Headless Chicken Mode (HCM) is RationalWiki’s response to stress.
While some wikis have wimpish “Conflict Resolution Systems” or fascist “Hierarchies of Command” to resolve internal problems, the valiant RationalWikians will have none of those. (The experience of Wikipedia itself, seemingly in an almost constant state of Headless Chicken Mode despite its elaborate conflict resolution system, suggests they aren't any help anyway.) Instead RationalWiki has "Headless Chicken Mode". Before the Great TK Banning Incident, Headless Chicken Mode almost always involved TK. Per the TK Protocol, the slightest comment of his could set off Headless Chicken mode. After the Great TK Banning Incident, RationalWiki diversified and HCM was soon happening during many a discussion about religion. Another initiator of HCM is when someone inevitably applies RationalWiki's nebulous guidelines in a manner deemed too severe by others, and people start arguing. "Rational" people and the Ghost of TK are invoked, and after the dust settles nothing has changed; the guidelines are left nebulous.
The Philosophy of Headless Chicken Mode
One of the marvelous things about HCM is that it canonizes both the implied state of chaos as well as the raucous rabble of discussion. And because a HCM can only be solved by brisk unilateral action (which often appears to simply make things more chaotic) or by community discussion (which often appears to just be more shouting mobs), any attempt to alleviate HCM often simply exacerbates the problem. This is why HCMs are never solved; like a good soldier, they simply fade away.
HCMs follow a predictable pattern, and really aren't as unusual as the patented and proprietary RationalWiki Inc. name might imply. Invariably, they boil down to a clash between two heavy-duty users, each of whom has staked out a position (HCM5). If these users are especially prolific or popular, they attract a great deal of attention. On RationalWiki, attention consists of discussion and text, which builds up swiftly under even moderate conditions (HCM4). The outspoken nature of RationalWikians ensures that many people wish to have their own little section of the debate, or to start a new thread of conversation, or simply set out their own plan off by itself for easy viewing. These sorts of sprawling discussions used to take place over a few user talk pages, although thankfully they are now segregated to specialized pages like the Coop.
Inevitably, one of the more anti-authoritarian users or fun-oriented users starts wailing about how boring everything is, sniveling like a child in a queue (HCM3). This prompts someone who is pious and way better than you because he doesn't have time for this to try to solve the problem in a big sweeping gesture - often by deleting whole discussions, banning numerous users, or something else similarly drastic. They're the hero, they're the bold one, everyone look at them!
While this sometimes works, generally the outspoken members of the community resent the strong-arming attempt to hog the glory, and instead the chaos and discussion are redoubled (HCM2). All the while, personal beliefs, past history, and private grudges are being brought out of storage, ensuring that more and more users pile into the discussion, bursting with cancerous invective. It is only on the strength of these sorts of direct, personal hatreds that matters ever advance to the next level of hellish fury (HCM1). At this point, at least four individuals are filled with a religious fervor for their momentary cause, making broad sweeping declarations, long essays, and profanity-laden screeds. The discussion becomes difficult to retain within the central discussion page, and spreads across several others.
HCMs devolve much more quickly than they develop, oddly enough. Everything is forgotten, except that people are marginally more cynical and a few users have another grudge on their list.
Headless Chicken Mode (HCM), like DEFCON, has a number of levels. Currently the levels range from HCM 6 to HCM 0, but this can change.
All defenses on standby. Atmosphere is casual or humourous.
HCM 6, like DEFCON 5, is the default level for all interactions on RationalWiki.
Defenses placed on alert. Possibly someone had raised some sort of complaint.
HCM 5 includes any discussion involving community standards—some objections are raised and feelings mildly stung, but nothing major. Level also covers when individual editors quietly tantrum, such as Secret Squirrel once did (see News from the Front). Incidences are generally limited to only two or three interested editors. Back in the day, the involvement of CUR was usually only in his own mind: no one else took any notice of him. Drama at this level does not qualify for the creation of its own article on RationalWikiWiki, and is only worth mentioning within user articles or as a wigo.
Strike forces readied. First salvo is fired.
HCM 4 is a pivotal moment in a conflict on RationalWiki. At this stage, the conflict may either stay between a few editors and die out, or others may get involved and elevate it HCM 3.
The "first salvo" refers to an editor (major or minor) insulting a major editor. Examples include AKjeldsen blocking SusanG in the Kip the Dip Incident, and MarcusCicero saying "Fuck you" to SusanG in the Great Pissing Contest.
Strike forces launch.
In HCM 3 other editors involve themselves and the site starts to polarise over an issue. Conflicts rarely conclude at this level; if it's bad enough to get this far, it's bad enough to reach HCM 2. Not to say that doesn't happen — the Ungtss Controversy arguably never passed this point, and wrapped up without going into "heavy combat" (see HCM 2).
The battle is in full swing in HCM 2. Defenders on one side or other of the issue make stinging personal comments. Feelings are hurt. Talk pages ignite. Recent changes is overwhelmed. Casualties on one or both sides, as the users either leave RationalWiki to never come back, or spend days nursing their wounds before slinking back days or weeks or months later.
Civilian populations are firebombed. Collateral damage is greater than damage to enemy.
HCM 1 is the penultimate phase of conflict. It is equivalent to "Forest Fire", as described on MeatballWiki.
To paraphrase MeatballWiki, a forest fire is when a conflict is no longer limited to a single page, and spreads laterally across several other pages. On RationalWiki, this typically happens when someone makes a comment about the onging conflict on the persecutor/persecuted's talk page, and other users swiftly descend upon that person's talk page, turning it into another front of the battle. As the conflict continues, participants must keep up with edits on several pages, must state the same point repeatedly on those pages, and each post must reference several other pages as well (i.e. "As I already said on this page" or "but you said here that..."). The nature of these conflicts is such that they are impossible to mediate, and efforts to control the blaze generally fail. The conflict is exacerbated by people who feel they need to get the last word in, by trolls intent on making things difficult, by people who use the debate as an opportunity to raise points about past conflicts, and even people trying to douse the blaze.
Whereas on other wikis, forest fires have the potential to take on a virtually eternal existence through Headless Chicken Mode, RationalWiki, fortunately, is too small for the community to maintain this devastating level of conflict, and HCM 1 lasts a couple days at most.
Mutually Assured Destruction
The deepest level of HCM, 0 refers to a complete meltdown of structure and order to the point that nobody even can agree on what they are fighting on, consuming vast amounts of edits to accomplish nothing. This complete failure of structure is defined from HCM 1 by the vast amount of pages utilised in the event, several threads on the same page about different topics, and a complete absence of means by which any editor can end the conflict, and the inability of this wiki to figure out what happened. This epic level of chaos has only been reached twice, at the end of RationalWiki 1.0 and during the events of May 2011.