This is Diogenes the Cynic. He is known for having roamed the world, lantern aloft, on a lifelong quest for just one honest man. (Spoilers: He never did find one by his definition.) Besides that, he was one of those classical philosophers and public intellectuals whose standard delivery represented our modern concept of "performance art" or "stand-up comedy." He was a tart social critic and overall sourpuss. He is, however, credited with helping to found the seeds of stoicism, one of the most enduring schools of Greek philosophy.
He is one of my heroes.
Like Diogenes, I too have been on a lifelong quest to seek something out. This thing I seek is something we all assume exist, all agree would be a nice thing to have, until we think it over. That thing I have fruitlessly sought is "an intelligent Internet discussion community."
Let's flashback right quick: The original purpose of the Internet was to support communication, to the goal of exchanging information, ideas, and media. When Sir Tim Berners-Lee built the World Wide Web on top of this Internet layer, he was out to solve a problem at CERN laboratories (yes, the Hadron Collider CERN). CERN had some 10K physicists and support staff all doing their research and storing reports on documents scattered across the lab network, higgledy-piggledy. You couldn't find anything. So he created the hypertext document protocol so that documents could link to each other and then be connected in a web of hyperlinks. Tada, accessible information!
My point here is that the Internet and the World Wide Web started out with a very high-minded, academic purpose. You would never know that from looking at it now. Why is that?
Why Is Having A Sane Discussion Community So Hard?
Way back in 2004, the webcomic Penny Arcade identified a syndrome with an impolite name, whose polite name is now known as "the online disinhibition effect." Briefly, people have a tendency to be at their very worst on the Internet. It's a free zone of expression with little to no repercussions. No matter how virtuous and meek you might be in meatspace, your very most rotten possible aspects all come out on the Internet.
Nobody is immune to this tendency, not even US presidents.
You could even point to the problem of the online disinhibition effect as being one and the same as the problem with all of humanity, the impossibility of governing ourselves. AKA "why we can't have nice things." It's a problem as old as civilization, if not even older.
Diogenes would be thrilled to have been on the Internet. People drop their masks on here. They have no inhibitions, no compelling social rules keeping them bound to civility. They are free to act here in a way that they could not in real life, lest their face become a fist magnet. It turns out that a world of completely honest people is a stinky world of toxic hostility. But honest!
Well, my quest is not necessarily to find honesty or even lack thereof. I'm just looking for the place where the smarter people gather, and also the place where people do not have suppressed rage erupting to the surface from their online avatars.
Sidebar: What Does Penguin Pete Mean By An "Intelligent Community"?
I am not talking about the IQ level of the individual members. Goodness knows, some of the worst behaviors we see online come from some of the "technically smartest" people you can find (we'll get to that).
Instead, I'm talking about the community itself. Whether through its own good nature (ha ha ha ha) or through an effective line of enforcement, an online community whose members behave themselves. "Effective" is the keyword. So far, we know the following methods of governing a community do not work:
- peer moderation
- user ownership
- peer recognition
- corporate sponsors
- attracting a select demographic
Shout-Out to First Monday, the only gathering of peer-reviewed scientific papers studying Internet sociology. Many papers there study small aspects of the big Internet society thing, in this woefully under-addressed area. I commend the kind readers' attention to this site, for it is a fascinating rabbit hole.
The stopping points along my quest's path are like a history of online discussion communities. Each of them has something to teach us:
Ah Usenet! In a penultimate demonstration that our problems are older than we know, Usenet came along in 1980, a good decade before Sir Tim Berners-Lee even sat down to his NeXTcube. Pretty much every trope of modern social media and online communication, in general, was already established on Usenet. In fact, your humble author has gone on and on saying that every social media network and online community to come after is a retread of either Usenet or IRC. Honestly, we got it close to right the first time, why did we need to change anything?
It seriously all originates on Usenet. The memes that you're all sharing and reposting to each other all over social media - you can find them all said for the first time in the archives. Stupid little in-jokes like the Usenet Oracle are echoed today in a hundred subreddits. Every breed of online troll you ever got into a fight with on Facebook was first documented in the Flame Warriors Roster on Usenet. All this stuff is older than the median Internet user now.
Usenet teaches us that our online problems are perpetual problems older than the World Wide Web.
Now Slashdot was one of the very first focused online communities. With the motto "news for nerds, stuff that matters," it was a community meant for the hardcore techies who were the first adopters of the web. As one of the earliest online communities, it also founded some of the first innovations in that category. It was the first to crowdsource user peer moderation, where you could vote on individual comments using a numerical score which added up to karma.
Between marketing to the techie dweeb audience and having a crude moderation system, Slashdot represented the first hope for a beneficial online community. And it persevered for a while until it didn't.
One noted effect is that when online communities first start out, they're smaller, tighter, and hence a bit more civil. The same user names pop up again and again. You have to be careful not to make enemies because there are only so many users there. But when the community explodes in popularity, we reach the critical social mass where there is a seemingly endless supply of new user names encountered, so it doesn't matter how many people we piss off. It's sort of related to the tragedy of the commons. The higher the population in a culture, the less personal responsibility we feel towards nurturing that culture.
Slashdot was also the first online community to demonstrate that online nerds could be the stupidest people of all on the Internet. It was there that we first saw the coining of phrases like "neckbeard," "bro culture," and God help us, "red pill." Slashdot's peak of popularity happened to coincide with the most toxic movie fandom in world history, The Matrix and its legion of brainwashed cultists. It doesn't help matters any that Silicon Valley, home to the tech elite, is also ground zero for all the craziest garbage on the Internet in one place.
Today Slashdot is barely limping along, the community dwindled to a tiny fraction of its former self. Slashdot was the first to teach us that whatever the solution may be to the problem of building an an intelligent online community, technical "intelligence" of the individual members have nothing to do with it.
Delphi Forums and Yahoo! Groups
A footnote in the history of online communities, Delphi was one of the earliest attempts by a corporate entity to create a community of online forums. Delphi Forums, in its heyday, was briefly popular enough to rival the top Internet communities.
I'm lumping it in here with Yahoo! Groups because they were so similar and enjoyed their peak popularity at roughly the same time. Both of them used the "message board" AKA "electronic mailing list" model: Anyone could start a group and invite friends to it, or optionally leave it open for anyone to join. Once the group was started, you were responsible for moderating it or appointing assistant moderators. There was no upvote-downvote karma system. Both models were inspired by Usenet, but translated directly to the World Wide Web.
As you can imagine from this kind of hedonistic anarchy, both places deteriorated rapidly into online cesspools. In the message board model, you only have two options: stick with your tiny little clique of friends in a closed-off board and stagnate in your own bubble, or venture out to the zoo at large and deal with all the poop-flinging monkeys. To say nothing of what happens when a mod abuses their power. Delphi and Yahoo! were both the first to have an epidemic of abusive mods, because nobody watches the watchers.
Delphi Forums and Yahoo! Groups taught us that big corporations are no help in maintaining online communities either. Both forums suffered from complete absenteeism from their respective owners, letting the literal inmates run the asylum.
We have reached the "modern Internet," at least in terms of the post-Web-2.0 world. And we have reached one of my favorite and most cherished Internet faerie tales. Listen children to the story of Kevin Rose, the cocky, confident Silicon Valley wunderkind who would be one of the social media's first pioneers. He founded Digg.com, an attempt to bring social news sharing to the "blogosphere" as it was unironically called. It was basically a rehash of Slashdot / Usenet combined with lots of "Web 2.0" hype.
There was a lot that Digg got right, and it was a fair community for awhile. But with it came the advent of a whole new set of online community original sins which still plague us today. "Sockpuppeting," "brigading," and "asstroturfing" were all activities that got started with Digg. Come election time, we saw the Internet's first "viral" political candidate - long about 2007.
Years later we would come to understand the concept of foreign botnets infesting American media to disrupt the election. But at the time, we were still innocent little web lambs. Digg, thanks to its relentless hype machine and Kevin Rose's charismatic leadership, "could do no wrong" and the concept of the "hivemind," the Internet echo chamber, was born, where Digg attracted so much attention to itself that it became an easy target.
The groupthink effect is really simple. You want to discourage bad behavior and encourage good behavior by installing a peer voting mechanism. The voting is supposed to go "upvote for being a good Internet citizen, downvote for being a poopy-face." Instead, the voting mechanism is used for "I agree ; I disagree." So you have an opinion? You can post the same opinion everyone else is posting and get upvoted, or you can die in downvote hell, your opinion never read by human eyes.
But anyway, Digg trundled along until one day. One Daaaayyyy…
There came the Great Digg Revolt.
Briefly (very very briefly), Digg's own callous regard for policing its community caused it to explode when that community turned on Digg. Users posted a simple string of numbers which could break MPAA encryption. The media corporations sent a C&D to Digg. Digg had to take the posts down. Digg users were incensed and reposted the number in even greater numbers. They got kickbans. They created more accounts and posted the number EVEN MORE! It was a bona-fide, full-blown Internet civil war now.
Keven Rose finally cracked, posted the number himself, signed off in a raggedy cuckoo message, and shortly thereafter retired from Digg. Presumably he still periodically awakes in the night, sweaty and gasping, after a nightmare where he was screaming hexadecimal numbers in his sleep. Play with cyberfire in the blogosphere and you get brainburned.
What did we learn from Digg? Well, we learned that your playground for anarchists is only stable until the first deviation from anarchy.
Sometime between here and a redesign, which came after Digg got bought out by some faceless tech company, most sane users fled to…
We are here and now with Reddit, its final chapter yet unwritten. Despite its current longevity, Reddit has learned exactly nothing from history, with the small exception of taking an example from Digg. Unlike Digg, Reddit holds down the fort just enough that its users can't overthrow it, and also manages to dodge being shut down right before it was inevitable that a government or corporate body was going to swat it. The chief reason Reddit is not dead is the explosion of social networks, which releases the pressure valve for Reddit to be all things to all people.
This is the one thing that hampered all online communities before Reddit. There was not enough of an Internet user base to justify multiple community sites. You could have one, maybe two, and if you started a third after that, I hope you like crickets because that's all you're going to hear. But now, finally, the world wide world really is on the World Wide Web, and there's at least a dozen major social networks to choose from. All of them can thrive while offering their own brands. If you don't like a place, you can go someplace else. But before, if users didn't like a place, it died and something replaced it.
We are spoiled for choice now with online communities. Unfortunately, all of them still suck.
Reddit has become synonymous with Internet scandals and toxic communities. Like many before it, it chooses the "topic / moderated board" model and adds in the peer voting model. It has also introduced the award model, where, get this, users can spend actual money to award a "super upvote" to hivemind-approved comments. It works! Reddit is filthy rich. Well, that and the ads they show.
Reddit is no stranger to our pages here at 123ish.com, especially when the subject of "things wrong with the Internet" comes up, so we won't pick off that scab again here. But clearly, Reddit is not the answer either.
Reddit teaches us that people do not learn from history, they simply multiply until history gets lost in the noise.
But meanwhile, I found Eden right over here.
In the least likely place you would expect, for reasons you never would have thought…
The most unassuming online community you could ever expect, Metafilter is another general-interest user-driven news and discussion website. It is very mature, founded in 1999 and outliving many sites like it. Metafilter is known for… nothing! It is not known for causing the least tiny stir in any way!
Metafilter is perhaps a slower-paced feed than most communities. It feels the most like an early Digg prototype. Metafilter stories are just higher-quality all around, and its comments less toxic. Spam is almost unheard-of. Same with brigades, bots, and bad faith actors which plague every other community. Metafilter is like the quiet suburban neighborhood which has somehow managed to be left alone, and has attracted just the right mix of the "right kind" of people over time.
You're just dying to know, WHAT is Metafilter's secret? What are they doing differently?
The Wiki about Metafilter is no help. It just refers to Metafilter's "self-policing" aspect, but this even is not so different from other sites.
You know what the difference is with Metafilter?
> "How signups work"> "There is a one-time US $5 charge to create an account on Metafilter."> "Metafilter has Site Guidelines. It's important that you read and understand them; if you violate them, your account may be closed with no refunds."
You can't be telling me…
A fiddling sum of FIVE BUCKS is all it takes? Per head? There are paid subscription services all over the Internet, half the news blogs out there smack you across the face with a subscription paywall. Nobody else thought of this?
Metafilter itself acts like the fee has nothing to do with the good behavior of its community. And yet, it's everything!
- Spamming? Spammers will get caught anyway, and at $5 per account spamming loses its profit model.
- Sockpuppeting and brigading? It better be worth $5 per account. Adds up fast!
- Looking to spread some toxic opinion? Trolling? Harassing someone? Troll accounts tend to get banned fast, so you're better off going somewhere for free.
- What about calling others out? Be careful! Being an SJW carries actual consequences here.
- In fact, hardly anybody on Metafilter expresses that strong of an opinion about anything! Oh, there's politics posted, all kinds of controversial topics. There is discussion and disagreement, but is always civil.
- There are jokes and memes too. But nobody goes out of their way to be an asshole!
Being an asshole on Metafilter costs five dollars. Sure, you can read the site for free. But to participate in the conversation, to direct its attention to deserving links, you have to pay for this privilege. And many people do! The charge is not so high as to be prohibitory. But it adds value to something that people frequently undervalue online: a reputation! The charge is just enough to inhibit that urge people have to vandalize sites.
Metafilter is about 22 years old as of this writing. It quietly whittled away while the AACS revolt burned Digg to the ground. It serenely MeFied on while Yahoo! Groups shut down. It has seen MySpace come and go. Nobody gets Twitter-canceled on Metafilter. Russian botnets to influence the election? Strangely, they seem to have given Metafilter a pass. Fake news? Barely registers there, and quickly called out.
It's an online utopia and all it costs is five. Stinking. Bucks.
I Have Seen The Future!
The solution to all of our social media problems!
The thing that makes the Internet such a cesspool now is not that you can have an anonymous avatar, but that you can have as many as you want. There are no consequences when your identity is as disposable as a Solo cup. No punishment can stick. But attach value to it, and suddenly it's too precious to waste. Sure, I'm sure some hypothetical billionaire can have fun creating a hundred fake accounts and laughing at the five hundred dollars wasted. But let's face it, you can have more fun for less money with a Nintendo Switch.
That's it guys. This is the way to utopia. Force everyone to put some skin in the game, and watch the Internet clean itself right up!