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March 10, 2012

Points from a moderator’s Twitter stream
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 04:19 PM * 128 comments

Twitter’s great for spontaneous outbursts. But sometimes one goes off on episodic rants. Those are like the dots in a children’s book: connect them and you get an image, or a story. Here’s me, this morning, sketching out one way that communities wither.

  • Surfing sites that I used to love, but which have gone downhill: my personal form of ruin porn.
  • If you’re gonna have feminist front-pagers, the other mods have to have their backs or the women leave the comment threads.
  • If people consistently drag the conversation down, don’t blame others for rising to the bait. Move ‘em on. It’s a big internet.
  • Someone who never improves the conversation, but never breaks the rules, is still a troll — just a skilled one. Move ‘em on.
  • Worthy people can fall into bad (& self-damaging) habits in communities. They might do better w/ a fresh start somewhere else. Move ‘em on.
  • Just as bad money drives out good, so trolling and niggling drives out good argument.
  • Community management is the art of balancing the rights of your most difficult voices against the joy of your most fragile ones.
  • When community managers fail, the interesting voices leave, or become exhausted. The difficult ones just grind onward.

It’s not important what site inspired these observations. It could have been any one of a good dozen I’ve frequented over the years.

Comments on Points from a moderator's Twitter stream:
#1 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2012, 04:38 PM:

FIRST! Just kidding.

Good to have these in one place for easy reference. Maybe I'll see if I can put together an index of posts that are about moderation and community management.

#2 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2012, 04:42 PM:

By the way, Xopher Made Me Do This.

By which, I hasten to add, I don't mean that he inspired the tweets. But he poked me to make them into a post.

#3 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2012, 04:48 PM:

LOL Yeah, I'm one of those "most difficult voices." :-)

I suppose I could have just retweeted them. But I'm new to Twitter.

#4 ::: Emma in Sydney ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2012, 04:54 PM:

All true, Abi, and could be said of many of my formerly favorite sites too. Especially your second point. I can't count how many feminist threads I have abandoned despite being passionate and knowledgeable about their content, because, well, trolls are boring, and tiring, and if the mods won't get rid of them, why should I try?

#5 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2012, 05:08 PM:

I can think immediately of a site I loved which I abandoned because Threads About Women invariably became so, so infuriating. (I'm sure it could have been any number of topics, but those were the ones I just couldn't stop reading until I left the site entirely.) Full of people saying horrible things in a way that just neeeeever actually crossed the line, and derailing conversations in ways that weren't against the rules, and...argh.

Ah well. There are other communities out there.

#6 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2012, 05:24 PM:

There's a particular stage in one's engagement with feminism, anti-racism, or [insert_social_movement] where arguing with trolls, doubters and opponents is not only useful in sharpening one's understanding of the subject but also fun. It passes though: after a certain number of repetitions, even the most inspiring and mind-expanding arguments become boring and frustrating. In theory, there could be a standing wave of people making those arguments long enough to convert a person to take their place when they start getting tired of it, but somehow it doesn't quite work that way.

#7 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2012, 05:36 PM:

heresiarch @6:
There's a particular stage in one's engagement with feminism, anti-racism, or [insert_social_movement] where arguing with trolls, doubters and opponents is not only useful in sharpening one's understanding of the subject but also fun.

Well, speak for yourself. I mean, I take your word for it, but it's never been my cup of warm caffeine-containing liquid.

In theory, there could be a standing wave of people making those arguments long enough to convert a person to take their place when they start getting tired of it, but somehow it doesn't quite work that way.

That still leaves the rest of the community wading through the same conversations, over and over again. It's like the Amber role-playing mailing list I was on before I got active on the web. There are only so many times you want to even read a discussion of whether Brand is really a bad guy* before it becomes a drag.

Add to that that many people find these conversations actively upsetting or (particularly over a long period of time) deeply discouraging, and it's not actually a good long-term path for a community.

How many repetitions can go on before we call time is a matter of "balancing the rights of your most difficult voices against the joy of your most fragile ones." That's one of the judgments that, in aggregate, create the charism of a community (what Teresa calls the sitegeist).

Sadly, not all answers lead to equally viable or pleasant places to be.

-----
* or just, you know, misunderstood

#8 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2012, 06:02 PM:

You have entered a maze of twisty little arguments, all alike.

#9 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2012, 06:18 PM:

Jim @8:

Exactly so.

#10 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2012, 06:21 PM:

Also you hear meeping. If you listen closely, it sounds like the meeping is saying "Free speech...open, frank debate...all right, I'm leaving."

#11 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2012, 07:20 PM:

Do not meddle in the arguments of bad schoolteachers, for they insist on having the last word.

#12 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2012, 08:28 PM:

"Sitegeist" hereby added to my vocabulary. Thanks!

#13 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2012, 10:40 PM:

There's also that odd dynamic when you have a few people with genuine experience and expertise, and as a community manager you too-often have to protect those voices from an entire crowd of know-nothings trying to shout him or her down.

Terrific post, Abi - thank you!

#14 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2012, 10:51 PM:

abi @ 6: "I take your word for it, but it's never been my cup of warm caffeine-containing liquid."

Yes, I generalized too broadly. I was thinking of the way new ideas sparkle so in the mind, inviting constant contemplation. Depending on the person, that may manifest in a variety of ways.

"That still leaves the rest of the community wading through the same conversations, over and over again. It's like the Amber role-playing mailing list I was on before I got active on the web. There are only so many times you want to even read a discussion of whether Brand is really a bad guy* before it becomes a drag."

Yes, this is quite true. I think I am exploring, in my comment, a slightly different question than you are in yours. You ask: how can we create community? I ask: how can we share understanding? They are not entirely distinct questions; answers to each circle towards the other. But they are not always in harmony.

"Add to that that many people find these conversations actively upsetting or (particularly over a long period of time) deeply discouraging, and it's not actually a good long-term path for a community."

Agreed, and yet how does a community survive if it does not teach non-members how to be part of it? Not having those conversations is also not a long-term path. It is, as you say, a matter of balance.

#15 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2012, 11:16 PM:

This pretty much assures I'm not going to try to get 'into' twitter. I'm already alarmed/astonished at how much my Doc Paisley is into it, and i do not need another time sink.

The points listed also state pretty much what I value here.

Love

paula

#16 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2012, 11:44 PM:

MacAllister, #13: Ah, Wikipedia...

#17 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 12:01 AM:

Lee @ #16 - yes, precisely!

#18 ::: Peter Piper ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 12:27 AM:

Any advice for moderating discussion groups that consist of paying customers who you'd ideally like to retain?

#19 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 07:31 AM:

What always startles me about #2 is that it's true even if you don't have feminist front-pagers, and even if the community has nothing to do with politics or feminism.

Even when I'm reading a forum about learning Japanese, or about a game I'm interested in -- suddenly the conversation veers off into Why Feminism Is Silly, and at that point you have to decide whether to dig in your heels and fight that battle with someone who thinks having separate train cars for women in Tokyo is evidence of female supremacy, or whether to let a ridiculous statement go unchallenged because you only wanted to talk about grammar.

"Leave in disgust" is my typical failure mode in those situations.

#20 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 10:03 AM:

Good stuff, Abi.

There's a related problem that I've seen befall blogs and forums set up with the ida that reasonable people of diverse views can explore relevant topics and get somewhere at it. It turns out that some reasonable-sounding ideas are monstrous in practice. Either the community has to deal with it and tell some people "this sounds good in the abstract but reality doesn't support it", or it has to buckle down and deny that what's happening in reality has any connection to the reasonable-sounding ideas.

The first choice is good if you're more concerned about dealing with the surrounding world than maintain some desired spread of opinions for its own sake. The second is good for surviving participants' self-esteem, but leads to ever greater required feats of mutual self-delusion and the flight of posters who value engagement with reality.

#21 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 12:26 PM:

Isn't one of the common things being debated in that situation whether or nor reasonable people can differ on some issue?

#22 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 01:19 PM:

I have often suspected that the Feminism Is Silly thing comes up when some men in a group consciously decide to drive out the women, so they can turn it back into a men's club.

#23 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 02:35 PM:

heresiarch @14: Agreed, and yet how does a community survive if it does not teach non-members how to be part of it? Not having those conversations is also not a long-term path. It is, as you say, a matter of balance.

This is an interesting question, and one I spent a fair amount of yesterday thinking about. I'm one of the people who ends up leaving a community rather than going through yet another Feminism 101 thrash, after a point; and yet clearly someone has to thrash through it with people, at least until society advances enough that it's not really necessary.

So here's my theory, which is hypothetical, but currently makes sense in my head:

The community itself is not responsible for teaching all behaviors necessary to be part of that community.

To be part of the Making Light community, a person needs to be able to write to some minimal standards of coherent communication in English. But this community generally doesn't expect to teach its members basic literacy. Or how to operate a keyboard. Or the primary rules of English grammar. In fact, it quite implicitly expects that people will have learned that from some other place entirely before showing up here.

I think it is, in fact, reasonable for communities to have certain standards which they expect people to have reached before participating in the community. They can and will set those standards at different points, and for certain ones they might have forum stickies, or standard links to point to, or what not, and be helpful in providing ways for people who want to join the community to learn those things.

A community may choose to be a place where people can go for Feminism 101. But it is not the obligation of every community that ever wants to discuss Advanced Feminism to be willing to provide that 101 lesson to each person who shows up.

#24 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 02:49 PM:

ML does, however, explain the local deprecation of sigs, our use of ROT13 for spoilery or TMI material, our frequent references to dinosaur sodomy, and special usages like the local meaning of 'piñata'. We don't do so automatically; usually someone has to ask.

I think the principle is that general standards are simply expected, while community-specific traits are explained. If a guy comes in here and begins his first comment with "Lbh ovgpurf whfg qba'g haqrefgnaq gung nyy jbzra ner juberf" ("icky trollish content" is all you really need to know) I doubt he'll get a chance to make a second one. But if, after the pileon, someone delurks to say "what do you mean by calling him a piñata?" we'll probably explain.

#25 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 02:57 PM:

Xopher, I totally agree that there are a lot of community standards that do get passed on in-house. But those tend to be things that can be explained fairly quickly. "We don't generally use sigs, here's how to use rot13, and this is what piñata means" can all be dealt with in a single short post. Feminism 101 tends to be...somewhat more involved, unless it's done as "Here's a link, go read these essays."

#26 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 03:09 PM:

Oh, I was definitely putting "Feminism 101" in the category of general standards. Not being sexist, racist, a religious bigot*, or homophobic seem closer to basic spelling and grammar than to weird quirks like piñatas.

*why don't we have a good '-ism' word for this?

#27 ::: Michael H Schneider ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 06:08 PM:

[a stranger rides into town and says ... ]

This is like the problem of tourism and the ugly american. Someone from a parallel universe of discourse will tend to bring their own standards and customs.

This is like the problem of ethnography. How do you explain different cultures and customs, and how do you learn them? In ethnography the tradition is for the indigenes to assign the anthropologist to the village idiot for training and acculturation. Maybe every site needs a Disignated Idiot.

This is also like the problem of hazing and female genital mutilation. Groups may well develop customs and habits that, to an outsider, appear monstrous. We may, or may not, agree with the outsider (although I've chosen bad examples, with which everyone will agree).

It's also like the problem of imperialism and prosletyzing. (This may be a subset of the point above).

It's also like the tendency to build closed communities - monasteries, religious communities such as the Amish or orthodox Jews, fraternities, fraternal orders and groups like Rotary.

I wish I had a better synthesis, but for an operational approach I can't think of anything better than the post.

#28 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 07:31 PM:

There's a local depreciation of sigs? I don't recall that. What's the reason?

#29 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 07:37 PM:

@28

Not a deprecation so much as it's against local custom to use them here, especially if they have links in them -- that's what the link field is for.

I personally don't have a strong opinion either way, but tend not to use sigs myself anymore (I used to, on USENET, but so did a lot of other people. Some of the ASCII art was pretty cool...)

#30 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 07:41 PM:

Deprecation, David. They're disfavored, not slowly decreasing in value.

#31 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 07:44 PM:

Okay, my fingers slipped there (and yes, I do know the difference between the words normally)...but you could still answer the question.

#32 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 09:42 PM:

David Goldfarb #28,31: Well, when was the last time you saw a sig around here?

I tend not to use them much myself, but I did note early that the platform didn't provide them and other posters were generally not signing their posts.

#33 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 10:46 PM:

Actually I think I may have been mixed up. Teresa used to speak to people about it on BoingBoing, and few use them here, so I may have been confused.

#34 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 10:48 PM:

Thena @29: I personally don't have a strong opinion either way, but tend not to use sigs myself anymore (I used to, on USENET, but so did a lot of other people. Some of the ASCII art was pretty cool...)

Do you remember the halcyon days of alt.fan.warlord?

(And my only .sig is on my email. It's "No, that's my sister. I'm La Belle Dame Sans a Reasonably
Cooperative Attitude." My sister once cracked me up by adding a subtitle to her LiveJournal which said, "La Belle Dame Sans a Reasonably
Cooperative Attitude? No, that's my sister.")

#35 ::: Lin D ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2012, 10:50 PM:

I had a sig file some years back at my day job, and of course I never saw it as the email software stuck it on when I clicked send. I kept getting weird replies from the head of IT. He'd answer my question, but then say "I don't know what you're talking about." He finally replied "I don't know why you keep asking me that question!" I asked him to what he was referring. Realized it was my sig:

Who is General Failure and why is he reading my hard disk?

#36 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 01:59 AM:

Remember the halcyon days of alt.fan.warlord? I was there when it was created -- I watched Shannon Appel (now Appelcline) compose and send out the newgroup message, from a workstation in the basement of Evans Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.

(Er, unless it was Jon Blow who did it. Memory is a tricky thing.)

#37 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 02:05 AM:

Speaking of sigs, I've accumulated over the years an archive of nearly 150 different ones. When I post to Usenet I usually (but not always) pick a random one. No ASCII art though, and nearly all of them are McQuary-compliant.

#38 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 02:10 AM:

Michael @27:
This is like the problem of tourism and the ugly american. Someone from a parallel universe of discourse will tend to bring their own standards and customs.

The real problem of the ugly $nationality is not that customs vary, but that they don't understand that customs vary*. And I'd agree that there are very many people floating around on the internet who don't get the concept of sitegeist, and expect every community to operate to the same standards.

This is like the problem of ethnography. How do you explain different cultures and customs, and how do you learn them?...Maybe every site needs a Designated Idiot.

There are people in this community who take it upon themselves to explain local customs to newcomers who seem to need a native guide. I have been one of them since well before my apotheosis.

Regarding the other examples: yes, it can be. Each community has its own degree of openness to strangers†, and its own local mores and customs. Inevitably, some communities will be at the flat ends of the bell curve with regard to either their initiations or their local practices. I won't go hunt them out with fire and sword, but I do try to give awkward newcomers here the benefit of the doubt partly because some of them genuinely don't know another way of behaving.

-----
* I am reminded of the monoglot in our Dutch class, back in Edinburgh. He struggled, because he didn't yet know what linguistic features were universals and what were quirks peculiar to English. Of course, learning another language descended from Low German wasn't going to expose all of the universal-vs-quirk areas, but it does teach the concept of such a distinction.

† I know of one community that operates entirely behind another community that they use as a front. If you're good and constructive in the other community (where the trolls do run rather free, so there's plenty of space to prove yourself), you may be approached and invited into the inner chamber. Actually, I'm sure there are many communities that work like that, where the inner chamber is a group of friends rather than considering it a separate community. But this is notable because the inner chamber is a separate site.

#39 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 02:16 AM:

Sig usage is a site-specific custom, in my view. I find them enjoyable and entertaining in some communities, but I'd prefer not to have them here.

This is mostly because the rhythm of a thread is very different with sigs, particularly in a context that doesn't give many ways of separating them from the variable content. Reading requires an "attend/ignore" pre-processing loop that slows me down and tires me out faster.

Also, if everyone's got sigs at the bottom of their content, where will they put their footnotes?

#40 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 03:49 AM:

In case I was unclear, I wasn't intending to argue for the use of sigs here, and of course I had noticed that nobody uses them. I hadn't realized that it had risen to the level of a specific local custom, and Xopher's mentioning it as such piqued my curiosity.

#41 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 08:36 AM:

Also, if everyone's got sigs at the bottom of their content, where will they put their footnotes?

An excellent point!

#42 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 08:43 AM:

Sigs in USENET had something of a demarcatory function, back in the days of 80-column terminals and reading streams at 1200 baud. Here, we have nice little boxes for our messages. Also, bon mots tend to get used inline rather than trailing like flags.

#43 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 08:56 AM:

Seems relevant here: XKCD: Communication. Randall's done it again....

#44 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 09:49 AM:

My first reaction to a good dozen I’ve frequented over the years was, "Lucky you, to have so few!" Then I realized it might be how many you've moderated . . .

#45 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 09:58 AM:

Bruce Baugh @20: It turns out that some reasonable-sounding ideas are monstrous in practice.
An admittedly extreme example, but just yesterday I heard an interview with Milton Friedman's grandson. I hadn't known the younger had reproduced, but he's just as zero feet planted firmly in reality as his lineage.


Xopher HalfTongue @22: . . . some men in a group consciously decide to drive out the women . . .
One of the few life lessons I have achieved on my own is that when an interchange reaches the point of "Is s/he insane or lying?" there's no point in trying to figure out which. Personally, I'd be inclined to begin with the assumption that they really are either offended or Just Kidding.

#46 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 10:28 AM:

Neil in Chicago @44:
"Lucky you, to have so few!" Then I realized it might be how many you've moderated...

You would be surprised how few communities I've moderated. You might be surprised how few I've spent material time and effort on. I tend toward the deep, rather than the wide, in my community involvement.

#47 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 11:11 AM:

Re: communities that teach 101 level classes

I've been thinking about the communities that do regularly have these conversations somewhat successfully. (For example, I think the xkcd forums are reasonably good about this.)

I think they have the following characteristics:

1) They're large (hundreds of highly active contributors, thousands of somewhat active contributors.) This means that it doesn't always fall on the same people to do the "teaching."

2) Similarly, a critical mass of the most active users has enough of a shared view on the relevant topics.

3) They aren't communities built primarily around the relevant topic. Part of a problem with a community built around discussing feminism having feminism 101 discussions, to use one example, is that it's very easy for these discussions to metastasize across the entirety of the site, and turn every conversation into a "Feminism 101." It's much harder to do that when the site has a whole range of forums and topics. Even if the feminism thread is over-run, those fighting the good fight can rest and recuperate in the knitting thread (or what have you). This is crucial to keeping your "teachers" coming back and finding joy in the community.

4) The moderators are quick to nip the conversation off once it has gone as far as it can productively go. Some people are reachable in these discussions, some are not, and some are reachable but not at this time and in this way. Once the unreachable start dominating the conversation, there is very little left to be gained.

#48 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 12:32 PM:

Xopher HalfTongue @ 26

Creedist?

Or, of course, there's always zealot.

#49 ::: Jeremy Preacher ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 01:18 PM:

One of the problems I've seen with the "Teaching Subject X 101" dynamic is that seldom is anyone really prepared to sit down and Learn a Lesson, least of all the people most in need of it (maybe more so with technical topics, but definitely not with feminism and racism.) So not only do the people attempting to do the teaching get frustrated, but the people that realize they are being taught at do too, and everyone leaves cranky. (And, worst of all to my eye, the people who were attempting to have a higher-level discussion find it nearly impossible to get anywhere because of these diversions and they also end up wandering off, irritated.)

#50 ::: Stevey-Boy ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 01:58 PM:

Xopher HalfTongue @ 26 I was thinking faithist, but decided that was inaccurate. I wonder if the lack of a specific -ism is due to the use of the catch-all: bigot.
pedantic peasant @ 48 Oh I like creedist.

#51 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 03:39 PM:

Xopher and others: Maybe allophobic, allophobe, allophobism.

#52 ::: JM ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 05:55 PM:

Bruce @51: Fear of shallots?

#53 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 07:31 PM:

Fade Manley @ 23: "A community may choose to be a place where people can go for Feminism 101. But it is not the obligation of every community that ever wants to discuss Advanced Feminism to be willing to provide that 101 lesson to each person who shows up."

Agreed. In fact, running Feminism 101 and exploring Advanced Feminism become mutually incompatible pretty quick: as a conversation advances, what questions are settled, which are still important, and the very language used to discuss those questions all tend to change rather drastically.

I was thinking about a way to run a site where there would be newbie conversations on an open, easily accessible portion of the site, and when commenters seemed to have reached a certain depth of understanding they would be invited to a less open, less accessible site and then I thought "Oh look, I invented esotericism!" And apparently I'm not the only one (cf abi @ 38).

#54 ::: Michael H Schneider ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 09:30 PM:

Abi @ 38

Thank you for the reply.

"I know of one community that operates entirely behind another community that they use as a front"

I *knew* that the internet was controlled by the Masons and the Scientologists.

I didn't really have a grand philosophical point (much less a criticism). I was merely trying to add some larger context to the discussion, suggest another way of looking at things, even though none of my examples was a perfect analogy. Sometimes it's useful to look at things like comment threads as (partial) instances of larger phenomena.

I'm reminded also of evangelical protestant churches, which have demonstrated remarkable success at building large communities. I don't know how they do it.

I'm reminded also of the old line about "customs: beastly; manners: none". Community building can easily be seen as the obverse of othering. One of the claims of anthropology is that like water to a fish, culture is often more obvious to someone who comes from outside. None of which helps you build the community you want.

#55 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2012, 09:36 PM:

#38 ::: abi :::
I know of one community that operates entirely behind another community that they use as a front.

Out of curiosity, are they a BDSM community? I ask because I once heard of a BSDM room party at a con that worked that way - the official party was to filter out tourists and creeps - those who behaved themselves, otoh, would be discreetly taken aside and given the room number for the *real* party.

I can imagine myriad (well, a few) other communities having to take similar precautions, however.

#56 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 02:08 AM:

Michael @54:

They were good analogies. It might make a good approach for classifying communities along an axis I can't quite name, but which clearly exists in both of our heads.

I'm reminded also of evangelical protestant churches, which have demonstrated remarkable success at building large communities. I don't know how they do it.

Yes, megachurches. Had I time, I'd want to research them, because they do seem to have some set of tricks that one could probably borrow and use elsewhere.

By the way, you should comment more often.

Sarah @55:

Not BDSM but Minecraft, though I can see how it would work for both*. I suspect from peripheral information that the people who set it up have read The Magician King.

-----
* Not a sentence I ever expected to write.

#57 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 02:46 AM:

Megachurches appear to do it by encouraging people to think that their personal comfort (financial and otherwise) is a sign of God's favor, and that they don't need to do anything they don't want to do in order to be good with God.

#58 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 03:14 AM:

Lee @57:

Have you been to megachurches? Do you know people who are members? Are you sure you're not, you know, overgeneralizing a bit there? Because—bluntly—that comment didn't add anything useful to the conversation.

What I was talking about was that I've noticed, reading about various disgraced pastors, that there are sub-communities within megachurches. There are Bible study groups, prayer circles, email groups, and many other things I don't know about. What intrigues me is how and how much these various sub-communities are coordinated vs how they grow organically; how people are invited into them and move among them to find their homes; how they grow and how they die.

Do people sit in the same areas every week? (Are they assigned seating, or do they pick their seats?) Do they form geographical associations based on that?

Basically, how much are megachurches a single community, and how much are they a collection of small communities?

Nothing to do with your perception of their preaching.

#59 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 03:34 AM:

Jeremy @ 49

I spend a fair amount of time engaging people directly. I find that when I do engage people as rational adults, they often come around to at least a more moderate and respectful form of conversation, and often surprisingly more than that. I think that efforts to explicitly "teach 101" often fail because they are based in contempt for the intended learner.

#60 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 03:56 AM:

Me @ 59

Drat. I swear I was not trolling, but I think I just vastly oversimplified that in my (now-ironic) effort to be clear and succinct. I can unpack it if need be.

#61 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 09:41 AM:

abi @56: I have read people talking about organizational structures megachurches like to use (and that various steeplejacking Dominionist organizations like to use to infiltrate and take over mainline Protestant congregations), and they're not unlike the structures talked about in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress -- every congregant is encouraged to join, be active in, and emotionally bond with 1-3 small 'interest' groups. In megachurches, newcomers are actively noticed and welcomed for several weeks running, by designated greeters who basically list off lots of interest groups they might be interested in.

The newbie is encouraged to try out interest groups until they find the one or ones where the people already there feel like family. Then everyone shows up for liturgy (sometimes not all in the same room; in particular, mothers of small children are blatantly shoved into side 'cry rooms' with TV screen repeaters; I know several bf-activist born-agains who've walked right back OUT of certain churches for how the got treated) and before it or after it there are scads of little breakout rooms where the interest groups that meet on Sundays (there are lots of others) do their thing.

So a megachurch is kind of like DragonCon: lots of people who have their own personal reasons to be invested in coming and being active, who also swirl into the big room en masse now and then for group-wide activities.

In the less healthy variants, the interest groups can get really culty, with shunning and strong attempts to control the non-church lives of the congregants.

I wish I could remember the name of the pastor who invented this method of church-planting and -growing; I know I've read posts describing the innovations he brought to evangelicalism, but darned if I can remember google-able keywords.

#62 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 09:50 AM:

abi @ 58: That's interesting, and something I hadn't heard of before.

I think Lee might be onto something along another axis, though. Is the plenary experience of megachurches one of not-necessarily-very-specific, overwhelmingly positive reinforcement/ affirmation for their members?

Setting aside exactly how that might be achieved in any given case, I can see how that might give members a lot more energy and confidence for the trickier, maybe grittier, certainly more up-close-and-personal specifics of what goes on in the subcommunities. Or for doing one's migration between subcommunities, rather than bailing from the community as a whole.

I've never been in anything like a megachurch. But I've seen the reverse of the suggested mechanism operate in a fair-sized political organization, in which there were rainbows of healthy sub-communities full of talent and goodwill, but where the uniting experience of worry, anger, guilt and despair seemed to suck everything down into the mire sooner or later.

Not so long afterwards, I discovered several really valuable and thriving communities in the antique land of Usenet. Some yet remain, amidst the scouring sands.

The destructive dynamics seemed... not unfamiliar.

I don't see why their constructive counterparts shouldn't generalize just as well. Even if they turn out not to, it has to be worth trying to find out.

#63 ::: Emmers ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 09:55 AM:

While we're on the subject, does anyone have recommended links for good, friendly 101-type communities? I have friends who I think are genuinely well-meaning, but clueless, when it comes to How Not To Be A Douchebag To Women And People Who Aren't White. And I'd like ways to educate them that don't involve me repeating myself 8 million times and them continuing to not understand the words I'm saying.

#64 ::: Emmers ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 10:05 AM:

As an example, one guy doesn't understand the concept of "white people shouldn't tell black people that Racism Is Over." He doesn't grok the idea that he is never going to experience institutionalized racism, and therefore doesn't understand why (e.g.) a black blogger is going to be upset when he opines that because *he* doesn't see racism, therefore it doesn't exist.

I do wonder if he's just got a bad case of willful ignorance...but I *try* to take people at their word.

#65 ::: Suzanne F. ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 10:09 AM:

abi @58, Elliott Mason @61:

The small group/home group/interest group is definitely the key to socializing and community building in big evangelical churches. After attending some big corporate services, the next step of involvement is joining some kind of small group, of 10-20 or so people, which becomes a home base. These smaller communities are the people who become close friends, who bring you soup when you're sick, and who become your lens on the rest of the church experience.

Generally the small groups are organized by the church administration, but the extent to which what people do in small groups is centrally coordinated varies a great deal.

#66 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 10:35 AM:

Elliott Mason @61:

Your description of how megachurches work is also, in broad outline, how my synagogue works.

If you show up for services more than a few weeks in a row, people start to say Hi and someone from membership or--if you have young children--the religious school PA or from the welcoming committee will introduce themselves and ask the usual sorts of questions (what brings you to this temple, how did you hear of us, did you like the service).

After that, you'll be encouraged to try a bunch of different things at the temple until you find a place where you fit. Your kids might be invited to sample the religious school, especially if there's a fun holiday event coming up. You might be invited to a PA meeting, a monthly intergenerational dinner, a meeting of Sisterhood or Men's Club, a Rosh Chodesh meeting, or offered classes in Hebrew, bridge, yoga, or whatever else is on tap at the moment. If you're young, you'll be pointed at the 20s and 30s groups. You may be offered adult religious education (culminating in a b'nei mitzvah).

If you seem to need them, you'll be told about the social services the temple provides (job search stuff, grief counseling, social worker on site, etc.) or encouraged to participate in one or more of our charitable endeavors (food bank, domestic violence shelter, support to individual families in need [currently we're helping a family who lost pretty much everything in a fire]).

At some point in here, if you've been attending regularly and starting to participate in congregational activities, you'll be asked to formally join and pay membership dues.

Isn't that how most religious groups work if they try to stay in business/grow?

(We don't have a crying room. Kids are welcome in the sanctuary at all times, though generally members take screaming babies out if they get really loud (moms and dads).)

#67 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 11:06 AM:

heresiarch et al:

The thing that's important to understand is that it's often the case that a given valuable discussion is based on:

a. Assumptions about the world that may or may not be correct.

b. Shared background knowledge that may or may not make much sense to outsiders or novices, and that could even be wrong in some ways.

And there are many contexts where diving into either (a) or (b) is very valuable. And yet, often, you want to have a discussion within the context of those shared assumptions and that shared knowledge, without feeling like you have to justify every statement with an argument for its validity, three citations to peer-reviewed literature, and URLs to objective data proving it correct. You may want to talk about space colonization in the context of hard SF without engaging in yet another turn of the "space colonization is the future/space colonization is a pipe dream/space colonization is immoral and those resources should be spent on earth" discussion. You may want to discuss the best way to choose a Catholic school for your kids, without engaging in a justification of Catholicism or religion in general, and without arguing over whether or not it's morally right for some parents to send their kids to private schools. And so on.

Those other discussions may be worthwhile in another context. The trick is how to make sure they don't take over all other discussions.


#68 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 11:06 AM:

Melissa Singer @66: I wouldn't know how religious communities work; I quit being in one when I left my Catholic grade school (attendance at mass every Friday during the school day was mandatory; because I was in the choir and served the altar I also was present for several Sunday services per month). That church was mainly about GOING TO CHURCH, in that people came for the service, maybe stayed for the coffee social afterwards (which was all in one room, not subgroups), and participated in fundraisers throughout the year.

There were small groups/committees that helped RUN the church, like the choir and the altar guild, but to my knowledge nothing like the 'everyone is in at least one small group' thing that megachurches do nowadays.

Of course, this was the 80s; Catholic churches may do that now, too. But back then, church was about church and socializing was about SOCIALIZING; maybe you met people at church, but the building itself mainly hosted worship, not (to choose randomly from a list of SIGs at my local megachurch) MMORPG computer games, knitting, gardening, bird-watching, or working on cars.

The point of coming to the church building was to attend a worship service, which is not the impression I get about megachurches necessarily.

#69 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 11:49 AM:

Elliott Mason @68:

Now I see the difference. You won't find a "working on cars" type of group at our place; most groups (though not all--we do have a mah-jong group) focus on something directly connected to worship, to Judaism, or to the building or congregational activities (the monthly dinners have an organizing group, for instance).

But our synagogue, and most others that I know of, function as "community" as well as "house of worship." Without community, people gradually stop coming, and eventually there's no congregation. One of the reasons ours is pretty much the only Reform congregation in our part of the boro is that most others died of attrition; our congregation in fact survived only because it merged 4 tiny groups into one not-so-tiny group and has worked hard to grow itself since then.

About 20 years ago, when I first tried to join, the place was very unwelcoming. Then it nearly died and some younger and more-open minded folks took over (this was before my time so I do not know the details of the coup, lol), and by 15 years ago it was moving in a more open direction. Since then, the trend has continued.

Worship services are the heart of the place, but they're not the only thing that people come for.

Thanks for explaining further; I appreciate it.

#70 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 12:40 PM:

Elliot @68 and Melissa @ 69: The Catholic church I currently attend fits some people's definitions of a megachurch, and it definitely functions as community as well as house of worship. When I went through RCIA and converted, our RCIA group constituted itself as one of the many SCC (Small Christian Communities) which exist within the larger church. Some of the SCCs are like book clubs; some function as service organization and work on various projects or assist already-existing charitable organizations; some are discussion groups; some practice lectio divina, finding value in doing this in a small and relatively consistent group; some do other things. (The joke about ours is that we're a SCC: Small Culinary Community.) There are shared meals available on certain nights of the week, with a program following. (This year it's an in-depth review of Vatican II, seeing as how it's an anniversary year.) There's the choir. There are the family activities, and camp for the kids, senior luncheons, women's group, youth talent show, drumming group, prayer groups, mental illness ministry (which have sponsored some excellent lectures and presentations), the eco-spirituality groups and a lot of other social justice groups, including folks who served meals to people hit by the disastrous tornado in North Minneapolis, and so forth.

People do tend to sit in the same area week to week, though I'm probably the most predictable, since the reserved seats for the hearing impaired are in the first row on the left side. There is considerable hugging before and after mass.

It's possible that social justice is one of the biggest unifying forces. Working together on stuff, whether it's shelter work, international work, hospice work, economic justice work, social justice for the mentally ill, and so on, tends to encourage friendships and community.

There are more than nine thousand members in this particular church.

#71 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 12:55 PM:

Elise @70: Wow! That's a lot of people.

I'm not sure how many people attend at my place regularly and how many are members (these groups overlap but are not identical; membership means you're paying dues but you don't have to pay dues to worship--n.b., we do not collect offerings during services).

My guess is that we're around 1,000 people altogether, including children, but I wouldn't swear that this is anything more than a not-very-well-educated guess.

We have youth groups and seniors' groups and all that stuff too, and lectures and presentations and stuff 10 months of the year (summers are quiet--a lot of the kids are away at camp and usually one or both of the rabbis and the cantor are away part or all of the time, teaching or learning elsewhere). I didn't list everything because this is all OT for this thread . . . .

I'm not attending (or a member) right now because of the insanity that is high school, which is using up a lot of spoons that I would have spent at the temple otherwise, and probably won't get back regularly for a couple of years yet, sigh, but it's still my home place, worship-wise. Never having had one before, it's important to me, even though I'll always be a little out of step there (politically, because I am really not a huge Zionist, and personally, because I'm just weird; luckily, it's a tolerant bunch for the most part).

#72 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 01:17 PM:

I hope to comment more later on mega-churches, but I will note that in comparing to the Episcopal (and I think Roman Catholic) context, a megachurch is more like a diocese than like a parish.

#73 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 01:20 PM:

Melissa @71: The nine thousand people are just the registered members. We get a fair number of folks who come regularly but are not officially members. My guess would be that the larger community is somewhere over twelve thousand, but there's obviously no data on that.

The words "community" and "home" come up a lot in conversations like this. I think all the groups you have but didn't list are definitely germane to the notion that connections between people on more than one point are part of what makes communities stronger and more viable. Also, the possibility of going away for a bit and then coming back and having the community, the home, still be there is very important. A real community seldom depends entirely on one person's presence or one person's work; robustness and resilience in communities, as well as in people, tend to grow from interdependence rather than dependence, and robustness and resilience in a community will let people orbit out pretty far for a while before swinging back in close -- and still finding something there that exerts a gravitational pull on them.

#74 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 01:27 PM:

SamChevre @73: a megachurch is more like a diocese than like a parish

When Patrick and Teresa visited my church for my confirmation, I think it was Patrick who said, "You belong to a Catholic megachurch!" (We've been having services in the gymnasium, which can only hold 1100 people and is thus pretty packed most of the time, despite multiple services and also multiple services of Family Mass in the church proper.)

I wouldn't classify a diocese as a megachurch. To be a megachurch, doesn't there need to be one main location at which everybody gathers, even if they need to do it in shifts?

#75 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 01:38 PM:

The major qualifying definition of megachurch I've seen being used out and around seems to be "regular religious services held that are attended by more than XX people simultaneously," where XX is some enormously huge number. Wikipedia is going with "2,000 or more in average weekend attendance." My 'local' megachurch, Willow Creek, has three Sunday services, each averaging (according to Wikipedia) about 24,000 attendees.

Split three ways, that's still 8,000 at once. In the same room.

There's a reason my sister puts 'has run the sound board at the Willow Creek auditorium' on her theater-crew resume; it's a seriously WTF-level huge and expensive and awesome auditorium.

I think communities of that size definitely run into the moderatorial issues raised in the top post here, but I have no first-hand knowledge of how they handle it (aside from breaking into sub-cells and delegating management to your small-group leader).

From what I can glean via conversations with people who have attended services at Willow Creek, it's significantly more like 'going to an NFL game' than it is like my childhood memories of 'going to church'. One upside of this for the attendees is that it's very exciting and all the emotional charges brought by having a worship experience are dialled way up past eleven; sort of like religious Beatlemania, every Sunday.

#76 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 02:08 PM:

elise @ 74

Yes, agreed--a megachurch gathers regularly in one place.

What I was meaning was that a megachurch would have the scope of ministries of a diocese. For example, Thomas Road (I lived near Lynchburg, colleagues were active members there) has half-a-dozen full-time professional counselors, a residential alcohol treatment facility, a 2000-student school, and so forth.

Your parish is huge; I may be under-estimating what larger parishes do (my parish church has 150 attendees on a good Sunday.)

Gray Woodland @ 62
Is the plenary experience of megachurches one of not-necessarily-very-specific, overwhelmingly positive reinforcement/ affirmation for their members?

I think so, but I think that is common to most Chrtistian churches, not just megachurches. Certainly, the liturgical churches--except during the Triduum--always end on a celebratory note; the Mennonite churches I grew up in, with their very strong community, also felt welcoming and affirming if you were part of them.

#77 ::: abishag ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 02:29 PM:

Goodness! It's interesting to hear all these church/synagogue stories as I complete my third and final year on the vestry.

I have changed my 'nym here just to remain unidentifiable and unsearchable in the event that someone in meatspace wants to stir things up, but I don’t mind if any flourospherian identifies me because I'm going to get a bit ranty here and I don’t want to add to the Church Drama I’ve been smack in the middle of. (sorry about that preposition!)

I joined the choir before I joined the church. For me, Music is one of the most direct lines to the numinous and holy I have experienced, and the only way I know how to worship. I began catechism classes a few months after joining the choir and eventually, reluctantly agreed to join the Vestry so that the music program would have a voice in the governing of the church. No one else in the choir volunteered. I figured it would be a good learning experience. And it has been…

One of the things that moved me out of agnosticism and back into Christianity was the liturgy of this place. It’s not just High Church Episcopalian, it’s Anglo Catholic. The music is inspiring, the service dignified and respectful. The Holy is treated with great ceremony. The sermons occasionally send me to my dictionary when I get home and are often intellectually challenging. Unlike many Anglo Catholic communities, this parish is greatly welcoming to gays and women. But for the last few years we have suffering a slow and drawn-out demise. When approached with ideas for community outreach, the Rector and others insist that Our Liturgy is the most important work we can do, and all the outreach we need. Once a month we make sandwiches to bring down to the county hospital’s AIDS clinic, which has patients that can wait over 12 hours to see a doctor, many of them indigent. Our funding is running out for that, and what’s more, fewer people are participating. The discussion we had on the Vestry was characterized by a fatalistic shrug and the note that it’s not like it used to be when we started the program, when it was mostly gay men at the clinic – now it was just generally poor people and immigrants (!!! Well we certainly wouldn’t want to help people who weren’t just like us!!). After a brief and uncharacteristic rebuke from me and another vestry member, money was found to continue the program, but volunteers are still thin on the ground. We do one homeless breakfast a month, and that partially staffed by non-churchgoing spouses of members. Very few people are donating for coffee hours, so much of the newcomers welcome is strained. And every year our pledge base falls, both in individuals and the pledges they make (and fulfill).

There is much blame going around – at the moment, some draconian (and I think nearly illegal) parking restrictions are being blamed for falling membership, as if the 5 or so spaces no longer available on the street have made half the parish decide to sleep in on Sundays. I’m beginning to think the Rector may have something to do with it. For the last three years he has become less and less pastoral. Unavailable in his office, uncommunicative, etc. Parishioners have been hospitalized without a visit, the Deacon has been pressed into service anytime there’s a difficult discussion to be had, daily masses have been cancelled with no notice, people died without last rites. The same few people are doing all the work and feeling pretty burnt out. Hell, I only sing and serve on the Vestry and I rankle anytime someone suggest I participate in another function.

So what has this great Learning Experience taught me? It’s tough for me to say, because it’s The Liturgy that brought me in, and as a chorister I AM part of that liturgy, but I think the problem may be in considering The Liturgy as The Stuff That Happens With The Smells And Bells. Feeding the hungry is surely part of the liturgy, yes? Administering to the sick in mind and body – liturgy. It may not be accompanied by $50,000 vestments or a Haydn Mass, but this is Liturgy. I think the moment we announce a second Homeless Breakfast, or the Rector maybe preaches about the humble holiness of making sandwiches for the poor instead of whatever informative religious art lecture he had scheduled… well, that might get some parishioners back - even if our great big fancy organ is out of commission for the time being. I don’t think that Either You Do Smells & Bells, or It’s Kumbayah Guitar Mass all the way (NTTAWWT, it’s just not my thing). There surely MUST be a happy medium. Who knows - maybe if I didn’t feel beset on all sides from friends, choristers and other parishioners letting me know What’s Wrong And How I Should Fix It At The Next Vestry Meeting, I would be one of those breakfast club volunteers. Or I’d be inspired to share baked goods in hospitality. But right now I feel completely burnt out and am greatly looking forward to rotating off the Vestry so I can just sing. Until then, I’ll work on not responding to the suggestion “you know, you are allowed to serve two terms on the Vestry” by punching the suggestor. Because that wouldn’t be very Christian of me.

#78 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 02:32 PM:

Elliott, #75: Your definition of "megachurch" seems to be somewhat wider than mine. To me, that title includes the tags of "+ not affiliated with any particular sect" and "+ under the sole control of one charismatic leader, who may or may not actually be ordained". While there are sectarian churches that are the same size as megachurches, I don't eye them with nearly the same level of suspicion.

#79 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 02:52 PM:

Lee @78: The issue, currently, is that there really aren't very many sectarian (by which you mean mainline Protestant/Catholic, I take it?) congregations as big as Willow Creek, or the one in Colorado Springs, or the other eighty across the country. There are a few, like elise's church, but the overwhelming majority of them are evangelical and Dominionist.

#80 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 02:53 PM:

Lee @78:
In terms of what I was trying to find out, though (how you make a community out of such a large body of people), Elliott's definition works just fine.

Bluntly: this is not the conversation to rail on the evils of megachurches, dissect their theological variances, or otherwise get irate about their existence and role in American society. Please stop trying to turn it into that conversation.

Elliott, Melissa, elise, Sam, abishag:
Thank you for the insights. It looks like megachurches have figured out how to standardize and mass-produce the cluster-of-subcommunities model that large religious institutions have been running for a long time.

(For parallax, my church has relatively few extracurricular activities. It's also nearly dead. I think these things are related.)

#81 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 05:14 PM:

I find two things about 101 really difficult:

1) yes, if every discussion becomes a 101 discussion, no progress will get made on 500-level topics. However, little-to-no progress will be made in the global "literacy" movement, if 101 doesn't happen. So, where I'm the expert, I try to do "a bit" of 101, and more when I'm assigned that role. When I'm the apprentice, I prefer a crumbtrail (but I'm not entitled to it, I know), but I'm beginning to have my "you have 101-level issues here" alarm bells trigger at the righter time.

The thing that worked for me was a "xxx 101" link (which, if one wishes to use a term more Internetty and less perceived as insulting by some people (not me! I like being told "you need to understand the basics first"! But I'm weird) is a "xxx FAQs" link). A nice feminism site (sorry, don't remember at the moment) just put it up there on the main menu, and I spent a good deal of time integrating - not that I'm done yet, I'm sure. But I also know I'm different in how I learn, *and* I had a feminism 101 lecture (which I didn't realize it was at the time, and it's possible she didn't either, except, you know...) years ago that didn't really take; but did give me the key understanding of "sometimes there are things that need to be said; that doesn't mean she intends to say them to *you*." (I believe it was an Andrea Dworkin lecture being played on University radio)

2) One of the 101 problems, in any community, is jargon. Listen to a bridge conversation in the bar, and you'd swear it was a different language - because it is. Conversely, my high school French was enough to have a good bridge conversation in Montreal - because again, the "language" is the same, just a matter of getting the words straight. Talking about non-bridge life was, conversely, very difficult.

I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but there are three issues with jargon that apply to 101 situations:

a) Some words don't exist outside of the jargon. That's okay, they *clearly* don't make sense to the uninitiated, and can be explained reasonably quickly, hopefully. This also applies to words that exist in The World, but are clearly being used in a jargon context (ML's pinata, frex).

b) Some words exist both in the jargon and outside, but have a very special, often very detailed, jargon meaning - that, once you understand it, can be seen to develop from The World meaning, but one would never make the connection on one's own. With those words, it really does look to the uninitiated that you're having a different discussion than you are; and when that "world-defined" discussion looks disparaging of the uninitiated, the "educate the outsider" derail becomes the "educate the pissed-off outsider, who isn't really interested in being educated" derail.

Which is unfortunate, because we can't go around changing the jargon easily, and we can't really avoid *using* the jargon, because:

c) there's little or no way to have 500-level discussions about a topic (which do, in fact, need to happen) in a sensible amount of time or patience without using the jargon that compresses thousands of words of 101-level ideas and concepts that are understood by everybody in the conversation into one or two words.

There are more important worlds than bridge, of course, but the bar conversations would die out if we all had to unpack things like "so, when I gave her 2 no over 1 heart, she showed me the stiff diamond; so I just kicked it, got 2-and-the-queen, and blasted the grand. She would have made it too, if she had guessed to hook the 8 to pick up jack-nine-fourth on the first round. But nobody's finding that play but Deep Finesse, right?" And yeah, we're accused of "rubbing people's noses in their 'stupidity' [lack of knowledge - mw]", sometimes, and sometimes it is taken as offensively by the outsider as some of the more important discussions that get misunderstood are.

So, I feel for those stuck there, and that's not even counting the times where people come in "wanting to be educated" (as opposed to learn), but actually just want to be told that they're right, and the discussion was wrong. I almost never have to deal with that in my courses-of-expertise; and I am rightly grateful for it.

--
and I have my own collection of Warlords, under my real name.
I also know of Other Places, where one might be invited if
you proved yourself worthy in "the outer realm."
Strangely enough, Ceci n'Est Pas Un .sig.

#82 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 05:15 PM:

Following on the discussion of large churches and how they form community ... to be part of a community, you need to be able to know and be known by a substantial portion of its members. The failure modes for this include (1) being too big for everyone to know everyone, without developing some mechanism to engage people in smaller subcommunities, (2) having a widely perceived in-group who are the only people who have a say, without known mechanisms for someone to become part of the group - whether the mechanism is election to a parish council or just showing up regularly at some meeting or function, (3) having small communities that develop such strong intragroup loyalties that they lose sight of the overall group (aka cliques and factions), or (4) having subcommunities become authoritarian beyond their charter in terms of what people "should" think or do.

#83 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 05:17 PM:

Li Me*. That was a brick. And I really really hope that there's not too much <x>splaining in there, to go along with the "yeah, yeah, tell me something I don't know" bits.

Sorry, all, if it's not helpful.

*M R Ducks!

#84 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 05:29 PM:

The thing about learning to fit into communities, even ones that have an explicit or implicit-but-common "Hey! You're new! New people are awesome! Can I answer any questions??" mechanism (like, say, my local SCA group, or filk fandom), is the unwritten norms that 'everybody just knows' are how Reasonable People behave.

Some can eventually be deduced by observation of experienced members (or long-term immersion in the community; it took me over four years of participating in convention filkcircles 3-9 times a year before I really 'got' how to figure out whether the song I wanted to sing was going to 'follow' or not). Some personalities are better suited to such deduction; some communities are better at not immediately backlashing BUT UR DOIN IT RONG responses at the newbie (or no-longer-quite-newbie, that one's really deadly, because the oldbies think you're not a young pup anymore and quit cutting you uber-slack).

Are there ways that communities can notice ... hrm. I'm not good at being concise today. Is there a mechanism or technique whereby a community can figure out if they have a large bolus of unspoken cultural norms that's acting as a barrier to entry by well-meaning newbies?

#85 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 06:45 PM:

M N O Ducks!

#86 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 06:49 PM:

O S A R!

#87 ::: Tim Hall ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 06:52 PM:

OtterB #82

I've noticed those exact same failure modes within music fandom. Which is why I think music fandom and organised religion have far more in common than either would really care to admit.

#88 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 07:58 PM:

@86 C D E D B D I Z? M R 2 ...

#89 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 10:00 PM:

abishag @77 No wonder you're feeling burned out; you're pushing a boulder up an endless hill.

Based on "I’m beginning to think the Rector may have something to do with it. For the last three years he has become less and less pastoral. Unavailable in his office, uncommunicative, etc. Parishioners have been hospitalized without a visit, the Deacon has been pressed into service anytime there’s a difficult discussion to be had, daily masses have been cancelled with no notice, people died without last rites.", and my family's experiences in the Methodist Chursh, I am strongly inclined to wonder (although it isn't any of my business) if the bishop is aware of these things. They are not healthy behaviors for a pastor of souls, regardless of denomination. This is not me saying you, personally, have to do anything, but me wondering if the diocesan authorities are aware and if so, why things are being allowed to slide so.

This next part also applies to Elliott's observation about his childhood exposure to Catholicism @85: My aunt and I argue/debate about various points of doctrine that differ between denominations and the issue of works vs. faith comes up regularly. You know the part about "faith without works is dead"? Without an active outlet, the recommended behaviors can turn into an occasional participation in rituals and impersonal charitable acts. I really do think we need works to keep us engaged, and a well-run religious organization makes sure to provide for this. A single church may be too small for some projects, but can work with others on those. If you don't give people that sense of community and participation, they will go and find it somewhere else. This is one reason the megachurches and their ilk succeed; it's not entirely the prosperity gospel. They give people purpose and a reason to feel they've done something of value.

My reaction to the statement "Our Liturgy is the most important work we can do, and all the outreach we need" is not good. The forms of worship matter a lot to the people who engage them, and I would never say that they aren't important, because they plainly are. But I have a little image of High Church Barbie* saying "Dealing with real people and their needs is hard! Let's sing Vespers!"


#90 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 11:25 PM:

85, 86, and 88 have me trying to figure them out and being really perplexed. May I hold up a sign with an asterisk on it, like we do in certain panels, and hope they get explained?

#91 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2012, 11:46 PM:

elise, #90: It's a weird kid-culture thing, sort of a verbal rebus based on the sounds of the letters, with a fair amount of stretching. Translation of what you've seen so far:

'em are ducks!

(not sure of this one -- my version goes "M R not!")

oh yes 'ey are

see de itty bitty eyes? 'em are too ducks!

There's a version about puppies too, of which all I can remember now is the line C M P N?

#92 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 12:20 AM:

elise @ 90, Lee @ 91, here's one my mom gave me:

F U N E M?

S, V F M.

F U N E X?

S, V F X.

OK, M N X!

I then started a lengthy comment re: churches and sub-groups within same, but it really wasn't on point, so I deleted it. Suffice to say that my experience as a churchgoer may well reflect that lack of community as represented by a lack of functional sub-groups is a killer.

Re: the OP, I spend most of my time on ML, with frequent forays to Scalzi's place (where I read the comments and occasionally post one), Wil Wheaton's blog (where I do neither), and a few other places where reading and/or making comments depends on the mood I'm in when I visit. I also stop in on a news-based blog or two, and even the ones that claim comments are moderated tend to get insulting, if not actively toxic.

Many thanks to moderators who know their jobs and repay our trust in their abilities!

#93 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 12:34 AM:

Syd and Lee, thank you! It's a one of those. Now that you 'splain it, I remember how I encountered a one of those once when I was really little, and found that there are some kinds of puzzles I don't do well at. The version I was given was M N X R L T 4 U. Frustrated me for days.

As for where people go, I go to Shadow Unit, Sarcastic Lutheran, sometimes Slacktivist, Scalzi's place, Charlie Stross's place, and here. And a bunch of LJs and Dreamwidth journals. And a few other spots.

I was a moderator once for less than an hour, I think it was, and I cannot tell the story of that, unfortunately. Or fortunately. Probably the latter, actually. (Short and redacted form: I do not take well to being involuntarily made a moderator of a forum after I have told the person who did it that I did not want to moderate. The less-than-an-hour is the amount of time it took me to figure out how to revoke my own moderatorial status.)

#94 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 11:48 AM:

elise: If it makes you feel any better, I had to resort to Google for @88. I'd encountered the puppies one, so I at least had the basic concept to go from.

& @93: ... which is, of course, just enough to leave me burning with prurient curiosity over the details.... :-)

I've occassionally pondered doing the modding thing, but the number of occassions when mods here have intervened in a thrash that I didn't even realize was a thrash....

Obviously, not my superpower.

#95 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 11:55 AM:

Re the letter code, there's a book called C D B by William Steig, that's full of these, with fun pictures.

#96 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 11:59 AM:

OtterB @ #95:

I'm pretty sure that's "C D C" - as I recall, the illustration that goes with the title shows two people on a beach, with one pointing toward the water.

#97 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 12:34 PM:

Paul A @96 A quick look at Amazon tells me both books exist. "C D B" has two kids looking at a pollinating insect, and is the one I remember my mother enjoying. I'm not sure I've seen the other; will have to look for it.

#98 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 01:04 PM:

Syd, that's almost identical to the one my Dad told me, which he'd learned as a kid in NJ, probably in the early 1930s. He adopted a bit of a Yiddish accent to read it (hence the "V F" for "vee hef"). When he showed it to me, I'd been playing with those cryptographic math puzzles where for example you add 2 words to get a third (with each letter standing for some unknown digit), so I initially assumed it was another math puzzle, and was completely stumped.

But I'm still stuck on "Li Me". My brain keeps trying to do something with "Lithium Mendelevium".

#99 ::: Naomi parkhurst ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 02:11 PM:

I C U, by They Might Be Giants.

#100 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 02:19 PM:

#98 Jeremy Leader : He adopted a bit of a Yiddish accent to read it (hence the "V F" for "vee hef").

Accents make a *huge* difference as to whether or not puns are legible. I think one joke took me a couple of decades to get, because I'm not Cockney; I'd re-run the punchline in my head every so often: "You can't wash your hands in a buffalo?" Finally one day it clicked into place.

#101 ::: abishag ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 02:24 PM:

fidelio @ #89

Thank you for the "High Church Barbie" image. I'll remember that next time I get frustrated. On the Faith Vs. Works debate, I am (willfully) theologically ignorant, but it seems to me that a High Church liturgy, with the aerobics and the props and the solemn steps etc is actually part of the "works" that many Protestants don't care for. I am a "by their fruits shall ye know them" kind of person, and while I believe that we - all of us - gained salvation when Christ hung on the cross, and not through any thing that we do on our own, I can't see how doing good things (whether by singing a mass, or feeding the hungry and clothing the naked) could do any harm. The least these Works should be considered is maybe as a "Mitzvah". In a church that straddles the line between Catholic and Protestant, there should be no such controversy anyhow.

As for whether the Diocese has been made aware... yes, they have. Several meetings with the Bishop have been experienced. The last major outburst led to a medical leave, about which highly confidential matters the Vestry and Bishop know too much. We made plans, developed options for the Rector, and he seems to have improved somewhat, but I can sense imminent backsliding. For instance, I doubt any parishioners have gone without Last Rites since he's returned from his leave, but the Daily Masses, which are a feature of the parish that are highly important to a few parishioners have been spotty recently, and cancelled completely when he was on vacation last month.

Basically, in order to remove a Priest who hasn't done anything illegal or grievously wrong, or completely against Canon Law, we would have to have an Ecclesiastical Trial, which could last years. Since our parish is already torn apart - the town hall meeting wherein we discussed his return was literally 50/50 between parishioners who thought the Vestry were evil power-mad jerkwads intent on ruining the livelihood of a kindly priest, and those who thought the Vestry were an malevolent bunch of lily-livered idiots who were more concerned with coddling Bartleby-The-Rector than we were with the spiritual health of the parish - none of us wanted to get embroiled in that. The Bishop continues to be informed, but may have bigger fish to fry, what with a couple of parishes in the diocese deciding they hated queers and women so much that they were going to take their church and all associated monies and chattels over to the Romans down the block, tying up a great deal in a legal and ecclesiastical nightmare.

So basically, until the Rector (who I will say is a really neat human being who is maybe just not suited to this particular position) realizes he'd be happier somewhere else, or at such a time as he breaks Canon Law, we're kind of stuck. And I'm counting down the days til I can put all the drama behind me.

#102 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 03:22 PM:

re: Ducks. The way I learned it, the last three lines were:

C D E D B D II?
LI ME! M R Ducks!

(to my British-tinted ears, I think what you're hearing is "blimey!")

#103 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 03:25 PM:

s/you're hearing/you're meant to hear or read it as/

#104 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 03:54 PM:

Re: ducks -- the version I learned was like Lee @ 91, except it ended "L I B! M R DUCKS!" ("Well, I'll be! Them are ducks!")

#105 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 03:56 PM:

Not strictly relevant, but sympathy for the pinata.

#106 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 07:17 PM:

Abishag @101: That sounds very reminiscent of the last pastor for my Ex's church. She was not really suited to pastoral guidance, but wouldn't leave the church and wasn't doing anything "wrong". She ended up having several health issues which sent her to the hospital a few times; my guess is the bishop used those visits as indications "from God" that she should retire. She did, but after ten years of her neglect and poor decisions, the church is nearly dead. The stalwart congregation keep hanging in there, although they are now officially joined to another church in better condition, as a joint parish.

Even though she's my ex, I can't help but root for the church to make it -- they were very welcoming to us, and I still play the hand bells for their joint hand bell choir.


(Yes, a secular Jewish lesbian playing the hand bells in her Ex's Methodist church bell choir...I freely admit I'm a ding-a-ling!)

#107 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 09:36 PM:

abishag @101: Or maybe works is feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. You could smile at them and mention James 2:26. ("For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.") Or mention the whole swath of James 2 from 14 to 26, for that matter.

Or not. Sometimes arguments are not the things to have. Sometimes confrontation is not a goodness. It's hard to know. Though yeah, it's painful to watch as things slide further and further.

#108 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 10:04 PM:

92
The way I met that, the last line was
O K, L F M N X.

#109 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2012, 10:29 PM:

abishag @101--I am glad to hear that the diocese is aware and that an effort has been made to aim your priest at some serious help. All too often, we're so oriented on the idea of the clergy as caregivers that we do not realize that they themselves may need help and care, and are as vulnerable to physical and mental ailments as their parishioners.

The Methodists traditionally have been a lot more willing to move their clergy around from church to church*, so the idea of moving one out and another one in is not usually attended with as many procedural complications, although asking for a removal is a pretty drastic step and causes as much angst as you all seem to have been dealing with. I can see how the diocese, if it's got a major fight (especially if it's money-related) on its hands, is going to be distracted and hoping that things will improve and not require the opening of a second front, so to speak.

Also, I think dealing with people who have a vocation, but aren't well-suited to the daily wear and tear of managing a parish (and it gets pretty daily) is a weak point for a lot of the Protestant denominations. We do not always have many other options to offer such people.

Elise's textual citations are spot on, but that argument is not an easy one to have, especially with people who aren't willing to be persuaded because they like things the way they are. There's a Methodist church just down the block from where I live which has a small, elderly congregation and no interest at all in recruiting newer, younger members, despite the obvious drawbacks of such a situation; they keep things running by renting out office space to nonprofits and the sanctuary for weddings. A friend has taken over another church a few miles from here; it has a too-small but very diverse and active congregation, who also keep things going by opening the church to any acceptable activity that will bring in ready money. They do make some effort to recruit, but Nashville is not short of churches.

I see that High Church Barbie's asterisk didn't get its foot note; IIRC, it was something to the effect that tasteful neutrals replace the bubblegum pink in the majority of applications.

*Traditional old-school Methodist joke: What are the traditional sounds of spring? Birds courting, children playing baseball, and Methodist ministers moving house. They used to move every three years or so, but now tend to stay put a little longer.

#110 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2012, 01:32 AM:

Ginger @ 106:

But a truly ecumenical ding-a-ling. Or should that be ex-cumenical?

#111 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2012, 03:01 AM:

The version I heard growing up wasn't so much a riddle -- it was never written down for me to figure out -- as it was just a cute thing Mom liked to say:

A B C D goldfish?

L M N O goldfish!

O S A R...

Other household favorites include the one about the bass ("Of all the fishes in the sea / My favorite is the bass / It climbs up all the seaweed trees / And slides down on its" [significant pause] "hands and knees.") and a slightly misquoted version of Dixon Lanier Merritt's poem about the pelican. (I always thought it was one of Nash's, but I see now it's not.)

#112 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2012, 05:38 AM:

I'm not going to name any names, though assiduous detection might point you at a particular case, but the Methodist minister locally eventually ended up in a serious psychological mess. Ended up in court over some of the things that happened.

Here in the UK, the Methodists are organised as "Circuits", which share resources such as lay preachers and ministers. It's the same for Church of England parishes, especially in rural areas: Too many churches to give each one a full-time ordained priest. And the two groups are close enough that there is a lot of routine collaboration: you have joint services at times such as Christmas and Easter, and some effort to avoid clashes. There are old rivalries, which some still can remember. There was an essentially political/social-class split in many places.

I can just recall when the village where I lived still at two distinct Methodist chapels. The congregations did not socialise.

I don't know if he's still there, but when I left that village the CofE priest kept a steam engine. It seems a commonplace eccentricity--do English theological collegs have classes in locomotive engineering?

#113 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2012, 09:27 AM:

Interesting to see how many versions break pattern at the end.

The version my mother told to us was:

O, U C D E D B D B?

M N O B.

O S A R!

#114 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2012, 02:19 PM:

re: bass - that's cute.

My grandfather told two, one of which, at least was reported in his hometown's newspaper (because I've seen the Letter to the Editor cutting!)

What a wonderful bird the frog are.
When he sit, he stand, almost.
When he hop, he fly, almost.
And when he sit, he sit on what he ain't got - almost.

and

The elephant's a pretty bird
It flies from bough to bough.
It lays its eggs in rhubarb trees
And whistles like a cow.

#115 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2012, 03:27 PM:

Mycroft W #114:

Or as I learned (to some tune that may really be something else):

A frog am a mighty queer bird
Him ain't got no tail almost hardly
Him runs, and him yumps,
When him yumps him sits down
On the tail him ain't got almost hardly

#116 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2012, 04:32 PM:

Mycroft and joann-- I learned yet a third version from -my- grandmother:

What a funny little fish the froggy are
What ain't got no tail almost hardly.
When him run, him jump.
When him don't jump, him sit on him little tail
What him ain't got
Almost hardly.

#117 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2012, 05:03 PM:

I learned this version from my dad (not sure where he got it, and he's not askable):

What a wonderful bird the frog are.
When he stand, he sit almost.
When he jump, he fly almost!
He ain't got no sense hardly.
He ain't got no tail hardly neither.
When he sit, he sit on what he ain't got almost.

#118 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2012, 07:13 PM:

all - thanks! I knew there was something missing!

in Grandfather's case, "he ain't got no tail hardly, either" goes after "when he hop, he fly - almost."

#119 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2012, 08:01 PM:

The froggy he am a queer bird.
He ain't got no tail almost hardly.
When he runs he yumps, when he yumps he sits down
On the spot where he ain't got no tail.
Almost hardly.
Amen.

TTTO "Blest Be the Tie That Binds"

(The folk process has been working hard.)

#120 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2012, 09:18 PM:

119
'Blest be the tie that binds
My collar to my shirt'?

#121 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2012, 12:07 PM:

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little @ 111

Of all the fishes in the sea...

That rhyme is an example of something I've long found fascinating--rhymes where one thing is implied and somehting more acceptable is said. Two examples from older country music are from "Battle of New Orleans"
We held our fire 'til we see'd their faces well.
Then we opened up with squirrel guns and really gave 'em ... well

And from Bob Wills "Take Me Back to Tulsa"
She went down to the railroad track,
And I went there to meet her,
She pulled up her petticoat,
And i pulled out...for Tulsa

#122 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2012, 12:20 PM:

SamChevre #121: Another classic of that genre is the "Shaving Cream Song". (Wikipedia.)

Now I think I need to go shave. ;-)

#123 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2012, 12:57 PM:

SamChevre @ 121:

Another good example of that: A local celtic/folk band called Muses would play "The Red Head Song," whose every verse ended with that kind of "naughty hiatus." The chorus went,

"Oh red heads they say have all the luck
And it is said that they like to get…
Roses and daisies and tulips and posies!"

Then there are songs that do that not for the innuendo but just for the artistic effect of leaving the gap of a verbal unresolved chord in the mind, like the end of Death Cab For Cutie's "Marching Bands of Manhattan" or this one couplet from The Drowned's "Look At All the Horses"--

"The wind takes hours and it blows them all away
The scent of ancient flowers tells me what your words won't"

Kinda cool.

#124 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2012, 01:40 PM:

"Matches, matches,
You can light 'em on wood,
You can light 'em on glass;
I know a girl who can light 'em on her—kneecap!

"Matches, matches,
You can light 'em on the run,
You can light 'em at rest;
I know a girl who can light 'em on her—elbow!"

#125 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2012, 01:54 PM:

"We will all bow down to Venus,
She's the cutest and the meanest,
And she bit me on the... elbow,
And that's good enough for me!"

And of course, Oscar Brand's A Clean Song.

#126 ::: Lee has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2012, 01:55 PM:

Only 1 link, not borked, and no Words of Power that I can think of. Must have hit a pattern.

#127 ::: Clarisse Thorn ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2012, 11:43 AM:

It would be helpful if you listed your Twitter identity in this post!

#128 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2012, 01:00 PM:

Clarisse @128:

The right-hand sidebar of the front page has all kinds of stakeriffic information for the front-pagers, including the fact that I'm @evilrooster on Twitter.

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