[Tango-L] How the Tango-L List is Moderated

Shahrukh Merchant shahrukh at shahrukhmerchant.com
Wed Feb 6 14:03:57 EST 2008

Since the subject comes up once in a while, and some people have some 
misconceptions about how it works (or just plain curiousity), here is 
the gist of it.

In general, it is greatly to the advantage of the moderators NOT to have 
anyone on moderation status, as it just creates more work for them. 
There are basically two ways people get on moderated status.

a. When anyone first subscribes to the list, he is automatically on 
moderated status. This is mostly to prevent spammers from subscribing 
and then sending spam, and was implemented recently on Tango-L. It has 
the side benefit of catching most newbie errors as well (e.g., 
unnecessarily attaching the entire content of the previous email). After 
a few postings (sometimes as few as one), the person is removed from 
moderated status.

b. Someone is put on moderated status by the moderator for intentional 
and/or severe and/or repeated list abuse or rules violations, or for a 
statement of intent to do so.

c. There is actually a third category, which I use once in a while, sort 
of a blend of (a) and (b), which is to get the attention of someone who 
has some relatively minor violation (e.g., unnecessarily attaching the 
entire previous email), but who seems to ignore the repeated emails I 
send to them pointing this out. It generally gets their attention when 
they HAVE to read and act on the reminder email in order for their posts 
to get through. This is really more like putting someone back in 
category (a), since they are newbie type errors, rather than intentional 
or severe rules violations.

Hence, most of the rest of the discussion will focus on category (b): 
"Intentional and/or severe and/or repeated list abuse or rules 
violations, or for a statement of intent to do so." (As usual in such 
cases, it is 1% of the posts or posters that end up needing 90% of the 
maintenance effort.)

To put things into context, let me mention three points:

i. There are, at this point in time, more people in category (b) than 
there have every been in the history of Tango-L, and this number is a 
large whopping THREE (3). I.e., it's an insignificant problem as far as 
I'm concerned in terms of list membership but a significant nuisance in 
terms of my time, because it's 0.3% of the list membership demanding 
significantly more than their share of the moderators' time.

ii. Since I started enforcing the rules, particular the "no flames" 
rules, the exodus of about 10 people per month leaving because they are 
sick of the bickering and rudeness has been stemmed (and they are 
generally the civilized people one would LIKE to keep in such a group).

iii. I am not prepared to devote more than 1 month of my lifetime to 
attending to list-member requests (particular those that come out of 
intentional rules violations), which if you take the simplistic view 
that 1000 people will request some kind of assistance at 15 minutes 
each, well that's thirty-one 8-hour days right there. (I can't imagine 
being on my deathbed, saying, "My only regret in life is not having 
spent more time administering Tango-L ....") And I am much more willing 
to push that number for people having genuine technical or other such 
problems with their postings, than people who arrogantly demand my time 
because they feel that they are above the rules.

So, with these preliminaries out of the way, here is the approximate 
algorithm for enforcement of the Tango-L rules.

1. If someone is in category (a) (temporary or default moderation) and 
the posting is fine, I let it through and generally clear the moderation 
flag after a small number of good postings. If there is a problem, even 
a small one, I point it out along with a summary of the rule in question 
and a link to the rules page, and invite the poster to correct and resubmit.

2. Every so often, I scan the Tango-L postings and send reminders to 
those who have violated the rules. Most common are "unnecessary quoting 
of entire previous email," "unrelated to tango" and "1-liner trivial 
posting" (which for some bizarre reason seems usually to be accompanied 
by "unnecessary quoting of entire previous email"). NONE of these 
results in someone being put on moderation--it is just an attempt to 
improve the quality of the postings a little. The usual response I get 
to these is (a) none (which is fine--it's a reminder) (b) an "OK, thanks 
for the reminder" or (c) some kind of justification ("I'm a Buddhist 
haiku poet and MY 1-liner was replete with meaning, but fine, if you say 
so ...").

3. If it's a flame I see on Tango-L, then it depends on the nature of 
the flame and and posting history of the poster. Recall that it has been 
stated strongly in the rules and in postings by me to the list that 
flames are the most strongly enforced rules and that my limited time 
does not allow me to be subtle in my response to them (i.e., expect a 
sledgehammer approach). Even so, if it's a mild flame, "OK, who died and 
made you Tango God?" or "Is your tango as bad as your postings?" from 
someone who has stepped out of line the first time, but is generally a 
good contributor, he or she gets a warning. Anonymous or possibly 
anonymous posters get treated more strictly in this regard as they are, 
intentionally or otherwise, hiding behind their anonymity. If it's a 
full-scale rant against someone, or a repeat offence, they get put on 
moderation immediately. I.e., they get put in Category (b) above: "for 
intentional and/or severe and/or repeated list abuse or rules 
violations, or for a statement of intent to do so."

4. If someone is in category (b), it is because he either (i) posted a 
vicious flame (or a repeated one) or (ii) have declared that they don't 
consider the Tango-L rules valid (or applicable to them) and don't 
intend to follow them (i.e., a future flame-thrower or nuisance).

In all these cases, he would get an email that says that before posting 
any more to Tango-L, he would need to do all the following steps:

- Read or reread the Tango-L rules;
- Send an email stating that they have done so, and intend to follow the 
rules henceforth;
- Actually follow the rules henceforth.

Most people who just stepped out of line "in a moment of passion" do so, 
and get taken off moderation (not necessarily immediately depending on 
their history of violations), but their legitimate posts get through 

Those who refuse to send the mail (saying they agree to abide by the 
Tango-L rules), or send a mail stating that they don't intend to, or are 
above them, or consider them illegitimate, or consider such a request 
patronizing, or that their pride is hurt or whatever, don't get any more 
mail from me, nor do their postings get through anymore. It was stated 
quite unambiguously what they need to do to get off moderation, and this 
is nothing more than what all list members have agreed to implicitly by 
joining the list, except they have been asked to state it explicitly 
since they have violated the implicit trust. That offer remains open 
more or less indefinitely, but since they have by then used up their 
lifetime supply of "15 minutes of moderator's time that he's willing to 
spend with problem or arrogant members," they don't receive any more 
communication from me, but they know what they need to do (send the mail 
or unsubscribe).

What about "MY RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH?" (visualize trumpets, halos, 
Statues of Liberty ...) It is rather puzzling that someone would 
interpret this as applying to Tango-L ("A victim of an incompetent high 
school civics teacher," chuckles an attorney friend, but more likely 
just an attempt to appeal falsely to a higher ideal to justify boorish 
behaviour.) When I see that kind of response as an excuse for violating 
the Tango-L list rules, I instantly translate it to, "I want to post 
what I want, without regard for the rules," sort of like wanting to 
spray-paint graffiti on someone else's building ("It's free speech, 
isn't it?"). Answer: You'll have to find a different place to do so.

As the creator of the list, I fully realize that the list is the sum 
total of the contributions by its members. And that some leeway in 
interpretation and enforcement of rules is warranted and beneficial in 
instilling a welcoming ambience and one open to discourse. But anyone 
who thinks that it is a forum for them to say what they want and behave 
as they will without regard to the list participation rules is doomed to 
frustration on most Internet mailing lists or discussion groups, and 
certainly on Tango-L.

A far better model for Tango-L (than a soapbox to demonstrate ones 
"Freedom of Graffiti") is perhaps a party--let's say a Milonga, for even 
easier identification. No admission charge for the Milonga. You can even 
leave your flyers at the designated flyer table (Tango-A). As with any 
party, there are rules of behaviour that are expected. The host takes a 
light touch with enforcing them since he wants to be welcoming, and 
besides he wants to dance a few tandas too and doesn't want to spend the 
whole time watching (or having to watch) to see how people are behaving. 
Besides, he wants a lot of people to come to the Milonga (any party is, 
after all, the sum of the presence of the guests, with the host just 
enabling it and perhaps setting the ambience to some extent), even those 
who dance different style of Tango than he does. He doesn't want it to 
be like one of those uptight Milongas he's heard about where everyone 
gives you dirty looks if you do anything that hasn't been done for at 
least 20 years in Buenos Aires. But of course it has to be done 
respecting other people at the Milonga, the venue, etc.

But every so often someone comes in and insists on dancing against line 
of dance, colliding into people, reserving tables for 16 people even 
though they never show up just so he can spread out, tracking mud into 
the dancehall, ... The host knows that this diminishes the enjoyment of 
others, and that the regulars are going to stop coming if this 
antisocial behaviour continues, and certainly are enjoying themselves 
less as a result, and that people are looking to him to control it. It 
takes away time from his own dancing, sipping champagne and socializing, 
but he knows that he needs to do it to keep the Milonga from spiralling 
downwards into a place that only the boors come to, because only they 
can put up with each other. So he reminds the errant guests of their 
obligations, and most apologize and accept (they had just got carried 
away with the energy of the Milonga, as it turned out). But one or two 
refuse, claiming that, "No one owns Tango and it belongs to the world 
and hence I can dance the way I want. And no one owns my soul and hence 
I can behave the way I want."

They proceed to start insulting people and acting like they owns the 
place, forgetting that they are really guests. They spit at people and 
pinch the women's (and men's) bottoms and laugh when they shriek. And 
even if they don't, they insist that they have the right to do so, and 
that they will whenever they feel like it. So the organizer tells the 
person at the desk not to let them in until they have agreed to observe 
all the rules of the Milonga and of acceptable social behaviour. One 
chooses to do so, the other stops coming ... no one misses him and after 
a while people start to comment on how the Milonga has become more 
pleasant recently ... One or two say, "Well, actually I do kind of miss 
him in some ways, obviously not for his behaviour, but some of his jokes 
were funny, but true, we'd have lost 50 other regulars if he'd continued 
the way he did." Perhaps the one who doesn't come back will start his 
own Milonga (he can even put out his flyer on the table if he does). 
Perhaps it will wither away or perhaps it will be successful and cater 
to a different, more "in you face," crowd. Perhaps the original Milonga 
will wither away and the new one will become the dominant one (the 
"boor" turned out to be a "visionary"--who'd have guessed?!). Who knows? 
Diversity and Darwinism will ultimately prevail.

Returning to the Tango-L world ... So what happens if someone doesn't 
agree with the list rules? Well, they have a right to leave the list; in 
fact they have an obligation to do so. As stated in the list rules, "Any 
members subscribing to this list agrees to unsubscribe immediately if 
they do not agree with all the usage rules stated here, and agree to 
seek help in unsubscribing if they cannot do so themselves by sending an 
email to tango-L-owner at mit.edu requesting such assistance." They are 
also free to send an email proposing changes in the rules to 
tango-L-owner at mit.edu, but the rules have served the list well for 10 
years now (an eternity in Internet time) and while some fine-tuning 
still gets done to cover the occasional new situation that comes up, 
whole-scale changes are unlikely.

tango-L-owner at mit.edu
Tango-L and Tango-A home page: http://www.tango-L.com/
Tango-L rules: http://www.tango-L.com/tango-L-rules.htm

P.S. This email is not written for the benefit of the errant few (it is 
usually a waste of energy to do so)--it is written for the benefit of 
the majority of the list members, so they understand the process I go 
through in moderating the list. I would hardly claim it's a perfect 
process by any means, but it's the one we have. There was a time when 
there were three moderators and an "appeals" process for those whose 
posts were rejected by one moderator. There was perhaps ONE posting 
where this process resulted in a reconsideration, but this fell apart, 
mostly because most of the time was spent on clearly inappropriate posts 
that didn't merit the time spent on reconsidering them, given the 
limited time availability of the moderators.

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