In the early days of Stack Overflow, Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky hosted a podcast covering the rationale behind their design decisions. In those early days, Jeff and Joel talked about the community of developers they wanted on Stack Overflow. One of my favourite recurring themes during this time was around griefing (and trolling). Joel offered this neat little analogy:
This is exploiting the system basically to play a different game than the game other people in the system want to play. You’ve got a bunch of people playing chess, but you want to play “Throw the chess pieces all over the park!”
You got the sense that Jeff and Joel wanted to create a welcoming place for all walks of developers. They had first hand experience with communities that had devolved over time. They thought Stack Overflow would need to rise above those issues to succeed.
Fast forward a year or so and I decided to make a website to help settle arguments with my wife.
Yeah I know. What a stereotypical software engineer response. Disagreements with my wife? I need a website!
Picking a movie we both enjoyed was pretty difficult, we needed information to make the decision easier. So I made a movie rating website to determine if a movie was something that men liked, or one that women would prefer.
Seeing as the rating was all vote based, I wanted as many votes as possible. I didn’t want to watch Pride and Prejudice again, there had to be good stuff that we would both enjoy. So I designed the website with a low barrier to entry. It didn’t have any sign up requirements or captcha’s or anything like that. Just buttons for your voting preference.
With almost no checks in place, I wondered how long it would take before people started throwing chess pieces around the place. So a friend of mine submitted it to Reddit. Twenty minutes later ‘Debbie Does Dallas’ was the number one film women enjoyed. It had something like 100 times the votes of all the other films combined. For a grief, it was pretty hilarious.
So I installed a movie pre-populated blacklist and the request “No pornographic movies please.” It was enough to resolve the current forms of griefing. I was telling my friends about the improvements, and we talked about a more difficult test. We needed people from a place with little or no rules, a place where moderation or censorship is largely avoided. A few moments later it was on 4chan.
Well, things got interesting. Someone wrote a vote spamming script that would systematically reverse the lists. The script preserved vote the tallies exactly, but everything was back to front. Not as funny as the first grief, but impressive. Someone had put some real effort into griefing an obscure corner of the Internet I had created. More coding later, and I had some vote limits in place to reduce this sort of spamming.
I maintained the website till a few months ago, retiring it to focus on little projects I could build in a month. But the 4chan test for griefing is one I won’t forget. Need to find unexpected sources of griefing? Just paint a target on your project and take it to the corners of the Internet with little or no rules.
* Awesome sketch by Nicholas Allen.
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