Saints, Knaves, and Moralists of Internet Communities

Do you ever wonder how internet communities persist despite trolls, grifters, bullies, and other undesirable characters?

How do members persevere and remain positive despite these bad actors? Most communities don’t have employees to manage or create content. Most people are too busy or distracted to contribute, yet many communities still function well. Why doesn’t everyone’s self-interest break them?

In his book War and Peace and War, Peter Turchin explains group coordination. People aren’t driven purely by self-interest. He argues there are three categories of people: knaves, saints, and moralists.

The self-interested, rational agents which Turchin deems “knaves” never contribute to the common good and choose to free ride unless forced to do so by punishment. Examples include trolls, grifters, people who don’t add to discussions, and others who “take” from the community but never “give.” They beg you to sign up for their app, buy their product, or read their article without contribution to the community.

Second, there are “saints” who contribute to the common good, even when it is obvious to everybody that cooperation has failed (although most tend to do it less). These are people who contribute actively, moderate, write guides, manage, organize events, and more. They are far beyond self-interested. They might contribute because they enjoy the subject, love the people, crave praise, connect with the mission, or many other reasons.

Finally, there are “moralists.” This group constitutes the largest number of people. They prefer to contribute so everyone is better off, but in the absence of a mechanism to punish knaves, become disgusted by opportunistic behavior and withdraw their cooperation. When punishment is available, such as suspensions, banishment, fines, and scolding, moralists use it on the knaves (which forces knaves to contribute). They range in activity from moderation and active posting to lurking and mild trolling.

The key to group coordination is the dynamic between them all. When saints and moralists do something, it puts pressure on knaves to do the same. When you are contributing actively and supporting the removal of off-topic conversation, you help set the example of what you want the community to be. In other words, saints and moralists hold up social norms. Applying this framework to internet communities reveals some interesting insights.


The goal of any community is survival. It wants to continue to be active, provide value, and facilitate interactions for its members.

Too many knaves in a community can cause its collapse. Knaves can overwhelm saints and cause them to leave. Without punishment, moralists also stop contributing and the community will rapidly decline. If there is a punishment option, moralists will punish the knaves to save the saints.

“Remember that a moralist not only behaves according to the norms, but also detects and punishes cheaters—people who break such social rules. A “second-order” moralist also keeps track of those who shirk by not punishing cheaters, and punishes them.”

There are never too many saints. A community full of saints would be great, but unsustainable. As Turchin writes “a group with more saints wins out in between group competition but saints lose within group competition.” This is because the benefits from prosocial actions are spread evenly among the group, including knaves, but the costs are borne entirely by the saints. A group of saints rapidly fills with non-saints.

You often see this in public communities with good distribution, such as Reddit. A subreddit starts with people genuinely interested in the topic. A large proportion of members are posting high-quality content. That content attracts people less interested in the topic, but value attention. They post lower-quality content, troll, and argue with existing members. If the knaves aren’t punished for this behavior, saints will leave, making the community worse.

Saints can become burnt out from carrying the group, especially when other people hear about how good the group is. Communities change faster than civilizations because people can join and leave rapidly. Behaviors that work for saints in one day can leave them overwhelmed on the next. The saints’ natural tendency is to care about the group but they can become overwhelmed with knaves at the wrong time.

When you see knave behavior on the internet, you become accustomed to knave behavior. It moves you towards thinking knave behavior is normal behavior, especially when it goes unpunished. When you see someone make off-topic posts or troll in the comments, you are more likely to do it yourself. It might encourage you to be a bit more knave-like, and this isn’t a good thing. So is there a good way to prevent knaves and attract more saints?

Fewer Knaves and More Saints

Because internet communities are smaller than civilizations, they have more options for maintaining the fragile balance of saints, knaves, and moralists. They do not require demographic or cultural change when they can adjust incentives, enforce different rules, or change their structure.

A community does not need to be free of knaves to work. They do not need a large number of saints either. What they do need is the capacity to remove knaves and attract saints. This capacity shows that a community remains vibrant.

Removing knaves is easier online than in a civilization because you can ban them. Most communities are oligarchies, having a small group of leaders able to ban people easily. For example, I’ve seen Discord servers and Twitch channels with one-word permanent bans available to moderators. Compared to something like a ban request form, a one word ban command makes it easier to remove knaves, which means it will happen more.

A community with a strong capacity to remove knaves likely has the capacity to make changes elsewhere. It shows the community wants to maintain quality of interaction and membership. It has standards and rules that are understood and enforced. All good signs.

Removing knaves is not the only area a community can show capacity. It is also vital to attract saints. The best communities have the largest and most active group of saints. Communities with saints win out in competition between communities. We all love saints and want to spend time with them.

The ability to attract saints shows the community is good at something. It may appeal to the saint’s interests, be entertaining, or informative. More saints amplify these qualities further in a positive feedback loop. If a bad community can attract saints it will improve because they “contribute to the common good, even when it is obvious to everybody that cooperation has failed.” Without saints, a bad community won’t have many contributors and won’t improve.

For you as a member, it is most valuable to find an area where you want to be a saint and spend time there. You might be interested in other areas, but only as a moralist. You are less active than you can be. A good way to test your fit with a community is to ask “would I be a saint in this community?” If not, there may be a better one for you.

An interesting way to both have fewer knaves and attract more saints is through paid communities. They prevent people who aren’t serious from joining. The penalty for getting banned is real money lost. Paid communities can also hire saints. For example, Foster hires editors to edit members’ work. Before doing this, it was done mostly by the saints of the community. This lightens the load of saints while maintaining community quality.

We all want to be a part of communities with more saints and fewer knaves. There are many more ways than what I explained to do this. Some are up to the community, and others are up to you.

Be a saint if you can.

Don’t be a knave if you can help it.

Just that would make communities better places.

Thanks to Tom White and Marko Ayling from Foster for the feedback.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

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