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Can the online community be saved? Is it even worth saving?

In this series, we explore how our online identities intersect with who we really are.

It seems quaint now to speak of online communities in romantic terms. I'll do it anyway. For the past few decades, we've been in love with them.

What made them so appealing was the way that made the world suddenly seemed to open up. Bulletin boards, and then forums, then blogs allowed everyone from knitting enthusiasts to politics nerds to find and talk to others who shared their interests or views. We liked that, and made hanging out there a mainstay of life. But as can happen with love, things can sour bit by bit, almost imperceptibly, until one day you awake and find yourself in toxic relationships.

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It wasn't always this way. Years ago, in the mid-2000s, I sat in a Toronto basement apartment, adding my thoughts to posts on a site called Snarkmarket, which delved into the artsy and philosophical sides of technology and media. To my mind, these wide, wild, intimate discussions seemed to capture everything wonderful about the new modern age: I found like-minded individuals and, eventually, a community.

And then, I was on a plane, flying over the deeply blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico in November, 2013. Somehow, a blog comment section had led me from Toronto to Florida. A group flew in from all over the continent to St. Petersburg, and brought our online discussions to life around tables replete with boozy pitchers shared on patios in the thick Florida air. Putting faces to usernames made fleeting connections feel more solid, and years later, a small number of us are still in touch: so much for the alienating nature of technology.

It does, however, already feel like a different era, and that such recent history can seem so far away brings with it a strange sense of vertigo. Logging on each morning now, I sometimes forget why I ever had so much faith in all this novelty, and wonder if it can be saved at all.

The first fault line was when the centre of gravity of our online socializing shifted to giant platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and more. With that shift to mainstream sites composed of tens or hundreds of millions of users colliding together in a riot of opinion and expression, online communities started to seem unwelcoming, even dangerous places.

Signs of fissures in the experience of online life are everywhere but perhaps most emblematic of the change was Gamergate, an eruption in video-game communities that spun out into a reactionary, bitterly conservative movement of on- and offline harassment that presaged the tenor and tone of social media to come. It was, depending on who you ask, a kind of canary in the coal mine, or more ominously, the final result of what was there all along.

Prominent users of Twitter (often outspoken feminists) such as Lindy West have quit the platform thanks to rampant abuse and conflict. Almost everyone I know is spending less time on social media than they used to – in part because of all the bad news, yes, but also because it's far less enjoyable than it used to be. Reaction and debate can spin out of control so fast that I often keep my mouth shut rather than risk the wrath of detractors or trolls.

In an age in which acrimony is seemingly everywhere, polarization is rampant and that social media is not just toxic, but often translates into real-world harm, the question is: Can the online community be saved? And why might we want to?

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Even now, talk of online community still brings with it rhetoric about holding on to what is best in us. Recently on a Reddit subsection simply called Place, users collaboratively created an enormous image by individually placing tiles on a 1,000 by 1,000 pixel board. It could have been a mess, but instead turned into a beautiful collage, and amidst the bitter tension of postelection America, Place was a rare and symbolic return to the utopian ideals of the Web at its communal best.

Given the centrality of online life to life in general, though, it also hinted at something deeper: that in 2017, when one inquires whether online communities can be saved, what one is in essence asking is whether public discourse can be saved, too.

If there is reason for hope, perhaps it is found in communities that are thriving rather than imploding. One small, hopeful example: Bunz, a community that began in Toronto in 2013 as a bartering group on Facebook after founder Emily Bitze was so broke, she took to the social network to trade things for necessities such as food. Bunz has now expanded to have 300,000 members and its own app, yet often retains the close-knit feel that arose from the group initially being private and invite-only.

"Everything we do is driven by the community," Bunz community manager Eli Klein says. "The community took our ethos of community betterment and bartering as a central ethos of sharing, and used that to model other groups." Now, Bunz can be a place to not only discover or get rid of stuff, but also find a place to live, get a job or just find some help for random projects.

But as Klein points out, Bunz's strength is that it is not a social network in the traditional sense – "your aunt isn't going to come on and criticize what you say." The general tone of the group is progressive. If it is a community, it is so because there are standards: Users who flout the rules are chastised, or simply banned.

It is tempting to say, then, that the solution is simple: barriers. A functioning community should draw a line around the kind of people it wants, and keep others out. But that's also demoralizing in its own way. It suggests those lofty ideals that we could find community with people of all sorts across the globe are well and truly dead, forever.

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Anil Dash doesn't believe they are – at least not fully. A mainstay in the American tech scene after founding the blogging platform Typepad in the early 2000s, he has been vocal in his disappointment that platforms such as Twitter have been slow in responding to abuse. "The damage can be done now is so much more severe because everyone is on these networks and they have so much more reach," he says on the phone from New York. "The stakes are now much higher."

The idea that technology can be neutral and that behaviour can't be predicted, Dash argues, simply isn't true: It's not, and it can, and things can be done to keep communities healthy.

He does see some signs that the misguided instinct to avoid dealing with negativity is changing. "The most positive thing after the election is that now there's broad awareness these communities have been broken for some time and are exploitable by bad actors," he says. Positive choices can be made. Instituting ombudspeople is one example, and maintaining a functioning appeal structure – where admins act as arbiters to manage disputes – can go a long way.

Platforms can also encourage persistent identities, rather than throwaway accounts used to harass people: Twitter recently (and finally) instituted these types of measures, such as the ability for users to ignore accounts that didn't link to a phone number.

Mostly, though, Dash suggests that the way forward is listening to users, in particular the most vulnerable users, who tend to be women, people of colour and LGBTQ folk. The unfortunate impediment to this simple solution is the same as ever: money. As Dash points out, Twitter for years placed vastly more importance and resources in its advertising division than in community or harassment. The results speak for themselves.

This is a pattern that gets repeated everywhere online, as the need for scale and advertising come into conflict with the those things that define a community: not just standards, but values, respect, tolerance, truth. At some point, you need to either annoy or kick off some users or content to make the place bearable for other users.

But fewer users and content in Silicon Valley's growth-mad climate means less revenue and a lower share price. There is, then, a fundamental tension at work created by the fact that private companies have created the platforms for public speech. Their interests don't line up, and indeed, are often contradictory.

Yet, as Dash points out, when Disney scuttled a content deal with Twitter in 2016 precisely because of its abuse problems, the issue became impossible to ignore. At certain points, economic necessities and the needs of community do in fact overlap, and it is in those spaces that hope lies.

At a scale of tens of thousands or even millions of people, it's not just notions of community that are lost, but norms, too, where what would be obvious offline – don't yell at someone to make a point, don't dominate a conversation just because you can, and so on – are ignored because of the free-for-all vibe of much social media.

Britney Summit-Gil, a writer, academic and researcher of online communities at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, suggests that while sites such as Facebook and Reddit can be full of hate and harassment, there are increasingly effective tools to build smaller, more private spaces, both on those platforms, and on other sites such as messaging app Slack, or even group text chats.

Summit-Gil also argues that in adopting the idea of community, these huge platforms are responsible for endorsing the principle of guidelines more generally: rules for how and by what standards online communities should operate, that allow these spaces to work at all.

Our online relationships aren't dead, but our sense of community has become more private: hidden in plain sight, in private Facebook or Slack groups, text chats with friends, we connect in closed spaces that retain the idea of a group of people, bound by shared values, using tech to connect where they otherwise might not be able to. Online communities were supplanted by social media, and for a time we pretended they were the same thing, when in fact they are not.

Social media is the street; the community is the house you step into to meet your friends, and like any house, there are rules: things you wouldn't do, people you wouldn't invite it in and a limit on just how many people can fit. We forgot those simple ideas, and now it's time to remember.

My own online community that took me to Florida was, sadly, subject to the gravity of the social giants. It dissipated, pulled away by the weight of Twitter and Facebook, but also the necessities of work and money and family. Nonetheless, we still connect sometimes, now in new online places, quiet, enclosed groups that the public world can't see. New communities have sprouted up, too – and I still dive in. I'm not sure I would do so as easily, though, had it not been for what now threatens to be lost: that chance to get on a plane, look down from above and see, from up high, what we share with those scattered around the globe.

That sense of radical possibility is, I think, worth fighting to save.

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