The operators of Animal Crossing marketplace Nookazon faced community backlash last weekend for attempting to quell a surge in anti-police sentiment within their official Discord server. As members expressed their support for national protests against the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others, they found popular phrases like ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) and BLM (Black Lives Matter) banned and disallowed from usernames.
The public outcry prompted an apology and scrambling response from the marketplace’s leadership, which promised to learn and do better in the future. But for a vocal and disillusioned contingent of community members, the entire ordeal was not unsurprising. According to former moderators and community members, Nookazon’s strange corporate structure, aggressive moderation style and constant crusade against “political” content had already set the stage for the public controversy.
Don’t Say “Gay”
Atlas, a former community member, only lasted one week as a moderator on Nookazon. They had joined to help the server, which now boasts over 446,000 members, as a productive way to invest extra free time under quarantine. Joining was simple: they donated $100 to the Nookazon patreon, only later realizing that tier of support had earned them an application to the moderation team (the Nookazon Patreon no longer lists such a reward on their $100 tier). “I donated because I work as an EMT-B in my state,” they told me. “We all received a hazard bonus due to COVID-19, and I literally stumbled into this entire mess.”
According to Atlas, leadership “micromanaged” moderation, instructing their team to stay involved with the general channels as much as possible. Atlas said they spent the majority of their time explaining and enforcing decisions made by people above them instead of handling reports. Another former mod, Sonia (who asked her real name not be used for safety), said that nobody enjoyed this arrangement. Her perception was that it burned out the moderation team and frustrated users, whose reports of bigotry and harassment couldn’t always be handled because, as Atlas put it, the moderators were busy “making someone change their name from ‘Trans Rights’ to ‘Insert offensive slur here.’”
Nookazon leadership apparently didn’t want LGBT language in their server, and throughout April and May, they struggled to enforce a policy an official spokesperson described in an email as “aimed to minimize all potentially emotionally triggering topics in an attempt to prevent conflict in our channels.” But the ways in which they carried out that policy immediately caused problems.
“You couldn’t say gay, and you couldn’t say lesbian. It was classed as a bad word, you know?” Sonia told me. “And it was coming off poorly. It made the administration seem to be very anti-LGBT.”
Automoderation tools removed messages containing the offending words, and according to Sonia, anyone criticizing this policy would be muted by senior mods, which only served to further foment frustration. Moderators like Sonia and Atlas felt powerless to address the issue. They were relatively new and saw their own concerns ignored by a team of senior mods and admins who Atlas described as “literally like Mean Girls,” referring to the 2004 teen comedy about a clique of popular and vicious highschoolers.
Another ex-moderator, Alex, left primarily due to how the server’s leadership mishandled the censorship of LGBT issues. “It really makes you feel cut-off from the people who’re supposed to be guiding you through everything,” she told me. Several moderators left with her, eroding much of the representation that Nookazon reportedly enjoyed advertising to potential new members. “It was really hard for me, since I’m a member of the LGBT community,” Alex said. “But every complaint up until their statement was virtually ignored. At least, they were told that it was being considered, but that was the end of the conversation.”
When asked about ignoring the perspective of their moderators, the Nookazon spokesperson I communicated with stressed an emphasis on “the need for diverse backgrounds,” saying “We take all of our moderators’ suggestions and opinions seriously and into consideration,” and adding that “There has never been an instance where we have turned down or ignored an active moderator’s suggestions for improvement.”
However, Atlas was forced from their role after attempting to call out another member of the team for what they described as ableist remarks towards them. The behavior was addressed, but not before another senior moderator deemed Atlas unfit for the job. Sophie, another ex-moderator, corroborated the story, saying that newer and marginalized mods often had to fall on their own sword in order to enact change, either by resigning or threatening to go public with information. It was, she said, almost always like signing your own resignation letter.
Still, Atlas stuck around to see the server relax its aggressive policing of LGBT terms and conversation, on the condition that it never became too controversial or hateful. Within days, they said, the micromanagement of usernames both in the discord and Nookazon service itself returned. Alex left her post as a moderator around this time, the entire ordeal leaving a bad taste in her mouth.
“Thinking back on it now, it was just an effort to save face without putting the legwork in,” she said. “From a moderating standpoint the interpretation of what is and what isn’t controversial in regards to someone’s identity is obviously so vague that it can’t be consistently moderated.”
Quotas and Platitudes
Former Nookazon mods also attributed the site’s strident stalwart adherence to corporate styling as extremely detrimental to user relations. For one, new moderators like Alex and Sonia needed to hit weekly reporting quotas. But excelling could get one noticed by senior team members, leading one mod to “snatch all the reports they could to appear inflated as compared to others,” Atlas said, adding that they once stayed up until 5 A.M. in order to hit their quota during a particularly busy week.
The competitive structure these quotas imposed stressed out less experienced members while goading the competitive to treat moderation like a game with a score. Nookazon denies such a system existed, saying that “There are no weekly quotas or minimums for punitive actions (bans, mutes, or bites) that moderators are required to hit or allocate. Our expectations of minimum engagement are to ensure that our server is being actively moderated.”
Moderators received access to a shared document as the entirety of their training, much of which was dedicated to the “language and tone we were meant to use with people and reports, as well as having to log our whereabouts on a spreadsheet,” according to Alex. But no senior member trained them on the reporting tools necessary to do their work — they had to wait until more seasoned members complained or angrily corrected their mistakes.
The affected corporate image eroded professional relationships between moderators, and inconsistent rulings sowed distrust among general users, who viewed the moderation team as largely impassive enforcers. And it certainly did Nookazon no favors when their public apologies appeared glossed over by empty PR platitudes.
“Taking a corporate stance as a group like that against movements like Black Lives Matter and LGBT rights only goes to harm them,” Alex says. “They refuse to make a statement on the backlash they receive until it’s too late — it reads as insincere.”
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Keeping “Politics” Out
On May 30, Nookazon released an official apology for their moderation stance on antipolice protest within the server, along with a statement of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Our intention was not to remain complicit or silence views during this political climate — our team was unprepared for a response to current events of this magnitude, which led to excessive moderation,” the statement reads. “We apologize for any deleted comments and the removal of meaningful discourse, genuine warnings, and signs of solidarity with the BLM movement. We acknowledge the importance of creating a safe space to have these conversations and educate each other on current events.”
Nookazon added a current events channel in the community Discord server and invited users to host their discussions, protests and words of support there, instead of other specific-use channels. The former moderators I spoke with were completely unsurprised that the channel was immediately flooded with bigotry, spam and general trolling. On June 2, Nookazon leadership shut down the current events channel and instead created one called “global resources,” which houses links to state-specific bail funds, BLM resources, educational material, and protest information. General users cannot post in this channel.
A Nookazon spokesperson explained that their “intent was not to ‘silence’ users, as we wanted to encourage constructive discourse.” They have instructed that any further discussion on the topics of police violence and the ongoing protest should take place in their off-topic channel, as long as it adheres to the community’s guidelines.
But Atlas saw this plan as doomed to fail. Users believed they were being herded into a place where the rest of the server could ignore their cries, so they strategically spread among the dozens of channels. The former mods could feel the community’s anger at being mistreated once again. “It worries me on how they’re going to moderate issues of a political nature in the future if they couldn’t handle a current events channel,” Alex said. “People are going to keep talking about it.”
When I asked what supporting Black lives meant to Nookazon, they told me their “support has been realized in a collective $500 personal donation toward various BLM fundraiser sites.” They also mean for the global issues channel to be a growing resource not just for their international audience, but for themselves as well.
While not convinced of their dedication, Atlas remains hopeful for meaningful change. “I don’t believe Nookazon is terrible. I think they’re uninformed and uneducated,” they said. “It’s a wonderful service, it just needs an actual moderation team who can be held accountable for what they’ve done, and are willing to show us as their users that they’ll do what it takes to make it right.”