventions require interpersonal skills. How do you talk to a misbehaving adolescent, or an adult acting like one? That's the issue. In fact, the technical solutions alone are insufficient. Without a psychologically sophisticated person knowing when and how to use those tools, they may be applied inappropriately and thereby become just another form of abuse. What strategies are used - and how - will vary according to the culture.
Much has been said lately about how anonymity on the internet "disinhibits" people. Feeling relatively safe with their real-world identity hidden, they say and do things they otherwise wouldn't normally say or do in "real life." In some cases, that seems to be a good thing. People may be more honest, open, generous, and helpful. In other cases, however, the nasty side of a person gets unleased. Hence the snert.
I'd like to give a slightly different spin to this "disinhibition through anonymity" concept. My basic premise is this: NO ONE WANTS TO BE COMPLETELY ANONYMOUS. No one wants to be totally invisible, with no name or identity or presence or interpersonal impact at all. Everyone wants and needs to express some aspect of who they are, to have others acknowledge and react to some aspect of their identity. In some cases, it's a benign feature of who you are. In some cases, not. Anonymity on the internet allows people to set aside some aspects of their identity in order to safely express others. Snerts need someone to react to and affirm their offensive behavior. This need is a bit different than simply catharting their frustrated drives, as the "eros-ridden" idea suggests. Snerts are trying to express some unresolved and warded-off feature of their troubled identity in an (often desperate) attempt to have it acknowledged. Unfortunately, they do it in a way that abuses other people. Under ideal conditions, they may be able to accept and work through those inner feelings and self-concepts that torture them. If not, they will continue to vent that ooze through their online snert identities, while safely dissociating it from their "real world" identity.
Does greater anonymity result in greater deviance? It's an interesting question. Because greater anonymity usually is associated with less accountability for one's actions, the answer would seem to be "yes." In the world of Palace, new users must register (pay) for the software before they can permanently acquire the ability to give themselves names and create custom avatars. Until then, their name is a number ("Guest 232") and their avatar a generic smiley face. The greater anonymity for guests does seem to result in their misbehaving more often than members. But members misbehave too. So there are other factors at work.
The higher prevalence of misbehavior among anonymous users may be more than just a "disinhibiting" effect. Rather than the anonymity simply "releasing" the nasty side of a person, the person may experience the anonymity - the lack of an identity - as toxic. Feeling frustrated about not being known or having a place in the group, the new user acts out that frustration in an antisocial manner. They need to feel that they have SOME kind of impact on others. It's not unlike the ignored child who starts acting "bad" in order to acquire attention from the parent, even if it's scolding and punishment. The squeakiest wheel. Humans, being humans, will almost always choose a connection to others over no connection at all, even if that connection is a negative one. Some snert guests may think (perhaps unconsciously) that their misbehavior is a justified retaliation against a community that they feel has stripped away their identity and alienated them. They reject because they feel rejected.
In rare cases, people who are well known in the community - even wizards and others of high status - may become the trouble-makers. Social psychology has demonstrated that people with power and status often have "idiosyncrasy credit" - they are given a bit more leeway in violating some of the less critical rules of the community. But they are not permitted to break the major rules - especially the rules that protect the integrity of the higher status group. For example, wizards may get away with wearing avatars that are not entirely appropriate, but giving the wizard password to an non-wizard cannot be forgiven. People are ousted from the wizard group for such offenses.
Deviant behavior occurs along a continuum from mild to severe. The most severe types probably are those that would be universally detested anywhere, anytime. The most mild types may be labeled as deviance or not depending upon the culture and the particular situation. For the most part, these mild and usually unintentional forms of deviance are the result of carelessness, playful mischief, immaturity, or simple ignorance. Correcting such misbehavior may be very easy. Briefly explaining the community's rules of etiquette, educating the user about the program, and/or encouraging the person, in a friendly way, to "ease up" should be enough. If that simple, benign intervention doesn't work, then the deviance may be more intentional and indicative of a personality problem.
Users entering the environment for the first time may be very confused about even the most basic aspects of how to move and communicate. With all those visuals, sounds, avatar movements, and text coming at you, programs like the Palace can be a bit overwhelming for newbies who have never experienced multimedia chat. They may not even know where their avatar is on the screen or that people are talking to them. As a result of that confusion and a need to figure out what's happening to them, they may act inappropriately. People tend to regress and exaggerate their behavior when disoriented. Some newbies blurt out inappropriate statements ("What the hell is going on here?"). Some keep hitting their return key, expecting that to somehow save them. Hyperactive people may bounce their avatar around the screen ("Gee, how does this work?), which is an annoying distraction and tends to flood the server. A common problem is blocking. Not knowing where they are, or how to move, or ignorant of this faux pas, the newbie sits his or her avatar on top of another user's avatar. It's a violation of personal space, which really annoys some users.
Possible Interventions - Clueless newbies usually don't require disciplinary action, but rather a little help. Unfortunately, wizards sometimes mistake their unintentional blocking for abusive blocking and may pin them, especially if everyone else in the room is complaining and the guest fails to respond to the wizard's inquiries. Wizards have discussed the possibility of a "nudge" command that would gently shift a user's avatar an inch or two to the side. Often, simply addressing newbies by name, in order to get their attention, and saying "just point and click to move" is enough to save the day.
One obstacle in helping newbies is the fact that they may speak a different language. If unsure, wizards can check the user's IP address to determine where she is coming from. Unfortunately, if there indeed is a language barrier, there's not much anyone can do except hope that the newbie can figure things out for himself. As chat communities become more multi-national, the Tower of Babble problem may grow.
In the manual he wrote for wizards, Jim Bumgardner (see the interview with him) pointed out that some users come to Palace from other chat communities, such as IRC or AOL. They bring a different culture with them. For example, on AOL it is acceptable to periodically ask the users in a room "M or F?", "Age/Location?", or "Any SWFs out there?" At the Palace, such lines traditionally have been considered rather tacky. These kinds of pithy probes evolved in communities where there were relatively large and changing populations, so users developed such tools to quickly identify other people they wished to engage. Palace communities tend to be smaller and more stable, so people often experience these questions as intrusive and impolite. However, as Palace communities get larger and more diverse, such behavior may become more acceptable. As immigrants arrive and necessities change, cultures evolve by absorbing the norms and values brought from other cultures.
Possible Interventions - The introduction of "inappropriate" behaviors from other cultures will lead to one of two possible outcomes. The residents may attempt to discourage the immigrants' ways and motivate them to do as the Romans do. In keeping with the mischievous, playful atmosphere endorsed by the the original Palace philosophy (see the article on the history of Palace), Bumgardner jokingly suggested that the reply to such questions as "M/F?" should be "I am zygote and I live in a tea kettle." No doubt, the immigrants would be rather confused by this reply - i.e., culture clash. The other possible outcome is to embrace the new ways - i.e., the melting pot.
As I just mentioned, Bumgardner originally intended Palace to be a playful, somewhat mischievous place - a place where people could feel that they were "getting away with something." Playing jokes on fellow users is acceptable behavior. Naive newbies make for easy targets. Sometimes, it may just be a good-natured prank. Sometimes it may have a hostile edge. It's a thin line between acceptable mischief and unacceptable abuse. For example, by "spoofing" someone with the "msay" command, you can throw your voice to make the text balloon pop out of someone else's head. Or you can make the words hang in mid-air with no body attached. Making your friend say "I am a zygote and live in a tea kettle" could be a hoot. But some people use spoofing to mistreat others. A member, rather inappropriately, kept putting the words "I'm gay!" into the mouth of another user as he was trying to carry on a conversation with me. Using msay like this may indicate the person's inability to contain their own troublesome thoughts or feelings, while also being unable to own up to those thoughts or feelings for fear of how others will react.
Sometimes, it's hard even for sympathetic people to resist the antics and game-playing. One night at the Mansion, although trying to remain a neutral observer, I eventually found myself as an accomplice to another member in a prank on newbies. We set up a free-standing ("dummy") female prop in the spa pool and used "msay" to talk THROUGH the prop while also talking TO it as if it were another user. Essentially, it was a virtual ventriloquist act. "Honey" (the prop) acted rather seductively towards the guests. Several rather responsive newbies thought it was a "real" avatar with a real women behind it - and they eagerly took the bait. It was quite funny, although perhaps a bit insensitive to the naive guests who were unaware of the msay command.
Possible Interventions - The distinction between a prank and abuse is a judgment call. Different people and communities will set different standards. Ultimately, it's the target of the prank who should be consulted. If a person is hurt or insulted, then an intervention should be considered - unless the community and the business behind it is willing to accept the fact that some of its (probably soon to exit) members are being offended. The mischievous element of Palace philosophy may work best in a small community where intimacy acts as a buffer between pranks and abuse. As a community gets larger and more strict rules of etiquette become necessary, the mischievous philosophy may fade A more extreme intervention would be the removal of such software features like spoofing that may lead to abusive behavior - but then some of the fun, and some of the basic premises of Palace philosophy, would disappear.
Mischievous people often are testing the limits. They want to see how far they can push the envelope before they "get caught." Usually, they respond quickly to the law once it is layed down before them. Part of them may even be comforted by the fact that they can't get away with anything.
Palatians have the software ability to paint on the background graphics that make up a room. It allows people to interact with the environment, play (sometimes mischievously) with each other, and be creative. However, painting - like spoofing - is another example of the "If you build it some will abuse it" principle. Some users adorn the walls with obscene drawings or words. Others might smear black over an entire room, leaving new users totally confused as to where they are and what's happening. Freud would love to label them as "anal expulsive personalities." In order to vent their anger about feeling over-controlled and helpless, they deposit - often secretly and in defiance of authority - their unacceptable stuff all over everyone else.
Possible Interventions - Be the user's mother and clean up after him (which probably reflects some of his unconscious needs). Unless, of course, the perpetrator can be caught in the act. Often shame is a primary feature of the expulsive graffiti "artist's" personality, so simply getting caught and gently reprimanded might be enough to correct his ways. If this doesn't work, then a more resistant kind of deviance is at work, requiring the stronger interventions discussed later in this paper. The most drastic intervention would be the removal of the painting feature. But again, this would mean removing some of the Palace fun and philosophy along with the excrement.
In the wizard manual, Bumgardner points out that young users (adolescents and preadolescents) may take delight in the freedom of Palace. They use it as an opportunity to act out. It's like that freshman year of college when young'uns are unleased, for the first time, from the rules and regulations of home. For example, adolescent users might get a kick out of seeing profanities pop out of their avatar's mouth for all the world to see. Or they may play the flatulent "wind" sound many times over (a sure sign of an adolescent male). Or they may act out what they imagine is sexy adult behavior and ask "Anyone want to screw?" Acting inane is the way to entertain themselves and their friends. They may be testing the limits to see how far they can go in annoying other users, especially the wizard authority figures. Particularly problematic are the anonymous adolescent guests who don't have or want to spend the money on registering. They have no commitment to the community - and probably feel frustrated and hostile about not belonging - so they get their thrills by abusing people and provoking responses. If it's in violation of the rules, it's more exciting and fun. This probably is a more serious problem than simple adolescent antics.
Possible Interventions - The level of adolescent acting out can vary widely. For relatively normal kids who are simply experimenting with cyberspace freedom, a gentle reprimand and reminder of social etiquette may be sufficient ("Simmer down, kids!"). Essentially, you are reminding them that this is not a video game but a real social setting, with real people, where rules of conduct still apply. Psychologists would call it "reality testing." Adolescents who simply are testing the limits of the rules tend to follow them once they are enforced by authorities. In fact, some adolescents, secretly frightened by their freedoms, WANT the comfort and reassurance of knowing what they can and cannot do. They test the limits BECAUSE they want someone to set them. A quick pin should be the strongest measure needed to snap them out of their misbehavior. If that doesn't work, then once again we're talking about a more resistant type of deviance that requires the even stronger interventions discussed later.
On his web site (http://www.rahul.net/natpix/wiz.html) where he discusses problematic Palace users, the well-known Palatian know as Dr. Xenu describes the "parodist." In an attempt to be humorous, some users mimic the behavior of an abusive person. The parodist intends it as playful mischief, although it probably speaks to his/her identification with the snert and a vicarious wish to act like one.
Possible Interventions - The problem is that it's easy at first glance to mistake the parodist for the real thing. "I have seen at least one instance," Dr. X says, "where a tired wizard, weary from a session of endless kills, killed such a user without warning. Perhaps this is why there is a sign at the airport asking you to refrain from talking about bombs at the metal detector. This is another good reason why it is good to talk to users before killing them. The point is that after you've met and killed 13 [snerts], it is easy to pigeonhole people - especially Guests who are wearing the same props - don't. The '15 yr old' [snert] you are killing may actually be a 45 year old psychiatrist."
Becoming a wizard is a sign of status and accomplishment at many Palace sites. It means you are part of the inner circle, that you truly belong. It means you have some powers that others don't. Wanting to attain that status is an understandable wish, but some users become a bit insistent and downright pushy in their quest. Many wizards have grown tired of hearing people ask "how do I become a wizard." As a result, an implicit rule has evolved: If someone asks to be a wizard, especially if they PERSIST, they will not be invited to become one. The Don't Ask Rule also rests on the assumption that more mature users - those who aren't determined to get some power and most likely abuse it - are the ones who will be more discreet about seeking wizardship and more wise wizards should they become one.
Possible Interventions - Some users may be overly eager beneath their questions about becoming a wizard, some may simply be curious. It's not always easy to tell the difference. Although wizards may get tired repeating themselves - and may wish to tease or toy with the person - the most polite policy is to briefly explain how wizards are chosen. Users also can be pointed towards documentation that explains this topic in more detail. For example, Dr. Xenu's web site and my article about wizards contain some suggestions for the wizard wannabe.
Apparently "deviant" subcultures may evolve within specific locations of the larger community. On the TPI/EC servers, for example, there was a period of time when small groups of "weird" adolescents were hanging out at the Members Palace and within specific rooms at that site (subcultures often claim specific rooms as their territory). The "weirdness" consisted mostly of off-color language and avatars that looked menacing, bizarre, or anti-social in theme. No doubt the off-putting quality of their scenario helped define the identity of their group as well as firmed up the boundaries of their territory by making it a bit uncomfortable for outsiders to join in. These groups tended to form at the Members site for two basic reasons: (1) that site was relatively under-populated and isolated from the much more active Main Mansion site, hence leaving open a space for non-mainstream subgroups to gather, (2) the wizards infrequently supervised that site, so there were few authority figures around to inhibit subculture deviance.
Because they mostly kept to themselves, these counterculture groups posed no particular problem to the overall community. If an outsider happened to stumble onto their territory, the response varied. Sometimes the group was mildly hostile or ignored the newcomer. Sometimes they were quite pleasant. MSLady, a TPI wizard, visited one of these groups and came to this conclusion:
So many times, kids that see themselves as "different" from the rest at these ages do not realize what makes them feel so isolated is actually the fact they are more mature, studious, inquisitive, or talented than their peers. They end up branding themselves as "weird" until they realize they don't fit in because they are drawn to pursuing computer, art, literature, or whatever while their peers talk on the phone! They then feel they have to express this "weirdness"...make a "statement"...whatever.... You kinda have to idle into their realm by getting to known them. It's so amazing to find out that much of the noise they are making means nothing more than just normal teen conformity, and how reasonable they can be after they drop their guard and just talk. I had the most enjoyable talk with "TheDemon" early the other morning. I admit his whole "act" has made me a bit hesitant to approach him previously!
Possible Interventions - If the larger community adheres to a "Live and Let Live" philosophy, then deviant enclaves may be left alone as long as they remain within their territory and do not abuse visitors. Problems arise when some citizens stumble upon the subculture and begin to complain to the authorities about how the neighborhood is "going downhill." As traffic increases to the underpopulated areas where deviant enclaves tend to develop, the enclave may naturally dissolve or move on. They probably prefer isolated areas where they will be left alone. If a more active intervention is necessary, the first effort might follow the insights of MsLady: make an effort to befriend the group and benignly suggest that they "tone it down a bit." Or suggest another room or site to where they could relocate. Maybe it's even possible to offer them a specific place to call their own. Groups that are more troublesome to the community and resistant to reason may fall under the category of "gangs" which require stronger medicine.
If you follow the rules of etiquette, you put up BRB sign ("be right back") when you leave or aren't paying attention to your computer. Due to either ignorance of this rule, forgetfulness, or deliberate and inconsiderate neglect, "sleepers" fail to do this, leaving their avatar on screen sitting motionless and silent. Other users may not know what to make of the fact that you seem about as responsive as a post in winter - maybe you're BRB, maybe you're lagged out, maybe you're very shy, a passive voyeur, or a snob. As it is, cyberspace is an ambiguous place for social interaction. With the lack of face-to-face cues, people's imagination can get the best of them when they try to figure out what other's are thinking and feeling. Sleeping exacerbates this ambiguity. Sleeping is especially inconsiderate in a room that is crowded or full so other more social users can't get in.
Possible Interventions - Whispering may be an effective way to get the sleepers' attention, if they are paying any. If they don't explain themselves, ask if lag is the problem. Even in severe lag they might be able to get through with a simple "yes" or "lag!." If they are still unresponsive, it might be helpful to explain the situation to other people in the room who seem perplexed by the doltish avatar. If the sleeper ever comes back to life, you might find out what happened, and, if necessary, educate the user about the brb sign. In the wizard manual, Bumgardner suggests that sleepers be ignored for about 20 minutes (unless they're in a private room, in which case they might be an eavesdropper. At that point, whisper to confirm that they are alive, giving 5 minutes for a response. If not, kill them for zero minutes, which allows them to sign back on whenever they wish. Some wizards believe this strategy is a "mercy kill" for people caught in lag. Before disconnecting the user, the wizard may whisper (humorously) to him that "I'm going to free you from your lag bonds and you can come right back." Sometimes reconnecting does improve the lag.
Dr. Xenu describes how the "ghost" looks like a sleeper, except that the user's computer may have disconnected from the site in some nasty way (e.g., a local power failure), leaving behind only the avatar as the empty shell of the person's former presence. Ghosts will not move or respond to anything around them because they are not connected to the user or even the user's machine. They're forms without any substance (or they're busy working on unfinished business from their past lives). In this case, it's probably not the user's fault at all. The deviance lies in the machines.
Possible Interventions - If the avatar is completely unresponsive, Dr. Xenu suggests using the "finger" command. It can trigger an automated reply from the sleeper's finger script, but will have no effect on a ghost. Wizards may similarly use other scripts in an attempt to make the avatar "say" something - which, again, may work for a sleeper but not a ghost. When detecting a ghost, you're doing more than just trying to figure out if there's a person there. You're trying to determine if there's even a MACHINE there.
It's a lot easier to create your own Palace site than it is to entice people to come visit or develop a stable community there. Some site owners try to recruit users from the more busy sites by announcing their site and displaying ads. Some salesmanship may be acceptable, and probably a good thing for the development of PalaceSpace as a whole. But there is competition among sites for visitors, so persistent attempts to draw people away will not be appreciated by the site owner. Some overly eager people spam the room with signs and heavy-handed proselytizing, which turns into a distracting nuisance. Wizards have joked about automated avatars ("bots") that would roam a site spouting commercials. It would be like R2D2 rolling through your living room projecting holograms of Pepsi in front of your face. Not a pleasant thought.
Possible Interventions - Whether or not to intervene with a user bearing commercials will depend on how much of a nuisance that user is. If people complain, then it's probably a problem. It also depends on the culture of the site - whether it's one that encourages the colonization of PalaceSpace, or one that mostly is looking out for itself. Some proselytizers will respond to a polite suggestion to ease up. The more diehard types might require stronger measures, like gag, pin, or even kill.
At the upper end of deviance we find users who are deliberately trying to make trouble and/or resisting any benign attempts to talk them into behaving properly. These users may include relatively "normal" people who insist on doing things THEIR (inappropriate) way, as well as people who are - well, to use a less than technical term - socially challenged. If we do use some technical terms, we're probably talking about personality disorders, such as the anti-social, paranoid, passive-aggressive, and narcissistic types.
I remember an old Kung Fu TV episode where one of the masters at the Buddhist temple describes how to deal with an attacker. While we watch a string of quite unsuccessful students go at the master one after another, the narrator says something like, "Avoid rather than divert; divert rather than restrain; restrain rather than maim; maim rather than kill."
This strategy of moving from mild to strong interventions also is a good one for dealing with trouble-makers in cyberspace. If possible, try to prevent deviance from occurring in the first place (an ounce of prevention....). When it does occur, first try talking and reasoning with the offenders - maybe even try to redirect or rehabilitate them. If that doesn't work, restrain (pin, gag, propgag) before temporarily disconnecting them (kill). And temporarily disconnect before permanently disconnecting (ban).
1. See No Evil: Deviance Involving Offensive Avatars
The beauty of a multimedia chat environment is how the graphics enhance its psychological power. The problem is that things can get TOO graphic. For some people, the anonymity of cyberspace makes it a sexy space, so they will take the opportunity to create avatars (also called "props" at the Palace) that test the limits of decency. In some cases, users innocently will wear avatars that they think are sexy in a cute sort of way, without realizing some (but not all) users are offended by them. Such people usually are not trying to make trouble. They may be trying to draw attention to themselves, communicating an interest in flirting or cybersex, expressing a sensual/sexual aspect of their personality (i.e., exhibitionist tendencies), or simply showing off their skills in avatar creation. If asked politely, they usually will remove the naughty attire - and perhaps even be apologetic and embarrassed about it.
The more serious problem are the users who wear obviously offensive avatars that are intended to shock and victimize. They are looking for attention, control, and power by abusing others and violating the common sense rules of decency.
One of the biggest problems in controlling naughty props is defining exactly what is "naughty?" Views will vary widely among people and cultures, both online and real-world. The supreme court has a difficult time determining what is pornographic, so the job is no easier for people running the show in virtual worlds. In small communities, official standards may not be needed since the implicit norms and social pressures of the group will keep people in line. As the population gets bigger, official and publicized rules may become necessary. Setting these standards will go hand-in-hand with defining the philosophy and purpose of the community. The most basic question: is the site for adults or kids?
At the TPI/EC Welcome Palace - where a demographically wide variety of new users arrive - the rules about avatars are rather strict. It makes good business sense to keep the first Palace experience as benign as possible for as many people as possible. The rules are less strict at the Main Mansion site, where more experienced users hang out and the community tries to remain true to the original philosophy that Palace is a somewhat mischievous place where people should be allowed to "make of it what they will" of the environment. The strictness of the rules also may vary from room to room at a particular site. Very public areas (for example, where users arrive) may require more stringent standards than rooms with less traffic. Private rooms - those which can be locked - may be exempt from these rules. At the Palace, anything goes in a private room, as long as all the people in the room consent.
The wizards engaged in many long and sometimes heated (pun intended) debates over setting rules about pornographic props. Listed below are some of their ideas. The more of these strategies adopted, the more rigorous the program for controlling inappropriate props. Setting rules, and making sure people are aware of them, fall under that first Kung Fu category of preventing a problem before it even occurs. Here are the strategies:
- Create clear and specific rules about what avatars are inappropriate as well as what ones are appropriate (people need to know what they CAN do as well as what they can't)
- Make the standards public and easily accessed by the users, as in a "rules room" where the rules can be automatically displayed
- Make the publicly displayed rules clear but concise. People may not read or may get confused by complex policies. A separate and more detailed (written) version of the rules may be needed by the superusers (e.g., wizards) who must enforce them. However, make sure these two versions of the rules are consistent with each other.
- In addition to the specific rules that are publicly displayed, provide a "short-hand" rule of thumb for users. For example, inform the users that acceptable avatars are anything you would normally expect to see someone wearing in a metropolitan area during the summer, or on prime time TV.
- Public signs based on well-know rating systems may help orient users ("This room is rated G"). This strategy might be especially useful if the rules vary from one room to another at a given site. One problem: few, if any, rating systems are recognized internationally.
- Contrary to the "Do as I say, not as I do" principle, authority figures (i.e., the wizards) always should adhere to the standards.
- To insure that the authorities (wizards) understand the standards that they must enforce, create a private room or web page where they can see examples of acceptable and unacceptable avatars, and/or have meetings where they can show and discuss examples of "borderline" avatars (of course, this results in an ironic situation similar to Supreme Court justices viewing pornographic movies!).
At the Palace, setting standards made it a bit easier for wizards to uniformly and fairly manage the types of avatars that users wore. Much less was left open to the vagaries of individual judgment. Having written, publicly accessible rules also gave wizards a handy alibi when they had to enforce them. If users argued, wizards could simply deflect the debate by saying, "Those are the rules. I'm sorry. We all have to follow them." Generally speaking, though, most people need and like having some rules. They feel more secure, more comfortable, knowing what they can and can't do.
Attempting to create rules about avatars can lead to some problems. As is the case in any classification system, no matter how precisely you try to define "acceptable" and "unacceptable" avatars, there will always be borderline or ambiguous cases that don't fit the categories. This can result in heated debates (is an avatar of someone pointing a gun at you acceptable?). No matter how precisely you define the standards, people will vary in how they interpret and apply them, resulting in inconsistent interventions, conflicts. and more debates. No matter how fair or clear you try to make the rules, someone will not agree with them. The result? You guessed it- even more debates. When some superusers (wizards) enforce the rules while others don't, a "bad guy/good guy" perception may develop among the users while arguments flare up among the superusers. It wouldn't be a surprise if conflicts about the new classification system became more of a problem than the problem with avatars that the system was intended to solve. At the Palace, some wizards noted that becoming overly preoccupied with rules and regulations could damage the sense of freedom that was part of the original Palace philosophy. The rules about naughty avatars could also have a paradoxical effect on some wizards. As one wizard joked, "I now find myself peering at the screen searching for stray pubic hairs or nipples. All my magnifying glasses are steamed up. I've taken so many cold showers I've caused a drought. It's turned me into a pervert."
Some of these problems are associated with the initial process of creating new standards where none existed before. In the long run, many of these problems may subside as the bugs are worked out and everyone becomes familiar with (and hopefully accepts) the rules.
Members and Guests at the Palace have no way to deal with an avatar that offends them, other than attempting to convince the person to take it off or leaving the room. Although this software option frequently has been suggested, they cannot block out another person's avatar similar to how they can block out someone else's text messages ("mute"). Wizards do have the ability to "propgag" - which forces the users avatar into the generic smiley face and cripples the ability to wear any custom-made avatar until the propgag command is turned off. There are some individual differences in how wizards deal with a user wearing an inappropriate avatar, but the generally accepted, basic strategy goes something like this:
(2) If the user refuses, remove the avatar yourself using the "propgag" command. If the avatar is obviously obscene, propgag first then explain (so other people don't have to look at it while you talk). If the user agrees not to wear the avatar, turn off the propgag. Some wizards like to propgag then immediately turn off the propgag.
(3) If they put the avatar on again, propgag them again and let them know that they have been propgagged (a brief explanation is important, since the user still sees the avatar while propgagged even though no one else can).
(4) In order to avoid the users attempts to debate the issue, some wizards like to leave the room quickly after propgagging and explaining why. If the user does attempt to argue, state that you cannot debate the issue. Simply point to the rules that must be enforced. Let the person know that he/she might want to visit other Palace sites where that type of avatar is acceptable. Giving people a choice or an alternative in a situation where they feel restrained is always a good strategy. Users who persist in arguing should be treated as a "freedom-fighter."
(5) Users who persist in wearing inappropriate avatars may be propgagged indefinitely during their stay at the site, or killed. Usually only users that have a known track record of wearing particularly nasty props are disconnected.
If wizards are unsure about whether a borderline prop violate the rules or not, they may page the other wizards and ask for a second (or even a third and forth) opinion. Some believe it's a good idea to get that opinion first before speaking to the user. Otherwise, "discussing' the issue could be perceived as harassment. The decision among wizards about a borderline avatar occurs privately, in whispers, to avoid embarrassing the user. Wizards also like to avoid publicly debating, disagreeing, or over-riding each others decisions. It's a good idea to present a unified front to the community. If a user comes to a wizard to ask if an avatar is acceptable, some wizards like to page the other wizards to see if it's a case of a "splitting" - i.e., a user who attempts to play wizards off against each other.
Not being the bravest of souls, the flasher quickly clicks on a naughty av, then clicks it off. It might be a playful tease, or a peek-a-boo attempt to draw attention, surprise, shock, or thumb your nose at the rules. Obviously, flashers are not as easy to catch as users who parade around in their malapropos costume.
Even less brave than the flasher, a prop-dropper will toss an obscene prop into an empty room and then run, so as not to get caught. The exhibitionist and rebellious psychology of the prop-dropper is probably similar to the flasher, with the exception that they attempt to dissociate themselves from their dropping. A Freudian would love to speculate about the "anal expulsive" nature of their personality. Quite literally, they deposit their unsuitable stuff so others are forced to clean up after them. It's an act of defiant anger, and probably disguises underlying feelings of shame.
Unfortunately, people use avatars not just to inappropriately express their sexual drives, but their aggressive ones as well. Hate avatars might involve anti-gay and anti-women sentiment, religious prejudice, Nazi swastikas, or pictures of a guest smiley face with a bloody ax planted in its head. Violent avatars can span the range from menacing figures bearing weapons to mutilated bodies.
Many of the issues concerning sexual avatars apply also to hate and violence avatars: the importance of individual and cultural differences in defining what is unacceptable, the pros and cons of setting standards, and the techniques for intervening when these types of avatars appear. Controversies about political correctness may surface when dealing with the mild versions of "hate" avatars. When creating and enforcing rules about acceptable avs, it's probably a good idea to keep in mind that western (American) culture tends to more accepting of public displays of violence than of sex - unfortunately so.
Members consider it a social faux pas to place your avatar on top of or too close to another person's prop. Unless the person is a friend who's in the mood to be close, it's an invasion of personal space. "Please get off me!" and "You're sitting on me!" are two common complaints. Some naive users (mostly guests) do this without knowing it is inappropriate, or the person may be lagging and unable to move. But some hostile people deliberately accost others by blocking or poking at their avatars. Often snerts who are verbally abusing others will use blocking to supplement their attacks, or will resort to blocking when others try to ignore their offensive language. Blocking is one of those unique examples in which it is not the content of the avatar that is offensive, but rather how it moves (jumping your avatar frenetically about the screen also is considered inappropriate because it is both distracting and a source of lag).
Blockers first need to be politely informed of avatar etiquette. If they don't move or reply verbally, they might be helplessly lagged. In the case of obvious abusive blocking, there's not much a user can do except ignore the person and hope that he gives up and goes away... or page a wizard. Wizards have the special ability to "pin" a user's avatar. When pinned, the avatar is stripped down to the generic smiley face, wrapped in tiny visual chains, and trapped into the corner of the screen until the wizard unpins it. Usually wizards will reason (via whispers) with blockers while they are immobilized. If the blocker repents and/or promises to behave, the wizard will set him free. Blockers who persist in assaulting people, even after the pinning, will be killed.
Ironically, eavesdroppers (a term coined by Bumgardner) are not deviant in the content or behavior of their avatars, but rather in the fact that they don't have one. By reducing their avatars to very tiny or camouflaged images - and their usernames to only one character - they try to become invisible so they can secretly listen in on conversations. They may search for couples who are alone in a room talking, or wait in a room (usually the private rooms) for other users to enter. As a type of lurker, they are acting on voyeuristic (and perhaps schizoid) tendencies to avoid intimacy and gain a sense of advantage and power over others. I wonder if chronic eavesdroppers last very long at the Palace. People enjoy so much the ability to express themselves visually through their avatars - and the camaraderie revolving around that activity - that it seems self-defeating to avoid this opportunity by hiding. Maybe that says something about eavesdropping. It *is* self-defeating and, literally, self-negating.
Bumgardner suggests that it's a good idea from time to time to warn other users about eavesdroppers. The best way to detect their presence is to keep an eye on the counter that lists the number of users that are present in a room. An eavesdropper who won't leave a private room when requested will be warned, and killed, if necessary. In the case of a chronic but elusive eavesdropper, undercover work by wizards might be considered.
2. Speak No Evil: Deviance Involving Offensive Language
Indecent language is another deviant behavior that spans the range from mild to severe. Relatively benign examples involve "colorful" expressions in which less than polite words are used to convey emphasis and emotion. No particular person is the "target" of the colorful expressions and the words are not intended to offend, although they might insult some people. In the middle range are the lascivious users who try to seduce other users who are much less than interested in their advances. Due to inexperience or a basically tactless personality, their come-ons often are not at all subtle. Higher up on the continuum, dirty mouths are deliberately aimed at antagonizing a specific person - as in the case of the breather, the stalker, guest bashers, wizard bashers and, of course, the ubiquitous acting out teenager. Some offensive talkers may try to antagonize a whole room. More rarely, exhibitionist users may engage in verbal cybersex out in the open.
The subjective impression of some wizards is that foul talkers more often tend to be the guests. The generic smiley face - with a number instead of a name - feels left out, alienated, and hostile. Abusive language is one way to have an impact on people and wield some power. Some foul talkers are deliberately trying to get themselves killed. These rather masochistic self-destroyers gain some control over their alienated condition by deliberately setting up a situation where they will be disconnected. Once booted, they may feel justified in their rejection of the community that rejected them.
If anonymity does fuel the tendency to mouth off, then one preventative strategy would be to decrease anonymity. At the TPI sites, guests were given the opportunity to become "trial members." For a limited time before registering, they could experiment with creating avatars and changing their username. These trial members were much less likely to use offensive language than the smiley-faced guests. With a name and an av to identify themselves, they felt more like they belonged. They had some control over their role in the community, something to talk about (avs), and more to do to keep their otherwise idle hands busy. They were more interested in learning the ways of Palace than in being a snert.
In the more mild cases of scatologia, a simple whisper about etiquette may be enough to curb the user's mouth ("please don't use profanity here"). A friendly or at the very least POLITE approach is preferred. Curt or nasty barbs launched at the bad mouther might add fuel to the snert's fire, especially for stubborn and oppositional people. They may feel like a reprimanded child, and get more angry. In what becomes a positive feedback loop, nastiness breeds more nastiness. This principle also holds true for scripts that display over the snerts head an automated message or image that's designed to humiliate or chastise him. Humiliation tactics most likely will backfire.
Because foul talkers are looking to shock and provoke others, giving them NO reaction at all might be enough to extinguish their unpleasant behavior. According to operant theory, there may be a momentary INCREASE in their snertish talk once the cold shoulder begins (a last ditched attempt to provoke a reaction), but eventually they'll get bored and move on.
Some designers of multimedia environments (like Jim Bumgardner and Randy Farmer) believe in the philosophy of letting social pressure curb bad language, rather than crafting software to mechanically eliminate it. If there isn't sufficient social pressure to stop the problem, then perhaps it isn't a problem. It's a feature of the subculture. However, some gnarly users won't respond to social pressure or that friendly piece of advice. They're not interested in the community or simply being colorful in their language. They want to abuse. Although the first and best strategy should always be a purely social/personal attempt to reach the reasonable and benign part of any offender, some software tools sure come in handy.
Each Palace member has the power to "mute" any other user(s). All typed text of the shunned user(s) will be automatically vanquished from your screen. If everyone in the room mutes one particularly repugnant person, that person is effectively speechless. This rarely happens since there is always someone who is entertained by such snerts, eager to take them on, indifferent, or doesn't know about muting. The beauty of the mute command is that it upholds the principle of "Have it your way." If you want to hear him, you can. If not, click him off. "Sometimes, I just TELL them that I'm muting them," one user reported, "then I don't respond to anything they say.... It can be quite hysterical."
Unless you inform the foul talker that you have muted him, he doesn't know because he CAN see his own words. It's something like a Twilight Zone episode in which an obnoxiously loquacious man talks and talks and talks, but the only victim in a room of unresponsive people is his own ears. Poetic justice? It may be possible, from the standpoint of software design, to make the offender's words invisible to everyone, even to himself. However, giving the person an opportunity to say something nice, rather than not being able to say anything at all, may be a better strategy for extinguishing the bad words and leaving the door open for good ones.
The down side to muting is that inexperienced users do not know about it. Education then is the key. When inappropriate language begins to surface, some wizards like to announce to the room how to use the mute command. Being tactful, they don't mention the offending snert by name. When they hear that they can be silenced, some snerts stop. Some users DO know about the mute command but decide to page a wizard rather than use it. Perhaps they would like to see the snert "punished" and enjoy witnessing the drama of the powerful "good guys" defeating the "bad guys."
Wizards have a tool that the ordinary user does not - the "gag" command, which will silence a bad-mouther's typed text so no one can see it (although the snert CAN see it). Before gagging, some wizards like to politely inform snerts of the site rules about foul language to see if they will stop on their own. Other wizards prefer to gag immediately (especially when the language is very foul) in order to protect everyone's ears from further abuse. Then they discuss the matter with the silenced snert, and then turn off the gag. If the snert persists in uttering garbage, wizards may repeat the procedure, just in case the snert missed the point. If the snert still persists, there may be a final warning and ultimately a kill. In some cases wizards may leave the offender gagged until they relent and promise to be behave. Two hour gags may be set for people who refuse to respond to the wizard or resist curbing their abuse. Clever snerts know that they can disconnect from the site and then sign back on, which undoes the gag. This loophole leaves some wizards wishing for a TIMED gag command that would endure despite such maneuvers.
After being killed (disconnected), some very determined snerts may sign on again in order to offer a sequel to their obnoxious ploys. Wizards usually will continue to kill them until they give up. Very persistent abusers may be reported to TPI/EC, along with excerpts from the log to verify the offender's persistent abusive language... just in case the company later gets "complaints" about how the offender was treated unfairly. Tit for tat, some foul talkers (as well as other misbehavers) threaten to report the "unjust" wizard to the company. In these conflicts, which some members experience as sibling rivalry, TPI/EC can become the symbol of the parent ("I'm gonna tell on you!").
As always, it's a good idea to politely let snerts know what actions are being taken against them (gag, kill) and what that entails. Being left in the dark about disciplinary procedures may generate confusion and more acting out. People who want to argue about their rights to free speech are known as "freedom fighters" and may require slightly different interventions.
In order to avoid embarrassing the snert (which also may escalate their antics), wizards will always whisper when they speak to them. Because this leaves the other users guessing about whether anything is being done to control the offender, wizards might mention to the room that they are dealing with the problem. The wizard might also take this opportunity to mention the mute command.
If wizards aren't in the room, members usually will page them to inform them about a foul talker. But not always. Wizards have debated the possibility of a script that would automatically detect vulgar words and expressions, and then relay those words and the name of the offender into the paging system. The informed wizard could then pop into the room to intervene. A number of complications and controversies emerged in the debate. Would wizards be flooded with a barrage of naughty words that clog the paging system? Should the script detect whispers as well as public speech? If so, would that include whispers in private rooms and private cybersex encounters? Would people feel violated and controlled if they found out that their speech was being automatically monitored and relayed to all the wizards? Isn't it simply eavesdropping? Speaking across rooms to offenders (aka "ESPing," which would be a temptingly easy way to intervene) surely would give away the fact that users were being wiretapped. So wizards would have to first go to the room and observe in-person the foul talk, wouldn't they? Even then, the "secret" about automated monitoring would eventually leak out to the community, resulting in a paranoid, Big Brother atmosphere.
These issues were never fully resolved. As we'll see, automated interventions tend to generate much debate. Automated detection of "bad" words is a particularly tricky issue.
One possibility is to send foul talkers to a "rules room" where they are temporarily held captive while the rules of the site are automatically displayed for them. Their ability to converse with other users also may be suspended while they are learning their lesson. The users-in-charge (such as wizards) may send the offenders to the room, or scripts can detect lewd words and automatically deposit the offender into the time-out tutoring session. Whether this time-out method is effective or not depends on how infantilizing the experience feels to the offenders. If the display of rules sounds like it is "talking down" to them, or contains harshly reprimanding language, they may feel like they are being treated like a child, which might escalate their snertish behavior. The very idea of being timed-out reminds people of being a child sent to the corner, which can backfire. A purely automated punishment may aggravate rather than rehabilitate some people because there is no opportunity to explain or defend themselves (that ol' feeling of helplessness which makes people act crazy). A more detailed discussion of timed-out lessons appears later in this article. And as we'll see next, a purely automated detection and intervening with nasty language is a complicated business.
The beauty of computers is their ability to do simple, repetitive tasks much faster and more efficiently than humans. If you want to eliminate unpleasant words and expressions from a chat environment, apply the computer's strength to this relatively straightforward task. At the Main Mansion site, if you type "fuck" or "shit" people will end up seeing "f***" and "s***" on their screen (assuming they have this "censor" script turned on in their client program). Essentially, the computer washed your mouth out with asterisks. Simple, easy. A variation on this strategy is a script that detects bad language, gags, and warns the user. However, there are some complications associated with this automated mouthwashing:
- Some (probably adolescent) users swear away just to activate the script. They think it's entertaining. Over and over again everyone sees the partially bleeped naughty word. Automated intervening has fueled the fire.
- More curious and mischievous users will say "F***" over and over again in order to figure out why they didn't see it the way they typed it. When they finally realize an automated censor is intervening, they try every variation of the word to test the limits of the script (fucked, fucking, fucker....). . Again, automated intervening has fueled the fire.
- Creatively mischievous users experiment with new ways to spell the word that will defeat the script.... such as "fuq," "phuk," and "phuq." Even more fuel for the fire.
- Unless the script is sophisticated, it may censor words that don't need to be censored. A slightly mistyped "I wishit were true" will come out as "I wis*** were true." Bleeping "cock" will also wreck the integrity of cockatoo, cocker spaniel, cocktails, and cockadoodledoo. These examples are more a nuisance than a real problem, but the inflexible, trigger-happy script can lead to more serious mishaps. A wizard described greeting some Japanese visitors to the site. A "You're welcome" appeared as "Ile, do itashimas***e" and a goodbye as "Arigato gozaimas***a, Sayonara." The wizard didn't have the language skills to explain what was going wrong - and, knowing that Japanese visitors tend to be rather formal and polite, was quite embarrassed by the predicament. "Nothing like making that language barrier a little wider!" the wizard concluded.
- If a server draws an international crowd, there may be hundreds of words and expressions from various languages and ethic backgrounds that could be considered inappropriate. It would be a lot of work programming in every foul possibility. Which words should be censored, and which ones not?
- For every inappropriate word that is bleeped, there will be other uncensored words or phrases that some people think are MORE offensive. Personal and cultural differences in standards abound.
- Some users, especially adults, HATE having their language automatically censored, especially if it's their whispering. Don't people have the right to use in private conversation whatever words they like? For public conversations, how much should adult language be curbed for the sake of protecting the sensitive ears of children?Some of these problems can be solved. Deleting the inappropriate words or phrases COMPLETELY (no asterisks, nothing appears) might prevent mischievous users from flooding the room with a string of "f***" and "s***." Or the script might reply with a "Sorry, language like that is not allowed on this server" instead of allowing the display of offensive words. Sophisticated scripts can leave untouched naughty strings of letters that are embedded within acceptable words. Programs can be modified so that whispers are left alone. Some rooms can be censored, while others allow fast and loose language.
A humorous alternative to bleeping with asterisks would be scripts that automatically substitute silly words for the offensive ones. Wizards have joked about various possibilities:
FUCK = snugglebunnies or I love ("Snugglebunnies you!" "I love you!")
SHIT = doodoo caca or flower power ("Oh doodoo caca!" "You flower power head!")
ASSHOLE = poopshoot ("I can't believe you're such a poopshoot!")
BITCH = radical grrrl or totally beautiful and caring person ("Come over here you radical grrrl!" "Hey you totally beautiful and caring person!")
DAMN = cool ("Cool it!")
HELL = thank you ("What the thank you are you doing?")While not everyone will find these word substitutions funny, the power of humor should not be underestimated when attempting to control offensive behavior. Humor can help people step back from the intensity of the feelings that fuels acting out. They can laugh about it. After all, the purpose of these online communities is to have FUN.
One powerful and flexible solution to dealing with offensive language follows the "Have it Your Way" principle. The client program can offer the user the option of modifying a language filter. The user can add or delete words from the list of unacceptable words to be censored. The type of censoring (asterisks or complete deletion) could be another feature. If the user wants, the censor can be turned off completely in order to experience all language in its most raw form. Of course, the language filter option assumes that the user (or the concerned parent) knows about it and how to use it. Currently, the Palace program includes a censor/on/off option in addition to the "mute" command. Many wizards believe this is sufficient in "pushing the power down," as Randy Farmer, a multimedia environment designer, is often quoted as saying. It gives each individual the tools they need to have it his/her way.
If you build it, some will abuse it. Unfortunately, this principle also holds true for two rather unique features of Palace - the ability to change your username to whatever you want whenever you want, and the opportunity (at the Member's Palace site) to create your own personal room using whatever graphic backdrop you desire and any name you choose for the room. Some user and room names were slightly offensive, some a "creative" double entendre, and some blatantly inappropriate. People using borderline names tend to be more receptive to the suggestion that they change it. Perhaps they are testing the limits of what they can get away with. Those using outlandish names may be more stubborn or downright defiant.
Possible Interventions - Creating names is part of the Palace lifestyle of identity experimentation, so doing away with these features to prevent unsightly signatures would be cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. It also would be possible to program in a list of unacceptable names that user's would be unable to adopt, but that strategy would run into many of the same social, cultural, and logistic problems as the attempts to automate mouthwashing of bad words. For example, what about the name "CrackBaby?" Would anyone ever think of programming that word into a list of unacceptable names? Is the name even unacceptable? In the debates among TPI/EC wizards about a user who indeed chose this handle, personal opinions varied greatly.
The best intervention is probably a case-by-case, one-on-one attempt to reason with the offender - similar to the strategy when either a wizard or a fellow member approaches foul talkers. Through whispers, explain the site's rules of etiquette, try to politely reason with the misbehaving users, and if all else fails, disconnect them.
One wizard called for a "namegag" feature. Similar to propgag, it would enable the wizard to force the person's name into a generic form, for example "Member
." It would be a useful "firing across the bow" before having to kill a recalcitrant user. It also would spare others the unpleasantly of having to look at someone called "PenisInYourMouth" while the wizard tried to reason with him.
In the manual for wizards, Bumgardner describes what he calls the "breather." Most often a male, the breather is a special species of lewd talker who continually propositions female users, usually by whispering. Any member with an even remotely feminine name could be the victim, which suggests the rather "driven" (desperate) quality of the breather's motivational state. Bumgardner divides the breather into two types. The "horny breather" simply wants a sexual encounter and will typically say things like "Will you go upstairs with me?" (the location of the private rooms where flirting, propositioning, and cybersex is more socially acceptable). They usually go away when asked, or when told to "take it up stairways, please." If they do respond to such simple interventions, it's probably a sign that they possess at least SOME modest degree of interpersonal sensitivity.
Bumgardner calls the more pernicious type the "psychotic breather." They deliberately are attempting to offend and their motives may be more aggressive than sexual. Their language tends to be more obscene and derogatory than the horny breather's. In rare cases they may launch violent threats at other users (one disturbed person told a female member that he was going to kill her and cut her up). Although probably not "psychotic" in the technical sense - because their reality testing most likely is intact - these breathers do not respond positively to others attempts to divert them, reason with them, or reprimand them. Instead, they become more persistent and offensive. They are looking for a passive or willing target for their hostile needs to shock, control, and hurt.
Possible Interventions - The strategies for dealing with breathers overlap with those for dealing with generally offensive language that I discussed earlier. Start simple, with "purely human" interventions aimed at reasoning with the breather. Try ignoring them to see if their breathing extinguishes, or use the "mute" command to silence the person. If necessary, a wizard will step in to reason with, warn, gag, and, if necessary, kill the offender. Wizards usually first gag the breather, whisper to the victim that they are dealing (also in whispers) with the abuser, and explain the mute command to the victim.
Before they can intervene with the breather, a wizard may feel the need to verify that the alleged breather is indeed abusing the supposed victim. Breathers usually whisper to their victims, and no user can see a whisper except the sender and receiver. The wizard must take the word of one user over another. Bumgardner suggests asking for specifics. For example, it's not enough that a member named Jane says "Guest 3412 is being rude to me." It's possible, Bumgardner states, that Jane is 12 years old and is offended by words she doesn't understand, like "existential." It's also possible that Jane holds a grudge against Guest 3412, or is playing a game (sometimes in collaboration with others) that Bumgardner terms "Kill the Guest." As a form of guest bashing, this game is designed to trick wizards into bumping-off random, innocent guests.
In these difficult-to-verify situations, the wizard may ask Jane for more specifics about what the alleged abuser is saying (unfortunately, this may compel the victim into repeating the very things she finds offensive). If Jane knows how, she can copy the abuser's language from her text log and insert it into a whisper that she sends to the wizard. A clever user may be able to fake a log excerpt, but it probably wouldn't be worth the effort. When there have been ongoing complaints about a breather, wizards have had some success in going "undercover" to catch that breather in the act.
Some experienced wizards prefer to skirt the whole issue of verification. They simply inform the victim of the mute command (thus giving them their own defense) and then tell the alleged abuser that the the victim wishes to be left alone. If victims continue to complain about the breather, then they did not comply with the wizard's advice. They are allowing the abuse to continue, which is their choice, or they are playing games. At this point, the wizard may simply say, "There's nothing more I can do."
Occasionally, there will be a user who frequently complains about abuse from other people - almost as if they are attracting that abuse. Unconsciously, some people may indeed place themselves into the "victim" role. They perceive harm where there really isn't much harm, or create situations in which others tend to mistreat them, perhaps even provoking that abuse.
Verbal exhibitionists engage in explicit sexual conversations out in the open, rather than in a private room or via whispering. Essentially, they are two (or more!) breathers who are enjoying each other's company, but violating the ears of those around them. They may think - rather inappropriately - that their public display is just fun entertainment, or they may be trying to impress or shock other users. It certainly is an attention-getting behavior which speaks to their strong need to be in the limelight by having an intense impact on others. Hopefully, the amorous couple will respond to peer pressure suggesting that they either desist, whisper, take their encounter to a private room, or move to one of the adult Palace sites that allows such behavior. Intervening wizards will make the same suggestions after gagging (and then ungagging) the loquacious pair. In the unusual case that they persist, they will be killed. Of course, the mute command is another option for the offended user who can't find a wizard to help out.
Stalkers are exceptionally hostile breathers who follow a victim from room to room. Their need to intrude upon, dominate, and control the other user is obvious - and probably reflects their own underlying anxieties about being helpless and victimized ("doing to others what one fears will be done to oneself," also known as "turning the passive into the active"). Some victims of a stalker have described the experience as quite creepy and frightening. The mute command will take a lot of steam out of the stalker's abuse, though they may also resort to antagonizing their victim by using their avatar to poke at and sit on the victim's avatar (blocking). The "hide" command will enable the victim to delete his/her name from the list of users at the site and the room they are in, which will make it more difficult for the stalker to track the person. But it still means the victim has to run to initially escape the stalker, which is not a pleasant option. It may be necessary to page a wizard for help. At first, the wizard will probably intervene in a manner similar to dealing with the ordinary breather, which may include the necessity of verifying that an abuse is really taking place. Persist stalking deserves a long kill, or even a ban.
Guest bashers are members (registered users) who find it amusing to badmouth and harass guests who are using the default smiley face and a number instead of a name. They may verbally abuse guests, don names like "Guest Killer," or display props that depict their malicious sentiments, such as a picture of a guest smiley on a pet lease or with an ax planted in its head. At the bottom of the Palace class system, guests are a convenient target for prejudice and displaced hostility. Their greater anonymity (no name, no personal avatar) enhances the tendency to treat them badly because they seem to be a non-person with no established identity or status.
Some guest bashers consciously think that they are just having fun and no harm is really intended. Unconsciously, they need to feel superior and powerful - to feel that they belong while the guest does not. That need to feel "better-than" disguises underlying insecurities about their status in the community (and perhaps in life). Rarely do well-established members behave like this.
Guest bashers experiment with new and more insidious ways to mistreat the newbie. For example, they may page a wizard and insist that a guest has been harassing them via whispers. Because some guests, protected by anonymity, indeed do this sort of thing, wizards usually take the claim seriously but will try to verify it, similar to situations involving "breathers". To catch a suspected guest basher in the act, some wizards immediately gag the breather without telling the basher. Then when the basher continues to complain about the guest's whispers, the wizard politely informs the basher that the guest is gagged and CANNOT whisper. The response from the basher usually is something like, "oops," "uh oh, busted!", "tee hee," or "sorry, won't happen again."
Some users have reported favoritism among wizards towards members when there is a conflict between members and the guests. Sometimes guests are just defending themselves against a guest-basher, but the wizard's bias prevents a clear perception of this. This favoritism might be an unintentional form of guest-bashing.
Possible Interventions - In his manual for wizards, Bumgardner suggests that only rarely should guest bashers be killed. Usually they respond well to reason, which indicates that the healthy, rational side of their personality can snap them out of their unbecoming prejudice and displaced insecurities. Bumgardner also suggests that dealing with a guest bashing situation is a good opportunity to explain to the whole room that such bashing just isn't right. Guests are people too. TPI/EC also knows that guest bashing is bad for business. Guests are potential buyers. Giving guests the opportunity the become trial members who (for a limited time) can experiment with creating names and avatars can kill two birds with one stone. It minimizes guest bashing because the guest now looks a lot like a regular member, and it simultaneously encourages the guest to buy the software.
An interesting twist in the history of guest bashing was the "PRA." This anti-member "association" attempted to retaliate against the prejudice of members and what they felt was an unfair, racism-promoting class system. In it's attempt to create support and fellowship in the face of inappropriate and hostile prejudice, the PRA became a bit inappropriate and hostile itself. Here's a log excerpt of an encounter with a PRA spokesman, complete with his shouting caps:
!MY FELLOW GUESTS IF YOU WANNA JOIN THE ANTI MEMBER ORGANIZATION AND ONE OF THE FASTEST GROWING GROUPS ON THE PALACE WITH OVER 40 MEMBERS THE PRA PALACE REFORMATION ASSOCIATION THEN PRIVATE MESSAGE ME...!MY FELLOW GUESTS IF YOUR TIRED OF MEMBERS HARRASING AND THREATING YOU AND PUTTIN UP STUPID IGNORANT PET GUEST AVATARS THEN JOINT THE PRA!!!.. !GUESTS LET YOUR VOICE BE HEARD ON THE PALACE DONT LET THESE MEMBERS PUSH YOU AROUND JOIN THE PRA AND YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE AND HEY ITS GOOD MONEY!!!!...!GUESTS THE TYPICAL PAYMENT FOR A NEW PRA MEMBER IS FREE INTERNET ACCESS THE MORE YOU CONTRIBUT THE MORE YOU GET REWARDED!!
These users go out of their way to antagonize wizards. They send hostile messages into the wizard paging system. They verbally abuse the wizard through whispers and in public. They attempt to whip up a room of users into siding with them, including their all angrily accusing a wizard of being a "trigger-happy Nazi" when the basher finally gets killed. More deviously, the wizard basher may become an impostor by adopting the wizard's avatar and name, and then behaving obnoxiously in order to destroy the wizard's reputation. Or a basher may try to set wizards against each other by "befriending" one wizard and then using that relationship to badmouth and accuse another wizard of various injustices. Persistence in this "splitting" - including the befriending and idealizing of a "good" wizard while attempting to criticize and destroy the "bad" wizard - is usually a sign of significant psychopathology. In fact, the more the group of wizards are in disagreement and conflict over a particular user, the more likely that user is engaged in multiple splittings, and the more serious that person's psychopathology. For some wizard bashers, a vicious paranoid cycle is set in motion. They think wizards are out to get them, which makes them angry, defiant, and abusive, which leads to wizards reprimanding and killing them, which confirms their feeling that wizards are out to get them, which perpetuates the cycle.
Wizards who are overly active in their reprimands, pins, gags, and kills will be prime targets for bashing. If a wizard often finds himself in the bashing hot seat, it might be time for him to think twice about his style of dealing with people. In most cases wizards are not mean or trigger-happy. If possible, they should not take the wizard bashing personally. Wizard bashers usually are troubled teenage males who are trying to impress their friends and prove themselves. They are acting out their need to challenge and rebel against authority figures in order to establish some sense of independence and power. Basically, they are very frustrated. Their hostile antics probably says more about their relationships with their parents than it does about the wizard. To keep their composure and self-esteem intact, it might be helpful for wizards to remember that the basher is simply displacing his angry conflicts onto a convenient but undeserving target - a process called "transference." Sensing this, one wizard wisely commented, "I prefer to have these guys take it out on me instead of another member because I have more tools to deal with it. I know these guys come and go and are no big deal."
Possible Interventions - Strategies for dealing with the wizard basher are basically similar to those for dealing with any nasty talker: First try to reason with the person, then gag or kill if necessary. The primary difference is that the wizard is the victim, so the wizard's ability to maintain composure and objectivity is being taxed. Asking for backup support and a reality-check from another wizard might be a good idea. If splitting is suspected, the wizard should compare notes with the other wizards (see the earlier section on "second opinions" about avatars). It's always a good idea for wizards to share their experiences concerning problematic users and act together in a unified, consistent manner.
Some blatant foul talkers and bashers may be self-destructive. They abuse others in the worst way they know how and recklessly provoke wizards because they WANT to be killed. Unimaginative examples are users who type over and over again "Suck my dick," "Wizard X is an asshole," or simply, "kill me, kill me, kill me." Bumgardner calls them "psychotics." Although their reality testing probably is intact, their behavior certainly seems bizarre.
Why do they want to be disconnected? They may imagine themselves as bold and defiant rebels who dare to take a wizard's best hit. Teenage gangs often consider kills a badge of honor and turn it into a contest where they compete with each other. For some users, provoking a kill may be their way to gain control over their feeling alienated and rejected. Because they intentionally create the rejection, they feel they have some mastery over it. The kill also justifies their hostility towards the community and its authorities, which they probably felt even before they arrived for the first time (more "transference"). Paradoxically, some people may use kills to establish a unique identity in the community. They are the outcasts, the bad boys. Psychologists might like to speculate about their "masochistic" personality dynamics.
Possible Interventions - Due to their blatant, unrelenting style, self-destroyers generally are very easy to identify. Bumgardner does recommend being careful not to confuse them with children who are experimenting with the novelty of being able to say naughty things in public. Self-destroyers aren't interested in attempts to reason with them, so such efforts probably will be a waste of time. As with other types of foul talkers, members can be reminded about using the mute command, or the wizard may try gagging the offender. But in many cases the wizard may do best by quickly disconnecting the user. Unfortunately, self-destroyers often immediately try to return to the site. With self-destroying members (who usually belong to gangs), wizards may need to set the disconnect period for a long period of time. With self-destroying guests, wizards may need to track their IP to detect when they try to reconnect. For chronic self-destroying members and guests, a ban might be necessary.
In the past, TPI sponsored or assisted in some special event at a Palace site - for example, the live Rock Concerts where visitors could speak to the musicians when they were offstage, or the special Palace site set up in Washington during the Inauguration of Bill Clinton. Such events are intended to promote the Palace software and the Palace way of life. Unfortunately, some snerts take the unique event as a unique opportunity to harass people, especially famous people. They consider it a center stage to act out and attain some special sense of anonymous notoriety. They probably think of themselves as brave and daring. Usually their attempts to disrupt the event are not subtle, and the wizards reactions to their behavior aren't subtle either. At the first sign of obviously inappropriate behavior, the wizards act quickly and decisively. If you say "Are you queer?" to the lead singer, or "You suck!" to Vice President Gore, you are unceremoniously, expeditiously killed.
3. More Complex Social Problems
The following types of users present problems that are a bit more difficult to deal with - difficult in the sense that it requires more psychological and social expertise to manage them. This doesn't mean that the psychological or social roots of their misbehavior are more complex. Rather, the problem they present tends to be more intertwined with tricky cultural and interpersonal issues.
On his web site for wizards, Dr. Xenu describes the "rabble rousers" and "political paranoids" who on occasion invade the Palace community. In some cases, they want to use Palace as their personal soapbox to rally support for their questionable political sentiments. Antisocial types spouting Nazi ideology is one example. In other cases, these alienated people specifically target Palace for their political attacks. For example, they may claim that Palace is a totalitarian state and that TPI/EC is recording all chat, including whispers (paranoids love to share their paranoia with others). It's sometimes hard to tell if they truly believe their political rhetoric, or simply are using it to act out their needs to gain attention and a sense of power by bombarding people with their ranting and raving. Dr. Xenu writes:
... there are many would-be gang leaders out there, usually members who are bitter about not being a wizard, or about any number of other social woes, and think that by attacking the Palace, and inciting others to do the same, they are somehow improving the world or more likely their place in it. Often, they mistake the Palace (and especially TPI/EC) as some sort of symbol for the entirety of industrialized society, and likewise mistake wizzes bumping them off the server for genuine jurisprudence... Since these people often see themselves as some sort of tiny folk hero (and often declare themselves above the law in great self-righteous rants), they are easily engaged if they think you want to hear their New World Plan.Possible Interventions - There are a few slippery issues in dealing with revolutionaries. Some wizards worry about being too politically correct or violating the user's freedom of speech. In the case of more subtle revolutionaries - who may just be a bit outspoken in their unusual political beliefs - this may be a legitimate concern. The other difficulty is that attempts to reason with revolutionaries and tone them down may lead you into an entangled discussion of politics. These revolutionaries can be quite good at debate and will try to seduce you with their arguments, including arguments that they have the right to propagandize at the Palace; or, even if they admit to being outrageous, that there's nothing TPI/EC can do anyhow because they live in different state or country than where the server is located (a fallacious argument, according to Dr. Xenu).
It's wise not to get caught up in these debates. Many wizards first may try calm the person down. They may mention that there are other Palace sites where such political talk is acceptable. If that doesn't work (which is probably the case), they probably will follow similar procedures as when they step in to deal with foul talkers: gag the person, warn them, ungag them to see if they will behave, then kill if they persist. It's also a good idea to let other users know about the mute command so they have their own control over listening to the revolutionaries diatribes, or not.
Freedom fighters dwell on the argument that they have the right to freedom of speech and expression at Palace. But there's a delicate balance between allowing freedom of expression and offending other users - and freedom fighters usually sit heavily on one side of the scale. Sometimes they have a specific political ideology to spout, like the revolutionary. More often they just want to flaunt their inappropriate avatars or mouth off with foul language without anyone restraining them because it's their "right" according to the First Amendment. The basic internet philosophy that users should be able to "do your own thing" may be fueling their psychology. Similar to attempting reason with the revolutionary, it's very easy to fall into a no-win debate with the freedom fighter. Some wizards have described occasions when they did try to carry on a discussion with these users - probably because they were bored and had nothing else to do. The result was far less than intellectually satisfying because all these freedom fighters wanted to do was fight. Their mental set about "discussion" is basically similar to other self-important philosophical wannabes who come to Palace just to argue. Psychologists would categorize them as "oppositional personalities" who express their anger and frustrated need for independence through verbal/intellectual stubbornness. Wizards have joked about the possibility of creating an "Argument Clinic" (a la Monty Python) where freedom fighters and other recalcitrant debaters could be sent to spout their ideology at a bot that would mechanically reply with statements like, "I think I disagree" and "What's your proof on that point?"
Possible Interventions - Part of the difficulty in dealing with revolutionaries, freedom fighters, and other tenacious soapbox debaters is determining just when their lectures and arguments have crossed the line. The original Palace philosophy was that users should "make what they will" of Palace, and TPI/EC does want as many people as possible to enjoy themselves by doing their own thing. The number and intensity of complaints by other users in the room is probably the best indicator of whether or not the person is a nuisance who needs to be tamed. If almost no one is complaining, it may be best to just walk away even if you personally feel affronted. Freedom fighters who insist on using foul talk and avatars have probably already crossed the line with their inappropriate displays. If they persist, the strategies for dealing with them are similar to those for dealing with offensive avatars and language.
If the freedom fighter relents in using offensive avatars and foul language, but then wants to debate the topic of free speech, it's a good idea to side-step that entanglement. Even if you appear to "win" the debate, the bickering that accompanies it often leaves a bad taste in the mouths of everyone in the room. Wizards seem to agree on several points that might be explained briefly to the freedom fighter (if necessary, while they are gagged or propgagged) in order to short-circuit their need to argue. Palace is not a democracy. It's a membership organization that is not tied to First Amendment rules. It has its own rules about acceptable and unacceptable behavior, just like a country club or the local Moose. Freedom fighters should be invited to visit the "rules room" to read about the policies of the site.
They may retort with "But I PAID for this program, so I can say and do whatever I please!" In that case, it might be explained to them that they paid for the CLIENT program, not the server. They can use their client to connect to any Palace site they wish, and some sites will allow them greater leeway in using whatever language or avatars they wish. But THIS site has its own rules, which users are requested to follow. If they still want to debate, wizards may simply and politely state that they have explained the rules, that they have no control over those rules, and cannot discuss it any further.
TPI/EC policy does not support blatant evangelism at their Palace sites. It's perfectly acceptable for people to express their religious beliefs and to engage in religious discussions, but active attempts to proselytize and convert other users is not permitted. Of course, there's a fine line between "discussion" and "proselytizing" - and many differences among members in how much evangelistic talk they are willing to hear. Usually, the types of Bible Thumping that TPI/EC discourages are rather clear cut cases. Entering a room with a "Praise the Lord, All!" may be acceptable, but standing at the entrance to Palace and shouting at new arrivals "Accept the Lord, Sinners! Or burn in hell!" obviously is not. Thumpers who make such proclamations probably aren't very interested in discussion anyhow. They would rather launch sermons and apocalyptic warnings at people, which is tantamount to harassment. A more subtle example would be a loquacious Thumper's refusal to back off when someone says, "Well, that's fine but I don't really want to talk about this anymore." Persisting despite that request to stop is harassment.
It's not always easy to detect a problematic Thumper right off the bat. One wizard described chatting with a Nobel Laureate at a special Palace event when an apparent Thumper (and "event crasher") started to ask challenging religious questions. The wizard considered whispering to the religious-minded user to ask him to back off. However, the Laureate was willing to answer the questions which lead to an interesting discussion.
Possible Interventions - It's a good idea to be respectful of the Thumper's beliefs, but not to get entangled in religious debates. If they try to engage wizards in an argument about religious freedom or freedom of speech (similar to the freedom fighter), wizards may simply state the policy of the server and that they have no control over that policy. The wizard may even express that they understand how the Thumper feels, but rules are rules. "Then use any excuse you have to," one wizard suggests, "and remove yourself from the situation." For Thumpers who are a bit too enthusiastic in their pursuit of religious discussion with users who don't share their enthusiasm, wizards typically will remind them that discussion is fine, but not everyone shares their religious beliefs, and that some people may even feel affronted. They may encourage the Thumper to move to another room (or another Palace site) where there may be members who are more interested in their ideas. If Thumpers refuse to stop accosting other members, wizards may follow the procedures for gagging. The other users in the room also should be reminded about the "mute" command. Experienced wizards recommend that Thumpers never be killed.
One's personal identity is attached to one's avatars. If someone steals your avatar and wears it, they are stealing your identity, or at the very least diluting its uniqueness. If they steal your avatar and dump copies of it all over the site, they are deliberately demeaning the integrity of your identity and inviting others to steal it. Such identity "theft" may be an unintentional faux pas or a deliberate act of hostility.
Stealing someone's avatar, wearing it, and also using that person's name (or a variation of it) is the highest form of identity theft. You are abducting their entire identity. As a momentary joke to mimic your friends, this behavior is tolerated as fun. But some people - the impostors - are more insidious. Often as an act of revenge, they snatch the identity of the person that offended them and behave inappropriately in an attempt to damage the person's reputation. Impersonating a wizard is one of the more common types of impostoring - and also one of the more serious, because damaging the reputation of wizards damages their ability to work as well as the reputation of the community's authority structure. If the impostor isn't seeking revenge, then he is most likely using the wizard identity in an attempt to impress or threaten other people, to persuade them into cybersex, or to make requests of users that a real wizard never would (like revealing your registration key). Some brave wizard impostors have even attempted to acquire the wizard password from other wizards. For this reason, wizards never give the password out while at the Palace.
One especially problematic variety of impostoring occurs when a user assumes the identity of a well-know member at one Palace site (usually a wizard) and then goes to another site to act like a jerk. There have been several cases of fake wizards and TPI officials showing up at smaller sites to threaten and insult people. Some impostors have even given out the stolen avatars and encouraged others to join in with the impersonation, insisting that it's just a Palace joke. With hundreds of Palace sites all over the internet, it's very difficult to track and control this potential damage to one's reputation. Here's where communication across Palace sites - especially among wizards - is important in controlling deviant behavior. Messages to the Palace User Group (PUG) mailing list is one method for this cross-site communication.
Misbehaving users also may employ identity switching to avoid detection and reprimands. Notorious snerts often rotate through a series of alias identities (names and avatars), which makes it more difficult for wizards to keep track of them. They may act perfectly nice under one identity and be a demon under another. Some wizards keep a list of known aliases of these trouble-makers. The combination of this ability to switch identities and the fact that you never know for sure who is sitting at the keyboard sometimes makes it almost impossible to know who the snert is. When finally cornered, a misbehaving user who has switched through several identities to avoid detection may insist that "It wasn't ME who did that! It was my brother/sister/friend who was using my computer!" Teenagers have even pretended to be their parents who come online or send e-mail to TPI/EC officials in order to plea the case for their misbehaving son who was banned from the site. At times like this, one must rely on the experience and wisdom of the wizards and TPI/EC staff in determining whether the person is lying or not. Often it's impossible to tell.
When dealing with identity switchers, it's also a good idea to consider the possibility that they are suffering from a genuine identity disturbance.
Because identity switching is part of the Palace culture, there have been important borderline cases that stirred up considerable controversy about whether or not a "crime" really had occurred. In one fascinating incident, a member who asked to be a wizard but was not considered "wizard material" switched personae in order to develop a character who WOULD be considered good wizard material. The strategy worked, resulting in heated arguments between wizards who knew about the different personae and those who didn't. Was this deliberate deception on the part of the new wizard, or just a variation on the Palace way of life?
There are a variety of ways to detect an impostor. Look for behavior that is uncharacteristic of the genuine person. Ask the suspected impostor to show an avatar or produce knowledge that you know the genuine person possesses. "Finger" the person to call up the information from their finger file, which might reveal clues about whether they are impostoring, particularly if you are familiar with what the genuine person's finger file looks like. Wizards also have the ability to list a user's registration number and IP address, which is more than enough information to positively identify someone. Wizards also can track these registration numbers and addresses, so they know when misbehaving users are coming and going despite their switching usernames and avatars. In his manual for wizards, Bumgardner also recommends that wizards keep a personal log of their pins, gags, and kills - which is useful information for staying on top of repeat offenders.
To prevent impersonating a wizard, the Palace program was modified so only wizards could wear an asterisk (*) in front of their name. Identifying a wizard is therefore easy. If you suspect someone is impersonating a wizard, ask them to show their "badge." TPI has encouraged working wizards to wear their asterisk at all times - and if they are not wearing it when a user asks to see it, they should comply. Some clever wizard impostors create tiny asterisk props that they place in front of their names. However, as Dr. Xenu notes on his wizard web site, the effort is not clever enough. While the forgery may look fine on their own computer, other users my be viewing their screen with different fonts, so the fake asterisk will look peculiar. Also, if you turn off the usernames in your client program, you will see the tiny asterisk prop hanging there all by itself. Easiest of all, the faked asterisk prop will never show up as an asterisk in the site's list of usernames or in the running log that records what each user is typing.
If a member is using someone's name, but not the avatar, it might simply be a coincidence. It's a good idea to tell them that another member uses that name and this probably will result in other members confusing their identities. If they are using the name of a well-known Palatian, tell them that lots of users will be confusing them with the old-timer, resulting in many whispers and ESPS from strangers - which could turn into a very uncomfortable situation where they are constantly being interrupted and constantly having to explain themselves. After hearing this advice, most unintentional "impostors" will pick another name. If they decide to keep the name anyhow, recommend that they speak to the other user about it in order to help minimize confusions - or inform the other user yourself that he/she has a "twin." If the person insists on using the name, and is behaving less than ideally, there's not much that even a wizard can do to protect the original user's reputation. As long as the "impostor" isn't breaking any other rules that requires an intervention, the wizard can only inform the original user that there is someone else using his/her name, and that, unfortunately, the other user isn't the nicest person around.
Using someone else's name and avatar - in addition to acting badly - is a sure sign of intentional, malicious impostoring. It's a judgment call as to how to intervene. At the very least, the original user should be informed. Wizards may decide to gag, pin, or kill the impostor, but probably will only do so when the impostoring is clearly violating other Palace rules.
When people accidentally use a wizard's name, similar strategies apply. The first step might involve asking the wizard if it's OK that someone else is using the same designation. For those users who persist in using a wizard's name, despite being asked to change it, TPI/EC officials recommend to wizards a series of steps. In order to determine the motives of the person, explain that the company's policy does not allow anyone to use a wizard's name without their permission because it is potentially confusing to other members. If they refuse to change the name, do nothing other than inform them that they will be disconnected if they are "caught" doing it again (thus giving them the opportunity to think about the consequences of their actions). If wizards later find them still using the name, they will give one more warning, then kill for a short period if they do not comply. Longer kills will follow if the (rather stubborn) person still insists on using the name.
In those hardcore cases of users obviously and deliberately impersonating wizards in order to damage their reputations, TPI/EC has contacted the administrators of the impostor's ISP - and in some cases, the user's parents.
A completely different strategy is the preventative one. Why not require users and/or wizards to register their names and/or props so no one else can use them? The technical, logistic, and legal difficulties in registering the images used to create avatars are formidable. For example, the images often do not belong to the user in the first place. They were copied from elsewhere, usually CD-ROMs or web sites (there have been many copyright debates about this very issue). Registering names is much more do-able, but would take some of the fun out of the Palace custom of playing with identities. A list of registered names also would apply only to a specific Palace server, unless there was some kind of "master" list for all Palace sites - which is an almost impossible task. As a result, it would be relatively easy for an impostor to use a person's registered name at Site A and then go to Sites B, C, D, etc. in order to wreck that person's identity.
One day in Harry's Bar I was greeted by someone I didn't recognize. Something about how he spoke made me uneasy. He acted as if he knew me, but his abstract avatar and name were unfamiliar. After a few minutes, he changed his prop to another rather strange design. For some reason, this made me more uncomfortable. "Do you know this guy?" I whispered to another member. "It's Octagon," she said. "He's been changing his name and props a lot." About a week later, I heard that Octagon was hospitalized. He had been suicidal.
This incident taught me something important about personae at the Palace. Unfortunate people suffering from disturbances in their identity may act out their turmoil in the personae they wear. For example, a virtual world where you can switch among alternate appearances might attract people suffering from "dissociation" - the splits in consciousness and identity as a result of trauma, as seen most vividly in the multiple personality disorder. It would not be unusual for these people to act very appropriately in one identity, and very inappropriately in another. On occasion, wizards come across perplexing situations where a user's personality suddenly changes, or their memory becomes disconnected. For example, a user may appear to be a misbehaving child who, when reprimanded, switches to an adult who is upset about his "daughter" being punished. Or a wizard pins a misbehaving user named "Marmalade," who then disconnects from the site only to reconnect moments later with a different name and avatar. Having access to the user's IP address, the wizard knows that it must be the same person. "Who pinned me?" the user asks. "Are you Marmalade?" the wizard replies.... "No."
Now it's very possible that these examples are simply the head games played by mischievous users. But it's also possible that in a small percentage of cases such users are suffering from a genuine identity disturbance. If that's the case, their switches in identity are not intentional, conscious attempts at fooling or manipulating others.
Another type of user who may not intentionally be causing difficulties, but nevertheless is difficult to deal with, is what Bumgardner calls the "depressive." Although, technically, these people may not all be suffering from a clinical depression (e.g., some might fall into the category of "borderline personality disorder"), the term is mostly accurate as a catch-all category. They are unhappy people who attempt to use Palace as a form of therapy or escape. Usually they are members rather than guests. Their behavior and moods may be erratic. They may require or demand a great deal of attention, particularly in getting people to talk to them about their life problems. They may be suicidal.
Here's a fictionalized example described by one wizard. UserJoe is quiet, even though others talk to him. Then he complains that he is being ignored and that no one likes him. Others try to offer consolation and support, but he says he hates Palace and isn't coming back. The next day he returns with many tales of woe about his life. He literally hangs onto other users' avatars, trying to find solace and a willing listener. He says he is drunk. He drops hints that he is thinking about suicide. People feel uncomfortable around him and page the wizards.
Other depressives are more blatant about their suicidal thinking. They talk openly and at length about how miserable their life is, and how they want to end it. On a few occasions, these people have tried to convince others to join them. Shortly after the news of the Heaven's Gate cult, a small group of teens at the Member's Palace site formed what seemed to be a suicide cult. They attempted to persuade other young users to join them in their quest to "move on to a better place." It's very possible that they were simply joking or playing with their concept of a new fad. However, as all clinicians know, when people seem to be "just talking" or "joking" about suicide, they should not be treated lightly. It's very possible that they are quite depressed beneath their humor and intellectualizations. Suicidal talk may be a strategy for "just" getting some attention, but it's often a serious cry for help as well.
Possible Interventions - Wizards have agonized over what to do for troubled users. Attempts to encourage, support, and offer some friendly advice are admirable, and in some cases helpful. However, the depressive's needs may be deeper than any sympathetic Palatian can handle. It's very easy to get in over your head. The depressive may become highly dependent on you, needing much more than you can give. When you suspect this possibility - especially when the person talks or even hints about suicide - recommend seeking professional help. Make this recommendation several times. Suggest that the person look in the blue pages of the phone book for a crisis hotline, or speak to her physician about finding a mental health professional. If it's a young person, also encourage him to speak to his parents, a guidance counselor at school, or some other trusted adult. Another possibility is to give the person the url of an internet crisis center or an 800 phone number. While it's important to try to get the depressive some help, it's also important for the fellow Palatian to remember that there is only so much one can do. Try not to feel guilty or helpless when the situation doesn't seem resolved.
Rarely should wizards disconnect (kill) a depressive. It will only magnify their feelings of rejection and despair.
When users are promoting suicide, the situation is different. Even if it is only an adolescent "goof" or "fad," encouraging suicide among other users is not tolerated at TPI/EC sites. Suicide can indeed become epidemic, especially among depressed adolescents. Such promoters should be dealt with empathically but firmly. If they do not quickly respond to the strategies above and relent in their proselytizing, wizards will gag or disconnect them. For obvious reasons, wizards avoid using the word "kill."
It's interesting to note that in the discussions about these issues on the wizard mailing list, many debates arose about the ethics of suicide and euthanasia. Cultural, personal, and situational factors all determine whether someone believes it is "right" or "wrong." In the meanwhile, almost all the wizards agree that suicidal members need help, and that promoting suicide must be discouraged.
On occasion, some foul talkers and breathers have directed their attentions towards younger Palace members, usually females. Users with names like "BigDaddy" may ask - either through whispers or publicly - if there are any "young girls" around. Once they locate someone they believe fits that category, they proceed to whisper seductive or blatantly lewd language to that person. Public displays are not the typical MO of pedophiles, who usually act in secrecy and disguise. So foul talkers and breathers who are speaking openly may not be genuine pedophiles. They may even be minors themselves. There have been no clearly documented cases of pedophiles at Palace, but that should not stop wizards and other officials from keeping an eye open for such activity. Even hints of pedophilic talk and interests should be dealt with quickly and firmly, using steps similar to dealing with breathers. Minors should be encouraged to report suspected people, although the issue of verifying pedophilic activity can be complex, similar to verifying abuse in alleged breathers.
On his web site about wizards, Dr. Xenu describes some of the scams that have occurred at Palace. One example is the "AOL Scam," so called because that's where it first gained notoriety. The scam artist - perhaps impersonating a wizard or some other TPI/EC representative - asks new or naive members for information that he needs for some important "official" reason. He may request the member's registration number, Visa number, real name, phone number, etc. The information most likely will be used to rip the person off or invade their privacy. Another version of this scam involves approaching members who have been around for a while and telling them that they have been chosen to become a wizard. Of course, the member must first provide "necessary" information, like their registration number, real name, etc. Yet another approach involved setting up a billboard announcing "Enter to win a Toyota Landcruiser. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and enclose your registration number." It should come as no surprise that the e-mail address is not TPI's.
In other scams, the confidence artist may befriend users, only later to make some unusual requests. In what Dr. Xenu calls the notorious "Picture Scam," one member - who presented as a bisexual woman - asked her new friends for nude photos of themselves. In reality, the scam artist was posting the pictures on a pay-per-view web site.
Because they work in secrecy, and thrive on being clever, scam artists are difficult to detect ahead of time. The best strategy is probably preventative. Users need to be informed of basic scam techniques, similar to how AOL warns users that AOL officials will never ask anyone for their password. Once caught, hardcore scam artists will probably be banned.
Gangs have been an especially difficult problem at the sites. Usually consisting of adolescents, some of these groups have come and gone. A few notable exceptions, like the "Legion," were more resistant to extinction. The gangs' deviant activities fall into many of the categories discussed elsewhere in this article. As bullies who do their best to intimidate other users, they resort to all varieties of foul language and offensive avatars. They may run scams or attempt to abuse the software through flooding, password hacking, and crashing. Often they become territorial and drive other users out of the room that they believe is their turf (not surprisingly, one gang claimed the "Pit" - a room that looked like Hades - as their home base). They adopted an unusual keyboard character as insignia to place next to their name, thus indicating their gang colors. Any other Palace member who tried to use the insignia was berated and ridiculed. Wizards suspected that some of these gangs spent a great deal of time on as well as off Palace planning their escapades - as if creating havoc became a game where points were awarded to teams for chasing away and crashing innocent bystanders, or for the number of times a team member was pinned, gagged, and killed.
Of course, being adolescent, gangs thrived on any and all attempts to fight the authorities. Their favorite pastimes included bashing and impersonating wizards in an attempt to humiliate them or destroy their reputations. As willing self-destroyers, gang members tried to outdo each other by pushing the rules to the limits and antagonizing wizards in order to force gags, pins, and kills onto themselves. Some would play more subtle headgames. They'd be very polite and respectful when a wizard was around, then turn into abusive, bashing snerts when the wizards left (the "Eddie Haskel" syndrome). Or they'd turn wizards against each other by befriending one and badmouthing another ("splitting"). Turning other bored, lonely adolescents against the authorities also was part of the fun. Gangs fashioned themselves as revolutionaries and freedom fighters who were resisting the evil efforts of wizards and TPI to repress people ("They are denying our freedom of speech," "The wizards killed me for doing NOTHING!"). Some gang members even went public with their outcries by posting messages to the Palace User Group mailing list and the Community Standards newsgroup. In their messages they justified their actions, tried to rally support for themselves, and attacked both the wizards and TPI.
Like anyone else in the ever-expanding Palace community, gang members are trying to find a place for themselves, a feeling of belonging, a sense of purpose and status. Unfortunately, they try to achieve those goals by being hostile towards others and the establishment. Attacking outsiders and authority figures is one way an insecure, alienated group tenuously holds onto it's own solidarity and identity. The Legion's need to feel unique was evident in their clever and highly possessive use of a username insignia that even experienced wizard PC'ers had a hard time duplicating on their keyboard. They gain a sense of power from the group membership and from the concept of themselves as being clever hackers. Taking risks, displays of bravado, and pushing the limits are all badges of distinction among these teen males.
On more rare occasions, the "gangs" are adults. When TPI officials tracked down the origin of one group of misbehaving users, they turned out to be several men in the technical department of a rather large company. When TPI phoned the operations manager, he apologetically explained how the company recently provided employees with internet access. Some of them, apparently, took that as an opportunity to act like adolescents.
Ph's Horse, a TPI/EC official and leader of the wizards, once raised an important question on the wizard mailing list. Does the gang mentality actually exist in Palace or is it a convenient excuse to get rid of kids that wizards don't like? While some gangs clearly may be deviant, there also may be borderline cases. An unpleasant behavior in one person is simply unpleasant. An unpleasant behavior in a group of people seems more threatening. It's possible that wizards might get annoyed with an adolescent group that is misbehaving, but not really posing any serious problem. When the wizards attempt to curb them, they respond in the typical adolescent manner - disrespectful, resistant. More reprimands result in more discourteous reactions. Eventually, with their patience tested, wizards may unintentionally bait the gang into misbehaving more blatantly, resulting in a pin, gag, or kill. Outraged by the perceived heavy-handedness of the authorities, the gang now pumps up their snertish behavior. The situation escalates, a vicious cycle is born.
Differences in how people perceive a "gang" were evident in the many discussions about the Legion on the wizard mailing list. Some felt they were potentially dangerous hackers who might do real damage to the Palace technology. Others argued that they were simply bored, mischievous kids whose wishes about being a hacker far outweighed their ability. The "gangs" were simply a nuisance. These differences in perception are important to keep in mind when deciding on a intervention.
On his wizard web site. Dr. Xenu briefly takes a look at the bright side of snert gangs. Although their attempted hacking is annoying, they do sometimes reveal software security loopholes that need a fix. Although they are arrogant and hostile, they do bring a bit of dynamism to Palace life.
One extreme but tempting way to handle a gang is to ban them, all of them. Anybody who professes allegiance to the gang, who wears their insignia, gets killed on sight. The urge to do this surely is a sign of extreme frustration on the part of wizards and TPI/EC officials who must deal with their antics. Although this sweet revenge has been discussed by wizards, it's never been implemented. It's more complicated than it seems and could easily backfire. Because members can alter their identities, determining exactly who is in the gang, or who are the most deserving of being banned, is not easy. Banning an entire group of people also draws the authorities onto thin ice. Will it look like a punitive overreaction or sweeping prejudice? Will it antagonize the gang, martyr it in the eyes of their sympathizers, thereby strengthening them, unifying them, and making them more determined to seek revenge? Kill or ban individual people for their specific misdeeds, several wizards have suggested. Don't punish people for their affiliations.
A few wizards have tried a diametrically different approach to dealing with gangs. They hang out with them, try to understand and befriend them. After such visits, a few wizards have reported that the snerts are actually OK kids. They had fun and enjoyed talking with them. The gang described how they felt stigmatized. Just their showing up at the Palace made other users edgy and irritable. To them, it didn't seem fair that they should be treated that way just because they belonged to a "gang." In private conversations (whispers), some of the gang members opened up to the wizard even more. They described how they were bored, having problems in school, or uncomfortable with some of the antics that their ringleader put them up to. These kids felt sorry about the gang's mischief and didn't want to be banned along with the "really bad" ones. The wizards suggested to their colleagues that perhaps these kids were just alienated and misunderstood, that if wizards and other users got to know and accept them, maybe they would calm down. At the very least, perhaps some of the more "normal" gang members could be persuaded to either leave the gang or refuse to participate in its antics, thereby diluting the gang's strength.
If you can befriend gang members, maybe you can go even further. Maybe you can rehabilitate them. Following the Kung Fu principle of "redirecting" the attacker, some wizards have suggested that the gang's energy might be channeled into more productive avenues. Offer the gang members something valuable to do for the Palace community. Ask them to work on a project, but make sure that the project is indeed important and not just an idle activity, otherwise they will see through the tactic. WELCOME the gang - tell them you're interested in their ideas, their energy, their creativity, their sense of humor. Paradoxical strategies sometimes work well with rebellious adolescents. In a sense, this method for dealing with the renegade group involves making them part of the establishment. Rehabilitating the snert is an interesting and challenging strategy which I'll discuss again later in this article.
Critics have challenged the rehabilitation strategy, or any attempt to befriend and reason with the hardcore snerts. At best, the therapeutic effect may last for a few hours or days, but then the snerts are back at their trouble-making again. Some say that the snert gang members simply treat the whole rehabilitation scenario as yet another game. Behind their facade of cooperation, they are planning the next round of mischief. They'll try to use the "nice" wizard as a pawn in the game, or as a wedge to create conflict among the authorities. Even if you succeed in reasoning with an individual kid, he will eventually just return to the gang, which has a lot more to offer him. Some kids take the authority figure's gesture of politeness or concern as a sign of weakness. They respect and respond better to a "Knock it off or I'll kick your ass off this server!" than a "Please don't do that" - if they respond at all. Anyone who thinks they can rehabilitate such snerts, some wizards claim, is in for a severe disappointment. "We don't need to dwell on being social workers," they say.
If individual gang members CAN be rehabilitated by showing an interest in them, welcoming their contribution to Palace, and making them feel that they are a "somebody"- it will weaken their dependence on the gang as well as the overall strength of the gang itself. Whittle away at the gang membership by drawing kids out. Turn the individual kid against the gang. Convince him that the gang - and especially its leaders - are simply using him as a pawn. Warn him that he might wind up banned along with all the rest. Some wizards have suggested that killing individual members might enhance this divide-and-conquer strategy because disconnecting gang members temporarily separates them, thereby disrupting the group. It was even suggested that a special software feature be added that would enable wizards to make gang members invisible to each other.
The single most powerful intervention would be the one focused on the leaders. Every acting-out group has a focal point. Usually it's one or two people who entertain and inspire the others with their antics. The attention they get fuels their act. They in turn encourage the subordinates to join in. Although it's VERY difficult to befriend, reason with, and rehabilitate these leaders, if you succeed, you will swing the whole group dynamics towards rehabilitation. If that fails, there's always the last resort of cutting off the group's head. Kill or ban the leader/s. Some groups - especially weak ones - quickly collapse without their general. The potential problem, however, is that the banned leader becomes a martyr, which may rally the group's strength and determination. Or the leader's absence simply triggers a struggle among the underlings to see who can capture the vacant throne.
When it comes to very entrenched snert behavior among gangs, many wizards like to take a firm stance. It may take the form of Tough Love - i.e., "We care about you, but keep misbehaving and you're outta here." It's a strict, no nonsense approach. After the initial warning, snerts are quickly punished without prejudice or anger on the part of the wizards. As one TPI official stated:
These kids get out of line, kill 'em. They mouth back, kill 'em. They argue with you about changing a prop, kill 'em. They play dumb over something you *know* happened, kill 'em. They utter obscenities, kill 'em. They don't learn after their first offense, kill 'em longer. No warning, no apologies. According to the "three strikes" rule, hardcore snerts are told flat out that they will be banned if they misbehave again after returning from their second kill. End of discussion. TPI statistics show that only a small fraction of 1% of all users are killed more than once, so such recidivist snerts are a rather rare (i.e., deviant) phenomenon. When applying kills and bans, it's important to be dispassionate and consistent. This will help minimize the gang members' tendency to turn the wizards' "unfair" and "hostile" actions into fuel for their battle cry. It will also help curb their attempts to use inconsistencies in the wizards' interventions as a tool for playing them off against each other.
One difficulty in carrying out a consistent Tough Love policy is keeping tabs on the gang members. The software "tracking" feature is a useful early warning system that notifies wizards when snerts have returned to the site. When wizards kill, the server records this activity in a log along with any comments entered by the wizard. Some wizards also keep a personal list of known snerts. It has been suggested that a wizard-wide "shit list" be created that records who the snerts are, who has been warned and banned, and how many times a particular snert was killed. Such information would make it easier for wizards to work together consistently and for implementing the three strikes rule. For really awful snerts who like to wander through PalaceSpace, there's also the touchy issue of sharing snert information - including "blackball lists" - with other Palace sites.
4. Techno-Crimes (Hacking)
All online deviant behavior requires some degree of technical skill because it is being expressed via a computer. What I'll call "techno-crimes", on the other hand, require a bit more knowledge and skill than the ordinary user possesses. In some cases, it may be a rather simple trick that the trouble-maker learned from a colleague or discovered on his own. In other cases, it may be a very sophisticated hack requiring considerable expertise. Basically, a techno-crime involves exploiting the software for purposes other than intended by the programmers. Mild versions would include mischievous pranks designed to impress or, at worst, confuse other users. For example, a user writes a script that makes closed doors look like they are open, or a vicarious lurker manages to alter the room occupancy number so everyone thinks there is an invisible user among them. Sometimes the hack may not be deviance at all but a creative contribution to Palace culture.
True techno-crimes are clearly anti-social and abusive. Directly or indirectly, someone pays a price. The most common types are flooding, crashing, and hacking for passwords and registration keys.
Flooding is a good example of an unsophisticated techno-crime. A naive user may repeatedly change avatars, play sounds, or run a script (like opening and closing a door), not realizing that this swamps the server and slows down the conversation in the room - what users call "lag." A true techno-snert understands this effect and floods deliberately in order to gain attention ("see what I can do!") or to disrupt the socializing in the room, probably as a result of feeling alienated and jealous. More insidious and slightly more clever snerts will target a specific person with repeated whispers packed full of abusive or nonsense text, which cripples the victim with lag. Gangs have been known to "gang-whisper" victims by pounding them over and over again with such voluminous text balloons. All deliberate flooders are driven by a need to feel powerful. Having to disrupt other people's ability to communicate probably reflects their own inabilities and insecurities about relating to others.
Possible Interventions - The server can be programmed to disconnect certain types of flooders. Bounce too often on the bed in one of the private rooms (which is a script), and the server automatically will oust you from the site while politely informing you of your faux pas. Wizards also can turn all scripts off in a room where snerts are deliberately using them to flood the server, and then turn them back on when the hyperactive pranksters have calmed down or left (clever snerts might realize they can move to another room and try again). Depending on the particular method of flooding, wizards may also warn, pin, gag, propgag, or, if necessary, kill. One difficulty is that wizards too may be lagged by the snert, which makes intervening more difficult. The intervention may need to be swift in order to remedy the situation as quickly as possible.
Crashing other users, or the entire server, is a much more sophisticated techno-crime. On one occasion, snerts figured out a way to use scripts to crash the PC users in the room, forcing them to reboot. The "screechers" used scripts to create a horrible high pitched shrill on the speakers of Mac users (technically, not a true crash... but it sure sounded like one). Wizards intervene quickly with these antics, usually with a kill - lest they become the victim of the crash too. But then comes the more challenging question. How did the snert do it? In some cases, it took the wizards and TPI officials a while to figure out these tricks. Crashing is a good example of the sometimes highly sophisticated technical battle of wits that get played out between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil. Looking at the half full glass, some wizards and TPI/EC officials see crashers as an opportunity to fix loopholes in the software.
A hardcore netter once defined a "true hacker" to me as someone who illegitimately breaks into a system in order to access restricted privileges or databases. If this an accurate definition, then Palace has had its share of hackers. Usually they try to crack the password safeguards to gain wizard powers (impersonating a wizard in order to persuade another wizard to reveal the password is another tactic, but not really hacking). Others try to crack or bypass the registration key system in order to gain membership abilities without paying. Safeguards built into the Palace program eliminate some of the less sophisticated hacks. Anyone who persists in trying to figure out the wizard password will be automatically disconnected from the site after a few failed tries. The more sophisticated hacks are much less frequent. Similar to flooding, it becomes a cat and mouse game where the Palace technical team detects the hack and fixes the loophole. Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese warrior and strategist, stated that you must embrace the enemy's attempts to detect your weaknesses. With this knowledge, your defenses can be fortified.... Or, as Nietzsche once said, "that which doesn't kill me, makes me stronger."
What motivates the hacker? Some are captivated by the challenge and excitement of venturing into forbidden territories. They derive a sense of accomplishment, mastery, and power from doing what others can't. Impressing other users, especially one's fellow hackers, is a source of self-esteem. Some are motivated by a rebellious nature. Cracking the system of the "institution" reflects a defiant attitude towards authority figures. Psychoanalytic theory would predict an underlying Oedipal striving to challenge and prove oneself better than the father. In extreme cases, a hacker - and especially hacker wannabes - feel pressured to demonstrate that they are better and smarter than anyone. The cat-and-mouse drama of beating the system becomes a tireless, relentless quest to prove oneself. "I will prevail" becomes the battle cry. Defeat creates feelings of powerlessness and humiliation that fuel the fires. Driven by inner insecurities, they brag about their accomplishments and supposed powers (like being able to kill). When other users (and undercover wizards) ask them to display these powers, they make excuses. Such false bravado and desperate needs to prove oneself may be more common in the hacker wannabe than in the truly skilled hacker.
In this section I'd like to expand on some of the intervention strategies discussed earlier. I'll discuss them here in a more general context rather than related to a specific type of deviant behavior. All intervention strategies can be categorized according to three dimensions:
- Preventative versus Remedial: Does the intervention create conditions that attempt to prevent the deviance from ever occurring, as in creating restricted areas and controlling traffic flow. Or does it attempt to fix the problem after it appears, as in pins and kills? Preventative measures shape the culture at the congenital level, while remedial measures correct aberrations in the culture's evolution. "Secondary" prevention detects a problem in its very earliest stages (before it's yet a problem) and averts its development; "primary" prevention keeps a problem from ever occurring at all. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention...
- Interpersonal versus Technical: Does the intervention primarily rely on a psychological or social process, usually a wizard personally assessing the situation and persuading the offender to behave, which requires social skills? Or does it rely on a software tool like pin, gag, kill, or even fully automated server actions like killer bots? Many strategies combine the interpersonal and technical approaches in various mixtures. Without the human touch, technical tools like pin and kill will only be marginally effective. For this reason, with few exceptions, TPI/EC officials discourage wizards from taking action (pin, gag, kill, etc.) "across rooms" - without actually being there in person with the offender. Fully automated server actions surely save time and energy, but online "community" means people interacting with people, not with programs.
- User or Superuser: In the case of technical tools, is the feature available to all users (e.g., "mute") or just superusers/wizards (e.g., gag, pin, kill)? The overarching issue is power - and who has it. Presumably, the basic interpersonal interventions are available to everyone, although not everyone will be skilled at those interventions.
Establishing a presence - a mostly psychological intervention - can achieve a lot in preventing mischief before it starts. If wizards are nearby, snerts will tend to behave. For this reason, TPI strongly encouraged wizards to wear their badges (unless they were off-duty). Of course, even if wizards are present, snerts can always slip off to another room to pursue their antics. Following them might then be perceived as harassment. Using scripts, wizards could monitor activity in another room (e.g., detecting foul language) and then when necessary inject a warning from across rooms, but this constitutes eavesdropping. It's a delicate balance between establishing a healthy "presence" and slipping into the role of an intrusive Big Brother. By strolling through the site (patrolling) and sending global messages across all rooms, wizards can let all users know that they are there, somewhere.
Wizards have jokingly drawn a distinction between their colleagues that seem like "Nazis" and those who act like "Bleeding Hearts." Of course, these terms are parodies. Neither extreme makes for a good intervention philosophy. Wizards who discipline users out of a need to control, feel powerful, or forge some imagined "perfect" society need retraining and an honest look at their own motives. So too for overly sympathetic wizards who fear confrontation, anger (including their own), and being disliked.
Taken down several notches, the Nazi/Bleeding Heart distinction does point to two very different, equally viable methods for handling deviance. The distinction reminds me of the psychological research on parenting styles which demonstrated that strict and permissive approaches both can work well in raising children - as long as the parent is not acting cold, distant, or cruel. Being firm and decisive, but also fair, may be just the right medicine for certain types of misbehaving users (the "tough love" tactic). Other problematic users may respond better to a more sympathetic, tolerant approach. Some wizards may be better at one method and not the other, which means that one wizard may call on another to handle a situation because "your style works better with this type of person." Some interpersonally talented wizards will be effective at both styles and can switch accordingly.
Entire online communities may endorse either a strict or permissive philosophy. Those determined to make their home a friendly and peaceful place may quickly dispense with trouble-makers. Those with a more open and permissive ideology (and those run by a business that needs paid registrations) may be more tolerant. The composition of wizards - strict, permissive or a mix - will be determined by the site's philosophy and will reciprocally shape the site's philosophy.
The various intervention strategies discussed throughout this article fall at different points along the strict/permissive continuum, with a leaning towards the permissive end.
That's what Jim Bumgardner has said on several occasions when offering advice to wizards on how to deal with misbehavers. It's generally better to talk than to kill. It's the purely social approach. Communities (and the business behind them) develop and thrive on the arrival of new people. If there's any hope of socializing a misbehaving user, that hope can only be realized if you talk to them first. The anonymity of cyberspace encourages people to act up, including some good people. There's no logic in throwing the baby out with the bath water. Talking gives people a chance, especially when their acting up is an attempt to gain some attention and a reaction to feeling left out. Of course, talking is no panacea.A variety of complications may arise, and in some cases talking just plain fails. For example:
- The misbehaving user does not respond to you. In this case, wizards may gag, prop gag, or pin in order to get the person's attention. Then they inform the person that "You must respond" or "I need a confirmation that you understand. Otherwise I will have to disconnect you." Some wizards gag a non-responding person for a specified period of time (e.g., 2 hours).
- The misbehaving user responds very politely and apologetically to the wizard, then just continues with the snertish antics after the wizard leaves, perhaps even ridiculing the wizard behind his/her back (the Eddie Haskel Syndrome). Being paged over and over again by users complaining about the same snert is a sure sign that talking has failed.
- The snert just wants to argue, so the conversation goes nowhere. One good example of this is the "freedom fighter".
- The unruly user responds well to one wizard's attempts to talk, but is resistant to another. This could be attributed to how the user is reacting to a perceived difference in the wizards' interpersonal styles (for example, the perceived "Nazi/Bleeding Heart" distinction). Or the user may be attempting to play the wizards off against each other (splitting). In this case, wizards need to compare notes.
As Ph's Horse points out in his guidelines for wizards, it's usually best to whisper to the misbehaving user. Public reprimands and warnings tend to be embarrassing, and could provoke determined snerts into even higher levels of snertdom, especially if they deliberately are playing to the room. They may want revenge, or feel a need to save face. Public confrontation tends to fuel the drama for all involved, including wizards who are on the spot to do something. Lots of egos are on the line. Whispering also can help reduce the tendency for other users in the room to harass the perpetrator when they see a wizard attempting to correct him. Lastly, whispering does establishes a more personal connection to the user, which may have a powerful effect. For some, it may be the recognition that they were looking for in the first place. Many behavioral problems are the result of ignorance or a child looking for attention, so a more personal reminder may be exactly what's needed to remedy the situation.
One possible disadvantage to whispering is that other people in the room do not get a chance to see exactly what the wizard is saying. A wizard's skillful handling of a snert could serve as a role model for other users. It's also good public relations for the reputation of the wizards. Without seeing what the wizard is saying, some users may project all sorts of fantasies onto the wizard's actions ("he killed that guy for no reason at all!). At the very least, intervening wizards should politely inform the room that they are dealing with the situation and would be glad to talk to people once the situation is resolved.
Being polite and showing respect for the misbehaving user is a good policy - even when a horrible snert shows none of this in return. On some level, your modeling a humane attitude is sinking in, even if you can't see the effects. Experienced wizards politely ask people to correct their misbehavior, politely explain the rules, politely administer the "punishment." Some like to sprinkle their interventions with "please" and "thank-you." Getting angry with snerts probably will only antagonize them. You become the hostile, critical authority figure that they already hate, and the situation will escalate. Maintaining that dispassionate attitude in the face of an insulting, obnoxious snert is a bit easier when you keep in mind that their abusive tone usually has nothing to do with you personally. They have no idea who you are. You are just another authority figure, a convenient target for what psychoanalytic thinkers call a "transference" reaction. Use that concept of transference as a shield to protect your self-esteem.
Part of being polite and dispassionate is not arguing with the snert. This is exactly what some hostile, oppositional users want. Some of them - especially the "freedom fighters" - will be exceptionally good at luring you into a fight. It's a trap because it's impossible to win such debates. The snert's true underlying (passive-aggressive) motive is to feel powerful and in control by antagonizing you into doing something hostile. It's a game to them, and you're their pawn. Ignore the person, or mute them. If you're a wizard, keep in mind that you, ultimately, are in control because you have the power to pin, gag, or kill the user if they persist in their verbal abuse. Despite the onslaught of an obnoxious snert, some wizards find peace of mind and confidence in knowing that they do have this "final word." They don't feel the need to debate. They simply state the rules, expect compliance, and dispassionately apply the penalty if the user doesn't show it. It's a lot less stressful when you avoid entangling your ego in the situation.
It's only human to want to return sarcasm and defiance with more of the same. It's sometimes very tempting to take on the snert in a battle of wits, especially when you're a wizard and you know that you can pin or kill if you so choose. Having the ultimate last word is very satisfying - it's a remedy for all sorts of painful memories from our childhood when we DIDN'T have the last word. And so, wizards may be tempted to "play with their food." Some may want to playfully (sadistically?) poke at the snert and rile him up until he does something really obnoxious, which gives good reason to kill him. Such baiting is one way to turn a borderline snert situation into a clear cut snert situation. However, that borderline snert could actually be a decent person. Deliberately aggravating him would be akin to entrapment.
One might argue that sparring with the snert is just part of the online show. It's fun entertainment. It may be exactly what some users are looking for. It may indeed be the accepted norm in some online communities. But sarcastic, insulting debates rarely fall into the category of humane and empathic encounters. For authority figures like wizards, as Ph's Horse points out, it's also not very professional.
As that Kung Fu technique suggests, it's sometimes best not to tackle a force straight on. Work around it. Deflect and redirect it. Some wizards have found that being light-hearted and joking with snerts sometimes can alleviate their obnoxious attitude. While showing some mature restraint, kid them, join in the fun, and then move the obnoxious behavior into more socially acceptable behavior. Ask them about themselves, offer to trade props, or try to get them involved in a game. Aikido calls it "joining and leading." Such purely social interventions take practice and may require some natural interpersonal talent.
One of the greatest challenges is to persuade the snert to change his ways, to become a productive, friendly member of the community. Wizards who have succeeded at this task found it to be a highly rewarding experience. Some wizards like to specialize in it. Converting a snert requires considerable interpersonal skills and is not something everyone can do. It involves listening to and even befriending the person. The person must be engaged on a level other than their snertishness. Acknowledge their positive attributes and skills. Redirect their energies toward constructive activities. Wizards have described lonely, bored, alienated, and extremely bright teenagers who caused trouble by mischievously fiddling with scripts. They responded well to the wizards' friendly curiosity about the scripts, their praise of the teens' intelligence, and their suggestions about how the teens could help rather than aggravate the community. Taking such young people under their wings, wizards have successfully converted them.
As a general rule, mental and physical problems that respond quickly to a treatment weren't that severe to start off with. The same is true of efforts to rehabilitate snerts. The more readily they respond, the better off they were (psychologically speaking) in the first place. Others will flat out reject any rehabilitation attempt. Some will pretend to respond. They'll offer all sorts of apologies, explanations, promises, and commitments... and then will keep right on doing what they did before. Beneath their suave lies and deceptions there may be sociopathic tendencies. They have their own agenda and will simply use the rehabilitation scenario to further their cause. Monumental efforts to convert such people might possibly succeed, but should that much effort be expended? It depends on the values of the community and the designated purpose of those who oversee it. As a TPI official once said to the wizards, "We're not social workers here."
If anonymity increases deviant behavior, then one way to deal with that deviance would be to decrease anonymity. For example, wizards have access to a user's IP, which reveals the user's location. It's possible to "spook" misbehaving users with such information. For example, after discovering that he lived in the same town as one rather obnoxious gang member, a wizard decided to play a little trick on him. Out of the blue, he asked the user "How is everything in Bigsville?" He was hoping to inject a little paranoia - as well as some conscience and sense of responsibility - into the gang mentality. The user was indeed "freaked" and kept asking how the wizard knew where he lived. While playing such tricks on chronic troublemakers may not be an optimal approach in all situations, letting them know that "we know where you live" (literally and metaphorically) could help alleviate their mischief. In other online communities, the e-mail addresses of the users are readily available to everyone. Without the protective shield of anonymity, people can be held accountable for what they say and do. This policy probably does help minimize deviant behavior.
But there are problems with taking away people's anonymity. Part of the fun and philosophy of Palace is to experiment with one's identity, to experiment with fantasy, in a contained and "confidential" environment. The more you remove anonymity, the less comfortable people will feel in pursuing these experiments. If others have access to your IP, or your e-mail address, they can acquire lots of other information about you. Without your necessarily wanting it, they can enter other areas of your life, violate your privacy. This not only sabotages Palace philosophy, but also the basic ideology of the internet which upholds the right of the individual's anonymity. Most users come to Palace to make friends, some wizards have stated, so why not let peer pressure be the accountability system rather than the removal of anonymity by allowing access to e-mail addresses. Others have pointed out that many chronic snerts already know about the wizard's IP access, so "spooking" will have little effect.
The circumventing of anonymity can work in both directions. Trouble-makers are clever. They too can find ways to discover the "real life" facts about wizards and TPI/EC officials. Seeking revenge for being killed or banned, gang members have been known to send e-mails containing the wizard or official's full name, home address, and phone number... accompanied by veiled threats and warnings to "be careful how you treat me."
When dealing with chronic trouble-makers, there's sometimes no choice but to completely bypass anonymity and enter the person's "real" world. In a last ditched effort to reason with users, TPI officials have called them on the phone - or spoken to their parents. In some cases the direct personal connection may have a powerful effect, but sometimes it has little effect. In fact, some hardcore trouble-makers use "real-life" contacts as a tool in their game. They call the TPI office in an attempt to pry information out of the workers. They warn TPI that they will bring their parents (especially when they are lawyers) into the situation in order to support them in their battle against TPI's "injustices." On a few occasions, (self- proclaimed) journalists and professors have threatened to go public with their grudges against Palace by publishing a scathing article.
Some misbehaving users are very good at the Eddie Haskel maneuver - i.e., being perfect angels when wizards are around, and devils once they are gone. When other users continue to report very abusive behavior, but the alleged perpetrator can just never seem to be caught in the act, wizards might go undercover. You remove your badge, change your name and avatar, and go to the room where the perpetrator is hanging out in order to quietly observe his behavior. When the alleged snert is young, some wizards have also tried to act like a teenager in order to fit into the group more unobtrusively. If and when the deviant behavior rears its ugly head, the wizard identifies him/herself (by showing the badge), and then intervenes.
In discussing undercover work, wizards have pointed out a number of potential problems:
- Some consider it a form of deception and eavesdropping, which is deviant behavior itself.
- Growing impatient with simply observing, some wizards may be tempted to stimulate the alleged snert into doing something wrong, which is essentially baiting.
- If a user asks for any wizards in the room to identify themselves by putting on their badges, what should the wizard do? A TPI policy stated that when a user asks a wizard to show his badge - in order to verify that she/he is not a wizard impostor - the wizard should do so. But should this rule apply when an alleged snert might be trying to detect an undercover wizard? Off-duty wizards are not required to show their badges even if a user asks them, but the distinction between "off-duty" and being "undercover" can be quite murky.
- If undercover work becomes common, then snerts will get wise. They'll become even more careful and clever about when they misbehave. They'll try to find ways to detect undercover wizards (tricks for this have been discovered). Or they'll accuse wizards of harassment and entrapment.
Really bad snerts can be banned from a site, but that can't stop them from going to other sites. So how do you prevent the spread of their mischief? For the extreme cases, wizards have discussed the temptation to put first rate snerts on a blackball list that could be shared with non-TPI sites. The list might contain the user's name, registration code, and IP, or even "real world" data like their name, address, and phone number. In the spirit of reciprocity, these other communities could then share information about THEIR outlaws. Theoretically, these blackball lists periodically could be distributed to other specified site owners, or provided only when requested by another site owner. Such cross-site efforts would also contribute to the general spirit of cooperation and integration of all Palace communities, which is valuable to the health and survival of the entire Palace universe.
While discussing blackball lists, the wizards pointed out a number of important controversies and complications:
- Are these lists a violation of the user's privacy? Does the information about misbehaving users and their behavior belong to the site owner, and can they do what they please with that information?
- Will these lists result in prejudicial perceptions and actions towards users who haven't yet done anything wrong at a particular site. Will wizards be itching to jump all over them at the slightest provocation? Will they become scapegoats? Blackball lists have a tendency to expand into a paranoia that rolls over innocent people. Take a look at McCarthyism.
- With hundreds of Palace sites in existence, and more being created all the time, just how would blackball lists be distributed? Would the exchange of information become haphazard and/or biased? Does TPI/EC, as the creator of the software and owner of the sites where many users (especially newcomers) dwell, have any obligation to share such information with other site owners?
- The definition of "deviance" and the reasons for placing a person on a blackball list may vary widely from one Palace community to another. An offense at one site might not be considered bad at another. In some cases, a site owner may ban or place a person on a blackball list for idiosyncratic reasons. It's a personal grudge, or even a lover's tiff. To be effective, these lists might need to contain descriptions of the crime. Universal standards about "serious" crimes might need to be established. Getting agreement across numerous site owners about such standards would not be easy.In extreme cases, wizards and TPI have shared information about unruly users with other site owners. TPI's policy was that if someone has a justified reason for needing such information, they were willing to share it with the caveat that, should law enforcement action be deemed necessary, they reserve the right to require TPI's approval prior to any action being taken. Before wizards share such information with other sites, TPI encourages them to discuss it first with TPI officials and to present the information in a professional manner, without a spiteful or derogatory tone.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of kills. One way to control deviant behavior is to designate exactly where (or when) such behaviors are tolerated. This is another variation of the Kung Fu principle of redirecting a force rather than trying to stop it head on. Early in the history of the TPI Mansion site, when the population began to boom, misbehaving users became more prolific. Attempts were made to control that deviance, but not stamp it out completely. Doing so would have been rather difficult. It also would have created an oppressive atmosphere. Instead, a new site called "Welcome" was created where rules about misbehaving were more strictly enforced. The client program was changed so that new users were, by default setting, connected first to that site. Their initial Palace experience, therefore, would be the kinder, gentler atmosphere of Welcome than the more raucous Mansion.
This strategy of running a more restrictive site alongside a less restrictive one did result in some complications. Some people were concerned about a "politically correct" atmosphere evolving at Welcome. Justifiably concerned about business, TPI considered this a necessary evil of creating a place where new users would feel friendliness, acceptance, and a desire to register their software. It also was a bit difficult keeping the cultures of the "sister" sites separate. People did spill over from one site to the other. Working both sites, TPI wizards had to adjust to different intervention standards at each community. Many wizards seemed to prefer working at Mansion - due, at least in part, to their preferring the less restrictive atmosphere which was less work and perhaps more fun. But this left Welcome unsupervised and more vulnerable to deviance. To keep the two communities separate and different, TPI established more clear guidelines for wizards about managing unacceptable behavior at each site. They also set up a system of perks that encouraged wizards to spend more time at Welcome, and asked wizards to choose either Welcome or Mansion as their primary "home." Separate wizard mailing lists and passwords were created for each site, in order to enhance the separation of the two communities.
Within a site, some areas can be more restrictive and some less. At the Mansion site, the rules are a bit stricter in the more public rooms where traffic is heavier (Harry's Bar and the Gate, where people arrive). Few, if any, rules hold for users in private, locked rooms - as long as everyone in the room consents to what is going on there. Other rooms fall somewhere between these two extremes. This variation in strictness across rooms can, of course, lead to considerable confusion among users and wizards about what is allowed where. The standards must be clearly spelled out, as in "Rules Room" where written descriptions of the standards can be easily accessed by everyone. Coordinated with such rules, signs based on easily understood rating systems could be posted in each room as reminder ("This room is rated G"). Going one step further, some wizards have suggested implanting an adult verification code into a person's registration key, so that children (or sensitive adults) could not enter rooms where more "loose" behavior was tolerated.
If standards do vary from room to room, then attention must be paid to the juxtaposition of the rooms and the flow of traffic between them. Placing an X or R-rated room next to a G-rated one is not a good idea. Experienced users will know how to jump from one room to any other, so the physical layout of doorways should be designed with the novice user in mind. Exits from permissive rooms need to be clearly visible. There will also be a tendency for loose behavior to spill out of a room into adjacent areas, as in lewd users leaning their avatars out of the private rooms and into the hallway in order to proposition people.
If you can create rooms with varying levels of strictness, then why not create a place where there are no rules at all? It could be a haven for snerts that would draw them away from the mainstream. "Giving them a place of their own" might be a good intervention with gangs. Hand over a territory to them and perhaps even put the head snert in charge as "sheriff." It might be therapeutic for him, which may then filter down to the gang. Perhaps he would learn some sense of responsibility and self-worth, as well as gain an understanding of what a wizard's life is like.
Something like this was attempted in the Dodge City experiment. At this TPI sponsored site, there were no wizards, no rules, no holds barred. You could do anything you wanted without the establishment looking over your shoulder. In an attempt to redirect and contain the snert problem, TPI deliberately created the site as a haven for naughtiness and mischief. Snerts indeed gathered there. Unfortunately, they were not content with a kingdom of their own. They used Dodge City as a staging area to launch raids on the Main Mansion, where they made as much a nuisance of themselves as possible. Not long after it opened, Dodge City was closed down. The lesson learned from this failed experiment? Acting out is indeed acting OUT. Anti-social people will never be content with themselves. They need a more normal social structure to act against, thereby defining themselves. No matter what territory you yield to them, there will always be barbarians at the gate.
Sometimes snerts choose their own home. At the Mansion site, several months after the closing of Dodge City, they tended to gather in the Pit - a room where the background graphics resembled Hades and the program automatically places horns on your head. It wasn't surprising that snerts found the room appealing (something to keep in mind when designing graphics and scripts for a room). The snerts used the Pit as a staging area for their forays into other parts of the site. Any user who happened to stumble into their home territory usually was not greeted very warmly. To break up the gang, TPI closed down the Pit, but that only sent the snerts in search of other places to roost - especially Grand Central, a surrealistic room where a train is crashing through a window, and the Dressing Room, where scripts enable users to exchange props and cybersex sometimes occurs. Both rooms were predictable choices by the snerts. Eventually, the pit was reopened.
Some say that giving snerts their own home, implicitly or explicitly, only reinforces their negative behavior. It gives them the opportunity to gather strength. If they really want their own place, some wizards have stated, snerts can always colonize other vacant Palace sites or create their own site. But they never do. They want to be near the center of activity, not away from it. They want the opportunity to stick thorns into the side of the community and the establishment. That's their game.
In a message to the wizard mailing list, I speculated about a possible solution to the Pit dilemma. The underlying logic is a compromise: allow the snerts to gather in the pit, thereby remaining near the community, but don't reinforce their behavior by officially handing the Pit over to them. If a user hits a link to the Pit, a warning sign comes up. "You are about to enter the Pit. Unfortunately, unpleasant users tend to hang out there. If you want to return to the room where you came from, press XXX." Misbehavior that spills out of the pit is quickly corrected by wizards, but activity within the pit is mostly unsupervised. The snerts have an unofficial "home," they are partially isolated from the mainstream, and wizards know where they are. Also, some users might be intrigued by the warning notice and want to enter the pit to match wits with the snerts. It would be their idea of fun. It might also keep the snerts busy dealing with the challengers. In this strategy, the snerts become a partially controlled feature of the Mansion site rather than something the establishment is always trying to eliminate, but never fully succeeds. Even though a pain in the ass, snerts do add some dynamism to Palace life.
Of course, many things could go wrong with this strategy. It easily could become another Dodge City experiment. Dr. Xenu once suggested an alternative: Dispatch misbehaving snerts to a jump station room where they have 5-10 seconds to select a link to a non-TPI site. If they fail to select one, a script automatically and randomly sends them on their way to one of these destinations. In other words, show them the door. Ideally, the list of links includes sites that are more suitable for snerts, so perhaps they'll decide to stay there. This approach also resembles the "time-out room" strategy, except the time-out room is another site. The argument could be made that the entire Main Mansion site is a bit like Dodge City. It does tend to be a more naughty, rowdy place than many smaller Palace sites. It's the New York City of PalaceSpace - where deviant, unusual, and creative behavior is commonplace. Perhaps, in a positive feedback loop, this is what draws snerts to it. It's very possible that allowing the rules at Mansion to remain somewhat lenient - rather than cracking down - may benefit all of PalaceSpace. Mansion may attract snerts away from other sites and towards a community where experienced wizards know more about how to handle them.
A "rules room" - where users could read about the do's and don'ts - was a necessary addition to the busy TPI sites. On several occasions, wizards discussed the possibility of carrying this concept one step further. Misbehaving users could be sent by a wizard to a "time out" room where they would be held captive while the rules of the site are displayed before them.The timing out and "teaching" of the user could be fully automated via scripts, which would save wizards some typing and sanity. In fact, this strategy is used in some Palace communities. When the wizards discussed the possibility of implementing it at TPI sites, a variety of issues surfaced:
- While in the time-out room, the user might also be pinned, gagged, denied incoming chat, and/or stripped to a generic (smiley) avatar. The more actions levied against the person, the more severe the punishment appears, the more controlled and helpless the person might feel, and the more likely oppositional users will fight back.
- Timing out and automated lessons might work well with kids, but adults might find it infantilizing. Backfiring, the strategy might make some adults angry and determined to fight back, perhaps by acting out even more than they did in the first place.
- A purely automated time-out and lecture might feel cold, impersonal, and confusing to some users. It's probably a good idea for a wizard to accompany the person to the room in order to explain what is happening, answer questions, and offer some friendly advise.
- Making the time-out experience humorous might alleviate the backfire effect. In some online communities, the time-out room looks like a prison, complete with rat, bread, and water. One wizard suggested a school room, complete with chalkboard and "I will behave" written 100 times (adding a dunce cap might be a bit too much). The humorous design of the experience might take some of the sting out of the reprimand, as well as remind people that one goal of Palace is to have some fun.
- Clever users will find ways to escape or sabotage the rules room. Loopholes need to be detected and fixed. For example, if people quickly disconnect from the site (presumably without reading the rules), (1) a log could record this escape, or, (2) the person automatically is prevented from reconnecting for a specified period of time, or, (3) when they sign back on, they automatically are redeposited back into rules room until they finish their "sentence." Ideally, the person will be warned about these consequences at the very beginning of the rules display.
- To help prevent the time-out from becoming a novel experience or a game, the room should not be hidden from other users.
- If the display of rules are long and very boring - and the room itself looks drab - the time out experience will be very tedious. Perhaps people will behave themselves just to avoid it. Of course, long and boring displays might achieve little as an educational experience.
- After reading the rules, users could be required to declare their acceptance of them, either by paging the wizard or via a script. Only then are they released from the room.
- Rather than displaying rules, the time-out room could just contain a clock that ticks out the time remaining. It sure would feel like "sit on the stairs for 10 minutes!" (all of these time-out strategies conjure up feelings from childhood) - but it does little in terms of educating the person about the rules.
- Popping a snert out of a crowded room and into the time-out room might, at the very least, give other benign users an opportunity to take the snerts place in the room. When and if the snert tries to return, the room may be full. The punishment, then, is being locked out of the room where the snert was "bad."
Pinning a misbehaving user into the corner of the screen can be a very effective attention-getter. It's visual, spatial, and actually feels like a decisive physical action has been taken. It takes away from the user a unique feature of multimedia environments - the ability to move. Pinning is an especially effective tool for controlling hyperkinetic people who jump their avatars all over the room (causing lag as well as visual annoyance), and for "runners" who try to escape a wizard responding to a page.
There are some problems with this tool. Pinning, releasing, and pinning again - repeated several times over - easily can be perceived as a wizard's powerplay. Intentionally or not, the wizard is "playing with his food" and baiting the user. Some wizards enjoy creating scripts that enhance the pinning experience with laser beams and tossing the user about the room before immobilizing him in the corner. While some of the other users may get a kick out of this show - and some obnoxious snerts seem to deserve being turned into a show - such scripts again smell like powerplays. Adding to the humiliation of being pinned, other users in the room sometimes seize the opportunity to verbally harass the immobilized user who is obviously being punished. The very publicly visible tactic of pinning someone tends to contradict the principle of always whispering to a misbehaving user in order to protect their self-esteem. Rather than pinning, some wizards say, why not send the person to a time-out room?
What happens visually to the appearance of the person's avatar while pinned alters the psychological quality of the experience. At TPI sites, the avatar was changed to a generic smiley wrapped in chains. The chains, no doubt, were originally intended as a bit of a joke, though some users may experienced it as a degrading or humiliating. It reinforced the idea that wizards have the power, while you don't. Humorous visuals might help lighten up the situation, but that means the person may not take the situation seriously at all. One wizard suggested simply placing a thick-lined box around the avatar while it is locked into the corner.
Killing strikes a blow at the heart of what the internet means to people - being connected. At the Palace, to be killed means your misbehavior crossed the line. You had to be ousted from the community. The more serious the crime, the longer you are blocked from returning. Less than 2% of all users are killed, which suggests that your mischievous behavior fits the statistical model of "deviance" defined as a very infrequent behavior. Sometimes the kill is initiated automatically by the server, as when you (intentionally or not) flood the server or attempt to crack the wizard password. Because these types of kills are less public (and usually of short duration; the user often can immediately reconnect), people are less perturbed by them. When a wizard initiates the kill, the situation is much more personal. The reactions can be intense and varied - humiliation, remorse, anger. Conscientious users might apologize when they return to the site. Hardcore snerts will use the situation as a springboard for spiteful revenge. In his guidelines for wizards, Ph's Horse states that many users do not learn any sort of lesson after their first kill, which suggests that most kills are performed on rather chronic or stubborn misbehavers. He also points out that killing is more the removal of a problem than a teaching method. It indicates that the community failed in socializing that particular user. For this reason, wizards appreciated the creation of tools like gag, propgag, and pin which enabled them to "fire shots across the bow" and intervene at a more intermediate level, rather than resorting to the black-or-white kill.
Because a kill is the most "lethal" of interventions, a number of rules and guidelines have been created for its use. The rules reflect the elevated concern among wizards and TPI/EC about using this intervention:
- With few exceptions, the "death timer" (length of the disconnect period) is set to 120 minutes. This is the standard kill at TPI/EC sites. To help make their kills consistent and fair, some wizards create a rating system (e.g., a scale of 1-6) where each successive level marks a higher level of misbehavior and a longer disconnect time. For long kill periods, users may be informed that they can write to TPI/EC to plead their case.
- Some wizards adopt a "three strikes" policy. For the third offense, the user is killed for the maximum length (30000 minutes).
- Wizards are authorized to kill up to 12 hours. Beyond that, authorization from the company is required. In certain instances (e.g., dealing with known crashers), wizards might obtain prior approval for long kills. Handing over the really chronic trouble-makers to TPI/EC allows the company to make the final judgment about how to manage each situation on an individual basis. Company officials may decide to phone the user before killing for long periods or permanent banning.
- As a rule of thumb, users should be warned before they are killed, informed why they are being killed and for how long, and given sufficient opportunity to amend their behavior. Being killed without an explanation only fosters confusion and anger. The "house rules" that have been posted as people arrive at the site have informed people about the possibility of being killed without warning, but that message applies to the automated killing of flooders.
- In more rare cases, the user may not be warned. Such cases include the hyperkinetic avatar who succeeds in flooding the server (thus preventing the wizard from warning him), as well as the self-destroyer who returns after a kill to immediately resume his spouting of foul language. In very rare cases, extremely troublesome, resistant snerts who manages to bypass their bans will be killed on sight.
- The server automatically records who was killed and by whom. Wizards also briefly describe in this record why the person was killed. Communication among wizards is essential for consistent plans of action. For longer kills, TPI/EC encourages wizards to save the log of the interaction with the offender. In some cases, TPI/EC requests a copy of the log excerpt as a verification of the misbehavior and the wizard's actions.
- Killing across rooms is not allowed, with the exception of killing crashers who might succeed in crashing you if you actually enter their room .It's difficult for users not to take the kill personally. They often see it as a "me- versus-that-wizard" scenario. To minimize this reaction, many wizards simply point out the site's rules to the offender and state that they have little choice in having to kill people who violate them. "Blame the rules, not me." Because some people experience a kill as a loss of control over their fate - a situation of helplessness - it may be helpful to empower them with a choice. Tell them that they are faced with a decision. They can choose to follow the rules, or be disconnected. The wizard, on the other hand, makes it clear that he/she really has no choice:Wizards are obligated to follow the rules about killing. This interpersonal tactic deflects power away from the wizard and onto the user.
One wizard pointed out that for some offenders there is something satisfying to being punished when they know they have DONE their "time" and not been given a break. "It gives them a new start, if they are so inclined."
Lastly, there's that word "kill?" Why use that particular word to describe the action of disconnecting the user? This is a cultural phenomenon. The word "kill" is a carry over from the world of multi-user games where characters indeed kill off each other as part of the contest. Obviously, Palace has its roots in these multi-user fantasy scenarios. Evidence for this popped up one day when one wizard noticed that the automated message the user receives after being killed states "You have been killed (terminated) by another PLAYER."
Some wizards avoid using the word "kill" when talking to users. Instead they use "disconnect." They believe "kill" is too harsh and creates negative reactions. The exact word used probably does flavor the experience. Wizards have joked about other possibilities: "toasted," "cool off," "say bye-bye," "executed," "go visit grandma," "popped," "bumped," "vaporized," etc. Some are humorous, sarcastic, euphemistic, infantilizing, or hint at aggression and humiliation. Wizards also have joked about using words or phrases designed specifically for each wizard. For example, the automated message displayed when AsKi (me) disconnects a user might be "You have been terminated by AsKi, but please remember that you're still a human being with worth and dignity." In addition to alleviating their own anxieties about having to "kill," such joking among the wizards also indicates their feelings about killing being a very personal situation. It means something different to each person.
Theoretically, robot avatars can be created that would patrol the Palace site, looking for deviant behavior. Upon detecting such behavior, they would kill the offender. Much less sophisticated than the Enterprise's Data (actually, he's an android), the bot would be programmed to detect very specific, simple types of trouble-making, such as foul language.
Experiments with bots have been tried at TPI sites - experiments that sometimes go awry. One night a wizard saw "XBot" log on as a wizard. Thinking it was a colleague using a creative name, he said hello, but received no reply. Xbot came into Harry's Bar, sat quietly for several minutes, then left saying "I am late for an appointment." A short while later it returned and repeated the cycle. That same evening Xbot killed another wizard for saying "Bite me," which didn't exactly impress the booted wizard. Realizing now what Xbot was, the wizards on duty were a bit annoyed that they weren't warned ahead of time about a bot running loose. "I was careful not to say 'Bite me,'" one wizard noted, "but I was very tempted to tell it to 'Masticate my prostate!'" The next day, the wizard responsible for creating Xbot apologized, explaining that he had been testing it and accidentally fell asleep while it was still active.
The advantage of using such automated police? They could lend a helping hand to wizards during busy hours, or patrol the site when wizards were not online, especially during the late hours of the evening and early morning. Bots also solve the problem of wizards being inconsistent or too emotionally involved in their work. Bots would be very steady, objective, and dispassionate when intervening.
The big disadvantage, though, is that bots have no judgment or reason. The story of the derailed experiment illustrates this. Bots are unable to determine the context of a problem. Because deviant behavior and the various interventions for them often are subtle, complex, and very dependent on the meaning of the particular situation, bots would regularly end up booting innocent users while letting genuine snerts walk all over them. In fact, they'd probably end up as play things for mischievous users. People also tend to skeptical and a bit weirded out by bots. Allowing automated police to patrol the site does not enhance the image of Palace as a friendly community, a HUMAN/E place, where people socialize with people. For these reasons, TPI discouraged the use of bots.
According to TPI statistics, less than 1% of all users are killed more than once. Repeat offenders are the exception rather than the rule. Even more rare are those relentless trouble-makers who challenge the "3 strikes rule" and, consequently, find themselves permanently banned from the site. By tagging their member registration key - or their IP address (in the case of guests, who don't have a key) - the server automatically prevents them from signing on. It also reminds them that they have been banned when they try, and in some cases informs them that they can e-mail TPI/EC an apology if they wish to be reinstated. Requiring approval by the company, bans only occur after repeated failed attempts to reason with the chronic snert, including phone calls from TPI/EC officials. In cases where the company's staff have no first hand experience with the snert, they hear out all the views of the wizards who are in the trenches before they make a decision. By the time a user is exiled, many active wizards have had a run-in with him. Some of these users "see the light," send that apology to the company, and promise to behave - at which point, the company lifts the ban. Other very persistent and now highly revengeful snerts find ways around the ban so they can return to the site.
Because emotions run high, bans can stir up considerable controversy. Wizards and company officials may not all agree about exiling a user or about when/if the person should be reinstated. Very heated debates between those who side with and against the person may reflect the users attempts to "split" the authority figures by playing them off against each other. Some wizards have complained that forgiving users after "permanently banning" them makes the word and authority of TPI (and wizards) look weak. How many chances do you give someone? Why does one person get a second chance and not another? Angry about their exile, some users threaten to bring legal suits against the company or demand their money back. They may be informed that their registration fee bought them the client program, not the right to visit a company site. Some wizards have suggested that an "extreme snert" clause be included in the TPI purchase agreement, enabling the company to reserve the right to cancel the registration while refunding the user's money. This would protect all of PalaceSpace from the truly obnoxious trouble-makers. "And just to rub a little more salt in the wound," one wizard joked, "we could send them a 'I've been kicked out of the Palace for Life' shirt."
A technical problem with the ban mechanism is that it cannot be applied precisely to guests - who are a bit more inclined towards trouble-making due to their anonymity. Guests do not have a registration key, so their IP address must be banned. Because most users come from a dynamic address, a wildcard (e.g., 208.129.208.*) must be used to ban all possible points of origin from that user's ISP. But then anyone else coming from that banned string of addresses also will be locked out of the site. It's like throwing many babies out with the foul bath water.
A similar predicament arises in proactive attempts to prevent problems by banning a particular ISP point of origin. Wizards discovered that the IP of one killed trouble-maker seemed to indicate that he came from a prison. If prisons indeed were giving inmates internet access, should TPI/EC allow them on their sites? On the wizard list, there was a string of debates about criminals coming to Palace, the rights of individuals (including prisoners), the purpose of "being in prison," and prejudicial actions against a labeled group.
What if all the bad guys were officially tagged so that their anti-social status was immediately available to everyone? It sure would help the law-abiding folk who may want to steer clear of the trouble-makers, as well as the authorities who are trying to keep an eye on them. In online communities, the technology exists for marking and tracking offenders. Their registration codes and IP addresses provide two possible tags for detecting their arrival and following their movement around the site (especially useful in dealing with "runners"). At the TPI/EC sites, the server automatically alerts (only) wizards through the paging system when a "trackip" is set on a trouble-maker, usually someone who was killed. Some wizards also have called for a easy way of keeping an eye on the location of trouble-makers WITHIN the site, other than having to look up their name in the userlist. Going even further, some have suggested creating more elaborate tags that would record how often a person was warned or killed. .
Tracking can present problems. How far does one go in tagging and observing users before it becomes a violation of their privacy? Prejudice would surely develop against publicly marked people, so the information most likely should be kept confidential among the overseers of the site. Even then, biased attitudes among the authorities might result in their perceiving more trouble than the previously labeled user is now actually creating. That label might even cause some wizards to encourage or bait the trouble-maker into repeating their crime. On a more practical level, wizards have complained about their colleagues setting a trackip on almost everyone they kill, resulting in a very annoying spam of trackip messages in the paging system. TPI officials recommended tracking a person for a short period of time (say 10 minutes), because the odds are low that the trouble-maker will spend more time than that attempting to reconnect to the site. Every user from the IP being tracked also shows up in the paging system, so for large domains like AOL there could be a flood of track pages. By keeping the track times low, TPI suggested, wizards accomplish the goal of detecting if a user returns, while keeping the paging system activity to a minimum.
As crime increases, so does the need for criminal profiles and crime statistics. At TPI/EC sites, the server automatically keeps a record of actions taken against offenders (e.g., kills), their IP address and/or registration key, and what wizard took the action. Wizards also add to the record their comment about the incident, usually what the offender did wrong. Some wizards like to keep their own personal records with more detailed information, such as how many times a particular person was warned and killed, details about the incident, and known aliases of repeat offenders. TPI/EC also encourages wizards to save excerpts of the log that captures the dialogue and wizard actions during the situation.
Records come in very handy for a variety of reasons. It's much easier knowing where to go with snerts if you know where you (and others) already have been with them. Records are vital for intervention consistency among wizards. Statistical analyses of the server records can reveal how the number of kills changes over time, how those changes correlate with changes in intervention strategies and site modifications, the number of kills made by specific wizards, and how one site compares to others. Log excerpts are very valuable for the training of wizards and receiving feedback about how one handled a situation. As one wizard pointed out, seeing oneself "objectively" in the excerpt can be an eye-opening experience. Logs also may be needed for reasons of accountability and legal purposes. In some cases, alleged offenders have forwarded their own log excerpts to TPI/EC as part of their complaint against a wizard. Sometimes the complaint may be legitimate, but logs can be doctored.
When a site's population grows, resulting in more frequent and complex forms of deviance, the intervention strategies among wizards tend to become more diverse and inconsistent. To counteract that effect, the community needs to create a standard set of rules for appropriate behavior among users as well as standards for how wizards should enforce them. These standards provide equal protection and "justice" under the law, regardless of who the user is - a guest, member, wizard, friend, or enemy. Wizards will be less confused - and feel less helpless - about how exactly to deal with specific problems. These standards also will help deny snerts the opportunity to use inconsistencies among wizards as a tool in their manipulative games. Good record keeping is a preliminary step in creating intervention standards - otherwise it's more difficult to know what to do if you don't know what's already been done (and what works). For example, one wizard suggested, such records could be used in rating offenses according to their severity so that specific effective penalties (pin, gag, kill periods of different lengths, ban) could be assigned to each offense.
A simple method frequently used by wizards is the creation of scripts or macros that contain warnings or explanations frequently given to misbehaving users ("Excuse me, BigTime, your prop violates the rules for this site. Could you please remove it?). Such scripts enable the wizard to interact with the user quickly, efficiently, and consistently - and with much less typing. Whereas most of these scripts are created for personal use, it would be relatively easy to provide standard scripts to be used by all wizards. More sophisticated scripts could automate more complex intervention sequences - for example, warning a person, then pinning, then explaining while the person is pinned.
Other important features of standardizing interventions include the formal training of wizards and the creation of a manual (perhaps similar to this one). One component of the manual might be log excerpts that contain examples of effective interventions with different types of problems. Actually SEEING (reading) what other wizards said and did is much more powerful than simply talking (reading) about it in the abstract.
Of course, standardization can go too far, resulting in overly formal and rigid wizards who look more like robots than humans. For example, macros that launch automated text at a user need to be written well, so that they at least sound like a personal communication rather than a canned response. Better yet, these macros should be interspersed with the wizards spontaneous, "genuine" talking to the user. Scripted interventions also should be flexible so that they can be easily modified or tuned to the specifics of the situation. This is a good rule of thumb for the overall standardization of intervention strategies: make the standards specific but flexible. Provide wizards clear guidelines, but also the leeway to apply their judgment and humanity.
A training program is probably the single, most effective method for ensuring quality and consistency (i.e,, standardization) in how all wizards perform their jobs. It not only provides an opportunity for wizards to share ideas and experiences, but also for the development of camaraderie and group spirit. A comprehensive training program would contain at least some of the following elements:
- A manual containing the rules of the site and how to enforce them. This manual provides the foundation for the training, and may be modified as a result of ideas discussed during the training.
- Periodic real-time training sessions in which there are discussions, demonstrations, and role plays. It's probably wise for all wizards to attend such sessions, regardless of their level of expertise or whether they "need" training. Newbie wizards need elder wizards as role models. Elder wizards can benefit from a "refresher" course as well as from the ideas and enthusiasm of the newbies.
- A library of log excerpts that illustrate effective and less effective examples of intervening with different types of problems. These excerpts might be a component of the manual. Discussing these excerpts also may be part of the real-time training session. Wizards should be encouraged (or required) to bring in excerpts from their own logs so that they can discuss with their colleagues the various situations they have encountered.
- A "buddy" or "mentor" system in which a newbie wizard is paired up with a seasoned wizard. The experienced wizard accompanies the new wizard during the initial on-the-job training. The two also may communicate via e-mail. Such a system provides the newbies with role models and helps bond them to the entire wizard group. Serving as a mentor also reinforces an experienced wizard's understanding of wizarding, as well as bolsters her self-esteem as a knowledgeable "oldtimer" and his commitment to the wizard group.
- Modeling and role playing during the real-time training session. This is an essential. People learn best by observing a behavior and then rehearsing it, rather than by just talking about it. Generally speaking, good roles plays start with a preplanned scenario in mind (i.e., a structure for what the wizard and misbehaving user will say and do), but are flexible enough to allow spontaneity and improvisation. A number of variations on role-playing are possible:
(1) Experienced wizards first demonstrate (model) their techniques with a particular type of problematic user, then newer wizards take their turn at imitating the elder wizard.
(2) A trainee plays the role of the wizard, then switches to play the role of the misbehaving user. Stepping into the user role helps the wizard understand the user's personal experience of the intervention, which provides insight into how to improve the intervention.
(3) Role plays cover as many types of problems as possible. Role plays start with relatively easy situations, and then gradually increase in difficulty level.
(4) Trainees are encouraged to play the role of a snert that they feel familiar with (and perhaps even enjoy!), or to role-play a problematic user that they recently encountered.
(5) Trainees take turns in dealing with the same problematic user, perhaps even stepping into a role play during midstream when the previous trainee gets stuck or yells "uncle."
(6) Wizards "feed lines" to a trainee who is stuck or needs help during a role play. The suggested line may lead the role play into a new, productive direction.
(7) The role play may be "frozen" for a moment so that the leader or other trainees can ask questions, offer a commentary, or suggest a new direction for the role play.
(8) A group discussion follows each role play. The people in the role play are encouraged to describe what the role play was like for them.
Worst case scenarios with snerts probably would include their attempts to crash your system, ruin your reputation through impostoring, or luring you into a scam. But these scenarios are rather uncommon. And for the experienced computer user, the community member who is well known among online friends, and the savvy individual, each of these respective scenarios probably is not much of a threat. In a very large majority of cases, the most a snert can do to you is toss unpleasant words or images at your, or interrupt your ability to speak to friends. The inclination to feel insulted, frustrated, or indignant by a snert's actions reflects the tendency to invest a lot of psychological energy in one's online world. Users take it personally and feel very emotional when it comes to their virtual community. To them, it's as real as the real world. Perhaps the best defense against snerts is to unravel that psychological investment a bit. You can always turn off the computer and walk away. The Greek philosopher Epictetus said that people are not disturbed by things that happen to them, but by the views they take of those things. In other words, sticks and stones can break your bones, but the snerts of virtual reality can rarely hurt you... unless you let them.
See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:
The internet regression, by Norman Holland
The online disinhibition effect
Conflict in Cyberspace: How to resolve conflict online
See also on other web sites:
Primitive processes on the internet, by Robert Young.
back to the Psychology of Cyberspace home page