[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?
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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