A problem has been festering in SFF's chatroom for some time now. And in spite of the best efforts of your moderators and room owners, it doesn't seem to be going away. I've observed the activity in SFF chat for some time now, and I've come to believe that the problem boils down to a fundamental lack of respect for each other by some of the most active members of the chatroom.
The nature of the third place
Chat exists to serve the main site. That should be pretty obvious; Stack Exchange doesn't sell chat, or serve ads there, or even let folks join it unless they've participated on the main sites to some degree. Chat exists simply to be that third place for folks who call SFF home to meet and commune with one another:
Third places are nothing more than informal public gathering places. The phrase 'third places' derives from considering our homes to be the 'first' places in our lives, and our work places the 'second.'
-- a quote from urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg
This definition is important; even though it's trivial to observe that chat is a public gathering space (anyone can join, anyone can read your conversations there) folks still seem to forget that, when they converse in chat, they are speaking in public.
Conversation in public and in private
The rules of etiquette for conversation in public and private spaces are different. If I invite you into my house, you can leave if you're uncomfortable, and I can make you leave if you disrespect me... But if we happen to be sitting next to each other in a tavern, conversing while waiting for our beer and burger, then neither of us wishes to leave and yet may still find the other's choice of conversation unpleasant. It is therefore considered rude to bring up inflammatory topics in the public context, or to continue discussions after someone has expressed discomfort with the topic.
The folks in SFF's chatroom are brought together by a shared interest in... Science Fiction and Fantasy. They can and do have wildly varying interests and opinions when it comes to areas of life outside of that shared interest. Expecting the folks who drop into chat to agree on matters of politics, religion, art, philosophy or human rights is naive; there will be people who love Harry Potter just as much as you do but whose views on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership strike you as abhorrent and who feel the same about yours.
You wouldn't drive the person next to you away from their plate of food, so why would you seek to drive someone away from their discussion of Star Wars? And yet... That's what keeps happening.
Showing respect for others
In a public place, in a diverse group, it can be all but impossible to know what someone else will find off-putting. If you care about the people around you, the best you can do in most cases is to listen and watch for signs that they've become uncomfortable and, when you observe this, to back off: stop the conversation and either move to a different topic or move the conversation to a different space.
There are a few areas where you should generally anticipate problems however. For instance, if you're bringing up a topic that large groups of people have physically marched to protest in real life, then you should not expect a calm conversation from random folks on the 'Net.
Similarly, if a word or image came to your attention in the context of "something that bothers people", then you should expect that repeatedly posting it in chat will, in fact, bother people.
If you know something is likely to cause a negative reaction and you bring it up anyway, then you're already being fairly disrespectful; if you raise the topic knowing that others will express opinions that you vehemently disagree with, and then proceed to take umbrage at those opinions... Then you're straight-up trolling, demonstrating a complete lack of respect for others in this public space. Trying to give yourself a fig leaf by claiming cultural ignorance really only works once; you may have led a sheltered life in a small country with a fairly uniform culture, but you're on The Internet now - so respect the diversity of opinion and learn from it.
What happened last night
The three sections above are intended to help explain the background; what happened last night is the culmination of the problems hinted at there:
- Several people began a conversation on a controversial topic
- They then proceeded to get offended at each other's opinions
- Flags were raised. When a moderator responded by entering the room to try and calm things down, he was ignored and then mocked.
- More moderators and employees entered the room, at which point the conversation pivoted into finger-pointing as to who started it (nevermind that no one tried to stop it).
- After deleting the original conversation, warning those in the room, and putting the room in time-out (and then freezing it), we contacted the moderator team.
- The first moderator to arrive later that evening found that the finger-pointing had continued well into the night.
- The moderators responded by freezing additional rooms, leaving some guidance, and suspending some of the worst offenders. Then, finally, everyone went to bed.
This needs to change
Frankly, this was far too much drama, far too much work for a problem that could've been solved easily by the folks involved. It's become apparent when talking to the room owners that this problem isn't one of ignorance; these issues inevitably arise when the room owners aren't around, suggesting that certain folks encourage them when they know they won't get called on what they're doing.
This hurts everyone. Especially the folks who just wanted to sit down and share a moment with others who share their interests. It's not fun, and it's completely avoidable.
What YOU can do
The moderators and room owners will sort out the locked-room situation next week (the freeze is temporary). But starting now and going forward, you - as a participant in chat - can do your part to help avoid problems. Here are a few suggestions:
- Respect your peers. You don't need to agree with them on everything, but if you're gonna all hang out together you do need to respect their right to believe differently than you do. Don't intentionally make them uncomfortable.
- Be Nice. The rules are the same in chat as on the main site.
- Speak up when you see folks becoming uncomfortable with the topic. Suggest changing the topic or moving the discussion to a different room.
- Listen when someone speaks up. If you're told that someone's uneasy about the current topic, then ignoring them is a slap in the face; be respectful of others (#1) and stop intentionally hurting them.
Have fun and be good to one another.