Olshefsky's Rule of Behavioral Policy-Making

You know, I think I'm going to just define this right now. Like Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies, I seem to have stumbled upon another online truism. I'll call it Olshefsky's Rule of Behavioral Policy-Making. It goes like this:

During a discussion of behavioral policy-making, stating the challenge, "given any rule to control the behavior of others, I can show a way (1) how it can be circumvented, and (2) how it can be used to grab power" will inevitably lead to the parties-in-power proving it.

I realize it throws causality in a blender — one would never utter the challenge if the course of discussion were not already showing signs of heading in that direction. However, it seems uttering that specific challenge causes fate to intervene and ensure that a rule is used in both ways.

As proof, I offer two citations:

  1. in the Burning Etiquette Yahoo! Group on October 4, 2007 (with an earlier reference to an informal prototypical version on September 27, 2007 that said "it is impossible to create an algorithmic definition that prevents abuse-of-power and that has no loopholes. You can do it as an academic exercise yourself or try me — I'll tell you a way it can be abused and a way it can be worked around.")
  2. on RocWiki on December 11, 2007.

In the former case, the discussion was centered on changing the moderation techniques of the Colorado-bm Burning Man discussion list. As it stood, the regional Burning Man representative Ronnie Nelson had taken action to censor one of the members — according to him it was at the request of several members of the community for "posting too much", although there was a clear conflict-of-interest in that he had an established personal disagreement with this particular member. A debate of policy ensued and he suggested that a separate discussion list be created for those parties interested in a new moderation policy. On September 24, 2007 he made a public promise to implement the rules created by the Burning Etiquette group — specifically that it was not a case of academic masturbation.

However, once we agreed on moderation guidelines, Nelson ignored the request to implement them. He then let the few detractors of the proposed changes run wild on the Colorado-bm group, making it seem that free speech needed to be restricted. Several people complained that the junk traffic was too much and quit the list because of it, but Nelson did nothing. In the end, he proved that a rule of responding to complaints of "too much traffic" could be circumvented (that detractors were allowed to run wild) and that it could be used to grab power (by holding it close to his chest as a threat to selectively silence voices supporting the guidelines.)

In the second, more recent case, a discussion began on a formal "acceptable use" policy for RocWiki. The author of the proposed policy, Phillip R. Hurwitz, had drafted it in response to then-undefined rules applied against him: specifically that comments could not be construed as harassing, offensive, or off-topic for the page. His claim is that you can't both be an open community and also have secret "admin" police who claim authority through secret rules. To force the issue, he tried to change his Acceptable Use Policy draft to state that it was a formal policy. RocWiki Administrator RottenChester reverted these changes and locked Hurwitz from further changing the page. Another administrator, Dave Mahon went further and banned Hurwitz from changing the site at all for 48 hours as a "cooling off period."

There is a secret rule against threatening or harassing comments and edits as demonstrated above. However, this can be circumvented — for instance that veiled threats by BadFish on December 7, 2007 on Hurwitz's RocWiki page went unpunished. The administrators tend to believe that RocWiki is truly Democratic and the one person airing the hypocrisy of that notion is Hurwitz — and he has been conveniently silenced by Mahon's "cooling off period", demonstrating a grab for power.

It will be interesting to see how all this plays out in the long run, but as far as Olshefsky's Rule of Behavioral Policy-Making is concerned, it seems to be holding up.

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