[This was published in German as “Die Trolle Werden Aussterben” in the October 23 2015 edition of ZEIT Wissen]
We are told “Don’t read the comments” because doing so can lead to despair. Even the most innocent of topics can prompt rancor, to say nothing of controversial matters. Thus, I was recently surprised to see delighted tweets about online comments that were “worth as much and more than the article” itself. The article was Jess Zimmerman’s “‘Where’s My Cut?’: On Unpaid Emotional Labor”, and the comments were part of a month long discussion on MetaFilter, the fifteen year old link sharing and discussion site.
“Where’s My Cut?” followed the premise of #GiveYourMoneyToWomen. This controversial hashtag accompanied claims that women’s valuable time and energy were often expected to be given for free. Zimmerman gave her own example of acting as a counselor to her heartbroken male friends: “It’s something I’m happy to do for the people I care about, but it is not effortless.” Her complaint was about the “emotionally lazy” men who feel entitled to those efforts, and this struck a nerve. At MetaFilter, over two thousand comments were posted between July and August 2015. Over four hundred commenters discussed examples of emotional labor, including remembering in-laws’ birthdays, scheduling social events, and sending out holiday cards.
Content aside, it was remarkable that such a conversation could happen without being overtaken by haters and trolls. This was an edgy, feminist topic that could’ve easily devolved into rancor and harassment. But it didn’t, and this is a cause for some optimism.
Did MetaFilter deploy some fancy new technology? No. Instead, the sites makes use of social insights and human effort. MetaFilter requires a one-time, five dollar membership fee; this prevents drive-by haters and spammers, and it likely increases user commitment. MetaFilter is a community, one with long-lasting members, that has norms and policies. For example, these kind of conversations are only open for a month. (As the deadline neared, I saw tweets counting down the time: “less than 24 hours to go before comments close and [it] is still great”.) And it is moderated. As former MetaFilter moderator Jessamyn West recently wrote: “Having threads that close, having moderators that redirect entrenched disagreements, giving users timeouts …, all of those can help a community reset and get back on track.” Unfortunately, these “time-tested strategies” also require human attention, which can be costly. As author Clay Shirky once quipped, “Comment systems can good, big, cheap—pick two.”
The (slowly emerging) innovation here is one of insight, not technology. The notion of online forums as free-speech zones often leads, metaphorically, to a platform being little better than a over-grown, tire-strewn lot. A successful garden needs fencing, weeding, and nourishment. As it is in the real world, so it is online. We face a brighter future online if we remember that actual people must cultivate community and that technology is but a tool, much as a spade and hoe are to a gardener.
— Joseph Reagle is an Assistant Professor at Northeastern University and author of Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web.