What’s wrong with online communities today? 

 May 29, 2020

By  fouts

If you know me, you know that community has always been the backbone of my work, and the foundation of my business. You may also know that taking a thoughtful and mindful approach to how we communicate with others really matters.

In the last week, I have been so overwhelmed with sadness, and there are a lot of reasons for that. There’s the growing polarity in our country and around the world. Some of that is political, some of it is ideological, some of it is fear, grief, ignorance, purposeful disinformation and misunderstanding. The end result is a lot of frustration, fear and anger.

When we looked at what we dreamed online communities could be, we wanted:

  • For them to be for us, whoever we are and whatever we believe.
  • We wanted them to be places we could speak freely and be understood.
  • To feel a part of something bigger. To be validated in our own personal worth to the world.
  • We wanted online communities to be a reflection of our personalities and a place for personal expression.

It makes me so sad that online communities have become a place for venting our frustration and using it as a weapon. For shaming, belittling, bullying, and holding our own values above all others.

But here’s the thing, online community is made up of several factions. The directors or owners of those online communities have a responsibility to the members of the community to keep it safe and to guide without restriction. That’s what moderation means.

When moderation fails, it is up to the community to manage itself in a way that benefits the community as a whole, rather than putting one set of values on a pedestal.

It’s always been fascinating to me that communities online can be such a beautiful place, even( on rare occasions) a place for diversity and disagreement without rancor. The communities that pull that off often have a face to face component so when we post in the community we know the real person on the other side of the screen. (Think small, tightly knit trade communities or Facebook groups for example.)

When we are face-to-face, standing in the same room with each other, we treat each other differently than we do in large, public, online communities.

It’s much harder to lie, to be hurtful or thoughtless when we are looking someone else in the eyes, when we are connected to them in an energetic or visceral way.

If we could all stop shouting at each other, being snide, humiliating, belittling, and making fun of other people’s choices and open our ears and our hearts to listen to what those people are dealing with? Everything would change.

Just imagine for a moment that you met someone who was on the opposite end of the spectrum from you.
What if instead of shouting back at you they stopped and looked you directly in the eye and said “I’m here to listen to your story, and understand why you feel this way.” How would you feel about that person then?

What if you took a moment to realize that according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Would you begin to recognize that we all have the same needs at the core of our beings? That need for safety for understanding for happiness and for Love?

What’s gone wrong with online communities?
One issue is that community owners have been doing the same thing that traditional media has. They focus on what gets the most views, what gets people talking, because that is how they make money for their business–through ads. Whatever stimulates the most conversation gets the most attention and brings in more money in ads. They need to have that volume, so they need that polarization in order to drive their income. It’s always been this way and it has never changed.

Years and years ago when I started an online community in the ’90s we tried to create a safe space for people who worked in the restaurant industry. Their passion came forward, and it was beautiful. When the trolls and haters showed up we kick them out, and for that and probably many other reasons we didn’t make the money we needed to survive and we failed. So I get it. I do. Communities have huge costs behind them and at some point, they all seem to give in to the reality of $$.

One of the things that have made online communities so aggressively negative is the way the algorithms that decide what we see work. They show us people and posts from people we are likely to agree with, but then, when one of those people we agree with finds something that shocks them (because it is so opposite of what they think or believe) they share it on social media in outrage or some other biased way. Others who think like them are also shocked by it.

Now it becomes viral. Every time we share something that goes against what we believe all those viral discussions start about how (whatever) it is. We are feeding the algorithms and they show it to more people who believe like us and so on and so on. Whether that polarizing post is even true is no longer discussed and the algorithms feed our distrust (again…whatever) to the opposite side of the spectrum and THEY get reactive.

So it’s easy to see that it isn’t the actual community itself. The need to make $$ and therefore the development of the algorithms to feed the polarization (AKA conversations) because that’s what drives money, building traffic.

I know this is a long rambling post, and you may not relate to it, and that’s OK , but I believe that if we want online community to be what it’s supposed to be we need to take it back. Each and every member of the community is responsible for how the community is represented.

We still will have polarization, and there will still be a discussion, but if we want to do so in a way that brings out the humanity in all of us, we need to pay more attention to how we talk to one another. We need to start to listen to WHY this person is expressing distrust, fear, anger or frustration. We need to bring empathy, kindness and compassion to everything we do, but most especially to how we talk to each other on and offline.

It’s been traumatic for some time to watch all the virulent negativity in communities, but I’m not going to give up. Not yet. I am doing my best to avoid perpetuating the negativity and reminding myself that we are all in this world together. Together alone in many cases right now, with tremendous amounts of stress raining down around us.

Let’s all make a pledge to remember that we are all born into this world as good, sensitive, loving humans. With those same basic needs.

Let’s bring loving kindness into the community. If you think that’s froufrou or airy-fairy that’s just fine. Not everyone agrees with me and that’s what community is.

I share with you the loving-kindness prayer or meditation, whatever you prefer to call it, to remind us that we are all one together, we are all human, and we have a choice to love each other and to cherish each other.

I am grateful that you have read this far and I hope that you realize that you matter and you are loved, and so I offer you a very short version of the loving-kindness meditation, one of the most powerful tools I use to offer empathy and compassion to everyone in the world. (especially the challenging ones).

It has some amazing power to remind us that we all wish for some basic needs. Try repeating this for others, for yourself. when you need to practice some mindful self-care too.

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