NaNoWriMo Versus Trust and Safety

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

Recently (November 2023) the National Novel Writing Month website had to shut down its forums, right in the middle of said month, for a very serious child endangerment issue. The Board has posted a thoughtful response on the site, so I won’t detail what the problem was, and how they’re handling it.

Except for one issue: Who are they talking to about the right way to solve the problem?

The NaNoWriMo site is essentially a social medium for writers, with a focus on encouraging sharing experiences in writing marathons at specific times of year. Social media sites go a long way back, and the people who dealt with Trust and Safety issues for early social media, such as LiveJournal (created in California in 1999), are still around and posting about it (cw: swearing). The issues are very, very tricky to handle, and you need a lot of experience with what does and doesn’t work – which, apparently many of the recent Twitter replacements haven’t been as aware of as they should be.

I am far from expert, but after the birdsite started melting down, even I have heard of a few of the issues.

  • Compliance with laws in the legal jurisdiction where your servers live, including how you will deal with court orders such as police demands for the IP addresses of users.
  • Extraterritoriality processes of other jurisdictions (e.g. suing Board members who happen to live in, or are citizens of, or have assets in, that jurisdiction).
  • The complex process for responding to a U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown (hint: you can’t just delete the offending material).
  • How your Terms of Service have to be worded, and how you will deal with violations of it.
  • Training for Trust and Safety staff – plus volunteer content moderators, if you dive into the morass that involves, instead of relying on reporting to staff.

I included the quote, and the link to many of its variations, because ignoring the past is widespread, and occasionally deliberate (not that I’m accusing NaNo of it – it’s a comment about my own field). In my research area (Computing), one of my colleagues told me that the editor of a journal to which they were submitting a paper insisted they remove all citations to sources more than 20 years old. Sometimes it’s simply not thinking to go looking: Another colleague reported that in their field they were seeing articles solving problems already solved, years ago, albeit in new contexts. I suppose it could be deliberate in some cases, since there’s a definite “selection pressure” (a metaphor from evolutionary biology that fits with “publish or perish” in Academia): It is more impressive to write a long paper about solving a “new” problem than a short letter about how you applied an old solution to a new area (which, in Computing, is harder to get published).

I wish NaNoWriMo well. I’ve been participating since 2006, and get a lot of value out of it. I won’t be suspending my annual donations (well, maybe if the Board, given time, still hasn’t addressed the primary issues in a responsible way). I hope y’all keep supporting them, too.

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