Everything in moderation

For a couple of years, Iíve logged on just about every day to Writer Action, a message board where Writers Guild of America members discuss politics, philosophy, plumbing, movies theyíve seen or written, pets, pet projects, string theory, string cheese and everything in between.

Thereís a lot of collected wisdom at WA, with hundreds of writers sharing stories of fascinating lives inside and outside the business. One regular contributor, until his untimely passing last fall, was a former CIA spook who sometimes dropped dark hints about U.S. foreign policy that he helped (or in the case of the Bay of Pigs invasion, refused to help) carry out. Another has written about his struggles growing up with autism. Other members possess brilliantly warped comic minds that engage in unexpected waysólike the entire thread written in haiku, the strike-oriented Christmas carol parodies, or the conversation limited to nominations for the worst imaginable two-item omelet (ingredients tended toward the profane and the bizarrely metaphysical), which improbably became the longest running thread in Writer Action history.

Lately, the fun and frivolity have taken a backseat to talk of the writersí strike. While Writer Action members as a whole solidly support the guildís labor action, itís a trying time for everyone, and emotions can run high. If youíve ever visited a chat-board or read the unmoderated public comments on a popular blog, you know how quickly things can turn nasty. Itís no different on a writersí site, except that the insults, when they happen, tend to be more pointed and better written.

To combat this, the administrators, who include several of the writers who launched the site as a free service to WGA members around 2001, decided before the strike to draft several volunteers to moderate the board. Because of my exceptional diplomatic skills, sparkling personality and the fact that few others could be persuaded to take the job, I was one of the group they appointed.

Ever since then Iíve spent more time than ever on WA, sometimes hours a day parsing messages for personal attacks both subtle and overt. Itís easy to recognize some violations. Call someone a fucking idiot, and you get warned or suspended. But these guys are highly paid professional craftsmen, and some of their most sophisticated work involves delivering ad hominem attacks without saying the kind of words that raise red flags. So we get sarcasm, mockery and a kind of deliberate, passive-aggressive obtuseness that hints at contempt without clearly stating it. I have little time to enjoy the thoughtful debate, tales from the picket lines, helpful advice, lively banter and links to interesting articles and videos that permeate WA, because lately Iím focused on playing kindergarten cop to a dozen problem children who never learned to be civil in cyberspace.

I volunteered to help moderate because I wanted to give something back to the board that Iíve enjoyed so much and because I feel the service is an important one to Writers Guild members, especially at this time. Thereís no official guild electronic bulletin board, partly because the one that existed succumbed years ago to problems much like the ones we face every day at Writer Action. This is a way for me to serve the guild during our strike without driving 25 miles each way from my home four days a week to the nearest picket line. (As a Ventura County resident, Iím not technically required by the guild to picket.)

Last week, with the strike having dragged through the holidays and the conglomerates still refusing to come back to the bargaining table they abandoned, tempers flared on the board over a false rumor planted on two Hollywood-oriented websites. The rumor involved a Writer Action poster, who was now understandably furious, and its dissemination included parts of messages lifted from our private board, a practice expressly forbidden. The uproar on WA continued well after the six consecutive hours I put in trying to quell it.

The next day I messaged the other moderators and administrators that I would no longer be able to put that kind of time into my WA duties. I had been neglecting the new spec Iím working on, not to mention my family and personal life. I needed some moderation of my own.

Everyone completely understood, and weíve begun taking steps to spread the work more evenly and streamline our process. Iíve already cut down my hours, but even so, itís still hard for me to read the board without thinking like a hall monitor. I hope to regain that ability by the time my voluntary six-month tour of duty ends.

It would be nice if the strike is over by then too.

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