I changed my mind about online community this year.
I co-edit a blog that attracts a large number of daily visitors, many of whom have something to say back to us about whatever we write or produce in video. When our audience was small in the early days, interacting was simple: we tacked a little href tag to an open comments thread at the end of each post: Link, Discuss. No moderation, no complication, come as you are, anonymity's fine. Every once in a while, a thread accumulated more noise than signal, but the balance mostly worked.
But then, the audience grew. Fast. And with that, grew the number of antisocial actors, "drive-by trolls," people for whom dialogue wasn't the point. It doesn't take many of them to ruin the experience for much larger numbers of participants acting in good faith.
Some of the more grotesque attacks were pointed at me, and the new experience of being on the receiving end of that much personally-directed nastiness was upsetting. I dreaded hitting the "publish" button on posts, because I knew what would now follow.
The noise on the blog grew, the interaction ceased to be fun for anyone, and with much regret, we removed the comments feature entirely.
I grew to believe that the easier it is to post a drive-by comment, and the easier it is to remain faceless, reputation-less, and real-world-less while doing so, the greater the volume of antisocial behavior that follows. I decided that no online community could remain civil after it grew too large, and gave up on that aspect of internet life.
My co-editors and I debated, we brainstormed, we observed other big sites that included some kind of community forum or comments feature. Some relied on voting systems to "score" whether a comment is of value — this felt clinical, cold, like grading what a friend says to you in conversation. Dialogue shouldn't be a beauty contest. Other sites used other automated systems to rank the relevance of a speech thread. None of this felt natural to us, or an effective way to prevent the toxic sludge buildup. So we stalled for years, and our blog remained more monologue than dialogue. That felt unnatural, too.
Finally, this year, we resurrected comments on the blog, with the one thing that did feel natural. Human hands.
We hired a community manager, and equipped our comments system with a secret weapon: the "disemvoweller." If someone's misbehaving, she can remove all the vowels from their screed with one click. The dialogue stays, but the misanthrope looks ridiculous, and the emotional sting is neutralized.
Now, once again, the balance mostly works. I still believe that there is no fully automated system capable of managing the complexities of online human interaction — no software fix I know of. But I'd underestimated the power of dedicated human attention.
Plucking one early weed from a bed of germinating seeds changes everything. Small actions by focused participants change the tone of the whole. It is possible to maintain big healthy gardens online. The solution isn't cheap, or easy, or hands-free. Few things of value are.