Keeping Web Communities Healthy in a Dark Timeline

Josh Millard - DonutJS October 2017


So hi! Thanks for being here! I do want to admit, when Matt asked me if I wanted to speak, I was like... Donut.js? I've heard of this. It sounds cool. But I don't really do much JavaScript. I'm not a JavaScript guy. So I wasn't really clear what thematically I had to offer. Finally, I got the picture eventually. I should also note that Matt suggested this perfectly good title for the public-facing PR on the website and stuff to keep it short and not cursy. But my original working title was actually: On systemic damage to online communities resulting from everything being constantly unimaginably fucked. It's gonna be a fun talk! We're gonna have a good time. Yes. My name is Josh Millard. Although a lot of people know me as cortex, because that's been my user name on Metafilter for the last 16 years. It's an online discussion group and community. A really old one. It's been going since literally the 20th Century, where any user can post a link to the front page and discuss it, which was really a novel idea in 1999. We're known for being a well moderated, nontoxic place on the internet, one of the few sites where you actually want to read the comments. We have a team of paid moderators with someone on shift 24/7. All of us are active community members who respond promptly to emails and discussions on the site and help Metafilter members work out any problems that come up in realtime. It's not perfect, but we try really hard, and that's the core reason Metafilter still has the reputation it's maintained all these years.

So it's a special place to me and to a lot of people. I've spent literally my whole adult life there, and I've worked there for over 10 years now as a moderator, for the last two and a half years, I've run the site, after Matt Howie, the site's founder, was very burned out and got a job at Slack which is great for him. And after this summer I've owned the site. It's a long story, but the short version is... Metafilter is important enough to me that I will do everything I can to make sure it exists as long as it can. It's a site and a community that I think is worth fighting for. It's the kind of community that I think is vital to the web. Not just Metafilter, but things like Metafilter. Maybe now more than ever in the face of the toxicity and unchecked harassment that's come to be a defining aspect of so many of our social media and discussion platforms. We need places on the internet where people are decent to each other and care for each other. And Metafilter is one of those places. And I'm incredibly proud to be its steward.

This is all to give you a little context on why the next part of this talk isn't just me running and screaming. Because I took over managerial responsibility for Metafilter in early 2015 and I was feeling a lot of joy and hope about the site and the web and the world. And it was just Lisa Frank shit everywhere. And then...

(bitter laughter)

I promise this talk isn't actually about Donald Trump. I don't want to talk about or think about Donald Trump any more than I actually have to, which is way more than I ever imagined I would. But this talk is about... This talk is about what happens after shit happens. It's about trying to get back to normal, when normal doesn't really feel like an option. It's about figuring out what to do, when you've fallen off a cliff. Basically trying to recognize when a community you care about is under sustained, crushing stress that you don't have the means to rectify or eliminate for them. It's asking the question: How do you fix things anyway, in that sort of situation? It's a really short talk. It's impossible. It's fucked. I want to thank Matt. I want to... Um... Okay. So... Let's say this is a talk about falling off a cliff. And then... Looking for the cracks you can get your fingers into.

You can't unfall. The cliff thing has happened. It's definitely... It's happening. But what you can do is try to find purchase. You can try to break your fall. And at their best, this is what communities do. Metafilter has always had a complicated relationship with politics. We're a general interest community founded on the idea of finding and sharing and talking about weird and cool and interesting stuff on the web. And we're an international community. We've got users in countries all over the world. I have employees in Greece, Austria, the Netherlands. It's not a site about politics. It's not a site about the US. It's definitely not a site about US politics. And we've had a lot of arguments over the years in the community over how best to balance interest in so-called news filter and political discussions against the more generalist, topic-neutral aims of the site.

But the majority of our users are based in the United States. And so every four years, there's been an uptick of interest in discussing the US presidential election. It's a cyclical thing. Politics gets to be this busy, can't look away topic for a while, and then things settle back to normal. Some cycles have been worse than others, but 2016 was a record-shattering motherfucker. So the GOP primaries started really early. Is part of the thing. So all of this has been going on in a sense since... You know, 2015, in the summer. But when the Democratic primaries started going, stuff got a lot worse for us in the site. Stuff was happening inside the family. It's a relatively lefty progressive-leaning site. People got angry. Melted down. With a ton at stake, it was hard for people to feel like the Clintons and Sanders conflicts weren't deeply personal. And you could feel it not just in these fractious election threads, but spilling out everywhere else in the site too. It set the tone. And then the ugly rise of Trump to nominee and the tone that set for national politics set that tone too. He was always behind but he was there and being granted this legitimacy and it was depressing no matter how you looked at it. So it was an ugly, long stream of months on Metafilter. It was hard for people on the site, hanging out. And it was a hard time to be working there.

And I told myself and I told the community... This will pass. Real soon now, this will pass, like it does every four years. I told them... Just muddle through until November. Let's get through November together and it'll start to get back to normal. We just need to get through November. It's been a long November. Thank you, the two people... That one was a risk. There's only so far you can go with a joke like that. Anyway, this talk is not about... But it is about the psychic damage that's done when the prevailing conditions are bad. There's the damage from being faced daily with a national leadership that is openly maliciously gleefully vicious and hateful. The damage from a torrent of ugly and threatening behavior that is unprecedented not just in its amplitude but in its breakneck pace, where seemingly every day there's new ugliness, with no pause to catch your breath. So let's talk about how you could normal under those circumstances, under those conditions.

So really... It's impossible. You can't get back to normal. It's not like that. Shit is not normal. Normal isn't on the table. Normal isn't on the horizon. Everything really is kind of fucked. You know? And if you just try to pretend stuff is totally normal, you'll drive yourself crazy. People are scared. People are worried. People are angry and depressed and anxious and all for really good reasons and it weighs on them and their communities every day. Even when it's not on the forefront, it's still there. Background rage and constant stress. And members of the Metafilter community have been scraping up every bit of energy they can manage to protest and advocate and fight, and they've been wrung out by the effort. Frankly, the heightened existential threat to people of color, queer, trans, non-binary folks, women and immigrants -- to basically every already oppressed and disadvantaged group is staggering and it's exhausting. It's not normal even by the standards of a world that was already rife with all kinds of systemic injustice.

There's no fix for that. There's no magic wand to wave, to undo what's going on. So you can't fix it. And if you can fix it, well... Fuck. What can you do? Basically you can find ways to keep on going. You keep on going even when everything is fucked. You look for the workarounds, the compromises, you try to find those bits of oasis to catch your breath in. I want really badly to be able to undo the stress that's been on the Metafilter community for the last two years, but I can't. I would love to unfuck the world, but I can't. What I can do is try to find that purchase. Try to help my community get their fingers into those cracks and hold on and find ways to rest and recuperate. Help them find some comfort and camaraderie on the cliff wall we're all currently clinging to. So for Metafilter, that's meant a couple different things. For one, it's meant recognizing that a lot of people in our community find value in these ongoing political discussions, even as others desperately need a break from it.

It's meant finding a way to support both of those things at the same time. Earlier this year we implemented a US politics toggle on our front page, which lets users who want quick access to various ongoing political threads find them easily, even after they've scrolled off the front page, days back into the archives, they can hit a link on the sidebar. But it also lets users who want to just not see that stuff when they visit the front page click one link to filter it out so that the latest horror show isn't the first thing they see when they visit the site in the morning. And everybody is different. So we have users who are glad for the quick access links and users who turn the politics toggle off immediately and never fucking look back. And then there are folks who toggle actively to basically mediate when they are or are not on the clock, so to speak. My team and I listened to the community and decided to build this thing, because it give us and our users more flexibility in managing the site. It's not a choice between saying... Politics is just like this now. Get used to it. Or hey, everybody, politics is a bummer, so we're not talking about it anymore. Instead we help everybody find their own balance, and everybody has a different thing they need there. Another thing we've done is try to help people remember that there is stuff on the site outside of the long daily politics discussions. This graph is an approximation of the share of politics and non-politics, just by common count on the site.

And you can see the massive footprint daily politics threads have had on the distribution of attention on the site. It's hard to overstate how much you feel that in your community, when suddenly there's this shift in just sort of what's going around. These rolling politics threads eat up a lot of attention, which is okay, because we've heard from a ton of people that they find comfort and reassurance and a kind of antigaslighting armor in reading them. It's good to see other people say: Hey, this isn't normal. It's useful to see detailed roundups of what's going on in a nontoxic place where you know the conversation isn't going to suddenly get super gross and ugly all the time. For some people, the internet is the only place they can find that. People isolated in their neighborhoods, their families, in conditions where they can't even safely talk about the shit that's going on, they turn to Metafilter and other sites like it to have an outlet. Some human connection. Some sympathy. So these kinds of discussions are really important. They're worth supporting. But it's easy to get in the habit of going to the big politics threads first and staying there until you're worn out and that's your time on Metafilter for the day and the week. And the month.

And all of a sudden you've ended up with this tunnel vision where you're always just looking at the awful stuff and everything feels awful and you're like... Wait, didn't I used to like it here? What happened? Why is it constantly a downer? And you reflexively reload the politics thread again. So we tried to remind people to basically stop and smell the flowers. You know, go look at the front page of the site instead of just the politics thread. Find a new post or better yet make a new post about something nice or funny or weird and let yourself sink into that a bit. Share that with other people. Enjoy stuff you like instead of just dutifully inhaling the stuff you feel like you're obliged to until suddenly you're short of breath. We've created discussion threads for people to vent in as a raw emotional outlet. Shit is bad. Get it out there. But we've also created threads for people to sit around and kibbitz in. Both these things are important. Both are useful. It's not one or the other. They're both part of self-care and they're ways for folks in a community to reaffirm a sense of shared space and togetherness. These are all little things. None of it is a big fix. None of it is a panacea. But little things matter. Sometimes all we can do is make things better in small increments. So don't discount little things just because there are big problems. Go for it. Life is made up of little things and small moments. Communities are built out of those little things. I talked about this in terms of Metafilter, because MeFi is what I live and breathe.

It's really important and personal to me. But I'm talking about all of this right now because all of this applies everywhere. There's nothing more important than having a sense of somewhere you can belong and relax and be vulnerable and know that even if things are bad, you're okay right here and right now. And there's an irony that when things are hard, it's harder to be kind to each other. Despite that being when it's most valuable and most needed. So it's important to me that there are online communities where people are making that effort. It's hard work. There's a real danger to existing communities that lose sight of that in all the turmoil that is understandably distracting. But that's why it's important to look for ways to foster and reinforce that capacity for kindness and patience and empathy. And under all of that, you need to take care of yourself, so you're there to take care of other people. So yes, fight and push back and accomplish the big picture stuff that you can.

But also recognize that it's not a denial or a dismissal of how not normal things are to stop and take care of yourself or to encourage others to do the same. Pace yourself and help others along, while you're at it. Basically, the prevailing conditions are bad. You know? I can't fix that. You can't fix that. But you can cut yourself some slack. Try and be kind. Keep looking for and doing those little things that help. And the most important thing we can do right now is help each other take care of each other. A lot of the time, the internet seems like part of the problem, unfortunately. But it's hugely important to me to remember that the internet can also be a good thing. A source of refuge and genuine community strength. Because when the prevailing conditions are bad, the answer to that is that we grab each other by the hand and hold tight and just prevail right the fuck back. Thank you.

Live captioning by Mirabai Knight

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