In response to recent events over at Catallarchy, I was all set to write an article about online cliques…until I remembered that one of the very first articles I wrote for this site over four years ago already covered most of that ground pretty well. It started with the following observation:

The only thing that is necessary for a clique to form is the existence of a small set of people less willing to criticize each other than to criticize others.

I went on to elaborate on how cliques form and how they’re maintained, and I don’t have much to add from a blog/forum user’s perspective. However, I’ve had some experience since then that allows me to expand a little on the theme from the perspective of a forum administrator or moderator.

The first point is that the clique dynamics I’ve described do not depend on intentional collusion between clique members; as I said before, clique members often do not realize and will hotly deny that they are in a clique. Sometimes people deliberately act in a way that excludes or alienates people with whom they disagree, as with the “moderator” on WhistleStopper who has the habit of advising conservatives about how to get away with personal attacks and such, but that’s the exception. Far more often, people are contributing without intention. Everyone tends to read ideological opponents’ posts more closely than allies’, as they look for points on which to hang a rebuttal. However, this also means they’re more likely to notice opponents’ transgressions than allies’. Time after time, I’ve seen a person from one group post an outrageous series of lies or attacks, with absolutely no condemnation from their allies because none of them read the posts all that closely. The moment the first person’s target responds in kind, though, all of those allies (who read the response very closely indeed) suddenly take a very active interest in rules and standards of conduct. On Catallarchy I’ve been subjected to all sorts of provocation from the moment I showed up, with no rebuke of the offenders by the site operators or anyone else, but I get accused of being “snotty” when I do anything but roll over and bare my throat. Stop flicking boogers at me, and I’ll stop being snotty. I don’t think the people who add to the original provocation with such accusations are trying to be malicious; they just don’t realize that their perspective on who’s provoking whom is skewed. I also know it’s not about me, by the way. I’m not that special; any “outsider” who isn’t properly submissive gets the same treatment.

…which brings me to my second point. Sometimes a diplomat will show up, with a “we were all so laid back until you came along to get us riled up” spiel. My answer is that it’s very easy to be laid back when you’re one of the pack, lolling about in the kennel while your fellows rip into someone. It’s a bit harder when you’re the fox. It might be tempting to say that the foxes should just stay out, but if they do then you might as well be sitting around licking each other. Sorry about the nasty image, but that’s how it is. A bunch of people sitting around disagreeing only on minutiae while they wait for the next victim to show up is just pathetic. If you want your site to play host to a healthy debate, you have to make it possible for hounds and foxes to coexist. That means you have to put yourself a bit in the visitors’ shoes and consider what it’s like for them to come into “hostile territory” and try to keep their cool while being tag-teamed. It’s hard enough when everyone behaves; if even a few of the pack are allowed to misbehave it becomes difficult, and when one is on the short end of an obvious double standard it’s all but impossible.

These two factors combined yield a very simple prescription for site admins and moderators: police your own. When I was a moderator at WhistleStopper (yes, I quit) it often seemed that I was far more diligent about keeping my fellow liberals’ noses clean than any of my conservative colleagues were about doing likewise for their side. (There were no libertarian moderators because none could be found who were trustworthy. Make of that what you will, but it’s the truth.) It’s not that I think I’m particularly virtuous, though. The difference was more that others weren’t thinking about the dynamics I describe above. It’s not enough just to punish rules violations when you happen to see them, even if you try to do so fairly. You also have to go out of your way to make sure you’re getting an accurate picture. You have to give friends’ posts the same depth of scrutiny that you give to enemies’, to avoid perceptual bias. You also have to keep an eye out for people “ganging up” on others. Hunting packs need to be broken up, and quarry must be allowed to see that such behavior does not have official sanction. Otherwise, sooner or later, your site will become just another ideological ghetto not worth anyone’s time to visit.