Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Building positive online environments

A while back, rrp (after the flood) posted “burning up the thread, online political discourse,” in which she argued that “a snappy, cogent, or brutal put-down of a troll” is often rewarded by readers, whereas thoughtful, well-reasoned posts are more often ignored. Recently, Coyote Crossing responded, in “Online fires,” with thoughts about how hard it is to keep to writing such well-reasoned posts and how useful it has been to receive positive feedback on them from users.

As rrp says, writing thoughtfully and reasoning out all of one’s arguments is time consuming and challenging. Why should someone take the time and effort to do it if they aren’t rewarded? Why shouldn’t people default to writing flames, if that means that they’ll receive more positive responses?

In dog training, in order for a behavior that you like to start appearing more regularly, it should be rewarded. (When the dog sits quietly, he gets a treat.) However, if the reward is delivered too late, it isn’t linked to the wanted behavior, and the dog doesn’t learn the lesson we want him to learn. (If I start hunting for the treat bag when the dog sits, and he has stood up by the time I actually deliver the treat, I have reinforced standing, not sitting.)

It’s the same for us internet dwellers. We need our rewards to come pretty promptly. We can wait an hour for a response post that says “good job putting that idiot in his place! You really showed him!” That reward might reinforce our recent behavior of sending nasty mail in response to someone we disagreed with. We are less likely to wait a year and be able to look back on all of our posts to a list and tell ourselves, “I did a good job this year of posting only polite and useful things and restraining from making people feel bad about themselves.” That was more societally useful behavior than a rude post, but the reward is too little and too late to encourage us to do more of the same in the future.

Coyote Crossing suggests that, in fact, he has started receiving rewards for his more thoughtful posts this year, and that that’s been helpful to him. That’s good news. Is it extensible? I’m dubious that we can all just choose to reward people more for their thoughtful posts, and refrain from rewarding people for their snarky posts (no matter how much we agree with them), but if we can, it would go a long way to improving the emotional environment of the internet. I love the idea that eventually we could all develop an online community in which thoughtfulness was valued more than cutting rhetoric.


  1. The temptation to write a troll here was strong, but not strong enough to make me do it.

  2. Admit it, you just couldn't think of a good one :)