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Avoiding the Block Button

Imamadmad October 3, 2014 User blog:Imamadmad

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I originally wrote this blog post as a comment on Sannse's blog post User blog:Sannse/The Zen Admin, but due to its length, it's movement from the original topic of that blog, and one of the replies I got to the comment there, I decided to make it its own blog post.


I would like to start this message by saying that I absolutely hate using the block button and will try my hardest in most instances to resolve a problem without it, even if it means more anger is expressed in the short term. I just feel that a user is more likely to come back and be productive if problems are talked out rather than just having them banned straight away. I just feel blocking goes against the idea of "assume good faith" unless the user is blatantly and obviously and purposefully violating the rules (such as a couple of times when users have purposefully made pages which are word perfect with what the policies pages says not to do). It even annoys me when other admins block without giving satisfactory warning first, and was even the main reason why one of the admins on our wiki was demoted a while back.

One of the reasons I believe admins should try to avoid blocking is that users are much more likely to respond nicely and become better editors if you talk to them nicely and say what they've done wrong, point them to the policy saying it was wrong, and then give suggestions on how to improve their behaviour before saying you hope they'll change their ways and continue to be a good editor. While it may make you feel like cringing at yourself when entering "overly friendly admin mode" (or "sickly sweet admin mode" as I sometimes think of it), the user is much more likely to respond in a positive manner than if you just tell them they're wrong or even simply blocking them. On small wikis, it is especially important to retain as many users as possible, which you won't do if you block too fast. Some of my first edits on the wiki which is now my main wiki were accidentally wrong, and it was a nice user who pointed out what I did wrong that made me stay, improve, and become one of the main admins as I am today. If I had just been blocked, even if blocked with a calm, reasonable edit summary, I wouldn't have returned.

Now that technique above is only really useful for newer users. If you go doing that to regular users who you know better, "sickly sweet admin mode" is probably going to confuse them, leaving them wondering where the true [insert admin's name here] has gone. It can work as a defensive mechanism if you're particularly annoyed with a person but need to avoid letting your anger show, and it can be good for first warnings if toned down, even for those who are used to seeing you talk to them about other issues in, let's say, a more genuine emotional manner.

The problem with regular users, especially when it comes to blocking, is that they've usually become a regular user by making a bunch of good edits and you don't want to lose their good editing skills because of less friendly behaviour behind the scenes on talk pages, blogs, and forums. Instead, you need to encourage these users to become better editors or, if there are heated arguments going on, it is the admin's job to quench the argument rather than to block the participating users if at all possible to return people to productivity ASAP. To stop arguments, you don't need to go into "overly friendly admin mode", and in fact a tone of voice which suggests that you are very much done with hearing those people arguing[1] (which will probably be what you're actually feeling if you're stopping the fight) while telling them to lay it off for a few days can be the most effective way of solving these kinds of disputes in my experience. By getting them to temporarily stop means that it gives time for emotions to cool and therefore less likely for it to start up again, and the more serious tone of voice can suggest to the users that you actually mean what you say and that, actually, you do have the power to stop them if necessary so it's better that they stop before they get the block. Of course, if they ignore you you will have to see the threat through so they take you seriously next time, but it means that next time you probably won't have to block at all.

It gets more complicated when you are the one in the argument, especially if it's with another admin. This is where I usually struggle to keep things cool; it's much easier when intervening from the outside. First of all, never block somebody if they're in the middle of a argument with you. You can refer them to another admin to see if they think blocking is justified, but your own decisions will be clouded by your feelings towards that other person. Another point mentioning here is that if you block a regular user who you are in an argument with, chances are they'll go to another admin anyway and you'll be the one looking bad in the end (source: I've often been the unblocker). If you are in the middle of an argument, I suggest always waiting at least half an hour between your initial reading of their response to you before leaving any replies as this period will help you calm your emotions as well as think through your responses before you have to construct them into a coherent message. If the argument is getting particularly bad, you might want to leave your written message overnight before hitting send and rereading it in the morning with a fresh, calm mind. Chances are you will be able to tone your message down a bit or even rewrite it in a less angry and provocative manner after a good night's sleep. Make sure that you do mention what points the other user is bringing up which you agree with to soften their emotional response to your message as well as pointing out what you feel are the flaws in their argument. If things don't improve, either just stop replying or, if you can't stand to leave them with the last word, contact an admin or another trusted member of the community to take a look at the argument and see if they can end it. The important thing is to try and prevent emotions from escalating in the first place or, if it's too late for that, de-escalate them as soon as possible. Rivalry between editors on a wiki, especially admins, is not good for community spirit overall.

Overall, I think there are much better ways to deal with bad users or even just difficult users other than just blocking them. Open communication, although sometimes hard in the short-term, can lead to some troublesome editors deciding to be more productive in the future, whereas blocking just leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth. I understand that it's needed sometimes, but always give at least one warning first before giving a user the boot, and more warnings/discussion with the more regular users who you really don't want to lose. In the end, you have to do what's best for the wiki in the long term, despite current emotions, annoyances, and personal dislikes for individuals. I have seen troublemaking users be changed into productive editors for reasonably long stretches of time after being talked to, one of whom was being disruptive because of blocks and managed to behave properly for several months after we discussed a probational period. You don't always need to be a completely "Zen" admin to be a good admin, nor do you have to live in a perpetual state of over-niceness to get people to like and respect you. Just be fair, reasonable, professional, and forgiving, and you will not only earn the respect of your peers, but you might just be able to change a troublesome user's attitude for the better.

  1. Note: by a "done" tone of voice, that doesn't mean that bad language and attacks are OK, and in fact you should avoid it if at all possible. It's hard to explain how to generate this sort of tone of voice since I suck at textual analysis, but if it's not just coming naturally, make sure there are few adjectives (especially positive ones), no modifiers to make your point seem weaker, and make good use of the imperative. Basically, show you're serious and mean what you say, which is that you don't want to have to put up with that behaviour any longer.

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