Monday, April 18, 2011

Introverts, Conflict & Community Rules

The INFP forum (which I first posted about last week) doesn't have its own official rule document; instead there is just one short list of rules that cover all of Personality Café's various forums. It briefly covers the most obvious unwanted behaviors, such as spamming, trolling, flaming, and sockpuppets, as well as less malicious infringements such as incoherent spelling, and off-topic posts. Interestingly, the rules seem to make a distinction between flaming as deliberate harmful actions, and generally rude behavior such as discriminatory remarks (a list of which, besides the obvious offenses such as racism, sexism, and the like, specifically includes "typism"= discrimination by personality type). The document doesn't include any information as to what consequences potential rule-breakers may face, or advice for forum members on how to deal with infractions directed at or observed by them (although the FAQ, located in a completely different area of the site, does address this issue).
part of the Forum Rules
(full document here:

Back in the INFP forum, it wasn't easy to locate even small instances of rules being broken. At first I considered the possibility that any such incidents would simply be quickly and quietly removed by moderators, but exploring the whole site further I discovered a thread in which moderators documented all observed cases of offense, pointing out exactly how the user in question broke the forum rules, and what was done to remedy the situation. All of those examples also included links to the original rule-breaking situations, which were left un-edited with the exception of removing offensive or private information or images. So there must be another explanation for the lack of any visible cases in the INFP forum.

Moderators documenting rule-breaking & sanctions

A possible reason may be related to the particular nature of the INPFP personality type, which in all probability is a major influence on the unofficial and unwritten rules that govern interaction in that particular forum. Rather than reacting in an openly critical or judgmental manner to posts and users that don't fit in or violate either written or unwritten rules, the most common responses in the INFP forum seem to involve either offering advice on how to correct the improper behavior, or simply ignoring it altogether. The possibility of members alerting moderators in private can't be ignored either, but with no cases sowing up in the "Infractions" thread, one could conclude that this forum simply doesn't attract many troublemakers, and the offenses that do show up are usually minor and easily ignored or dealt with internally. This certainly seems to make the forum a relatively peaceful place, but it also makes for three pretty unexciting examples of rule-breaking situations, none of which necessitated any moderator involvement. Even posts on topics that commonly attract conflict due to widely differing views, such as religion, simply didn't provide me with any juicy rule-breaking material.

1. rule #7: Post Legibly & rule #12: No Discriminatory Remarks
A user posts an emotional rant titled "I HATE having this personality!", detailing why being and INFP sucks terribly, CAPSLOCK (which violates rule #7) and swearing inclusive. Although he doesn't address another user directly, his broad negative statements about the personality type could definitely count as "typism". His post attracts quite a few comments of users being sympathetic to his plight, at most asking him nicely to calm down and relax, and letting him know he's not the only one feeling that way.
At least one commenter is critical of his stereotypical descriptions of the personality type, another replies with this image, and several disagree with his perceptions or point out why being an INFP can be pretty awesome, yet almost all these disapproving replies lack real unfriendliness, and certainly no one reported the original user for any rule violations. One of the commenters points out that despite the fact that the poster, as a newbie to the forum, in essence told everyone there that as INFPs they really sucked, he still received a lot of thoughtful and even welcoming responses, and that alone should tell him something. To me that also sums up the mentality and the positive of the community to deal with conflict and rule-breaking quite nicely… but of course there's always more than one side to the story.


2. rule #6: Post with Quality in Mind
This rule essentially discourages off-topic posting. The Personality Café site includes a large number of forums specifically for different personality types and theories, as well as places for discussion completely unrelated to psychology or personalities, covering pretty much all the various ways users might want to express themselves, which makes off-topic posts even more unnecessary. The still pop up quite frequently though, and finding several instances in the INFP forum was not hard… I simply looked for all the posts with zero comments, and the large majority will be unrelated to any specific INFP issue. For example, a user posted a quote about frustration from another site, without explaining how this related to the community or INFPs.
Rather than pointing out that fact to the posters or making moderators aware so such content can be moved elsewhere, those posts are simply ignored and so vanish into history. Admittedly many of them sit somewhere on the borderline of being off-topic (unlike my next example), so there may not actually be a real need for moderators to deal with them, but their existence does illuminate a certain passivity and unwillingness to become involved on the side of the community.

off-topic post with no replies

3. rule #6 again
This is the flipside of the previous situation, in that some of the most active threads in the INFP forums are actually wildly off-topic and even less related to the personality type or anything connected with it than the previous example. Threads such as "Post funny youtube videos" or "how was your day" tend to attract a large number of comments, yet if one goes strictly by the forum rules, they don't belong in the INFP forum at all, especially since Personality Café offers several forums for such off-topic conversations. But again, neither members (at least those who don't participate in that kind of thread) nor moderators take any steps to make sure the rules are enforced.

off-topic post with tons of replies

Imagining myself as an administrator my first action would probably be to compile separate rules for the most active forums, keeping in mind the characteristics that make each community unique and in need of different guides of behavior. As Grimes pointed out, administrators (or designers) need to take users' needs seriously in order for communities to thrive, otherwise users may either ignore policies (does anyone even read forum rules, much less documents such as terms of service or privacy agreements?) or if that's no longer possible, leave for greener pastures. Maybe this is one reason why moderators allow off-topic threads, seeing that many users enjoy them. Still having a subset of rules specific to various communities might be helpful, especially if there was a way to involve members in the process of putting such a document together.

Sometimes ignoring potential troublemakers or not giving them the reaction they might be looking for (outrage, anger, etc) does seem like the right choice. In the first example the mostly positive reaction to the poster's rant certainly seemed to disarm him, and if he did post with the intention to troll (which I doubt) he would not have much ammunition to attack people who obviously were not fazed by the insults to their personality. In a much more extreme and serious shape this is how Dibbell describes the Something Awful founder dealing with threats and flames, yet in the case of online experiences leaking into real life there are definitely reasons to be cautious. As Kollock pointed out, there are various ways to sanction rule-breaking, from pointing out the rules to ignoring and making fun of the offender to banning them, and knowing the best way to react to any given situation depending on the community it takes place in is one of the major responsibilities of an administrator (even though many of those sanction can be applied by members without moderator involvement) A comment that's perfectly normal on Failblog would probably have INFP forum members up in arms (or determinedly ignoring). So being an administrator definitely requires more than just swinging the ban-hammer at every violation of the rules (and going through Personality Café's infraction documentation thread I noticed that while warnings were somewhat common, mostly for "inappropriate language" and "insulting other users", any further sanctions including bans seemed rare).

And while I didn't find an example of highly disruptive user behavior, visible or otherwise, in the INFP forum, I think Dr. Gazan made a very important point looking at such behavior from a different angle. It's easy to judge users that engage in behaviors that are destructive to themselves and the community, yet looking for ways to redirect such behavior is much more effective in the long run. Many of us wonder of anyone can get so involved, even addicted to any online community, but this is something that seems to become more and more common, with examples like virtual worlds such as Second Life, or even simple online games such as Farmville, environments that users spend enormous amount of time and oftentimes real money on. When members start deeply emotionally identifying with their online communities, administrators and designers will also have to re-think the ways that they can offer the best possible experience for all users, casual as well as highly involved.

Finally, here are my 5 unwritten rules for the INFP forum, some of which members clearly follow already, and a few that I believe would be useful for the community:

1. Approach all interactions, especially with new members, with an open mind.
2. If necessary, correct others' improper behavior rather than judging, criticizing, or ignoring them.
3. Practice peer oversight instead of involving moderators in rule-breaking situations.
4. Don't be silent or wait for some other person to deal with an issue... become involved!
5. To deal with deliberately annoying, complaining, or rude users: reply with pictures of cute furry animals with appropriate quotes.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Online Identity Expression, Introvert Style

For this week’s post, I chose a forum revolving around a particular type of personality type known as INFP. The “I” stands for “introversion”, which is what my final project will be about, to find out how being introverted affects people’s online behavior. The remaining three letters stand for other major personality dimensions (in this case iNtuition, Feeling, and Perception) as measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a well-known psychological profiling tool based on theories of Carl Jung. The forum is part of a larger site, Personality Café, which includes forums for every MBTI type, other personality theories, and more general topics, as well as related features such as articles, blogs, and personality tests. It lacks a general introversion community though, which is why I decided to give the forum dedicated to my own type a try.

When considering a definition of online identity, the first important thing I realized both from the readings and earlier assignments is how distinctly it is shaped by the site or community a person is interacting in. Any definition of the term that doesn’t take into account how users identify themselves in a particular online environment really isn’t complete. For the INFP forum, some the usual aspects of online identity, such as the choice of avatar and username, or a certain kind and amount of information displayed in a user profile page, clearly play a role in people finding and sharing an identity. But in addition, there are also some factors that seem more unique to this community and the theme it’s built around, a very specific type of personality that many of the users clearly identify with. It’s not surprising that the along with an avatar and some basic statistic (such as gender and number of posts), the forum gives users a choice to display their MBTI or other personality type, a piece of information that definitely has special meaning in this environment, and that the large majority of users (including many new posters) supply.

Another interesting aspect is the fact that the site allows users to upload an avatar (which is shown with every post or comment a user makes) and a separate picture that is only shown on the profile page. Many forum members use this feature to allow a piece of their offline identity merge with their online identity, by displaying some kind of public image (art, animals, celebrities etc.) as their avatar and a private picture of themselves on their profile, where it is likely seen only by others who for whatever reason are interested in finding out more about them. Features such as this remind me of both Hodkinson’s description of Goths using Livejournal as a community space, and Ploderer’s description of BodySpace as a passion-centric social network. Both make connections between their users’ offline lives and online activities, although the INPF forum resembles the functions of BodySpace more closely in that it doesn’t seem to use connections made online to carry over into an offline community such as the Goth subculture.

An example of a member's avatar and personality type info appearing with every post/comment.Part of the same member's profile page.
Includes personal image, information, tab for visitor messages etc.

So two important ways in which members of the INFP community shape their online identity is by stating their personality type, and by providing information (through images or text) and seeking interactions that connects their online presence to their offline identity. This actually in a way contrasts Wellman et al.’s idea of networked individualism because individuals can feel as part of a group that lies outside the traditional units of family or work. By providing separate forums for each personality type and allowing members to identify themselves by their types, the Personality Café site encourages a sense of common bonds that go beyond just a random interest such as desire for information or a shared hobby. A personality type isn’t something one chooses, and for many members of the forum it’s an important part of who they are as a person and how they express themselves both online and offline. At the same time one could make the argument that such a community is simply one of Wellmann et al.’s many sub-networks each individual navigates in an exceedingly complex world that isn’t tied to any one group identity. I think that both can apply to the INFP forum, at least partially depending on the each user’s motivation for being part of the community and the extend to which members appropriate the forum either as an information tool or as a social support network or something that combines aspects of both.

Scenario #1: The newbie (sunny day)
A very common situation on the INFP forum is the arrival of a new member looking for advice or support. Considering that introversion is a common trait among many (although not all) people coming to the forum, it’s not surprising to see that rather than just jumping into conversations or making their own introductory posts, many new users approach the community more cautiously. Which is probably a good reason for a thread title ”NEWBIES INFP and the rest of them ARE ALL HERE FOR YOU, Friends every where” being displayed prominently and permanently near the top of the forum.

A sample from the Newbie thread.
This also shows the "thanks " hearts tag feature.

New member Maru arrives at the forum looking for support and advice on how to better deal with criticism in his everyday life, something that he feels his introversion leads him to struggle with.

Maru sees the Newbie sticky posts and leaves a short comment introducing himself.

Several members reply welcoming Maru, some visit her profile to find out more about him and one leaves a “welcome” visitor message on his profile wall.

Maru feels encouraged by the warm welcome and decides to make his own post detailing his problems and feelings, and directly asking for advice and other members’ experiences.

Several members reply with encouraging messages, others relate their own feelings in similar situations, some even tag Maru’s post with a “thanks” heart.

Maru starts feeling more comfortable, replying to some of the comments and getting into conversations with other members.

Scenario #2: About you and me (sunny day)
There are many threads on the forum that continue to accumulate comments and offer easy opportunities for even the most introverted member to add their two cents, feel closer to other members (by discovering similar interests, tastes, situation etc.), and generally feel as part of the community.

User Jim posts a new thread asking members what song describes their current feelings.

User NotABricklayer replies with a youtube link.
User Monty says that he writes his own songs and posts a few lines of lyrics.
User Christine posts a video and explains how it reflects her feelings
UserGreenMan tags the thread with a “thank you” heart and comments how fascinating it is.

Users continue replying with video links or song lyrics, some explaining their choices, others leaving comments on particular songs or that they enjoy the thread in general, keeping the thread running and alive for weeks or even longer.

Scenario #3: Nothing to say (rainy day)
The INFP forum is a very active place, and it’s rare to see posts with very few or even no responses, but many of them seem to follow a similar pattern that doesn’t give members enough incentive to become involved enough to respond. The users who post this type of content (ranging from newcomers to moderately experienced members) seem to look for communication rather than information or support, and this is where the usually very helpful and open network of the community fails to respond, as there is no clearly visible need for help, nor do these posts encourage a general sharing of interests or experiences.

User Sam posts a short observation about introversion without relating it to herself or a particular person, situation, or experience.

User Dean replies with a short comment agreeing with the sentiment.

The thread goes silent.

These examples show some of the ways that members of the INFP forum express their online identity. A majority of the interactions in this community depend on users willing to share not only information or interests but personal experiences and feelings. The most visible part of this openness is reflected by members revealing personal information (including pictures) in their profiles, acting as signals of a user’s reliability and trustworthiness (Donath). But actions such as offering advice or support, leaving visitor messages, or tagging posts with “thanks” are just as important in acquiring a level of trust within the community, and are therefore another part of members’ online identity. These actions also tend to lead to users “friending” one another, which strengthens the community itself by creating closer ties between its members.

Unlike social networking sites such as Myspace, where users’ interests are a major part of creating online identities to the point of being fashioned as signs of belonging to a group rather than describing actual taste (as described by Liu), personal preferences are only of secondary importance in the INFP forum. They can serve as a starting point to explore another user’s profile and maybe friend them, but they don’t usually influence the majority of interactions in the community, which largely depend on a sense of sharing based on the INFP personality type, regardless of the otherwise different tastes of individual members.

Visitor messages: another part of social identity expression
"thanks" tagging in action

Compared to the other examples from our readings, the way this forum serves as a space to find emotional support as well as information and personal advice from a group who has something in common, most closely resembles Ploderer’s examination of passion-centric social networks. One major difference is that the level of that passion probably varies to a greater degree than in a place such as BodySpace... so while some INFP forum users are certainly deeply involved with the idea of personalities and obviously put a lot of thought in the ways their personality type affects their thinking, behavior, and life, there are also others who may simply be curious about the concept or just want to get some additional information, for example after taking a personality test and finding out their own type. But the essential connection between real life (offline) experiences and online interactions based on trust and sharing definitely play a major role in both communities, dissimilar as the overall topics (personality types versus bodybuilding) may be.