Elitist Jerks: A Well-Kept Garden

post by malthrin · 2011-04-25T18:56:27.094Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 13 comments

In response to: http://lesswrong.com/lw/c1/wellkept_gardens_die_by_pacifism/

I'm a moderator at Elitist Jerks (http://www.elitistjerks.com), a World of Warcraft discussion forum. Within the WoW community, EJ has always been known for its strict moderation standards. We're exactly the sort of 'well-kept garden' that EY's post is about. You can see the fruit of the mod team's labor here: http://elitistjerks.com/f34/ I'll give some of the site's backstory for non-WoW players, describe the crossroads that we're currently at, and then give some caveats before you generalize too much from our example.

EJ's initial community came together to discuss WoW's most challenging content, known as "raids". In order to optimally outfit our characters for maximum performance in raids, both empirical and theoretical work was necessary: the game's combat mechanics were reverse engineered and detailed models for each character class were created. Within a couple of years, this "theorycrafting" work became the forum's primary purpose - refining and updating models as new game patches were released. Throughout the forum's life, high moderation standards have been maintained in order to protect our high signal/noise discussion. Primarily, asking for help is forbidden when the resources to answer your question already exist.

However, we're starting to wonder if we've performed our task too well. 

So here we moderators sit on our porch, having kept our garden tidy for six years now. The questions we're asking are "Is this the community we meant to create?" and "What happens to a community formed to solve a problem once the problem is effectively solved?"



edit: fixed some link formatting


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by gwern · 2011-04-26T00:02:12.299Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The moderators sound like a tech-savvy group of folks. Which makes the situation you describe all the more disappointing - the mods sound collectively like they are bikeshedding things to death. You can't reach any agreement among the mods? Then fork and experiment! Let factions run their own particular subforum and see what happens. Code is Law and many things can be reversed.

Discussion of almost every item on your list could be moved forward with simple experiments little more complex than were required to develop the models that the group is devoted to.


Srsly? But, are you not sure whether the off-topic area should be public or not? Then set it public on alternating months until the data (post numbers, post quality, etc.) is clear on which way works better.

You have problems with people not being willing to update models/simulations? This sounds like they are rat's nests of copy-paste balls of dirt, and you have collectively failed to develop good abstractions or domain-specific languages for the bosses. (My suspicions are further heightened by the mention of spreadsheets - as we Haskellers like to say, Excel is the world's most popular zeroth-order functional programming language.) I doubt the dungeons are that complex, so you should be able to refactor and abstract until the models/spreadsheets are so transparent any fool could update them.

Or maybe you lack good tutorials, going step by step from nothing to a working model. These can be written by one of the regulars developing a new model (you just need to copy all the intermediate steps and later you can write down the justifications and motivations behind each transformation; I flatter myself that my Haskell tutorials are good examples of this.

People are penalized for criticizing models without iron-clad evidence? Then figure out how it make it cheaper & easier to test the models, or offer anonymous forms of feedback. Voting & polls come to mind as things supported by many forum software for exactly this sort of purpose.

Even in WoW, hard problems remain that resist quantification - How do you motivate 25 people to keep battling a dragon that's been killing them for the last 2 hours? How do you identify the recruits that will best fit into an existing group and its culture? How do you balance redundancy and responsibility in leadership?

WoW seems to offer good data on player activities, so that means it offers good data to experiment with. Maybe you can motivate people by swapping them out. Maybe good recruits can be identified by slowly rising in level per hour played (eg. because they are spending time building social bonds and exploring the world, not level-grinding and burning out). Maybe you can just download player profiles and turn ML software loose on the data to see what tendencies correlate with 'being part of many boss-slaying groups'. These problems may resist quantification, but you look like you haven't even tried!

How long long did it take me to think of this new thing? "Less than a minute, sensei..."

comment by malthrin · 2011-04-28T18:44:55.736Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I fear I've fallen into the historian's trap of implying intentionality in the course of presenting a selection of events as a narrative. Your underlying assertion is that we did a poor job planning our application architecture in advance of the grand project of modeling WoW; the reality is that we didn't know we had undertaken such a project until we were in the middle of it, until the community consensus had emerged that Elitist Jerks is where the theorycrafting happens.

A good comparison is open-source software. There's no editorial control preventing someone from developing a piece of software for their own use, written in whatever language and idioms suit them best. If the author then chooses to share this tool with the community, do we turn it away because it didn't follow the specifications for an existing modeling platform? There are at least 3, in C++, C#, and Python. Perhaps if the EJ administration had thrown its weight behind one of them, we'd have the standard platform you advocate - or perhaps we would have splintered our community.

Going back to the meta level, NancyLebovitz touched on one point that I was hoping to make in http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/5gg/entropy_and_social_groups/ - trading one kind of community equilibrium for a different kind, with its own advantages and disadvantages, through consistent application of rules. The more general point is the difficulty of predicting any specific outcome when it comes to group action.

comment by gwern · 2011-04-28T21:43:08.088Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I fear I've fallen into the historian's trap of implying intentionality in the course of presenting a selection of events as a narrative. Your underlying assertion is that we did a poor job planning our application architecture in advance of the grand project of modeling WoW; the reality is that we didn't know we had undertaken such a project until we were in the middle of it,

Not quite. The historian's fallacy is entirely to one side - all of my suggestions could be implemented at any time. In fact, some of them require you to have already formed a community around a project (you can't write a DSL for the models until you have experience and repeated code and can see what abstractions the DSL should capture; you can't alternate or A/B test the offtopic forums without traffic in the first place).

I could not care less about how you formed the community or how you did or did not plan ahead well. To repeat myself, 'These problems may resist quantification, but you look like you haven't even tried!'

Perhaps if the EJ administration had thrown its weight behind one of them, we'd have the standard platform you advocate - or perhaps we would have splintered our community.

If you had tried you would have learned something either way.

Perhaps your post does the community an injustice and omits all sorts of experiments and initiatives, but to me this reads less as a story of overactive moderation as one of underactive moderation - moderation sufficient to stifle new activity and insufficient to actually try new things. Hence, I do agree with your last paragraph that it's an interesting example of being in a bad equilibrium.

comment by Cyan · 2011-04-26T03:21:41.123Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What's "dogshedding" in this context?

comment by arundelo · 2011-04-26T05:07:44.396Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm pretty sure he meant bikeshedding.

comment by hwc · 2011-04-26T02:54:45.052Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What are you doing blogging about your WoW community? You're on your honeymoon!

comment by virtualAdept · 2011-04-25T20:37:20.162Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are you posting about this here looking for input/ideas, or simply as a case study of what Eliezer described?

What kind of answers are being given to "is this the community we meant to create"?

I'm a retired (feels funny to say that in regard to anything at 23...) mod of a large-scale, cross-guild raiding community, and that kind of question comes up in relation to policy issues, but seldom in concern about a lack of liveliness on our boards. But then, our boards serve more of a social and organizational function than anything else - the players who want to read up on their classes, unsurprisingly, do that over in your garden.

WoW theorycraft is definitely not a difficult problem. Is there any talk of expanding EJ to go beyond number-crunching? Since my organization (Leftovers of Silver Hand) is such a prolific breeding ground for leadership styles to be honed and compared (thanks to our semi-independent charter group system), I've always been curious to see some kind of organized discussion of the human engineering aspect of running a raid/raiding guild.

comment by malthrin · 2011-04-25T22:01:52.541Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are you posting about this here looking for input/ideas, or simply as a case study of >what Eliezer described?

What kind of answers are being given to "is this the community we meant to create"?

Primarily as a case study, though input is certainly welcome.

There's division in the moderation staff about the site should develop. Some feel that we should work on being more approachable to people who want to learn what to do without learning why - concise and easily-found guides, user-friendly models, etc. Others prefer the status quo and would rather improve information sharing across different models to reduce wasted effort in mechanics testing. The first group is hoping to encourage discussion of subjective topics by attracting new posters while the second group is fine with finding those discussions on other sites.

comment by Goobahman · 2011-04-27T01:34:26.904Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oooo a fellow Wow-er.

I reference EJ quite often actually because I am far too lazy to work the stuff out for myself.

Has EJ thought of increasing scope to other games? (RIFT comes to mind) Increase it's capacity to become a centre of excellence for mathematical gaming? Or even turn the site into a more lucrative endeavour?

From what I've seen you've got a very resourceful community at your disposal here. Much potential for you to utilize.

comment by Johnicholas · 2011-04-26T12:16:14.443Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sounds to me like the models are the reason people are at the community at all, but you've fallen into a kind of "binary dependency" on specific implementations of models.

Forking a model implementation, porting it to a new language or cleaning it up (according to someone's standard of cleanliness), and then having the two models duel for accuracy and code review aesthetics is good and correct treatment of the model. You'll get better models (which are ideas, not implementations). Even if the source code is part of the distribution, if the policy is "hands off, that's a magical thicket of code that's been polished and tweaked and the maintainer's gone", then it's effectively a binary dependency.

In particular, I'd encourage people who want to put effort in, to fork one of the EARLIEST versions of an eventually-successful model, rather than one of the latest / most accurate. Growing that implementation was probably a learning experience for the original author, and you probably need to have the same or similar learning experience before you can read the latest version properly.

comment by Aestu · 2011-05-02T00:31:22.645Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've never posted on this site before. I read this thread after being directed here from a discussion about the same topic.

I'm blunt and on-point by nature, and I say it like it is. So forgive me if my words come off as undiplomatic, because I am going to say it exactly like it is:

The OP's putative, whimsically feigned query whether or not EJ has done it's job "too well" is disingenuous. The reality is that they have done their job too badly.

EJ mods are the schoolyard bullies who wind up crying because no one wants to play with them. Those responding to the OP in meaningless technocratese do not understand the issues at work. The "issues" affecting EJ have nothing to do with format and everything to do with intentions.

Saying that they've "kept their garden tidy" is a telling if disingenuous remark. There is a difference between snobbery and moderation. That difference is not a gradient. That difference is one of apples and oranges. Make no mistake which motivates EJ as an organization.

The name of the site - Elitist Jerks - is literal. EJ is a unique product of the WoW culture and community, where a punkish arrogance is viewed as a necessary accoutrement of status and skill. But in the WoW community as much as anywhere else, the same basic laws of human nature apply: if people have a choice between dealing with people with an attitude, or not dealing with people with an attitude, it's no mystery which door they will choose.

In their hubris , the EJ mods turned the site into a parody of itself. The sophistic flourishes described in this thread - making boards public or not, paid or not, changing the rules, whatever - have no bearing on what is purely a matter of intentions.

When well-intentioned posters have made valid inquries or comments, more often than not they are infracted within the first few posts on the most ludicrous pretexts in what is nothing more nor less than snobbery and bullying. Patrons who have egos and are recognized by others according to their preference make endless pages of vacuous, pedantic, rhetorical questions and "observations" with absolutely no value.

The net result is an insular and impenetrable forum with some useful stickies (often written in flatly insulting or even profane language) and a bunch of nearly useless monster threads dozens of pages long with a few grains of gold here or there.

WoW itself is not that complex a game (no, seriously, it isn't), and as of late what EJ brings to the table is very marginal. So with the general community offered only a very marginal gain in terms of knowledge, at great cost in terms of effort and aggravation, the community, in general, doesn't have a reason to go to EJ.

The bit about simulation craft, "their impact emerges in lengthy runs of simulated combat, but is washed out by random factors (critical hits, etc) in the 5-10 minutes of a typical raid encounter", is fundamentally accurate. The OP then makes an remark characteristic of the EJ mentality, which is that the "average person" is unable to shut up and multiply, and that is why the EJ contributors are lamentably watching their sandbar sink into the ocean. The problem, however, has nothing to do with the "average person's" deficiency and everything to do with irrelevancy of the models to anyone but a few pedants.

The "washing out of simulation results by random factors" in effect means that these models are the province of snobs engaged in a fool's errand. Only those snobs, who put on a pretense of modelling scenarios in which subjective and individual real-world conditions that can't be modelled (example: which encounter is engaged, what strategy is used on an encounter, the mechanics of an encounter, latency, the tactical situation of the raid, amongst countless others), and those who are insufficiently critical or intelligent to grasp the futility of said errand, have any interest in it.

It's like comparing rotisserie baseball to baseball. If rotisserie baseball was an accurate reflection of the realities of baseball, those hobbyists would be the wealthiest gamblers in the world. They're not, because in reality, subjective and unquantifiable factors wield a greater influence.

The relevant numerical factors are quite simple and easy for players to work out for themselves with napkin math using in-game tools such as tooltips and Recount. Mathematical wizardry isn't typically needed to figure out which stat is best for a class, especially not in modern WoW (this used to be somewhat less true).

None of what I describe can be fixed by cursory gestures like changing the format of the site. You can't legislate what's in people's hearts, and you can't change the nature of a beast. Elitist Jerks will be elitist jerks, and like any community of elitists and/or jerks, unless such a group has some sweet incentive to get people in the door, they will inevitably face what all such groups face, which is isolation, attrition, and decline.

Now some posters will no doubt say things to the effect of, "You got it all wrong, we're not really like our names suggest", or "You're jumping to conclusions/ making generalizations", or "You're being uncivil", or "This magic formula solves all problems." If people want to flatter their vanity by trying to appear intelligent in saying nothing at all, or avoiding murky subjective truths, or practicing "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" as a means towards self-righteous pretense, "anyone who says these people are not good must be evil", or otherwise cloaking their incredibly petty motives behind an intellectual facade, that's their choice.

For those who want the truth of the matter, I've said my piece.

comment by Montegomery · 2011-05-02T19:31:04.576Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For those unfamiliar with the Elitist Jerks website, comments such as this one appear periodically in other World of Warcraft related forums, and are a facet of the quandary currently facing the community.

Generally speaking the authors of such comments made a post on the Elitist Jerks forums and received an infraction informing them of a forum rule they had violated. The moderators of these forums include a remark regarding the nature of the violation with every infraction, and these remarks are often sarcastic. Infractions are public, and you can see Aestu's here:

Infraction for zeida

It is not uncommon for the recipients of infractions to take issue, resulting in confused or angry private messages to the moderators, or condemnations such as Aestu's comment. Angry would-be contributors rarely return to the website.

The quandary facing Elitist Jerks is to what extent is it worthwhile to make the website more accessible. This is a nontrivial question for a website that has intentionally used harsh rules, harsh enforcement and harsh words as filters to maintain the quality of their discussions.

comment by Aestu · 2011-05-09T03:52:36.230Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

First off, Montegomery, you're contradicting yourself: if the goal is to "maintain the quality of the discussions" then why do you bog down moderation with "sarcasm"?

Your strawman to the effect that anyone who disagrees with EJ's moderation style is an "angry would-be contributor" is nonsense. It also amounts to circular reasoning, and the very fact that you apparently think it's a worthwhile goal to make "would be contributors" "angry" both contradicts your putative goal of "making the site more accessible" and boils down to a rationalization for e-punkery.

Which is, of course, what this is really all about: an immature bully who is now crying that he doesn't have anyone to play with.

This nonsense about EJ's desire to "make the site more accessible" or "change the format" is nothing more than red herrings about style what is really a question of intent: how EJ's desire to annoy and harass the community has run headfirst into its ability to appeal to that community and keep it coming back.

It's not specifically because I was infracted that I harbor a certain viewpoint about EJ. Surely, my observations are far more detailed than would be the case was I motivated merely by some sort of grudge.

I would also like to point out that I posted under a completely different username on EJ than I did here (because that post, which I barely even remember, was made about four years ago) and there is no information specifically connecting the two usernames. So I'd like to know: exactly how did you make the connection between the two?

And more to the point, why did you go to the trouble of doing so?