Yesterday I talked about online forums using a language that on the surface is similar to spoken English but in practice has its own rules. Today I want to talk about a situation where I feel moderation staff can be prone to forcing down unnatural conversation rules that get in the way of ideas developing. I want to talk about that dreaded T word that rears its ugly head.
I want to talk about Topicality.
A couple of nights ago I drove a mate home as his car was having trouble. This was around 1am. At the start of the drive we were discussing how we felt the play we had performed a few hours before had gone. Two hours later when he finally got out of the car since we were both horribly tired we were discussing the incident in Ferguson. In between those two points had been discussion on matters of personal faith, economics, issues occurring amongst common friends, childhood memories, road rules and the 1970s live action Wonder Woman. This is what communicating ideas leads to. We construct labels to our knowledge in order to more clearly communicate concepts. This causes us to create connections between things for better mental sorting. This means that in presenting an idea we come up with other ideas that spawn different ideas and lead to more ideas. We then want to communicate those ideas to each other as well. Conversations flow in all sorts of strange ways.
Forum operators don't necessarily view the board as a medium for conventional conversations to take place in. There is a notion that all ideas must be neatly compartmentalised for reader convenience. You want to talk about politics? Use the politics board. Want to give an update on how translating the latest pornographic RPG/strategy hybrid game from Alicesoft is going? Use the translation board. Want to post fanfiction based on regulars in an IRC channel? Use the politics board. I've talked before about how a strength of forums is that we have a permanent record of ideas that we can refer back to when compiling the information elsewhere, so this seems a logical way to run things.
Heavily enforcing topicality breaks the natural flow of conversations. I don't like this. When people say things, there is always a chain of logic that led to what they said. If we are able to follow a freely moving logic chain, we can gain a greater sense of how and why people reached the conclusions they did. Sometimes a comment on how awful the latest Linkin Park album is might actually help us understand something about the management of a local festival. Sometimes we could learn something about the priorities of newcomer Guilty Gear players if they keep asking about which foods Sin likes to eat.
If we have a natural flow of talk, we learn things about the people who are speaking. We gain a greater sense of what attitudes are developing in a community. We might want a discussion board to be a place for specifics, but people are anything but that. Information trading posts are inevitably viewed as locations, and it's in locations that people create communities. Group identities grow. Cultures are created. Stamping our foot down just rains on everyone's parade and ultimately makes the world a bit more stale.