I recently went to a large free software event where I met a wonderful community and had a great time.
Afterwards, I tried to follow up on some discussions by posting some resources to the community’s mailing list. From there I was redirected to a Discourse site which they had recently set up. Most settings were still in their default state.
I copied my emails from the mailing list over to new topics on the site and encountered a range of problems:
- one of the messages sent via the email interface has never appeared yet, with no feedback either, leaving me with a lack of confidence in the Discourse concept
- another attempt to submit an email resulted in a reply by email “Your account does not have the required trust level to post new topics to this email address. If you believe this is an error, contact a staff member.”
- the first time I copied an email from the old mailing list to Discourse via the web interface, I spent a few minutes adapting all the links that I had cited into the Discourse markup. When I tried to submit the post, like a nasty little dictator, Discourse replied that it doesn’t like more than 2 links in a post. I think this is the default from site_settings.yml
- when I tried to copy the next message from the mailing list, Discourse again became a dictator telling me that I have to wait 1 minute before I could submit it.
- trying to copy another message from the mailing list, Discourse complained that it didn’t like the URL in the link (there was only one link in this message)
- after all that, a big nasty message appeared telling me “Your post was flagged as spam: the community feels it is an advertisement, something that is overly promotional in nature instead of being useful or relevant to the topic as expected.”
I understand there are spammers out there, but
- the free software community should not risk insulting and wasting the time of legitimate volunteers and contributors as these are real people
- site admins who successfully ran a Mailman list may not expect their users to be treated so badly by the default configuration
- a user who has previously participated in other online communities through mailing lists and then uses Discourse for the first time and encounters all of these rules will be particularly irked by it
- censorship is, in principle, wrong and has a corrosive effect on communities. If you imagine two communities, run running Mailman and the other running a censored platform for a period of 3 years, which one will have more contributors and more diversity of ideas at the end of that period?
- most of these restrictions are just security theater anyway. E.g. the a spammer may be quite happy only posting 1 link. Some spammers are simply happy to have their brand name appearing in subject lines, with no links at all. Spammers are paid to work around these things but volunteers lose valuable time trying to change their writing style to get under the radar of this censorship.
I’d like to share a few constructive suggestions in the hope that Discourse can treat people with more respect:
- never tell the user they might be a spammer, just tell them the message is being held for moderation
- don’t give the users orders, e.g. telling them to wait or telling them to modify their messages to remove links or whatever, just put the message into the moderation queue and let the moderator give personal feedback if the message is far outside his expectations
- use other default methods, such as a captcha or moderation of the first post, to filter out spammers. Once the user has crossed that one-time hurdle, let people contribute freely without imposing on them.
- the ability for other community members to mark a message as spam is dangerous as different people have different definitions of spam and it can have an anti-social impact. It is better to send somebody a polite personal message telling them why their content is off-topic rather than an anonymous insult. If people mark a message as spam, then at the very minimum make them give a reason and show these reasons to the poster.
- tell people at the sign-up screen that their first post will be moderated, so they don’t lose time writing a message and then get taken by surprise by this policy.
- think about it like joining a Mailman list: if the effort for the user or moderator on Discourse is more than it would have been in Mailman, then the user who used mailing lists before is going to feel like they are taking a step backwards and may be disappointed by their first impression of Discourse and the community that is using it.