Discour(te)s(i)es

In response to a question about possible courses of action in response to ‘online animosity’. 

What happens when a debate in an online space turns acrimonious? I refer to a past case.

In a forum like ‘The Club!’, certain expectations underlie (though perhaps no longer) the discourse: that it is not moderated, that the audience and contributors are students or former students, that topics discussed have bearing on USP/USC (what the majority of the group has in common). In such a case, any attempt at moderation (of the technical, interventionist sort) would undermine the expectations that define the forum and make it something else. Should animosity become apparent, even of the personal sort, moderation would not so much be wrong as it would be ineffective – because it opens the door to further defections in the game (for example by allowing parties previously understood to be external to share in the discourse), and ultimately because the discourse is not fixed.

What happens next is that nominal members of the group will create alternative forums for participation if they find the playing out of conflicts discomfiting. As much as a forum like ‘The Club!’ represents some level of vested interest (emotional investment, ideological investment, time spent) of its members, none of its members are under any obligation or compulsion to stay. (The level of vested interest also falls off sharply as one considers subsequent percentiles of the population sorted by level of participation, assuming participation in the forum follows a normal distribution.) Given that there are virtually no costs to withholding participation and acknowledgment, it is only natural that many members would choose to either do so or transfer their participation elsewhere.

I find the above situation to be a pity and a loss. At this point I would like to stress that issues of blame and fault have yet no part in the tale, and that to read them in would be a mistake.

Is there a way to ‘cope’ with the possibility of online animosity?

Inasmuch as the main true loss was in social capital (mutually shared positive expectations about participation, engagement, etc.), remedial action would comprise mainly of seeking re-engagement – never a sure bet – and reestablishing good faith in relationships, should the first step be successful. This essentially means that remedial action is difficult.

Follow-up actions aimed at creating alternative viable forums are the next best step. However, this cannot ever be a restoration of lost capital.

Intervention in forums in which there is an underlying expectation of non-intervention would defeat the purpose.

Preventive measures essentially amount to maintaining good relationships. I think the underlying expectation here is a willingness to converse; however, to maintain this level of openness – in essence, maintaining some kind of low-level engagement – is idealistic and appears foolish, and is therefore difficult. Nevertheless it is one of my reasons for deciding not to participate in forums which I saw as being driven by contrary motives.

Perhaps another preventive measure that applies on the level of the individual is to participate in a forum where the underlying expectation is that participation happens in a private capacity in a private capacity.

What I have laid out may sound defeatist, but it really is easier to defect once than to maintain constant cooperation. I find the preventive measures obvious, the remedial actions difficult and the follow-up action to be what should be an ongoing task.

Also worth mentioning is the fact that moderated forums tend to emerge as alternative sites of community discourse. These involve a different set of expectations.

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