On digital communities, Blogcritics, and Reddit’s CMV

Many years ago, I helped run a blogging community called Blogcritics. Much like this newsletter, the topics on Blogcritics tended to have a pop culture tilt (indeed, the site was founded on the notion that bloggers could get to free CDs, DVDs, and books in exchange for critical reviews) but also covered just about everything, including a goodly dose of politics.

In an online community with a base of bloggers at its core, you can bet that the comments underneath articles could get awfully lively at times. But it was a rare place where people from different political and social views could come together and discuss things amicably (at least usually). My mentor, friend, and business partner Eric Olsen was a master of policing the occasional offender of the site’s pretty loose policies with a fine sense of engagement, diplomacy, and generosity. Rarely, someone would get booted from the site but even then, Eric would often let them back in after a short “time out” with promises accepted of better behavior in the future.

I mention all of this because while I recognized that Blogcritics was a special place that showcased the power of good that technology and online communities can provide, I had no idea of just how rare it was and of how difficult reigning in the toxic elements of many online communities and social networks could be.

I’m a big fan of Twitter, even though I understand some of the perils of engaging with people in a digital open forum, some hiding behind an anonymous profile. I’ve spent years curating the people I follow, and I liberally block those who I believe are toxic to me and the community (one fun little game I play is blocking nasty and immature commenters of a beat sports writer I follow).

This curation works for me, but it also protects me from some of the darker elements. I also happen to be a guy. So therefore I was a little disturbed to learn that something known as the “Twitter reply guy” is a thing.

Reddit, which has developed into a popular hub comprised of hundreds if not thousands of “sub-reddit” communities, is well known as a digital presence that can get particularly nasty, depending on the sub-reddit neighborhood that you wander into.

That all leads to my finding this The Next Web piece that covers the emergence of a sub-reddit called Change My View (CMV or r/changemyview in reddit parlance).  Change My View describes itself as follows:

  • A place to post an opinion you accept may be flawed, in an effort to understand other perspectives on the issue. Enter with a mindset for conversation, not debate.

CMV is seeking to leverage both technology and human curation to help foster a healthier community:

  • CMV gamifies this healthy conversation in many ways. The first is through the use of a DeltaBot, which calculates awarded deltas and updates a leaderboard, called a deltaboard, where necessary. Redditors can monitor their standing on the deltaboard located in the sidebar next to each post. But what makes the subreddit tick is careful moderation. One moderator, who preferred we refer to her by her Reddit username (u/convoces), said that the system relies on a robust set of rules. There are five for submissions and five rules for comments, each “designed to encourage productive discourse and heavy moderation.”

Indeed, when I poked around CMV I was pleasantly surprised at the sense of decorum going on. Here’s the first comment I noticed about a post talking about immigration:

  • “You have the right idea, but you are missing the big reason why it hasn’t worked so far, and is unlikely to work anytime soon.”

This part of the policy gets really intriguing:

  • Two of the more interesting guidelines are that comments must challenge at least one aspect of the original poster’s view, or ask a clarifying question. Neutral stances or simple agreement don’t add to the conversation. Nor do threats of harm or self-promotion.

There has long been talk about there’s no way to avoid the “lowest common denominator” within online communities. To whit, I worked on the digital side of some of the biggest newspapers in the U.S., where the attitude toward the potential for online conversations with and among readers was ambivalent best and, honestly, often contemptuous.

Who knows if the policies and associated algorithms that Reddit is trying out will be the “answer,” but it’s heartening to see new attempts being made, and equally heartening to see a community — even if it’s one sub-reddit for now — buying into it.

This post originally appeared in what had originally been called The Eric Berlin E-mail Newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.