The Death of Academi-Queers

From its former administrator

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It has been brought to my attention that a former member of the Academi-Queers Facebook group is circulating a partial and highly-biased account of that group’s demise in (among other places) a large Facebook group of LGBTQIA+ academics. Because that account is potentially damaging to my professional reputation, I offer this explanation of why and how I shut down Academi-Queers.

I created Academi-Queers in late July 2018 as a networking and discussion group for LGBTQIA+ academics: faculty, administrators, researchers, graduate students, etc. At its peak, the group had 425 members, two moderators, and one administrator (me).

I intended Academi-Queers as an antidote to certain recurring problems in a similar Facebook group: identity-based ad hominem attacks; deletion of posts with long discussion threads (thus erasing others’ intellectual work); frequent descent into acrimonious and toxic ‘discourse’; and, no noticeable content moderation.

In an effort to avoid these issues, I established Academi-Queers with a clear set of Content Guidelines (and consequences for violations) to which all members were required to agree as a condition of joining the group. Among other things, members were asked to be welcoming, constructive, and positive in their posts; avoid identity-based ad hominem attacks in favor of discussion of ideas and concepts; and edit posts (rather than deleting them).

Also, the group was actively moderated. From the start, I envisioned the group would be managed by a team of moderators with a shared understanding of the purpose, appropriate tone, and acceptable content for the group. And I recruited and appointed two group members as moderators to assist in this work. I also created a private Facebook group so moderators could discuss issues related to moderating the main Academi-Queers group.

To their credit, the members of Academi-Queers largely adhered to the letter and spirit of the Content Guidelines. Until the very end…

On the morning of Friday, August 24, 2018 I changed the group privacy setting of Academi-Queers to “secret” and archived the group. These actions made the group ‘invisible’ on Facebook (except to members) and prevented anyone from posting or commenting to the group. That effectively ended Academi-Queers.

Further, on Saturday, August 25th, after receiving several requests to revive the group and reviewing the administrative tools provided by Facebook, I deleted all my intellectual property from the group, removed myself as group administrator, and left the group. (Facebook does not provide an easy way to delete a group or I would have done so.)

I took these actions after these events:

  • On Thursday, August 23rd, the Academi-Queers moderators and I engaged in a daylong discussion of a post reported to us as violating the Content Guidelines. (To protect the privacy and honor the confidentiality of those discussions, I will not describe them here.) That discussion grew heated and ended with accusations and demands from the two moderators. The following morning, I concluded I was not able to devote the time required for group moderation of Academi-Queers, posted that in a note to the private Academi-Queers moderator group, and withdrew administrative privileges from the two moderators (with my thanks for their work). I also posted notice of the change in group moderation to the Academi-Queers news-feed (again, with thanks for the moderators’ work). However, given the final tone of the previous day’s discussion, I suspected one of the moderators would attempt to sabotage the group. So, I turned on the “moderate all posts” administrative tool for the main group;
  • As suspected, that former moderator attempted to post to the main group’s news-feed a call for my removal as administrator of Academi-Queers. That post violated several parts of the group’s Content Guidelines: it was malicious; contained ad hominem attacks; did not comport with the group’s purpose; referenced information shared in private communications; and contained a threat (to syndicate the call across Facebook and other social media). It also claimed the post was the result of coordination with the group’s other moderator. Accordingly, I rejected the post, and removed and blocked both former moderators from Academi-Queers;
  • Overnight (Thursday into Friday), Academi-Queers experienced an unusually large number of applications for membership from Facebook members with profiles having no obvious connection to academia and who had not answered the screening questions. Previously, applications for membership had been approved (without answering screening questions) if it could be reasonably determined their request for membership was legitimate and appropriate: invited by an existing member; clear connection to a university (or similar); name recognized from related Facebook groups, etc. Before I realized there was a pattern to the new membership requests, one newly-approved member attempted to post the former moderator’s call for my removal to the Academi-Queers news-feed. That post was also rejected (for the same reasons as above) and the new member was removed and blocked from the group;
  • At that point, I realized Academi-Queers was under a coordinated internal and external attack. I toggled the Facebook administrator tool to allow only administrators to post to the group and posted a note informing the group about the situation (basically, the events I’m recounting here). Curiously, that post disappeared from the group’s news-feed and I could find no record of it in my personal Activity Log, the log of Administrator Activities (only visible to admins/mods), or in the Academi-Queers news-feed. I still do not know what happened to the post but I assume a group member reported it to Facebook as a terms of service violation and it was deleted.

In light of these events —which took place over approximately 18 hours — I came to understand that I had limited administrative tools to prevent the group from being sabotaged by current and former members. I also realized I was not going to be able to devote the necessary time to approve every new post and review every comment to ensure they complied with the group’s Content Guidelines.

So, I changed the privacy settings and archived the group. As the creator, owner, and sole administrator of the group, that decision was mine — and mine alone — to make.

I will accept my share of responsibility for the end of Academi-Queers.

I underestimated the amount of time group administration and private moderator discussions would require. And how difficult it would be to achieve moderator consensus around some fundamental issues: the purpose of the group; acceptable content for posts; procedure for handling reported posts; procedure when reported posts did not obviously violate Content Guidelines; issues of confidentiality and privacy in communications with group members, etc. When it died, the group was barely a month old — most of those questions remained un-broached and un-decided within the moderating team. Because of that, we did not have a process in place for addressing reports that posts violated the Content Guidelines.

I also accepted a group member’s offer to serve as moderator before allowing sufficient time to observe their style of interaction within the group. To be frank: I appointed someone as moderator who (I came to realize) favored an adversarial, rather than conciliatory, approach to substantive disagreement. That was the case in discussions with both group members (in the main group) and moderators (in the private moderators’ group). I should have rescinded their moderator privileges when this pattern first became apparent.

These were my mistakes and I own them.

Although I’m saddened by the demise of Academi-Queers, I’m also trying to maintain some perspective. Academi-Queers was a short-lived Facebook discussion group. While promising, its life had barely begun. Perhaps what I envisioned is simply not achievable in the gladiatorial climate of today’s social media. I don’t know.

But now I’m moving on to my other work…

Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.

Prof. of Gender & Sexuality Studies, U. Ill. Springfield