I find reading the comments of online articles, or things like Hacker News, like watching a car wreck; hard to look away from but painful. There’s a lot of technical ideas that have been tried for keeping comments okay, such as up / down voting, threading, reputation scores, etc. Some seem to work okay to varying degrees. Still, it’s hard to have a good conversation on the internet on sensitive / emotionally charged / political issues without things degenerating into ad hominem attacks and verbal abuse.
Technological solutions aside, I wonder if it’s possible to create quality communication on a thread-by-thread basis by re-introducing a lot of the social interactions that prevent in-person conversations from degenerating as rapidly? Like, what would happen if you responded to a really aggressive, name-calling comment with something like “Hi, I’m Josh, nice to meet you. I think you’re upset because… If I understand you correctly, your concern is…”.
I don’t really see this happen very often — even highly thoughtful comments tend to be written without any effort to address the person they are responding to at a personal level and make sure that they’re repeating and understanding the other person’s position. That’s in part because that kind of repetition is long-winded and slow, kind of the opposite of the internet comment medium which tends to be very short and too the point. But if rapid-fire exchanges lead to increasing hostility and lack of actual communication, maybe it’s worth deliberately being a little inefficient to try to slow things down.
The main examples of online communities that don’t break down are ones with a small group of regulars who all know each other. For instance, Fred Wilson’s blog A VC has a remarkably civil comment section, likely because it’s the same people over and over again. So my idea would be to try to create that kind of intimacy in broader forums, like on twitter (hard because of the character limit!) or on hacker news.
Anyway, not sure if I’ll do anything with this idea any time soon, since I tend not to comment that much anyway. Writing it down in case I want to revisit it someday…