When civility fails

This is a ServerFault moderation / meta post, so skip if you're not interested.

In which I make broad, over-reaching statements guaranteed to piss someone off.
Having been a ServerFault moderator for most of a year now I've had a chance to really get to know some of our users. They don't always know that I know them. I know them from the flags other users put on their content. And yes, this is educational.

On ServerFault we have right there in the FAQ:

Be nice.

Treat others with the same respect you'd want them to treat you. We're all here to learn together. Be tolerant of others who may not know everything you know. Bring your sense of humor.

One thing I've noticed is that the culture of civility and "bring your sense of humor" vary across the English speaking world. Each area has their own way of handling the first few steps down from being civil.


Since I'm an American, of course this is what I'm holding as baseline. Bias, this is me. When we fall off the civility wagon it's usually sniping comments or snark.


In casual conversation, the average SF Brit takes a certain amount of joshing, ribbing, kidding around, and other such conversational horse-play as a given. This is normal. To American sensibilities this can seem a bit over much into the 'casual' sphere. This has been a source of flags as Brit wit gets flagged by USians occasionally.

However, when Brits fall off the civility wagon the joshing, ribbing, and the conversational equivalent of the friendly shoulder-shove just intensifies. The snark comes out in force. Comments with smileys at the end are exchanged.


I don't run into many of 'em since they're on the exact opposite schedule from me. However, they do seem to be a blend of American and Brit style. They reach for the snark faster than Americans, but not as fast as the Brits do.


Indians are also on the opposite schedule from me, so I'm seeing less of them than I did back when I was on the US West Coast. These folk tend to be pretty well behaved. The few we've had go off of the civility wagon tend to do so in txt-speek for some reason, with one or two reaching for indignant outrage instead.


I get some overlap, but not much with this userbase. These users come in several flavors, but when they fall off the civility wagon they reach for personal attack and indignation. Like the Brits and their ribbing, it does seem to be culturally acceptable to an extent not seen in the US. Having seen this behavior occur in real life, I'm pretty sure this kind of debate generally doesn't end up in hard feelings for the Russians.

Because of that, there are few examples of this behavior in the SF database since it gets mod-hammered into oblivion pretty quickly whenever there is an outbreak.

Given all of the above, there are areas where the differing opinions on civility run smack into each other with horrible results. A flashpoint I have seen several times now:

  1. A Russian posts something
  2. A Brit snarks off about it in a comment
  3. Snark signals to the Russian that civility is being taken down a notch
  4. Russian opens up on the Brit in the way of his culture, and then we're off to the races.
  5. Heated/snarky comments are exchanged
  6. Comments are upvoted by spectators
  7. Mod-flags are sent in by other spectators.
And, well...

At minimum it ends up in a lot of deleted comments, and at most it ends up in suspended accounts and maybe a meta-post about civility.

The thing is, when we're all being civil it works! It's only when we start backsliding that we get combustible events like the above. The above cascade is rare, and has happened with combinations other than Russian/Brit, but in every case it is a snarky critical comment that starts the cascade.

This is separate from another event, that of a question being asked in the spirit of righteous indignation at the failings of software while using strong language. If the first comment on that post is one of our level-headed users attempting to de-escalate the rhetoric, it tends to not devolve into name calling and hammer-time. If the first comment is something snarky about reading the FAQ first, we get to hammer-time pretty quickly.

The grades of civility mean different things to different people. The Moderation Staff on ServerFault comes from across the world: The US (3), UK (2), Australia (1), and Italy (1). Because of this, what's a hammerable comment at 0400 UTC is different than at 1600 UTC due to which of us is active. It also means that we have the cultural background to understand how a situation is devolving or could devolve, and handle appropriately.

In conclusion

Even that first step back from strict civility can cause a death-spiral leading to mod-hammers. Be careful. Be polite, even in the face of stupid.


as a brit, i feel it's my duty to inform you that this post is crap. :-)

(I have no evidence to support this).

I am also a Brit, and I am also offended, but I won't be taking litigious action. ;)

Seriously though, I agree with your sentiments. However, if everyone observed a the same level of humility and empathy, wouldn't life be boring? And wouldn't moderation be rendered obsolete?

Great post.

What a shame you don't have a screencap of the previously mentioned spat.

What, us Canadians don't even get a mention? Are we a subcategory of the Brits? Or worse, the Americans?

Or are we supposed to be the peacekeepers, eh?