Regulating Anarchy: Behavioral Management in Encyclopedia Dramatica

Dec 8, 2015 · 6 min read

Disclaimer: Encyclopedia Dramatica is an online site that is known to post offensive content. Please use caution when following links in this article, as text or images containing explicit content may follow. While the author used discretion when including links, she is not responsible for the content which appears on the linked page.

Any website that freely posts profanity, nudity, and inflammatory messages on its front page probably isn’t known for its content policies or community behavior guidelines. Encyclopedia Dramatica (ED) is a satire and parody online encyclopedia that regularly features inappropriate, crude, and abusive content. At first glance, it seems that no topic or image is off-limits (and with that in mind, use caution when clicking links in this article. The following pages may include offensive content that is NSFW or inappropriate for children). For a community that seemingly has no boundaries, ED is actually carefully constructed in order to maintain its unconventional environment. Despite unique definitions of positive and negative behaviors, Encyclopedia Dramatica uses tactics which are common in online communities — such as those described by Kraut and Resnick — to encourage compliance with community regulations and limit unfavorable behavior.

One of the most common ways online communities improve guideline adherence is by publishing clear lists of community rules. ED includes several pages on article writing, article styling, and other important policies. The site also has a dedicated set of material for newcomers. Although there is not a “formal, sequential and collective socialization” process such as that suggested by Kraut and Resnick, the wiki welcomes new members with a list of things to know before becoming involved. Although process is less friendly or personal than that of Wikipedia, ED actually offers a more structured set of guidelines to becoming a productive member on their Basic Rules page. New members are encouraged to “read 100 articles before writing one”, complete basic actions off the list of open tasks, and practice editing in the user sandbox. Kraut and Resnick note that user sandboxes are an important feature that “both speed up the learning process for newcomers and reduce the harm to the community they might otherwise cause” (p. 219). For an online community that is just in it for the lulz (See also: IDIFTL:ED Guideline), the inclusion of sandboxes is an interesting point. The user sandbox signifies that members should spend time drafting and editing their work rather than hastily posting. However, sandboxes are also a common component of communities that use a wiki framework and was therefore naturally included on Encyclopedia Dramatica. These resources are in place to support newcomers to the site; even the article page for Newbie includes a section titled “Halp me ED! I’m a n00b!” which includes three basic steps on how to overcome the newcomer status. While the community does not actively discourage hostility or encourage kind interaction between members, the sentiment towards new members is not unwelcoming either.

For all members, there is an easily accessible list of pages outlining all community policies. A link to this page is in a sidebar which is present on all site pages, and shows the key guidelines for editing. Kraut and Resnick emphasize that norms are more likely to be followed if they are explicitly stated (p. 148). Furthermore, this tactic is particularly important “when it is less clear what others think is acceptable” (p. 148). Standard norms on ED are not typically acceptable in other online communities, such as freely using profanity. Therefore, it is extremely important for Encyclopedia Dramatica to transparently state behavioral expectations. For articles, there are very few forbidden topics. However, members regularly edit and delete one another’s work since ED follows a wiki framework. In this process, members implicitly create and enforce norms by expanding certain topic areas. For example, most articles are highly Internet Relevant which highlights the value of internet-oriented information. Encyclopedia Dramatica’s tolerance toward taboo or sensitive topics justifies the extensive documentation of norms because it may be otherwise difficult for members to come to a consensus on how to moderate content.

Encyclopedia Dramatica also includes examples of acceptable behavior throughout the site, which is proven to “increase [members’] adherence to those expectations” according to Kraut and Resnick (p. 143). This is primarily shown on the main page in featured content boxes, similar to Wikipedia. Additionally, many of the style guides include examples of well-written articles. Visible examples of high quality work inspire members to achieve the same. Similarly, Kraut and Resnick note that obvious “reminders at the point of an action that may violate norms will reduce the number of offenses” (p. 150). Before members post on Encyclopedia Dramatica, a copyright infringement warning is positioned above the publish button. Other communities take similar measures, such as Wikipedia and Tumblr. Even though the content standards on ED are very different than those of other communities, Encyclopedia Dramatica encourages compliance the same way as other sites.

By that same token, ED also uses familiar tactics to deter undesirable behavior. The difference is that the type of behavior which is unwanted is the opposite of that on other online communities. Like many online sites, ED has a system of administrators which keep content focused and relevant. General members also have the ability to revert edits and report rule violations. The ability to revert edits is a key feature in many online communities as noted by Kraut and Resnick, and Encyclopedia Dramatica clearly states that all versions of articles can be retrieved and edits can be deleted.

The collective editing system is one way the site utilizes peer moderation. Kraut and Resnick note that peer reporting is a particularly effective way to regulate behavior online because it increases the likelihood that appropriate action is taken in response to the infringement (p. 163). On ED, appropriate responses often include public shaming and banning. Members know when they have committed a faux pas; moderators and other members vandalize the user’s talk page with harsh criticisms and demands to RTFM. Kraut and Resnick advocate for “displaying feedback of members to others increases members’ knowledge of community norms and compliance with them; formal feedback is more effective than informal feedback” (p. 146). However, Kraut and Resnick fail to specify whether feedback needs to be positive or constructive. In the case of Encyclopedia Dramatica, it often appears to be neither. Nonetheless, this method explicitly informs members when they have violated a community regulation although it hardly allows for members to engage in face-saving or reparation processes.

In cases of repeat offenders, Encyclopedia Dramatica has no problem banning users. After their accounts are removed, their talk pages are saved and used as an example of how not to behave in the community. Banning is a common sanction in online communities, but Kraut and Resnick point out that it is only effective if “it is hard for the bad actor to use a different account or if the ban is disguised” (p. 138). On ED, new accounts are easy to obtain and multiple accounts can be registered to one e-mail address. Encyclopedia Dramatica does not allow for anonymous posting which is somewhat surprising. Some people may perceive the site as a community of trolls, but requiring pseudonymous user accounts increases member commitment and behavioral compliance while deterring trolls. However, it is easy for those with malintent to bombard the community with unwanted or inappropriate posts. However, one member with multiple accounts is discouraged. The community refers to this practice as “sockpuppetry” and publicly exposes members who engage in this behavior. Furthermore, sock puppet accounts which are used to avoid an existing user ban will only result in another ban.

Although the Encyclopedia Dramatica may just be in it for the lulz and encourages controversial content, the wiki is not unlike other online communities. ED carefully manages members’ behavior and strategically socializes new members. Negative behavior has consequences, despite the appearance that ED has no behavior policies whatsoever. Encyclopedia Dramatica is proof that community design pervades even communities that seem anarchic.


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