For a while now, off and on, I’ve tried to participate in discussions at Quorum. In the process, I’ve learned a few lessons about how not to design a comment/discussion system. Many of these lessons have to do with usability:

  • Displaying content in a very narrow vertical strip, with vast tracts of wasted space to the left and right, is annoying. It’s bad enough when the space is wasted because the content extends further than some kind of sidebar, but it’s absolutely inexcusable to put 200 pixels of totally empty space all the way down the left side of the page.
  • Making people click too much to see content is annoying. Presenting only one post at a time in a tree-structured discussion, with a weirdly-arranged set of links for parents/siblings/children, makes people click too much to read through a conversation.
  • Making it hard to find new posts, and especially responses to their own posts, is annoying.
  • Comment-size limits are annoying. People who want to write long posts will simply break stuff up into multiple posts, which is more cumbersome both for them and for readers.
  • Allowing HTML posts is nice, but not nearly as nice as it could be if a non-trivial set of tags were allowed. Fixing the cross-site scripting vulnerability would be nice too.

have noticed that I used the word “annoying” multiple times above. There’s another problem with Quorum that’s more than merely annoying, and that has to do with the moderation system. I’m going to put this very simply: moderation without accountability simply invites abuse. On Quorum, moderation takes the form of “encourage” and “discourage” buttons attached to each article or comment. The moderation thus performed feeds into Quorum’s extremely weird and undocumented system for evaluating “popularity” and “relevance”. If A discourages a comment by B, everyone from C onward is less likely to see it. There are no thresholds or other tuning mechanisms C can use to express their own preference independent of A; B’s post just gets pushed down to the bottom of C’s viewing list regardless.

The problem is that moderation in Quorum is totally anonymous, and there’s not even any kind of “meta-moderation” like Slashdot (which I consider an inferior solution anyway). There’s absolutely nothing to stop people from silencing someone they dislike or disagree with simply by pressing that “discourage” button for every single post. Several times, I’ve seen several people “drop out of sight” because of this phenomenon. Now, I’ve noticed that every single post I make, no matter how innocuous, almost immediately picks up two “discourage” moderations within a day or so, presumably because at some point in the distant past I managed to get myself on one or two abusers’ “auto-mod-down” lists.

I’m not so much worried about my “reputation” on Quorum, because it’s of small consequence to me. The fact that I’m a target just makes the general phenomenon more visible to me. What worries me is the effect that such moderation abuse has on the conversations that occur, as some people drop out in disgust and what the remainder say is filtered through the abusers’ agendas. The motto for Quorum is “democracy is a conversation”; I’m sure its creators had aspects of democracy other than an illustration of demagoguery and astroturfing in mind, and yet those are exactly the aspects that their misguided technical decisions bring to the fore.