Unwinnable Rewind – If You Build It They Will Come: Mark Oshiro on Trolls, Fandom, and Community Management

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This piece originally appeared at Unwinnable.

Mark Oshiro of Mark Does Stuff wears quite a few hats. In addition to reviewing books and television series in painstaking detail (chapter by chapter, episode by episode), he also runs and maintains an online community dedicated to discussing (and arguing about) their favorite texts.

I met Mark at this year’s WisCon convention and I convinced him to add one more item to his agenda: an interview for the readers of Unwinnable on the joys and trials of participating in fandom.

Megan Condis: Hi, Mark! Thanks so much for chatting with me today. First, tell us a little bit about what you do at Mark Does Stuff.

Mark Oshiro: For the last seven years (HOW?), I’ve been reviewing books and television series, one chapter or episode a day, while doing so completely unspoiled for anything. I do not research series before I start them, and through a rigorous set of filters and the best moderation team I could ever ask for, I keep myself unspoiled through the process of reviewing. It allows me to provide a unique angle to critical reviewing: What is it like to experience a fictional universe for the first time? There are two aspects to my reviews: my live, entirely unedited read through or watch of whatever I’m about to review, and then a written piece analyzing the themes, story, plot elements, characterization, etc., of the work.

MC: What are the guiding principles you looked to when you set out to create a community around your work?

MO: When I started Mark Reads and Mark Watches as their own sites, I knew that I would have full control over the community that I was going to host. I borrowed a lot of things from my time as a Community Manager at Buzznet and at GlobWorld, and I also took inspiration from the time I spent moderating band communities across the Internet. I wanted to make these spaces fair, just, and an exception to the rule that you should never read the comments on reviews. I knew I needed a sizable crew of moderators, and I also set out to have the rules as well-defined as possible.

MC: What do you think your fans look to get out of the community you’ve built?

MO: Often, they’re looking for a place to talk about geeky things – especially the shows and books I cover – where they don’t have to worry about being critical or negative towards things that they love (or sometimes hate). Again, I try to host a community that isn’t a cesspool of trolls and bigotry.

MC: What are some of the special challenges you face managing a community built around fandom?

MO: The biggest problem – and it’s one I could not have foreseen since I’m so opposed to spoilers – is dealing with fandom history. My community has had a number of issues over the years that are relatively common to any online community: spammers, trolls, brigading, sycophants, creeps, and generally unpleasant people. But I never can predict if what I’m writing about will ignite a fandom argument that I never knew existed years prior. The best way I can explain this is to liken it to a bandage; sometimes, I’ll comment on something, unaware that I’m ripping a Band-Aid off a wound in a fandom that they long ago dealt with. It happened when I covered Avatar the Last Airbender and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as a number of other series. For older shows and books, there’s a higher probability of this occurrence.

MC: Can you share a memorable example of a time when you had to manage a community crisis?

MO: My mind instantly goes to a few moments in our community. There was the “Jesus Take the Wheel” troll, who insisted that use of this phrase was “cultural appropriation” of Christianity, and they took particular offense, since I have fairly strict rules built around a social justice framework. Now, this is a specific example of a wider phenomenon, which is trolls using social justice language to derail, disrupt, and harm others, and I learned early on that you can’t truly engage with them. It was beautiful seeing the community leap to the occasion, though. While I did address the complaint, it wasn’t to satiate the troll; it was to show others in the community that concern trolling of that sort wouldn’t be tolerated. I also recall having to ban a longtime contributing member of the community for being misogynist, exceedingly negative, and openly hostile towards an author who was actually posting in the comments of the reviews! It was a tough situation for a number of reasons, though the fact that this person was a very well-known person in the community wasn’t the most difficult part. I didn’t want people in the community thinking that they could criticize works or that I would bend to the whims of an author who felt uncomfortable; however, this person’s behavior went way, way over the line. They needed to be removed from participation.

MC: What advice would you give to those who want to grow their own communities online?

MO: Sincerity is the key! There’s plenty of material about the logistics of online community management, and I don’t feel compelled to repeat it. My biggest piece of advice is that folks on the Internet know when they’re being bullshitted. They can see write through insincerity in a heartbeat. Don’t treat your communities flippantly; get to know people in them, don’t be afraid to make connections, and treat everyone with honesty and respect.

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