xkcd has an IRC channel where its strange fans talk about even stranger things, some of the anyway. xkcd creator Randall Munroe discusses a common problem with IRC channels in a recent blog post ROBOT9000 and #xkcd-signal: Attacking Noise in Chat.
“When social communities grow past a certain point (Dunbarâ€™s Number?), they start to suck. Be they sororities or IRC channels, thereâ€™s a point where they get big enough that nobody knows everybody anymore. The community becomes overwhelmed with noise from various small cliques and floods of obnoxious people and the signal-to-noise ratio eventually drops to near-zero â€” no signal, just noise. This has happened to every channel Iâ€™ve been on that started small and slowly got big.”
After laying out the standard approaches to controlling the problem (entry requirements, moderation, side channels) Randall describes a novel approach that fits oh so well with the xkcd community.
“And then I had an idea â€” what if you were only allowed to say sentences that had never been said before, ever? A bot with access to the full channel logs could kick you out when you repeated something that had already been said. There would be no â€œall your base are belong to usâ€, no â€œlolâ€, no â€œaslâ€, no â€œthere are no girls on the internetâ€. No â€œI know riteâ€, no â€œhi everyoneâ€, no â€œmorning sucks.â€ Just thoughtful, full sentences.”
The idea’s implementation as a Perl bot sounds workable — when you violate the xkcd protocol by uttering a non-novel statement you are muted to prevent chatting for two second and the mute time quadruples for every subsequent violation. The bot forgives you after a while — your mute-time decays by half every six hours or so. You can read more about it on the xkcd blog or experience its tight rein on #xkcd-signal at irc.xkcd.com.
Not surprisingly, the channel is currently overwhelmed by chatters testing the bot to learn the finer points of its rules and how to subvert them. Hopefully, this is just a transient phenomenon and the robotic enforcement of novelty will evolve into something truly useful — a kindler, gentler moderator who can keep discussion from degenerating. But some serious tinkering will be required — common and repetitious utterances (“good morning”) are part of our social protocol, so this needs to be allowed to some degree.