After discussion at the biweekly chat session starting here and looking at the answers and comments to this post, the feedback appears to be overwhelmingly negative. As anticipated at the end of the session here, it therefore seems that the second part of this meta post should be considered obsolete. Even though there was some positive feedback, we're not going to have a chat policy that is not backed by a clear majority of users. Going forward, the only policy governing the h bar is the Be Nice policy itself, as it were.
So, there has been considerable dissatisfaction with recent moderator actions in the h bar, physics.SE's main chat room, at least in part because people feel they have not been properly informed about the rules, policies, and consequences of violating them. We'd like to take the opportunity to correct that by giving more detailed thoughts, based on general SE philosophy as laid out on meta.SE, on what the h bar ought to be like and how we're going to achieve it.
What is chat?
Granted, that sounds like a stupid question in this day and age, but it's not, at least not in the context of SE. See, for instance, Toward a philosophy of Chat for a recent discussion about what chat is - and is not. Let me reiterate the indisputable facts about SE chat that are listed there (in a condensed fashion):
Chat is public and non-anonymous: Everything you say in chat is inextricably linked to your SE account, and after a grace period of 2 minutes you can neither edit nor remove it. Furthermore, all transcripts are completely open to be read by the public, even non-SE users, forever. There is no expiration date on the things you say in chat and no restriction on who can read it, or when.
Chat is moderated: All elected and appointed moderators of all sites and all SE employees possess full moderatorial power in all chat rooms. They are not confined to the rooms of the site their diamond originates from and they are, in a bind, expected to moderate all chat rooms if necessary. Furthermore, users with a total reputation of more than 10k can decide whether rude/offensive flags are valid or invalid, once again across all chatrooms. The only exception to global power are room owners, who are granted moderatorial powers only in the rooms they own.
The last point in particular implies that it's not the chatters themselves who decide the rules. In particular, regardless of how many regulars you get supporting you, the Be Nice policy always applies, and it is the moderators' and room owners' judgement call to act on its violation. In case they abuse their power, proper recourse is, in order of increasing severity, a) to have a friendly discussion about it, b) make a meta post about it, c) contact SE staff through the "Contact Us" form. Proper recourse is not, for instance, to further violate the Be Nice policy by attacking moderators, or to continue violating rules that have been set down, even if you disagree with their reasoning.
So this is the structure of chat. What about its content and purpose? The original blog post introducing chat phrased it thus:
But I think a web-based real time chat system like Campfire could offer that informal public gathering third place -- a space for people who love the topic to meet, discuss, and collaborate in a different way. It would foster community, and be complementary to both strict Q&A;, and meta-discussion.
and in the more recent post linked earlier, Shog9 adds:
Over the years, folks have used a lot of different metaphors to describe chat: the watercooler (informal work conversations), the tavern (socialization after work), etc. These metaphors work, to a degree... But they also leak when stretched too far: you can't have 20 people all gathered around one jug of water, and rarely does anyone talk to everyone crowded into their local inn, much less expect them to listen and respond constructively. Yet, these scenarios are common in chat. And these forms of social interaction are the source of the problems described above, which cannot easily be resolved with fanciful comparisons to physical gathering-places.
So by its very nature, chat is going to support more than one conversation at once, sometimes along each other, sometimes asynchronously stretched over several days whenever one of the participants logs in. Due to the permanence of chat transcripts, it is important to realize that chat is not limited to real-time conversations, and that users do not need to participate in every conversation right there to read, think about, and perhaps finally reply to it.
Also by its very nature, chat is supposed to be related to the SE site it is associated to; it is expected that physics.SE's chat will be a good place to discuss physics or the site itself, gaming.SE's chat a place for video game discussion, and so on. The informal nature of the third place means however that the discussion topic itself need not always revolve around the chat's site's actual topic. When humans (or AIs) with a common interest socialize, they tend to talk about many things that are not actually related to their common interest, and that's fine. However, on SE chat, these unrelated topics are second-class citizens: There is no reasonable expectation that any given topic will be considered on-topic in a room whose main topic it is unrelated to. Both the room description and the people present are the main source of information about what goes where.
Making chat a place for everyone
As laid out above, chat is for all SE users. You can choose to ignore it, you can choose to visit it occasionally, you can choose to hang out there all the time, your choice. That means that we view the evolution of exclusionary "room culture" - subsets of users who consider the room "theirs" - with suspicion and concern. Regular visitors to a chat room are going to develop a certain familiarity, and that's fine. In-jokes, references to earlier events or users, re-starting a conversation from months ago, no problems there. However, familiarity does not, in any way, invalidate what I have outlined above about the structure and goals of chat. The moderatorial power over the chat room lies with the moderators and room owners, not with the users making up the room culture, and SE rules supersede room cultural norms. Being a regular does not grant you leave to violate the Be Nice policy, not even under the guise of "we know each other, it's not what it looks like". Remember, chat is public - what "it looks like" is precisely what everyone is seeing. Chat is not private - if you want to have conversations which will be interpreted badly if one is not familiar with the participants and their history, then chat is not the place to have that conversation.
That chat is for everyone and needs to support more than one conversation also means that topics which are inherently off-putting to a sizable number of people are off-limits. This includes no-brainers like child abuse, violent images or detailed discussion of bodily function, but also includes any other topic deemed disruptive to civil discussion and a welcoming atmosphere. Once again, as laid out above, the ultimate judgement of what is disruptive lies with those with moderatorial power over the room, not with the regulars, although it is certainly conducive to a welcoming atmosphere to consider the regulars' input as well as newcomers' input.
In particular, there are two topics that we feel for various reasons are not conducive to civil behaviour in the h bar:
Sexual innuendo: The Be Nice policy, as a subset of not being a jerk explicitly calls out "[i]nappropriate language or attention. Avoid vulgar terms and anything sexually suggestive. Also, this is not a dating site." Once again, remember chat is public and the minimum participant age is 13. Don't say anything to another user that you wouldn't say to a 13-year-old while their parents are standing right next to you (possibly with a large baseball bat if that helps your decision process).
Politics: Triggered by recent occurences in other chat rooms across the network, this meta post gives guidelines on how to have constructive, civil discussions about politics in chat. Of particular note is the following passage:
But if you want to do that [discussing politics], if you've found others who also want to have that conversation, then make a room for the topic, welcome anyone interested who is willing to be civil, and then actually take it seriously.
We have seen too much hate and stupidity and harm and intolerance over the topic of politics both online and offline recently. The h bar is, first and foremost, intended to be a physics chat room, where physicists come to discuss physicsy things - or just socialize. Having a highly emotionally charged debate (and a proper debate with arguments instead of insults or jokes is what you're going to have to have in order to not be a jerk about this) is not socializing, it's a debate. It's inappropriate for an informal gathering place as such a charged topic tends to override all other conversations, whether it intends to or not. So everyone wanting to have a political discussion is kindly requested to take it elsewhere.
If you can abide by the rules of chat at large - in particular, once again, the Be Nice policy - then that elsewhere can be just another chat room on this network, one you create for that express purpose. To create a room, go to chat's main site and click on
create a new roomon the bottom. The creator will automatically be a room owner with all privileges that entails - and will be expected to keep order in that room, like everyone else with moderatorial powers.
Note that this ban on political discussion is of course subject to common sense, and subordinate to its goal of prohibiting inflammatory discussion. You will not be banned for mentioning the newest EU regulation on cucumber curvature, or curiously asking what political structure another country has, etc. It should be pretty evident in most cases whether a given topic has the potential to be inflammatory or not - if in doubt, make another room for it or just ask. Even if I have repeatedly stressed that the ultimate power lies with the moderators and room owners, this does not mean you should live in continual fear of triggering their wrath. We don't want to take action, really, and compromises can be made; policies changed if their intent is not achieved.
So let's be decent human beings and have a chat room where everyone is welcome.
Although this meta post doesn't ask a question, your input is of course welcome. Leave a comment, leave an answer, or discuss in the meta chat room. We're probabaly also going to discuss it at tomorrow's chat session.