First, a quick rehash of “The Big Sort” and any of the millions of articles and books that have come after it. Basically, many in the West have increasingly self sorted based on social and political preferences, to the detriment of diverse and moderate political thought. There are almost no Republicans in hipster Brooklyn and almost no Democrats in rural Alabama, and as a result, people have become more entrenched in their views because they don’t encounter people who sincerely challenge them. And while this halcyon utopia of diverse neighbors living in harmony never quite existed, this increasing red/blue divide has certainly not been positive overall.
On social media, the exact opposite phenomenon occurs. People at every end of the spectrum haunt these platforms, but nuanced conversation is not valued or normalized. Any talk of reasonable Covid restrictions is lost in a sea of people who tell you that you’re practically a eugenicist for going to the park without a mask on, or a sheep who will be stalked by Bill Gates if you get a vaccine. These people just love to scream at each other, leaving anyone who finds themselves in the middle shut out and frustrated by a torrent of misinformation and rage.
But the rage and screaming seems to be the most important part of it for many people. A whole slew of right wing social networks have sprung up in recent years, but none have gotten any real traction. The Big Sort we see in real life is less fun online, where “owning the [fill in the blank]” has become the thing to strive for. If you post a comment and everyone agrees with you, did you really post it at all?
With all of this in mind, how do we create an embodied internet that encourages reasonable conversation while avoiding groupthink and cage matches?
The first thing we can do is empower moderators to act based on a series of guidelines that are clear from the start. Social media is woefully lacking in these types of rules, and they are often applied in an unclear and ad hoc fashion by underpaid moderators who are not part of the community. By empowering embodied internet communities to police themselves and create norms that everyone agrees to when they sign up, there are fewer arguments that can be made about unfair bans.
The second thing we can do is reward moderators and allow everyone to act in that role. The most positive online communities are ones where everyone feels like they can flag certain types of content and be part of the solution, and where there is an ongoing and open dialogue between those who raise issues and those who make decisions. And while moderated spaces may have less appeal for those who just want to rant and rave, they can open up an opportunity to listen and learn from those of us who are actually interested in hearing why others think and feel differently than ourselves. The core idea is to elevate everyone’s voice, not just select few who can yell the loudest.
The third step is to err on the side of smaller spaces. You could create subgroups and once a group reaches a threshold, it splits into two groups until those reach capacity, and then split again. Members would be arbitrarily assigned to the split groups and you can leave and try to join another if you prefer, but none get bigger than a predetermined number. Being exclusionary is not the goal, but just letting masses of people get into a space with no real direction will result in confusion and chaos. It also makes it easier for managers to control the space and make sure the dialogue is respectful, and that debate follows community guidelines.
We can create an embodied internet that avoids becoming an echo chamber while remaining a positive space for learning and growth. We just need to make sure we turn down the volume on the screamers and elevate the voices of those who just want to get a word in.