Improbable Island Message of the Day (MoTD)Cake, new circumstances, and a Missing Stair
Staff 2020-05-01 01:21:21 [Permalink]
Hey folks, there's an exciting new feature that I probably spent way too much time on and it is CAKE.
The idea was floated in chat that it'd be nice to send people in-game cake for their birthdays. I don't know any of your dates of birth and I don't want personal information like that sitting on my server being bait for hackers, so we came up with Rookdays instead. Your Rookday is the anniversary of your joining the Island, and on that day, people can - and probably will - send you CAKE. There are sixty thousand different combinations of cake type, icing, filling and topping, and you can write messages in the icing too. Cake gives impressive buffs to the recipient. See the Just Cake Joker in Common Ground to send cake, or for a reminder of your own Rookday.
In less-awesome news, my employer has furloughed me until November. Worse, they're going to cancel my (and my wife's (and my three-year-old daughter's)) health insurance at the start of June. The good news in all this is that Improbable Island is now my full-time job again for the first time since 2014 and will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future, so expect much more presence from me and more bugfixes and new features and improvements.
The Monthly Memento for May will likely be something to commemorate the general strikes and rent strikes going on in the USA and around the world this coming month. My wife's brother and sister both work in retail and so are considered essential workers during this global pandemic, as are many of my family members back home in the UK - my relatives get a weekly round of applause to go with their poverty wages, my wife's relatives get poverty wages, no protective equipment or support from management, and the knowledge that if they were to resign they'd be left without access to medicine during a global pandemic. So yeah, we're doing a fucking Worker's Rights Monthly Memento like we did last May, and the 'obby 'oss of our own bizarre May Day festivals can wait until 2021 or until I get off my OWN FUCKING HORSE, whichever comes later.
Update 2020-05-01: It's the Union Membership Pin, and it causes cameras to give you more Req so you don't get any funny ideas about striking. No need to use it from your Inventory, it works all day automatically.
As with the last few updates, I'll say that donations are appreciated now more than ever, but please don't donate if you're also out of work. If you usually donate every month to get the Monthly Memento but you can't this month because of COVID-19-related awfulness, please send me a Distraction and I'll sort you out with the Monthly Memento for free.
Speaking of donations, I've had to send a bunch of refunds lately, which brings us to the third topic of today's MotD, which is our very own Missing Stair. Content warning for discussion of abuse, harassment and similar themes.
I suddenly had a bunch of refund requests from PayPal, where the account owners said that they didn't authorize the transaction. Looking into it, they all came from the same guy, Darian Frey, who'd racked up hundreds of dollars' worth of Supporter Points from hacked PayPal accounts, all of which now has to be repaid along with chargeback fees. Well, that sucks, but a couple were more interesting - gifts sent to others, which were a little more difficult to track down. I chatted with a couple of people via Quiet Room and asked them if these gifts had come from Darian Frey, and yeah, they had, after Frey had done something creepy or weird and wanted to apologise.
Hmm. Creepy or weird, you say? Creepy enough to raise an eyebrow, but not creepy enough to make you feel like you need to tell a mod about it?
Uh-oh. Alarm bells start ringing in my head. I've been doing this twelve years, I know where this ends up.
Over the next few days, word gets around that I'm looking into what Frey's been up to, and people start coming forward with their own stories. Soon there's half a dozen, with similar themes - he befriends people on the Island and then, knowing we keep an eye on things here, he invites people to add him on some other service without player protection, somewhere like Discord or whatever Google's calling its chat service this week, and then he sends them presents and pressures them to roleplay sex with him. If you say something wrong, even a friendly tease or a misunderstanding, he flies off the handle and tries to get you ostracized - while feeding you some story about a sick relative or whatever. Over time things evolve past a vague sense of creepiness around the guy and it becomes more the sort of situation where plenty of people know all about his predatory behaviour, but nobody wants to make a fuss because he's the founder of a clan and he's always super-friendly and nice and helpful to the newbies etc etc, but if they happen to see him around they might quietly warn the people he's interacting with... and we've got ourselves a missing stair.
If you're not familiar with the analogy, here's a Wikipedia article about it and here's the post from which it originated (this post is SFW but it's from a site called "The Pervocracy" which deals with BSDM, so you might not want your sysadmin seeing it). You have a missing stair in your basement, but everyone's gotten so used to it that you just kinda step over it and let the newbies know that they've gotta watch out for it, and nobody ever fixes the stair.
This same process plays out in workplaces, clubs, and online games, and there are several contributing factors that can help it happen, which I'll detail below, along with how we plan to deal with these factors, and ways you can help.
1. The things the abuser does are minor enough that it's probably not worth bringing up.
Problem: The abuser makes dozens or scores of people low-key uncomfortable - individually these incidents don't seem too bad. It could be a joke that landed poorly, the awkwardness of text without vocal or facial cues, posts or intentions being misinterpreted. We only realise we've got a creeper on our hands when things escalate, or when twenty people suddenly go "Oh, they tried the same on you? What a creep."
How we're dealing with it: This is a pattern we see again and again on the Island, so we started logging each and every incident that anybody brings up to us, even ones that do turn out to be extremely minor or even harmless misunderstandings where nobody is at fault. Creepers seldom manifest in spectacular, attention-grabbing incidents - they try to fly under the radar for as long as they can. Having a permanent log of every moderator interaction helps us to spot low-key creepers before they turn into bigger problems, as long as those low-key incidents are brought to our attention.
How you can help: Any time someone makes you feel uncomfortable, tell me or a mod. If it makes you feel better, say "It's probably nothing, but." Even if it does turn out to be nothing, we'll have the record there in case it ever doesn't turn out to be nothing. Keep records of any Distractions or chat lines that make you feel concerned.
2. I don't want to get this person in trouble.
Problem: The abuser endears themselves to the people they're abusing. Perhaps with gifts, perhaps with a great sense of humour, perhaps with a sob story about a sick relative or some other tragic circumstance. They make you feel unsafe every now and then, but you don't want them to get banned.
How we're dealing with it: We want to make clear, in case some people might be uncertain about this, that not all moderator interactions lead to a player being banned or muted. All moderator judgements take the player's past history into account, along with the surrounding context of the report. If you give us a quiet heads-up about someone who said something that might've been harmless joking and probably wasn't symptomatic of something more serious but you just want to make sure, then we'll look at the specific situation in the context of whatever other stuff the player's been getting up to. A lot of the time it is nothing to be worried about.
How you can help: If you find yourself giving a player a bit of side-eye, then please tell us what started to give you the heebiejeebies, and we can give the player a once-over to let you know whether they're safe or not. We would rather get a hundred false alarms than let a creeper run about unchecked.
3. It's been going on for months and if I come forward now, people will treat me like a fool for letting it go on for so long.
Problem: Low-key abuse builds up over a long period, and by the time you notice something's wrong, your frog is thoroughly boiled and you feel daft for letting it go on for so long.
How we're dealing with it: By telling you here and now that this is how every creeper operates. They start off innocuous, they push a little, they endear themselves to you, and then they keep pushing far past the point where you're uncomfortable and into the sort of territory where you feel like you can't come forward. We have a lot of experience of the mechanisms by which these things happen, and you are not to blame. Thousands of people are going through the same thing right now in other games and in real life, and you're not alone. The blame for the abuse lies with the abuser.
How you can help: Come forward. If you like, you can do so anonymously - make a new email address somewhere and email me, email@example.com.
4. I don't think I'll be believed.
Problem: The abuser is popular or well-regarded, and you don't think we'll believe what you have to tell us.
How we're dealing with it: Remember, mods and admins can see everything. Every chat, every Distraction, everything that happens on Improbable Island. We don't need to judge anyone's trustworthiness, we can see it.
How you can help: If someone reaches out to you and expresses that they want to come forward but don't think they'll be believed, encourage them to do so. If you feel comfortable, come forward on their behalf while keeping them anonymous. Remember that chat and Distractions do expire and we can't see stuff that's no longer there - if a Distraction makes you feel uncomfortable then please keep it around long enough for us to see it before you delete it. Likewise, report creepy chat promptly, so we can take a look at it before it expires.
5. I feel alone in this situation.
Problem: The abuser has focused on you and you don't feel like you have a support structure.
How we're dealing with it: By telling you the truth; creepers never, ever creep on only one person. Every time we ban a creeper, I get email from three or four other players saying "Thanks for banning that player, I thought I was the only one they were creeping on." With their permission, we put these players in contact with each other for mutual support.
6. I fear repercussions from the abuser for coming forward.
Problem: The abuser has some kind of sensitive information about you, that makes you fear retaliation if you get them banned.
How we're dealing with it: This can be a tricky one, but remember, you're extremely unlikely to be the only one being targeted for abuse. The odds of the abuser being able to figure out that you, specifically, are the one who shone a light on their abuse and prevented it from being spread to others, are extremely slim. In the highly unlikely (so unlikely, in fact, that right now it's hypothetical) scenario that someone is abusing or victimising just one person, the situation is not hopeless - email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll see what we can do.
How you can help: Avoid, wherever possible, sharing personal information with other Islanders. If someone gets pushy, ask us to take a look at them - we might be dealing with a proto-creep.
7. I don't trust the moderators or the admin.
Problem: A fear of the mods has been instilled by the abuser, others on Improbable Island, or past bad experiences with mods elsewhere. Fear of the mods, and rumours about abuse of power, started surfacing around late 2014. At this point, we had banned twenty players in six years of being online. The story would come up that the mods aren't to be trusted and would ban people at the drop of a hat, someone would ask for details or evidence, and the conversation would peter out with the excuse that the player bringing up the story didn't have permission, or that they feared repercussion for posting details. I thought that these stories were one-off affairs posted by the usual cranks who object to the concept of moderation in general, and people would quickly realise, seeing the same mechanic play out every six months or so by the same six or seven people, that there wasn't any evidence to back up the claims being made. I allowed the conversations to happen in the spirit of transparency and allowing people to draw their own conclusions. I was wrong to do this. In the years since, it's taken us longer to detect creeps, and they've victimised more people who are afraid to come forward. This is where I hold my hands up and say that this is my fault, I was wrong, it was a neglect of my duty to keep this place safe, I apologize unreservedly for allowing this to happen and will take every step to prevent this from ever happening again.
How we're dealing with it: Starting around 2018, sick of the conversation coming up every six months like clockwork, I began asking directly and publicly for details or specific examples of abuses of power whenever someone brought up Mod Fear, and pointing out when those details were not forthcoming. This ended conversations quickly, but lasting damage had already been done, and people were hurt by years of my inaction. This was my own Missing Stair. I even had terms for the mechanisms involved. "Mod Fear" was the word we used internally to talk about the phenomenon - "Vague Sense of Unease" became a catchphrase for when a player doesn't trust the mods but waffles about generalities when asked for any specific instance that might have caused them to not trust the mods. "HADD" became my own substitute for "Everyone" in sentences like "Everyone's scared of the mods," as in "Half A Dozen Dickheads are scared of the mods, and will happily yell it from the rooftops until someone asks why." The fact that I allowed this missing stair to fester for long enough that I devised a lexicon to deal with it reflects poorly on me, and I would like to apologise right now to my players, for allowing half a dozen dickheads to foster a sense of uneasiness, to my moderators, who have suffered years of hard emotional work unravelling this phenomenon, and most especially to those who have been victimised by abusers counting on their unwillingness to come forward. From June 2020, lying about moderator intervention, in any setting, will lead to a permanent ban without warning. For avoidance of doubt, this also covers non-specific grumbling about mods - if there's a legitimate problem with the moderators, then it's to be brought up with me directly, with specific incidents detailed.
How you can help: If you see someone complaining about moderation, challenge them. Ask them what, specifically, the moderators did that's got them all upset. Ask for details. When they can't provide details, point out to anyone else following the conversation that no details were forthcoming. If you don't trust the moderators, talk to me directly via email@example.com. If you don't trust me, leave.
8. The abuse happened on Discord, and I heard you don't police stuff that happens off the Island.
Problem: The abuser exchanged Discord IDs with you, and now they've started acting creepy off-Island. You're hesitant to come forward because you know Discord will do nothing, and you don't think there's anything we can do about it.
How we deal with it: While we've previously taken the view that stuff that happens on other websites happens on other websites, Discord presents a special challenge as their ratio of users to moderators is literally millions to one, and they're unwilling to commit the resources necessary to even keep child porn, doxxing and actual literal Nazis off their servers, let alone catch the occasional creep or predator. Since Discord became popular, it's been involved in every single instance of abusive or creepy behaviour I've dealt with on the Island. Perversely, this makes Discord useful for giving creeps the confidence to come out of their shells a little and allow us to detect them, but people are still hesitant to get us involved in Discord-related abuse, so we're going to spell out our new policy here.
Is it right for us to say "We don't care if we're hosting a creepy pervy weirdo, as long as they keep their creepiness off our website?" No, it's not, that would be an abandonment of my responsibility as a website owner, and while it's harder for us to verify Discord chatlogs than it is to see raw data hosted on our own server, evidence from Discord is still useful. We encourage you to tell us about behaviour of Improbable Island players that makes you feel unsafe, wherever it might be hosted.
How you can help: Not everyone who uses Discord is a creep, but so far at least, every creep has used Discord. While we're not saying you should treat every Discord invitation as having bad intentions, please be extra vigilant about it. I'd say "Stay off Discord altogether," but I know you're not gonna do that, so consider the reasons why someone might want you to join a chat service off-Island, and remember the separation of player and character. Be extra vigilant if someone pushes for personal details.
9. My abuser is female/gay/trans/not what pops into people's minds when they hear the word "Abuser," and I'm worried you won't take me seriously because of that.
Problem: see above.
How we deal with it: I've very deliberately used words like creep, weirdo, abuser etc in here and avoided pronouns altogether, because if there's one thing that dealing with this sort of shit for twelve years has taught me, it's that abusers and their victims come in every shape and size. I really, really don't want you to think that just because you're a man, you won't be taken seriously. While it's true that women are more likely to suffer this sort of thing, it is by no means exclusive, and few enough men come forward that the studies are all over the place, ranging from one in 71 men suffering some form of sexual assault in their lifetimes to one in six. When the statistics vary so widely we can only come to the conclusion that men aren't reporting or aren't being believed when they do, so I want to emphasize that this is a safe place for you to come forwards regardless of your gender, your orientation, your history, your race, or any other factor. You won't be the first.
How you can help: Treat rape jokes about men with the same distaste that you'd treat rape jokes about women. If someone's contributing to an environment that would make anyone feel uneasy about reporting a missing stair, call them out on it, and/or alert the mods using the Mod Call button or by emailing me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
10. This all happened ages ago, I didn't take screenshots at the time, and the chatlogs have all expired.
Problem: You've no evidence of what happened - and it might have been so long ago that details are hard to remember.
How we deal with it: We don't take action without some kind of proof, but you should still tell us your story. While it may not carry the same weight as a chatlog, it could be useful in the broader context of uncovering a pattern of behaviour. Writing down your experience in the context of the present day often jogs memories that could prove useful to an investigation.
How you can help: Start at the start, and write out as much detail as you can. If you were interacting with other Islanders aside from the suspected creep, and you feel comfortable doing so, it might be handy to ask them for their recollections of the period as well.
Phew. I think that was the longest damn MotD I've posted in years.
Lately I've got nothing but time, and the social side of the Island is just as important as the code side, so expect better reporting tools, an update to the rules and policies, and more communication from me in the future.
Remember, I only found out about Frey because he was stealing money from me. If he hadn't, he might be still out there, creeping on people. I hope one day we're at the point where everybody knows that if they point to a missing stair, it will get fixed.
In the coming weeks I'll be working on updated rules and a guide on how to spot manipulative or concerning behaviour - if you've any feedback or suggestions for what can be done about creepers, or if you have a first-hand experience you'd like to share, or if you'd just like to talk, please feel free to email me at email@example.com.
PS: I've had a LOT of email and Distractions over the past three or four days, and I'm going through and replying in order. If a day goes by without an answer, please bear with me - if it goes longer than that, or if your mail is urgent, go ahead and ping me again to remind me.
In the meantime, if Frey tries to contact you via any off-Island means (he tends to favour Discord for its lax harassment controls), I strongly recommend you block and report. Frey also goes by alts Frisky Whiskey, Rott Wilder, Hulu and Hang, Honey Pun, Octane (not Octan, that's a different guy), and Special Comment.