Crowd Sourcing in Social Networks

Jan 5, 2016, 10:56 AM |

Anybody who has played chess in a tournament, or even at their local chess club, appreciates sportsmanlike behavior. Opponents smile at each other, and often shake hands at the end. Pieces are not thrown at opponents, boards are not flung to the far winds, fist fights do not break out. Soccer riots never occur, soccer hooligans are never seen.

When face to face, we humans tend to show ample respect for one another. This politeness is based not merely on cultural evolution but is hard-wired into our genes. Even penguins flock and trilobites huddle, after all. (1) At chess clubs, cocktail parties, golf links, opera intermissions, and numerous other utterly commonplace occassions, humans are quite skilled at enjoying one another in self-imposed conflict-free zones.

I have been an internet evangelist for 30 years and will continue to be so. But we all know that as long as the world wide web is open to all humans, all kinds of ugly and even dangerous behavior will "find a way" (as did the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park"). Various tools and policies are being developed to protect good folks from bad, all the way from the far-flung investigations of the FBI down to the tiny steps we individual developers take. But as long as software developers (and FBI agents) tend not to be psychologists, these tools and policies will be imperfect and constantly in need of tinkering. Hiring a team of watchdogs is expensive and impractical for smaller networks. CHESS.COM is wonderful for intelligent people because unintelligent people tend not to play chess. But like all the rest, it is sporadically undermined by the ugly behavior of creeps who lie about themselves in their profile and in their chatting.

I am a 68-year-old married man who has no children but who enjoyed spoiling my nephew and my niece rotten when they were children. As a result I find myself looking through the list of new members that CHESS.COM makes available, in search of young people who seem friendly and who I would enjoy helping to learn chess, or CHESS.COM, or simply to overcome any shyness they may feel about reaching out into a larger world. On average, one in ten of these turn out to be utter frauds.

There are many kinds of frauds haunting CHESS.COM (and no doubt the other networks). Some are less offensive than others. But I have a special problem. In the early 1970's I became a public figure in New York's gay community. I'm used to my life being an open book. I'm used to interacting on a daily basis with thoughtful and candid people. And I become quite annoyed by people who are still "in the closet" in any way, shape or form. (And this includes gay people here who blame the Pope for their "affliction".) So I tend to be easily offended by dishonesty. It's a sore spot with me. Once I've been lied to I want to just abort the game. But one of CHESS.COM's "not quite completely thought out" policies says this would be "unsportsmanlike" of me. Seriously? I'm the guilty party??

I'm proud to say that I've become more lenient about some of the blatant lying that goes on here. Lying, sad to say, is a relative term. What constitues lying in one culture constitutes "coming out" in another. A simple example is Thailand's "Kathoey", or "ladyboys" -- males who prefer to be thought of as females. I think they should be encouraged to join CHESS.COM -- but I wouldn't want to play chess with them. Other cases of dishonesty are not so easy to tolerate.

Last year I was completely hoodwinked by "Mersaphe", a jerk who was impersonating a young Hollywood actress named Ryan Newman. When I complained to they replied:

Hello Dean,

I'm so sorry to hear about this terrible behavior. I have closed their account permanently; they will not be allowed back on the site!

Thanks so much for sending in the report and helping keep a more enjoyable community :)

I hope you have a Merry Christmas!

I was relieved that CHESS.COM was stepping up to the plate and doing the right thing. And I know they close members accounts quite frequently because when I'm looking around and try to see someone's profile, often all I see is "Account Closed." In other instances, however, they're reluctant to deal with the problem.

But consider the costs of not dealing with problems. More often than not, young girls who sign up and post fetching photos of themselves change these photos within days to photos of inhuman objects. I often ask them why they do this. This is a typical conversation:

Dean: Did you take that beautiful picture of you down because rude men were bothering you? That seems to happen a lot here :(

Dean: It's alright, you can tell me :)

Turkish girl: Yes i definitely agree with you. it is the reason why i have changed my picture :(

Dean: I hate when that happens . . . :(

Dean: CHESS.COM needs to get more active in punishing bad behavior.

One Icelandic girl has even decided not to include any men in her "friend list". She is no "crazy feminist". This is a young person with a real grievance. And I support her completely. (Maybe that's why she still plays chess with me.)

Girls on CHESS.COM are invariably hounded by rude men. Often boys who haven't a clue how to make friends will put up a picture of some female celebrity in a pathetic attempt to attract attention.

Consider this recent prank. Around six months ago I noticed a member called Frank Duncan and was bowled over by his photograph: I had never seen a man so happy, so alive, so bursting with joy. I asked him about this amazing snapshot and he gave me details about how and in what circumstances it was taken. We quickly started playing chess, usually two games at a time. He was always the opponent I would respond to most quickly. We had interesting chats in which he talked about how close he was to his children. Then, one day last week, he replaced the snapshot I loved with one of an ugly young woman sticking her tongue out. I assumed he was indulging some daughter or stepdaughter who enjoyed playing practical jokes on innocent bystanders. After a few days I decided to ask him why he was giving such an ugly person so much screen real estate. In one of our two games I tried to make a joke of it:

Dean: Frank! You didn't tell me you were going to have a sex-change operation!!!

But he didn't respond. In the other game I got more explicit:

Dean: Is that your daughter, Frank?

Frank: No that's me actually. Frank is my husband who passed away. I was getting harassed by a lot of men so put his picture up. Sorry if that was misleading. 

How is one supposed to react to this? Is Frank playing a practical joke on me? Does his widow think it's "okay" to play cruel jokes on strangers just because somebody annoyed her? Is it really "okay" to perpetrate fraud consistently for more than six months? Does she really think she might not have mislead our community? Should one feel mild annoyance, disappointment, anger, outrage -- a thirst for revenge, perhaps? I felt -- and feel -- all of these. I couldn't sleep that night, and my heart is racing as I type this. It was more disturbing than when I was robbed at gunpoint. The gunmen, after all, just wanted money. They had no intention to inflict psychological damage.

It's impractical for Erik, CHESS.COM's founder, to hire a whole staff of psychologists to make binding decisions about exactly who to discipline and how. Nor does the answer lie in offering more and more refined profile settings.

Networks tend to back "freedom of speech" because it's the easiest way out. They can't stop people from lying and deceiving one another so they don't even try. They are businesses, after all, not charities or government entitlement programs. But "free speech" doesn't mean a publisher has to publish your book, and it needn't imply that networks must tolerate deliberate attempts to undermine the level of trust enjoyed by the community. When the CHESS.COM community harbors miscreants like this in the name of "free speech", something is very wrong.

Note that courts of law can't afford psychologists either. They outsource that expense to the litigants. They need judges to decide technical questions of courtroom conduct, officers to keep the peace, stenographers to make a record. And, since we have all known for centuries how corruptible underpaid judges and their staff can easily become, they crowd-source the "who done it" phase to quite ordinary randomly-selected people who hopefully are not committed to any foregone conclusion.

Through no fault of its own, CHESS.COM, hasn't yet stepped up to the plate on this issue. Maybe it's too new a project, too understaffed, too flooded with existing bugs and "anomalies". (There's no "maybe" about that last one!) Probably it just can't afford to. But maybe it can afford to implement this "modest proposal":

Set up an independent panel of volunteers who, like jurors, have an inveterate interest in our community and the level of trust it enjoys. Have this panel review all complaints about unsportsmanlike behavior, and give them the power to kick people off our network, temporarily or permanently. Let them remain anonymous to avoid the recriminations of violent psychopaths — these too are lurking among us. Have your top lawyer sign off on the plan.

It may take a little effort to set this up, but after that this panel will provide a no-cost and extremely valuable service to our community.


 1. See