MetaFilter and Emotional Labor

[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.

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