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Many years ago, when some of you were wee young things, I started reading a site called Fark.com. The interface was crude and simple, but I wasn't there for the design. I was there for the links. FARK was one of the first link aggregators, and it distinguished itself by not just having the regular, average stuff that I could find on my own, but sharp, incisive, interesting material from all over the place. The site totally expanded my mind as a reader, and "I found it on FARK" often accompanied my reading recommendations.
But FARK, like many websites, had a comments section. And the more the site grew, the worse the comments became. Even with moderation, the comments made me more and more uncomfortable, and I began to drift away, looking for other sources of news and information. FARK, like Reddit, like Metafilter, felt like it was developing a bro culture, where perfectly nice, reasonable, fun commenters were drowned out by an army of nasty people.
Anil Dash wrote a great piece a couple of years ago called "If your website's full of assholes, it's your fault." He challenged the conventional shoulder shrug attitude that, well, you can't control your commenters, because this is the Internet. What are you going to do, you know? You can have some basic commenting guidelines and hope people are civil, but beyond that, no promises.
When people are saying ruinously cruel things about each other, and you're the person who made it possible, it's 100% your fault. If you aren't willing to be a grown-up about that, then that's okay, but you're not ready to have a web business. Businesses that run cruise ships have to buy life preservers. Companies that sell alcohol have to keep it away from kids. And people who make communities on the web have to moderate them.
His core message: The Internet can be a terrible place, but don't hide behind that as an excuse to avoid dealing with inappropriate, cruel, and awful commenters. You need to take responsibility for the community you cultivate on your site, and you need to decide what kind of site culture you want to have.
Last week, FARK founder Drew decided that he'd had enough. He added misogyny to the list of commenting guidelines. Because outright bans on misogyny are so unusual on websites outside those interested in women's issues and culture, he felt moved to make a statement about it. "...we don't want to be the He Man Woman Hater's [sic] Club," he wrote.
His assault on misogyny in FARK comments was about more than simply tightening up the site's guidelines to make it more inclusive and friendly to women (ironically, I must regrettably advise you to not read the comments on his announcement). It was also a shot across the bow to similar sites, especially those associated with a bro culture: Decide what kind of culture you really want to have, and implement clear, positive, actionable changes in your community to make it clear that you won't tolerate misogyny.
Because we live in an era where women are assaulted from all sides -- by the government, by lawmakers, by members of society, sometimes even by each other. Many women want to be able to engage online but are frightened of misogyny, which feels like it has reached dizzying heights lately, even on sites with reasonable moderation. FARK is taking a stand against misogyny, and while it could just be a stunt (or, as Rebecca Rose said at Jezebel, distressingly late given the toxic culture in its comments), I don't think it is. I think the moderation team is genuinely committed to making a change.
They also recognize that the change won't happen overnight, and that it won't be easy -- and that they will continue to make mistakes. Drew makes it clear that he won't catch every bad headline even with moderation help, that the same may happen in comments, that the intent and context of comments won't always be clear, making moderating decisions tough. He promises to err on the side of caution when it comes to evaluating questionable comments, but even then, the team will miss some things.
His willingness to acknowledge that will hopefully be accompanied by an agreeable nature when it comes to user reporting of misogynist comments, and education when it comes to dogwhistles and phrases that some members of the moderating team might not immediately identify. Misogyny isn't always blatant or easy to read unless you know what to look for, especially if you're not familiar with all the expressions and iterations of misogyny --misogynoir, for example, might not be readable to white women in addition to men.
I spend a lot of my time railing about Internet culture and how many websites and moderators are reluctant to control it because they place profits over community, because they just don't care, because they're lazy, because it's easier to claim that something is impossible than it is to take concrete action. FARK has bucked the trend, and I'm immensely proud of them for taking a stance on an issue that their readers won't necessarily agree on -- the moderators definitely face an uphill battle when it comes to reshaping community standards and forcing people to rethink what "acceptable behavior" looks like. That battle, though, is worth it.