Monday, March 22, 2010

RIP Wildlife Gardeners

Please accept my apologies. The following is just something I had to get off my chest. It’s grade-b forum drama, nothing more. You can skip it and come back tomorrow for our regularly scheduled program of photography and plant lust, and you won’t be missing a thing.

Okay, you’ve been warned.

Some background: I have participated regularly in at least eight Internet forums in the last decade. Four times I was asked to become a moderator. Twice I accepted the responsibility. I have never until now left a forum except by my own choosing.

I was invited to Wildlife Gardeners in late 2008 after a member read my posts in another forum. In introducing myself, I mentioned my blog, and immediately got in trouble for self-promotion, which was against the rules.

In my zeal to help add content to WG, I posted all of my relevant bookmarked websites. I started threads on my various relevant projects and on native plants I had photographed, duplicating my blog work for WG’s benefit.

After being reviewed by WG, my blog was included on their official (and very short) list of acceptable blogs, and I was allowed to keep a link to it in my signature. However, it was still against the rules to link to my own blog, so I was careful not to.

Oddly, one of WG’s moderators became convinced that either someone was stalking me through the WG forums, or a virus was on my computer. This lead to a month of paranoia for my husband and I, as we changed our passwords and reviewed our virus defenses. I consulted two friends who admin at large, professional forums. The consensus was that we should take all precautions but that it was likely just the WG moderator’s inexperience spooking him. He meant well.

But the fun was still continuing at the forum. I started a post stating that I was planning on planting bamboo in my yard (and that I had already spent money on materials, and dug a large hole in my lawn) and asked if there were any reason why I shouldn’t go through with the project. One considerate person took the time to have a polite and rational discussion with me, and I did something that never happens on forums: I let her convince me. After declaring that I wouldn’t go through with the project, another forum member, by the name of Prairiefreak, tore into me for ever having considered planting bamboo.

I tried to start a discussion in the Permaculture forum about the book Gaia’s Garden, which is a book about permaculture, but I learned the hard way that the author, Toby Hemenway, is despised by the WG crowd for his promotion of invasive plants. This left me feeling like the Permaculture forum was a cruel joke played on the novices.

Around the same time, I attempted to offer advice to the moderators, because I had spent time at another site as a moderator, and I knew it to be a tough job. I turned down an offer to become a WG moderator because I didn’t have the time to devote to it, but I accepted an offer to be WG's "Hospitality" person, tasked with sending private welcome messages to the new members. I was also told in a somewhat scolding manner that should I be allowed to moderate at WG, I wouldn’t be allowed to moderate the Permaculture forum. Not that I had asked to do so.

After a month or two of being WG's Hospitality person, I bowed out of the position, due to time requirements, and because a bot could have done the job better.

Shortly thereafter, for the purpose of educating myself, I questioned the site’s stated definition of a “native plant”. The group’s response was instantly and intensely negative. There was no logical debate permitted, and I was spoken down to as if I were a child. I got irate for being handed something to believe in, rather than facts to consider. Temperatures rose, and I was banned, permanently, along with my husband, because they suspected that his account was a puppet account of mine, which was against the rules, and that I would be using that account to cause trouble. (Never mind that my husband had always been far more polite at WG than I had.)

At the time of my banning, I had in excess of 1000 posts at WG.

I exchanged e-mail with the WG staff, making apologies. I shelved my anger

for my husband’s benefit. I was told that against the wishes of one of the top WG staff, I would be allowed back.

Before I was un-banned, one of WG’s moderators contacted me, asking advice on an issue that he feared would be the end of WG. (It was just some jerks from a competing site making trouble.) I got in touch with friends who are admins at two larger, older forums to ask advice for him, and I relayed their advice.

After drifting back, I wrote an article for publication on WG’s website, which seemed greatly appreciated by everyone.

I continued to post at WG, but my zeal to contribute had waned. It appeared to me that more often, members were posting unsubstantiated assertions and rants which I disagreed with, but which were being supported by the founding members, if not being posted by the founding members themselves. I feared that any disagreement with these posts would bring retribution, so my participation was minimal.

I got in one spat with Prairiefreak when members were bashing a news article about hotdogs being a choking hazard for children. I had chimed in to suggest that a reasonable discussion would be more in order. She responded with snide comments, to which I recapitulated. The two of us were issued warnings.

Eventually, I wrote an article for Garden Rant, which is a gardening site, rather than an environmental stewardship site. The article was in the spirit of WG’s environmental-stewardship policy, and I was finally starting to feel good again about the WG community, so I posted a link to it at WG. My intent was to share a personal victory, as well as to share a tactic for spreading WG’s viewpoints. Instead, I was asked by a moderator what affiliation I had with GR, and I was presented with links to all thee posts in which I had ever mentioned GR.
My post total at this point was in excess of 1500 posts. Feeling like I was being presented with a loyalty test, I replied with a cranky message, and was immediately banned, with a final message that was short, incoherent, and appeared to be the work of a single person acting in haste and anger.

I sent one immediate e-mail telling them that I was in tears and wanted an explanation, and, later, when I had composed myself, two additional e-mails, requesting an explanation for my ban, and pointing out that WC’s new transparency policy should compel them to tell me why I was banned. After a week of no response, I sent a dignified farewell, pointing out that I had been repeatedly and unfairly been treated as malicious when I had only been clumsy and emotional.

As the punchline, a friend visited WG to look at their publicly-posted wall-of-shame list of those who had been banned and why. WG's reason for banning me consists of one perplexing falsehood: "astroturfer". In their language, it either means one who promotes the use of astroturf instead of grass, or one who posts anonymous comments on a blog or other website to advertise an idea.

My conclusion: The WG staff and founding members are inexperienced at running forums, and are making numerous mistakes that will adversely affect them, including having a wall of shame in the name of transparency; treating longstanding contributing members with the same robotic heartlessness as spammers and others who join with malicious intent; failing to issue warnings before bannings, or otherwise give members an opportunity to redeem themselves; using "ban" ineffectually as a tool to "cool off" angry members; letting their founders and those who agree with them have preferential status; using a set of rules as cover to ban those whom the staff personally dislike; promoting "transparency" of their rules while simultaneously lying about their reasons for dismissing members and failing to offer transparency to those who have been banned; and paranoia towards members who debate the "wrong" side of an issue.

After 1500 posts, I have to say, that was positively the most time-consuming act of astroturfing ever committed.


MrILoveTheAnts said...

Are you on any other forums regarding native plants?

Michelle said...

Not really. Got any suggestions?

MrILoveTheAnts said...

I wish I did.

MAT kinase said...

wow, its pretty how crazy and self-important some people are... Kudos for sticking with it as long as you did!

Michelle said...

You're too kind, Mat. I feel like a fool for sticking with them for as long as I did.

GMBF-Matt said...

Wow. Harsh.

I hate it when people pose as forward-thinking but then stifle communication. Discussion is how society moves forward.

I also see nothing wrong with bamboo. If you can't keep it contained naturally, then you sink a barrier around it to keep to from spreading too much. It's a great food source and if you harvest it each year it shouldn't get out of control. If you can't manage that, that's when you use a barrier.

And "what counts as a native species?" is a perfectly logical question to ask. They seem to have a misguided notion that it's whatever was here first. Well, I hate to break it to them, but none of the plants that are here now are the same as the plants that were here millions of years ago. Perhaps we should kill them all since they don't belong here.

Every plant is either inherently invasive or inherently non-invasive, depending on how you look at it. Animals help plants travel. They aren't stationary over time. And, as the climate changes, different plants will thrive than what did 100 years ago.

Yes, some plants can be really aggressive and out-compete the plants that came before. We probably shouldn't help those plants do that. But it's stupid to pretend that there's a set list of plants that are supposed to be growing in any given area. Conditions change. Plants either adapt or die.

And then there's just forum moderating ettiquette... and they fail.

I'm going to end this rant now...

Michelle said...

HI Matt. There were two things that convinced me not to plant bamboo: 1. it would decrease the value of my home. 2. Bamboo produces seed in one explosive burst of reproduction at the end of its many-year lifespan. Even if I succeeded in containing the roots, I could not contain the spread of seed, especially if it occurred decades after I had moved on.

The WG folks know the ins and outs of the "what is native" debate well, and have arrived at their conclusions after careful analysis, I'm fairly sure. They just aren't willing to trust others to arrive at their conclusion the same way. They want the next generation to eat a diet of ideology. (Bleah.)

Thanks for chiming in!

Anonymous said...

Michelle - Strange as it may sound, I only just realized you had been perma-banned from WG. I think it's ridiculous! They do lots of good things, but unfortunately they are too trigger-happy with the bannings. Glad to see your gardening adventures are still progressing.

Michelle said...

Hi Jason! It's great to hear from you. How is your yard progressing? I would love to see pictures. Did you ever start up your own blog?

amelanchier said...

No time yet to do my own blog, unfortunately - it would rarely get updated! (Hm...I do have a few pics on FB (see linky).) But I've still been having fun. As things have filled in in the native garden, I've started growing more veggies & herbs in containers. My weekends are certainly no longer my own. -Jason