How can we respond to problems with AVEN?

This is a guest post by Andrew, a member of the AVEN PT.  It continues his earlier series, “Got a problem with AVEN?

It seems like pretty much everyone familiar with the issue agrees that AVEN has some serious problems. Not infrequently, admods act rather slowly. Many people are unsatisfied with the level of communication between admods and the rest of the board or between admods themselves. Whenever some decision is made that some rather vocal members dislike, this is often followed by accusations of favoritism, and criticisms that the admods are corrupt and power-hungry. More recently on tumblr, there have been growing accusations of “rape culture” on AVEN, claims that AVEN is hostile to anyone who isn’t white, cisgender, romantic, neurotypical, etc. on account of AVEN failing to censor certain opinions. Other people criticize AVEN for having too much censorship.

I’ve followed much of the AVEN drama for the past few years, having been able to follow both what is going on in public and some of admod’s deliberations as well. From my time on AVEN’s Project Team (PT), I have learned a great deal about the workings of power in this community of ours. Based on my knowledge and experience, I wanted to write about some of my observations of the current political situation in order to, hopefully, promote constructive dialogue on the matter. To do this, I will discuss some of my observations and impressions about the various options that critics have available to them, and also the structural constraints that any viable reform would have to deal with. Many of AVEN’s most vocal critics will probably not like what I have to say very much, but I hope that they will at least listen.

For viable reform, it is important to understand the structural constraints, the sources of inertia, and the many—and often contradictory—pressures those running AVEN must deal with. To begin, in order to run a site like AVEN, you need a system whereby people are put in authority positions (AVEN uses elections, most sites don’t). For things to run moderately well, you need to make sure that these people are knowledgeable about how to do what needs to be done, you need to get them to work together, and it would be nice if they function in a way that minimizes hatred towards them from disgruntled people on AVEN and beyond.

If you want discussion on the site to adhere to a certain standard of civility, you need rules, you need moderators to read everything and based on this have a means of enforcing the rules (i.e. deciding when they have been violated), and you need punishments for breaking the rules. Many of those punished for breaking the rules will be quite unhappy about it, and often their friends will be too. In general, everyone who becomes a member of the admod team does so without any prior experience, and anti-admod sentiment creates a great deal of burnout—admods, who often feel like they are doing the best they can and are frustrated that all that time and hard-work is rewarded with hostility and accusations.

A question worth asking about admods’ history of problems is this: Can the problems be attributed to a few problematic admods? I don’t think they can, given that problems are recurring and the admod turn-over rate is high. As such, I think that the source of the problems is something more systemic, and so any viable solution must address systemic problems. The question, then, is how this can be done. Most approaches I have seen can generally be classified into three broad groups: 1) attacking AVEN, 2) offering constructive criticism and implementable suggestions, and 3) joining the AVEN power structure and try to reform it from within.

Attack AVEN. Under this heading I put things that seem to function to hurt AVEN’s reputation and/or the admods’ reputation, but offer no viable solution to the issues they discuss. Previously, most of the anti-AVEN sentiment or anti-admod sentiment would be in AVEN’s site comments or sometimes on a (non-tumblr) blog. Occasionally people would be motivated enough to make their own site (but asexual forums created out of being angry at AVEN have not had much long-term success). Nowadays with the large asexual presence on tumblr, much of the criticism of AVEN happens there.

One prominent example (though it was more active when I started this series than at present) is I can’t AVEN. I can’t AVEN mostly takes posts from a single AVENite—and once even takes a post from tumblr—and uses these of evidence of how bad AVEN is. From admods I’ve communicated with about “I can’t AVEN,” the general sense is that the level of vitriol, as well as combining substantive critiques with less-than-substantive ones, makes it extremely difficult for them to take its criticisms seriously, even if they feel like they should take at least some of them seriously. This should not be surprising—if you go into attack mode, those feeling they are being attacked often become defensive.

For a number of reasons, I see this sort of tactic as having little hope for making major improvements on AVEN.

First, the criticisms tend to be broad and sweeping claims that leave me unsure what precisely it is they are objecting to. For instance:

Even threads that attempt to point out problems themselves degenerate into… sexism, racism, transphobia, and ableism. All the screencaps currently on the first page of I Can’t AVEN are from the last week. This is not a problem of an isolated incident that happened a while ago.

In order to implement change, it is vitally important to have specific, implementable proposals. Based on the evidence given of AVEN’s alleged transphobia, abelism, etc. on I can’t AVEN and in the comments on my earlier post Got a problem with AVEN?, I think that what people mean by such things is that they particularly dislike one former AVENite and one current AVENite who have reputations for being rather openly non-PC, they think that AVEN let/lets them get away with too much, and that AVEN should censor/should have censored them more. So why not just say so? Why couch things in sweeping claims of “AVEN is abelist and transphobic”?

Second, a privilege that critics outside a power structure have that those inside do not, is that they are allowed to view a situation from only a single perspective, and I see this as being at work in many of the criticisms of AVEN. Admods often find themselves with contradictory pressures: Some people attack AVEN for too much censorship. Others attack them for not enough censorship. Critics on one side often fail to even acknowledge criticism from the other side, and show little appreciation for the huge PR problem that AVEN would have if they actually gave into either side’s demands. My general impression of AVEN’s most vocal critics is that, typically, they either a) have very little understanding of what all is involved in running a site like AVEN and the many competing demands people running it face, or b) they do understand this and then proceed to ignore it.

Third, there is the issue of convincing admods to adopt a certain stance (i.e. a broader definition of “transphobic speech”). In order to get AVEN to adopt such a position, it would be necessary to either a) get a majority of admods to adopt this viewpoint (through a combination of persuasion and/or getting people with this view elected to become moderators), or b) make admods adopt it in practice on account of political pressure. Because there is no money involved, the only possible means of pressure involve threats to hurt AVEN’s reputation and/or make admods’ lives miserable. Many of the strongest critiques that I’ve seen appear to function without any clear strategy for bringing about change. People making these criticisms generally aren’t getting themselves elected to moderator positions, their arguments are often framed in ways that put admods on the defensive (which tends to make people less receptive to what you have to say, rather than more receptive), and it’s a situation where pressuring them is unlikely to work: In order for admods to implement some sort of change primarily to placate critics, it is necessary to convince admods that a) the change would be beneficial to AVEN’s environment or at least neutral, b) the critics would actually be placated by the change, and c) the means to placate critics would not simply make other critics (who are just as loud) pop up elsewhere.

The second main approach for improving AVEN involves constructive criticism and suggesting viable solutions to issues. In order to do this, it helps to have a good understanding of AVEN politics and the many different issues/problems that PT/admods face. It’s also important to not get too frustrated if your idea isn’t adopted.

The third main approach for improving AVEN that I’ve seen is to become a moderator and try to improve things from the inside. This is the option that I see as having the most potential, but nevertheless, I’ve seen it repeatedly fail as well: wanting to improve the system and knowing how to do so are quite different matters. AVEN’s rules and policies have been developed over time in a rather ad hoc manner, typically created in response to some particular situation they have to deal with. AVEN lacks people with the experience or expertise necessary for drafting the sort of TOS or creating structural changes that would help to fix current problems. And don’t forget: No one is paid to be an admod, so they can’t devote all their time to AVEN. Further, people aren’t generally elected to be moderators on account of their organizational management skills.

About Siggy

Siggy is a physics grad student in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and makes amateur attempts at asexual activism. His interests include godlessness, scientific skepticism, and math. While not working or blogging, he plays video and board games with his boyfriend, and folds colored squares.
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