# Chat and the moderation thereof

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):

1. 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.

2. 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.

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:

1. 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).

2. 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 room on 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.

• The first half of this post is informative and constructive. Thank you. The second half, on the other hand, makes several unfounded assumptions and even contradicts itself. I think it's pointless to try to categorize some discussion topics as "generally offfensive". Instead, just write down a list of topics we can't discuss in hbar, don't try to give a reason, and make that list easy to find. What you think is obviously offensive or otherwise troubling might look to another user like normal conversation. – DanielSank Feb 6 '17 at 21:36
• @DanielSank Giving a list of banned topics without justification is a bad strategy. Or if you don't believe that, at least believe that it's not a strategy we want to employ. If that's what you would prefer, you're welcome to pay attention to the set of topics and ignore the reasons. As for unfounded assumptions and contradictions, perhaps we could discuss that in chat? I'm sure ACM would appreciate the feedback. – David Z Feb 6 '17 at 21:56
• I hate to do this, but I will agree with Duffield, you guys are going crazy with the deleting. Look, you shouldn't shut everything down over the possibility that it could yield a problem. You're moderators, you should moderate the chat not outlaw everything that could somehow generate a polemic. Painting politics with a broad brush helps no one. I find the new rule wide open for arbitrary judgement on your part, and that's never good. – Bernardo Meurer Feb 6 '17 at 22:25
• from long chat participation it seems to me theres too much fixation on particular chat rooms. people want to be free to talk about whatever in particular established rooms. it seems very strange to me that people rarely exercise their freedom to create new rooms and yet SE allows anyone to do that. think maybe part of the solution is something that would help increase user mobility between related or popular chat rooms. eg "related rooms" in the sidebar or something like that... some of whats going on here is the Physics Chat room is one of the most popular on SE... – vzn Feb 6 '17 at 23:03
• @vzn one of the interesting parts of the PSE chat room is that one can (could?) casually chat about many different topics with people from all around the world. Share opinions and POVs with people from very different cultures. And that's actually amazing and very useful for all of us. But if we had to make a separate room for each topic that may arise, then all of them would become useless, because you would only find one or two people there at the time. It would not be a casual conversation that naturally evolves from topic to topic. And that's the fun part of it after all. – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 6 '17 at 23:22
• I've removed two off-topic comments from a user who does not currently participate in chat for reasons unrelated to our discussion here. I'm hoping this discussion can remain on-topic for current chat participants. – rob Mod Feb 7 '17 at 0:10
• Honestly, the moderators are often deleting things that are hardly offensive, like "you're trolling me". It's very aggravating and does not help anyone feel more comfortable in the chat. – Sir Cumference Feb 7 '17 at 18:49
• @AccidentalFourierTransform guess this issue is now resolved re ACM declaration here conceding to contrary public pressure chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/35278976#35278976 ... like chat a lot for exactly same reasons you mention; however would still like to see lots of diversity in chat rooms spread out a little more and not just a few chat rooms that are very busy & crowded, and mods might like that too if it leads to less conflict at least wrt what is "on topic" for the room which generally triggered this initial post; nearly everyone can at least agree "politics≠physics" – vzn Feb 7 '17 at 19:35

My view is that the h bar should be a place where the users of Physics SE can hang out and discuss any topic under the sun with other users of Physics SE while maintain respect for one another.

Physics is likely the most commonly discussed topic, but I don't think topics that aren't physics related should be deemed off topic and I also welcome controversial topics such as politics provided they are discussed in a respectful way.

1. Chat is a third place: When it comes to effort, the primary focus should be on keeping the main site looking its best. The secondary focus is meta, where site policies and norms are crafted. Chat, as the place for social and informal gathering, should not require much, if any, moderation work.

In the last few years we've noticed that as the number of chat participants grow, so do the odds that there will be conflict. At the same time, chat starts to seem more and more important for the community. And indeed, events such as the AMA series are excellent opportunities to bring people together and strengthen the community of this site. In turn, this lends extra urgency to chat moderation.

But remember, chat is supposed to be a relaxed social environment. It's less about important ideas (those are best for the main site) or site policies (meta) and more about whatever a bunch of people who are interested in physics might want to talk about. That might mean politics or sexy talk or the latest theories concerning baryon asymmetry or whether non-black turtlenecks are legitimate fashion statements. As long as those conversations are respectful and don't outstay their welcome, it's typically fine to talk about them.

Another trouble that comes with bigger crowds is that topics often do outstay their welcome. If I explain my views on non-black turtlenecks (grey is acceptable, but not white) odds are someone else will want to share their opinion too. And if two or three other people chime in with their amusing anecdote or ill-considered opinion, it quickly becomes overwhelming to people who just don't care. And if you actively dislike the topic, it can be infuriating to see it roll along ponderously for hours or even days.

I can't think of any upsides to using sexual innuendo in a large chat room and plenty of downsides. Putting the brakes on that seems like a good idea. Similarly, the next time someone is convinced to change their political views by conversations in public chat will be the first time. So there's great wisdom in avoiding these sorts of conversations that trip up so many growing chat rooms. That said, there can be just as much conflict over turtlenecks or baryons given the mix of people in the room. Simply banning topics of conversation just isn't sufficient to keep the peace.

Fortunately, most people in a conversation will adapt to the existing tone. If someone indicates they are uncomfortable with the current conversation, reasonable responses are to:

• Apologize,
• Change the topic,
• Find another place to continue the conversation, and/or
• Go do something else altogether.

But there are a small segment of the population that take offense, claim censorship or just generally don't care what other people think. If those people refuse to be reasonable, we have a number of moderation tools for chat mods, room owners and even other users. In extreme cases, troublesome users can be banned from chat. Far more than topic bans, removing unreasonable users is surprisingly effective at fixing a room's culture. (And even better, sometimes formally unreasonable people find their way to be reasonable. That's rarely possible when you try to moderate topics rather than behavior.)

• While I agree with 99.9% of this, without an RGB code indicating the lightest shade of grey turtleneck you find acceptable I can't be sure about the other 0.01% (#111111 and we're cool, #EEEEEE and we're not). – jmac Feb 23 '17 at 4:59

It seems to me that one of the motivations for the "no politics" policy is that it often leads to uncivil behaviour, and moderators and chat owners want to avoid such a behaviour instead of correcting it when it happens. In other words, this is a pre-emptive measure.

I would like the moderators and chat owners to discuss/expand on this:

why is it such a bad thing to let things develop, and warn/ban a user if things get out of hand?

I know that most of us want to avoid uncivil behaviour, but I really doubt that a discussion on politics will end up in threats, insults, and really bad behaviour in general. I don't think that such a discussion would escalate to a point that is intolerable. It seems to me that the worst case scenario is just a bit of profanity. And an outright ban of a topic, just to avoid a four-letter word, seems too much to me. It seems much more logical to allow any topic, and delete/move to trash those comments that step over the line. And if things really escalate, to warn/ban the users that were involved in the issue.

I am under the impression that mods and chat owners disagree with this, and I'd like to know why. I would really appreciate if someone would comment on this. Thanks.

• I agree, a preemptive approach bans what would otherwise be permissible behaviour in fear of an non-permissible behaviour. It is far better to simply ban the non-permissible behaviour. If you choose the preemptive approach it's very hard to know where to draw the line (e.g. should we just ban chat, because chat is correlated with politics and politics is correlated with insults?) – Kenshin Feb 8 '17 at 9:31

The recent undertakings in making the chat conflict-free showed, in my opinion, a deep lack of prepare or consideration from the moderation team. I talk to most of you frequently, and I know you are all honest people (Except ACM who is a robot) trying to do the best for the site, but this is really not the right direction.

For a little while now the approach to fixing problems in the h-bar is to simply shut down each and every thing that is problematic, and although that does make moderation much easier it makes the usability of the chat deeply crippled. Let's be honest, the Politics ban was put in place to fight back the wave of political discussion that followed Donald Trump's election. My problem with this yielding the ban of all political discussion is simple. Let's take a look at the definition of moderator given by the Cambridge Dictionary:

(1) Someone who tries to help other people come to an agreement

(2) Someone who makes certain that a formal discussion happens without problems and follows the rules

(3) Someone who makes sure that the rules of an internet discussion are not broken, for example by removing any threatening or offensive messages

I posted the three I found meaningful in this context, and my point is it appears to me you simply take a narrow view of what it means and behave according to Definition (3). To me, at least, definition (2) seems much more fruitful in a chat environment. You shouldn't automatically shut down every topic that goes rough every once in a while, you should actively engage in the conversation when it does and ensure the chat guidelines are being followed. There's nothing wrong with a heated discussion that doesn't break the rules.

Furthermore I'd like to take a moment to criticise how this was put in place. You looked at a message in chat that had 8 stars, one of which is from me, took it as some form of common will and used it as casus belli to ban Politics as a whole. Not only that's not fair to the people who starred that message in context, but had no intention to be part of something like this, it's lack of basic decency. I know you don't have to consult the members about room rules, not even the regulars, but just because you don't have to do it does not mean you can't or shouldn't do it.

I understand you're working on making the chat a more welcoming place for everyone, but killing it is not the right way to go forward. I'm sure you can arrive at solutions that don't involve painting topics with a broad brush and proceeding to ban them.

• do not like the "circle the wagons mentality" of mods sometimes. it looks like sometimes 1 will make a unilateral decision, in this case ACM wanting to shutdown politics in chat, & other m0ds eg DZ just taking a hands off approach and going along with it to back each other up, & possibly not much prior discussion among mods. for understandable reasons somewhat like parents of unruly kids they cannot undermine each other or the kids will take advantage of it... o_O – vzn Feb 7 '17 at 16:21
• "parents of unruly kids". I don't see how that comparison is legit. Most of the regular users of chat strongly believe in maintaining a certain level of decency in the room . @vzn – 2017 Feb 7 '17 at 17:13
• @anonymous the whole problem is that chat rooms are not really self-regulating by regular users. however, a lot of the mod actions tend to be hidden/ obscured. mods routinely move offtopic msgs to trash, (temp) block users, etc. and there are routinely encountered flags. from personal pov think these have slowly increased. it might help to have more visibility on these actions which is low due to SE design but they are not insignificant and site mods are trying to decrease that workload (which contributes nothing directly to main site); chat modding is incidental to their workload. – vzn Feb 7 '17 at 17:34

A brief summary of the arguments in this post:

1. That there was given a complete lack of explanation of thought process in the days leading up to and even after this meta post by mods - especially a poor announcement of the situation (meta post made after the mods started deleting posts).
2. That the ban of politics itself is overly broad, unclear, strange, and without precedent.
3. That there was a lack of user input in this ban in a user-input based site, and the mods have been strictly against user input (at least, until a lot of people reacted very negatively).
4. The overly strict enforcement of the ban, with too many deletions, too little explanation of what was okay and what wasn't, and general mayhem in the chatroom even if cucumber regulations by the EU came up.
5. And finally, the fact that the mods haven't done the best of jobs of communicating with users exactly what was going on, what the rules were, and why they were doing what they were doing.

A significant portion of this post is supported by a conversation had in the Physics Meta chat, some of which has been posted as an answer by ACuriousMind (though I feel that he cut out significant important portions, but that's as may be). In-chat comments mentioned will be linked wherever possible. This post will probably be updated in the near future as I think of new points or respond to whatever may happen in the comments. Finally, this post was made after ACuriousMind announced in chat the probable removal of this policy:

Since we have received little to no truly positive feedback my impression is that the main attitude here is that we should not try to have such a guideline as "try to stay clear of politics", regardless of what "politics" exactly means. Unless this changes in the next day or so, I think the next step will be to mark the meta post as a failed experiment and return to solely enforcing the Be Nice policy as such - ACuriousMind, February 7, 4:58 PM UTC

However, I decided to still post my argument for the record and to formalize the argument I made in chat.

# In-depth arguments

## Lack of explanation

This meta post is here (thank goodness) but mods enforced the rule (without much explanation, without the clear "common sense" mentioned, and with deleting) the day before the meta post went up, at minimum. When the post was finally made, after much criticism, we have not much explanation as to why this ban is even necessary. There's a quote from Shog9's post on mother meta, some hand-waving is done with precedent and uncivility in the chat and then that's it. But the paragraph before the current quote from Shog9's post is

If y'all wanna talk about politics, good on ya - this is important stuff, and deserves to be discussed. We have an entire site dedicated to the topic, and even sites that aren't dedicated to politics can still have civil political discussions. (bolding my own)

In fact, if you read the whole post, the paragraph that quoted alone makes it seem like that the community mods want us to take political discussions over to politics.SE or a different room actually falls into context and one takes it as more of a suggestion. There's no real precedent for this decision, either - in Physics Meta chat, user vzn said

@Shog9 can you think of any precedent on other sites? eg recorded in meta? it would be interesting to know of other cases around SE for comparison - vzn, 11:54 PM UTC, February 6

and Shog9 replies

@vzn Gaming has had various policies like that on and off. Currently mostly off, but at the cost of several unpleasant experiences. - Shog9, 11:54 PM

So the precedent is a paragraph suggesting it as a possible alternative in a meta post that's more focused on toning down political discussion, not removing it, and occasional on and off banning of politics on Gaming.SE. That doesn't seem to be nearly as strong a precedent as the mods seem to be saying - for example, mod ACuriousMind said at today's (February 7) chat session

However, let me also say that this wasn't borne of nothing. [...] - ACuriousMind, 4:29 PM

It wasn't borne of nothing, no, but it doesn't seem to be borne of much at all except a tiny, not really there "precedent" and a decision made amongst themselves - with the best of intents, to be sure, but perhaps not as well backed up as they claim. The mods didn't, and haven't, provided much explanation beyond this supposed precedent. There has been no explanation of the mod thought process towards this decision (which I'd especially like to know now that the mods themselves seem to be ready to mark this as a "failed experiment") which was both upsetting for chat users and also a bit disconcerting on a user-input based site.

I must also speak here against the analogies made between the ban on politics and the Be Nice policy. These are fundamentally different and cannot be compared. The Be Nice policy is, as I put it in a chat comment

a sort of universal rule - most everyone agrees we should live by it. "no politics" is not a universal rule. - heather

No politics is most decidedly not a universal rule like the Be Nice policy. The mods using this as an analogy to justify enforcing it doesn't make any sense to me. A policy like this is distinctly different and requires user input (discussed later).

The mention of user support also doesn't make much sense; as another meta post here that I agree with says:

You looked at a message in chat that had 8 stars, one of which is from me, took it as some form of common will and used it as casus belli to ban Politics as a whole. Not only that's not fair to the people who starred that message in context, but had no intention to be part of something like this, it's lack of basic decency. - Bernard Meurer

Starred messages in chat lead to the changing of the room name, and look what happened there. People got upset (though not as upset here, because it wasn't a super-serious issue, and everyone agreed on a policy to just change it back whenever it was changed). Why should this be any different? Starred messages in chat are not an indication of user agreement with a policy when made out of context, and even in context are not as reliable as a meta post - this is a more formal setting meant for the creation and implementation of policy.

### Edit (to this section only):

In response to ACuriousMind's comment below that

The "tiny, not really there 'precedent'" was neither tiny nor "not really there" but it is in the nature of SE moderation that I can't point you to it because the offending conversations have been removed from the rooms where they happened. I can only point to the fallout in form of the meta.SE posts which I have repeatedly done.

To quote my response in the comments,

I understand you discussed it, and that there may have been inflammatory conversations in other chat rooms, and that these may have lead to the meta posts you linked, but I am merely addressing what the linked meta posts say, and these truly have little to no precedent for the decision you made, which was to ban political discussion.

To elaborate on my meaning there: inflammatory discussions don't equal precedent for banning that topic of discussion. All they should mean is to keep an extra eye on discussions of that sort. The meta posts caused by these inflammatory discussions would be the place where any precedent would be created, something along the lines of "politics discussions should be banned" - but that didn't happen in the meta posts, as I describe above. So I still must stand by my point that there is little to no precedent for the ban of political discussions.

## The ban itself

The politics ban is overly broad, first of all. If the thing you're banning is large enough there's a whole stack exchange site about it, that's generally a bad sign. All semi-jokes aside though, why are we banning such a large area of discussion, especially one that's been going through without problems until Donald Trump's inauguration?

Which leads me to my next point about this ban: it's really unclear. The mods have swung back and forth between "no politics" and "no non-inflammatory politics". There's a difference, and it's important! What constitutes politics? What doesn't? ACuriousMind says that "common sense" should be brought into play, but I saw deletion going on in chat on minor items that barely mentioned politics (discussed later).

A conversation with DavidZ only emphasized further this point. Another member of the conversation mentioned the usefulness of previous discussions about politics, referencing a discussion about a past law. DavidZ responded

@DanielSank (that's barely even political, anyway) - DavidZ

and some messages later

It's barely political, to my knowledge. I don't know what else to tell you. It's just a law. - DavidZ

The user responded

That's... political by definition. - Daniel Sank

I myself found the conversation clearly political in nature. In a nutshell, we had significantly differing definitions of politics, and DavidZ's differed from ACuriousMind's, which in turn differed from Daniel Sank's and mine. If we have such widely differing definitions of politics, how can we use "common sense"? The answer is, we can't, and we must have a more clearly defined issue.

Further, we shouldn't be banning politics. The real problem is something along the lines of Donald Trump, or the immigration ban, or Donald Trump as relating to his recent election to president. The problem isn't the whole field of politics. It's something more specific, that's happened recently. Political discussions have been going on for a while without any problems. The mods should have undertook discussion with users to ascertain the truly problematic specific line of discussion (remember, users have been talking politics for a while before this ban got suggested) and then maybe if there was a general consensus, that could've gotten implemented as an experiment.

## Lack of user input

Stack exchange is by nature a site that is based on user input, both in content and in moderation. What is on or off topic is decided on meta and in reviews, by users, not mods. In the classic blog post A Theory of Moderation, Jeff says

From the very first version of Stack Overflow faq way back in mid-2008, our goal has always been to give power back to the community:

Stack Overflow is run by you!

The precedent is strongly, completely in favor of discussing these sorts of things with users, especially those users affected. But the mods in this case didn't do that. Why? I have no idea. I've seen the idea that this is analogous to the Be Nice policy, but I've shown already that this is not the case - this is about what we can talk about, kind of like rules about what we can post about on the main site. That's decided by users.

Further, the mods have stated multiple times that they weren't looking for user input! Why? This seems to be a huge mis-step.

[We're] not asking for user-sourced policy because of what we started this discussion with: Both the Be Nice policy and the confinement of politics to separate chat rooms are general SE philosophy; that's not something we physics mods just made up on the spot. - ACuriousMind

User sourced policy, especially in a case like this, is exactly what should be happening. This isn't the Be Nice policy, there isn't really a precedent - this is, effectively, something the mods have made up after a few days of private debate. Another thing the mods said:

Well, see, that's not exactly a correct characterization of how SE works. Yes, there are large areas of site policy that is determined by user consensus and that moderators merely enforce in a janitorial role. However, these are content policies regarding the main site. This is not true for behavioural policies, such as the Be Nice policy - no user base is given the choice to deviate from it, no matter how strongly the users may demand it. - ACuriousMind

Whether or not political discussion should be allowed is not the same as whether or not participants should Be Nice! The same arguments apply here. What is on and off topic for discussion has been and should be a user-input centered thing.

## Overly strict enforcement

The mods have seemed a little over-eager to delete recently, as evidenced by comments on this page (and in chat) like

[...] you guys are going crazy with the deleting [...] - Bernardo Meurer

or

Honestly, the moderators are often deleting things that are hardly offensive, like "you're trolling me". It's very aggravating and does not help anyone feel more comfortable in the chat. - Sir Cumference

And some of these were comments related to the politics ban, like

I hear there's some sort of embargo against humans coming into my country, my adopting you may not work. - Kyle Kanos

How is this comment political at all, especially in what was a joking context? When asked, ACuriousMind said that the comment

[...] triggered the rest (Emilio asking to stop, snide comments about countries with oil, etc.) - ACuriousMind

(The rest being some inflammatory comments that I haven't seen but were apparently there.) But is this really the appropriate course of action? Why was this comment removed? It seems to me a perfectly reasonable comment that falls well within the bounds of common sense. If the inflammatory comments came up, then remove them and if it has been a pattern, ban the users. Why delete a perfectly on-topic comment?

There have been multiple other examples of this issue, and while it extends beyond the question of whether or not political discussion should be allowed, it did happen multiple times where not-so political comments were deleted.

## Unclear communication

Throughout this, the mods have unfortunately had trouble explaining what they meant and not communicating at all until rather late in the game. Case in point: the mods started enforcing this rule and deleting messages at least the day before the meta post, if not earlier. The mods have also had conflicting messages about what exactly was meant by the ban (see point three), and didn't engage in conversation with users until the day of the meta post. This is unfortunate and made an already poor situation even worse. In the future, I'd request that the mods err on the side of more communication rather than less, and more user feedback rather than less.

If you have any questions/points about what I've written, feel free to comment, and I'll try my best to respond. Anyway, I'd like to point here that I'm most certainly not insulting the moderators, in fact I thank them for being willing to step back on their mistake and work to fix it. While I think there's more they could've done and can be doing, they are trying, and I still stand by the votes I cast in the recent moderator election. So I must thank them for their service, and their repeated work to make this site a great place to learn physics, as well as argue over policy on meta. =)

• Please clarify what you mean when you say, "Further, we shouldn't be banning politics. The real problem is something along the lines of Donald Trump, or the immigration ban, or Donald Trump as relating to his recent election to president." – OnStrike Feb 8 '17 at 20:25
• @theNamesCross I think she meant something similar to what I posted regarding that. D.T. caused an influx of very heated and unruly political discussion, and that's the issue, just that, not all of politics. – Bernardo Meurer Feb 8 '17 at 20:28
• @theNamesCross, what Bernardo said is exactly what I intended to come across. I'll clarify in my post. – karatechop Feb 8 '17 at 20:33
• Very nicely written. I would like to point out, though, that there have been issues with politics in the past, both in The h Bar and across the Stack Exchange network, and there isn't much reason to believe that we won't see this happen in The h Bar in the future. That said, there are compelling arguments for both banning and not banning politics, and I do agree that there was an unfortunate lack of communication from the beginning. – HDE 226868 Feb 8 '17 at 21:29
• @HDE226868, be as that may, those were never cited when mods mentioned precedent for their decision. Thank you though for the comment! – karatechop Feb 8 '17 at 21:31
• @heather I think that the meta posts linked in this message should have been convincing enough, though. Shog typically doesn't step into something unless it's bad, and doesn't make a featured meta post unless it's really, really bad on a large scale - which was the case. – HDE 226868 Feb 8 '17 at 21:34
• "snide comments about countries with oil", the h-bar is a great place – Bernardo Meurer Feb 8 '17 at 21:38
• 1. Note that the meta post has now been prefaced with a note saying what I promised in the chat comment you cite. 2. The "tiny, not really there "precedent"" was neither tiny nor "not really there" but it is in the nature of SE moderation that I can't point you to it because the offending conversations have been removed from the rooms where they happened. I can only point to the fallout in form of the meta.SE posts which I have repeatedly done. Claiming that our actions were borne of "mod fancy" rather than genuine concern I find unjustified (regardless of how wrong you think they were). – ACuriousMind Mod Feb 8 '17 at 23:39
• @heather I'll back up ACM here. The mods are usually not going to implement a policy that will get so many people throwing stones at them just for the sake of it. They do want to improve the site/chat, even if they do so in a (arguably very) misguided and/or unwanted way. – Bernardo Meurer Feb 8 '17 at 23:58
• @ACuriousMind, I understand you discussed it, and that there may have been inflammatory conversations in other chat rooms, and that these may have lead to the meta posts you linked, but I am merely addressing what the linked meta posts say, and these truly have little to no precedent for the decision you made, which was to ban political discussion. I meant the phrase "mod fancy" not to mean you just made it up because (I assume you did discuss it, in depth) but to mirror your comment right before ("borne of nothing"). I'll rephrase to clarify my meaning at that point. – karatechop Feb 9 '17 at 1:02
• @ACuriousMind, I have rephrased "mod fancy", I concede that that was poor phrasing. I have however added in part of your comment and my previous response, and argued your point that there was precedent for your decision. – karatechop Feb 9 '17 at 1:08

Here are some points that were raised in the meta chat on Feb 6/7, starting here. I'm posting this in order to inform users who might not have the patience or time to read through the entire transcript of some things that have been said. If you think there are some other good messages that should be added please leave a comment or edit it in (I favour a comment so we don't have an edit for every single message). I'm not really sure how to do voting on this thing, but I'm also not sure it's useful to anyone, so...maybe just vote this up if you think we should continue to give a such a "digest" of extended chat discussions as they happen.

# No user input/overly strict enforcement

heather, 1 star:

My proposal is to give the regulars/members of the chat room significantly more say in what is okay and what is not, like in normal site moderation, and also to be a bit less...testy (dunno if that's the word for it) in your reaction to people stepping near boundaries.

heather, 1 star:

[...] the entire SE site runs basically on users saying what's okay and what's not. Why should chat be any different?

my concern is because it has been heavily over enforced, in my view.

I don't care if you say "be nice". People don't do it, but everybody agrees with it. if you say "no politics", though, I'm upset. there's no reason to do it. (when the real problem is people aren't being nice.)

Replies by moderators:

The problem is this. The probability that politics is going to lead to unpleasantness is very high, given previous incidents across the network. If we do as you say and "lay in wait" until people get to the point where they are violating the Be Nice policy, the damage has already been done: Insults have been slung, feelings hurt and the chat conversation disrupted. What benefit is there to allow that to happen in the middle of the main chat room if we can contain it in dedicated rooms? And if it doesn't happen, no harm has been done either, and the conversation continues happily in that dedicated room.

Input from other moderators around the network:

I do have confidence in the maturity of a lot of regulars in The h Bar - certainly those here now - but discussions do have a way of getting really heated, and that's never fun for anyone. Again, this is based on a lot of incidents network-wide. So the caution here doesn't have as much to do with what could happen as with what has happened and what will likely happen at some point.

I don't... Really consider this overly strict, but I may be callous; I generally just delete (vs. move) discussions I feel are problematic, so this actually strikes me as a fairly light touch.

# Politics is too unspecific/"Everything is political"

Objections:

The biggest problem here, with everything you're saying, is that "politics" is way to broad of a topic to ban given the evidence we have on PSE.

your ban is not "common sense" like this is saying. mods have deleted every comment even mentioning politics.

This is the other problem: you guys are using "political" to mean "political stuff that's likely to cause trouble". That's just lazy language, plain and simple.

You guys are playing a dangerous game. You've written policy "no politics", but then in reality you're willing to allow disobedience of the written policy so long as you're ok with the violation.

DanielSank, 1 star:

Don't ban "politics". Start small, i.e. "Recent discussions about the US immigration policy have been problematic, so we're temporarily banning it in hbar (but other rooms are unaffected) until we can craft a more precise policy".

Response from users:

vzn:

look guys (DS + heather) am all in favor of free speech/ no censorship but those concepts are sometimes a lot blurrier than you would think in cyberspace/ chat rooms

vzn:

you guys are all heated up about a single room on SE. there are zillions of rooms. admittedly its a cooler room, but anyway...

Response from moderators:

While it's evident we need to clarify what exactly the "ban on politics" entails, you should be prepared that there will always remain some sort of grey area. Working on minimizing it is good, though.

Input from moderators around the network:

I still stand by that the problematic discussions take away much more than the productive ones give, but again, that's based on negative experiences I've had in a variety of chat rooms, meaning that I think it's likely the same thing will happen in The h Bar in the future.

It's at best a useful guideline, to help folks gauge their own activity and to help mods / ROs identify potentially problematic discussions before they get out of control.

• It might be worth nothing that Shog9 is a Community Manager, and so has seen a lot and, frankly, is probably better qualified to judge some things than most of the rest of us. – HDE 226868 Feb 7 '17 at 14:40
• +1 for all that effort but no idea what an upvote signifies here lol except maybe some delight that my throwaway/ meandering comments were quoted as possibly meaningful :P ... anyway alas the old phrase by shakespeare comes to mind, "much ado about nothing"... am amazed sometimes how much time mods have for the chat room, dont think they should have to spend much effort/ be expected in defusing conflicts there, esp since none of it contributes to rep, and sympathize with efforts to try to decrease overall conflict, which tends to increase with the popularity of the chat room... – vzn Feb 7 '17 at 16:15
• I think you removed some very important comments here. Shog9 made some comments in favor of Daniel and myself and you didn't include those. – karatechop Feb 7 '17 at 21:29
• ACM is fake news – Bernardo Meurer Feb 10 '17 at 15:59

This is a purely personal view and does not reflect any official policy.

Over the last few months I’ve found the chat room to be a pleasant place to hang out. Everyone is good natured and friendly. I’ve had many useful discussions about physics, and the non-physics related discussions have been generally good humoured and sometimes very funny. Specifically the chat room has been conflict free. Let me highlight that:

The chat room has been conflict free

If I want conflict I have only to turn on the TV. If I don’t want conflict then, well, I hang out in the physics chat room.

The problem is that any area in which people hold strong views is impossible to discuss in a relaxed and agreeable way. Even in real life, where we can judge how much offence we are causing by visual cues, arguments frequently get heated. In the relative anonymity of chat room heated arguments are the norm not the exception.

So I don’t want those topics discussed in the chat room, and politics is one of those areas. That’s my view, and many will claim this leads to a rather anodyne conversation. Yes, it does, and that’s just fine by me. I’m not saying these issues are unimportant and/or shouldn’t be discussed, I’m saying I don’t like them discussed in the h Bar.

So that’s my view. As usual feel free to up/down vote to register agreement or disagreement.

• "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." ;-) – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 7 '17 at 10:44
• @AccidentalFourierTransform: Which bit of I’m not saying these issues are unimportant and/or shouldn’t be discussed, I’m saying I don’t like them discussed in the h Bar wasn't clear? – John Rennie Feb 7 '17 at 10:45
• I've said this already. Having a separate chat room for every topic that may come up defeats one of the purposes of the chat itself. I like the hbar because conversations move from topic to topic in a natural way, most of the times revolving around physics. A chat where we can only talk about pure physics is not interesting to me, and I suspect, for most chat regulars. Having people gather in a separate room to discuss a random political topic is not interesting to me; but a conversation that moves from physics to politics+physics is. – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 7 '17 at 11:01
• @AccidentalFourierTransform "Having a separate chat room for every topic that may come up defeats one of the purposes of the chat itself. " is not a fair characterization of what is being said. We have identified a specific topic (as a different matter, the "topic" itself is a bit vague, perhaps too much so, see around here in the meta chat) that is disproportionally likely to lead to uncivil conversation and conflict; no one has proposed or intends to propose to restrict the h bar to "physics only", either. – ACuriousMind Mod Feb 7 '17 at 12:01
• @ACuriousMind but it sets a precedent. If there happens to be a very polemic breakthrough in biology in the next few months, we would automatically ban that biology too, because that's what we did to politics. – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 7 '17 at 12:05
• @AccidentalFourierTransform I suspected that that was your concern; nevertheless such a slippery slope argument is different from claiming the scenario you describe is already the case and I wanted to have that made explicit. Responding to the slippery slope concern will take a bit more than this comment box can hold. – ACuriousMind Mod Feb 7 '17 at 12:11
• The strategy of telling people to just go make their own rooms is a coward one. The discussion in place pertains to the h-bar. If we wanted we could have a goddamn Telegram or Skype group and talk about whatever all day, we all know that. We like the h-bar, and we want to continue to frequent it and engage there. Problem is moderation is making it harder and harder. – Bernardo Meurer Feb 7 '17 at 14:14
• @BernardoMeurer: the key point of my post is that I don't like conflict, and you are calling people cowards and using the word goddamn. Do you really not see the irony here? Are we supposed to believe you can discuss politics in the chat room without it becoming equally heated? – John Rennie Feb 7 '17 at 15:26
• @JohnRennie What's wrong with "goddamn"? And you're not crafting rules for me, you do so for everyone, as I say in my answer if I break the rules I should be punished for it, but we should outlaw the whole discussion because of that. Also I meant to say the strategy was coward, not that the people employing it are cowards directly. I guess it's the same thing though. – Bernardo Meurer Feb 7 '17 at 15:34
• *shouldn't outlaw the whole discussion... – Bernardo Meurer Feb 7 '17 at 15:43
• "I don’t want those topics discussed in the chat room" ... finding this hard to follow. you chatted about Brexit heavily last summer in the chat room, the transcript is full of refs. & is that a bad thing? commented on it myself a few times. finding the "evolution" in your position on this confusing/ inconsistent. also, to say the chat room has been conflict free seems not accurate. (eg) there have been repeated bans over last few months. a record of bans (not available) would clearly reveal that. also a lot of movement of posts to Trash by mods. etc... not signs of "conflict free"... – vzn Feb 7 '17 at 16:23
• "The problem is that any area in which people hold strong views is impossible to discuss in a relaxed and agreeable way." <-- I disagree with that rather strongly. I have a very strong view on that, in fact, and yet I would characterize this comment as perfectly relaxed and agreeable. – DanielSank Feb 8 '17 at 21:12
• @BernardoMeurer Sorry of any confustion, but you took some liberties - I dont want to ban discussion - I stated why I think a subset of discussions should be avoided in the main chat room, thats all. – OnStrike Feb 8 '17 at 23:43

I am not heavily invested in the chat rooms and I dont think its been a (major) problem. But, in my opinion, the main chat room ("the h Bar"), should avoid politics and equally contentious topics. Given their (subjective) nature and scope, sparse discussion is natural, but excessive debate should be avoided or moved to other chat rooms within Physics.SE.

I participate on Physics.SE for the quality and purity of content, the professionalism, and the community moderation. Its a refreshing sanctuary from constant discord in the media, etc. - and my optimism is renewed when I see talented people working together, joking, and doing what they love.

I fear that contentious topics:

• Waste valuable moderation time because they require constant oversight
• Place moderators in a no-win situation, where decisions are inherently subjective and any action is open to perceived bias
• Distract from physics, the explicit focus of the site - when discussed, they dominate conversation - after all, people can discuss them in other chat rooms within Physics.SE or on more relevent SE sites (ie. politics, skeptics, etc.)
• Create a toxic atmosphere, and they are nearly impossible to ignore - sure, they're important, but users are excluded from chat if avoiding them. Too often, they are disrespectful. We have the 'Be Nice' policy... thats great, but its also been largely ineffective. We dont need that in the main chat room.

If we avoid such topics on "the h Bar", I think it would have a better atmosphere and allow more open-ended topics, with limited oversight required. I think moderation can (and should) be driven by chat participants in place of moderators.

For what its worth, I recently came to this conclusion after the CEO of Stack Exchange, Joel Spolsky, posted an overtly political opinion on Meta Stack Overflow.

It created a toxic atmosphere, and to many (including myself), the post violates most aspects of the official SE policy on political posts, intended to limit conflict. Regardless of the post's political content, the community agreed that was off-topic and violated the 'Be Nice' policy. Worse, it created a close/reopen war, where moderators (including Joel himself) unilaterally reopened the post (multiple times) after the community had closed it.

Ultimately, I think its troubling that the SE team believes in community moderation and the ethos we collectively respect and enforce only when it suits them. Stack Exchange exists because millions of people (like you) donated their time and expertise. To me, using it as a political grandstand abuses our trust and efforts, and its narcissistic to believe its the righteous decision.

To be clear, I think the moderators here do a great job ...thank you! But, Joel's post and the responses from Stack Exchange give me pause moving forward, especially where politics and moderation intersect in central venues.

• I disagree with your idea to avoid political topics in chat, but I must admit, I'm rather saddened by Joel's post, and the close/reopen war behind it. Political plugs don't belong here. – karatechop Feb 8 '17 at 12:27
• I appreciate the feedback, @heather. I understand that view - a short time ago, I felt the same. But Ive come to think, to a lesser extent, that excessive political debate in chat is exactly that, a political plug where it needn't be. Take care, you know where the upvote button is when you change your mind ;) – OnStrike Feb 8 '17 at 12:52