Building a (Supportive) Community Online

News alert: Online comment fields can get a little scary. There’s nothing new there–I can remember in 1991 getting called a Nazi on a Usenet chat board about the “X-Files” (kids, ask Siri what Usenet is, and “X-Files” while you’re at it) because someone didn’t like my theory of The Smoking Man‘s motivation. But as our world becomes more fragmented–as we sink into our own online echo chambers, or “digital hollows” as I call them–civility dissipates. We are seeing it now here in the United States with a government shut down because political parties are stuck in their own hollows.

zen rocksFor a time I was part of an online civility movement, but I confess that other life responsibilities did not allow me to continue with that enterprise. I was reminded of my study of the subject over the weekend, however, when I read a column in The Washington Post by Alexandra Petri about online comment fields. (I’m showing my age here; she is a Post blogger and her piece had already been online for some time before I read it on my morning dead tree.) She wrote that Popular Science magazine has eliminated its comment section because, according to online editor Suzanne LeBarre, “comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.” In other words, uninformed opinions below scientific articles were undermining the empirical, peer-reviewed facts above them.

I started this blog in the fall of 2010, but I had written for three group blogs before that, all policy advocacy blogs. Before that I had been a reporter for an online news publication that accepted comments. I frequently found myself eviscerated by online commenters. One commenter, below a 2009 blog post where I talked about educating our nation’s youth, said I wanted to “mind-rape children.” I will confess that when I launched The Artist’s Road I braced myself for such hostility. But, with only a few exceptions, it has not arrived.

Petri provides some insight as to why:

The few places where the comments sections are the home of a vibrant, riveting, polite discussion are the ones where the host site has made a vigorous effort to create community.

The very conceit of The Artist’s Road is conversation. I invite the informed thoughts of my readers who have their own experiences with the issues I am myself exploring on my path to an art-committed life. I do not claim to have all of the answers; I recognize I never will. I savor the collective wisdom that emerges from reader conversation.

Petri notes that blogs focused on policy and politics do not have that same sense of community; readers parachute in, drop their explosives, and move on to the next battlefield. At blogs where a reader feels a part of something larger and is inclined to return, there is more incentive to practice the courtesies we expect from each other in terms of politeness and respect.

I will confess to a challenge I have been facing lately with this blog. I have written before about how the blogosphere is like a series of villages. I wrote how in the blogging classes I teach I encourage bloggers, when visited by a neighbor blogger, to pay a return visit to the neighbor’s blog. Community members are supposed to support each other. I admitted in that June 2012 post that I was very poor at practicing that. Now that The Artist’s Road has more than 10,000 followers it has become all but impossible to visit my commenters with any regularity.

Perhaps I am now hosting a public square in the village, an open area where anyone can visit and say what they like, and be heard by whoever else happens to be passing through. That is not such a bad thing. If that is what The Artist’s Road has evolved into I’m proud of that. But I also want to extend an invitation to you: If you have written a post that you think I would find of interest, please inform me of it, with a URL, in the comment field of any of my posts. I will not think you are being overly self-promoting; I will be grateful for the head’s up, I will visit, I will read, and I will tweet it. I’m putting some of the work in this relationship on you, which is never a good thing, but I will be grateful for the opportunity for us to converse in your part of the village.

What are your thoughts on our current level of online discourse? What are some of the factors that contribute to it, and is there anything we can do to reverse course?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

20 Responses to “Building a (Supportive) Community Online”

  1. Patrick, I am a fellow writer who has only recently discovered your blog. I find it intriguing, intellectually stimulating, and supportive. I wish I had discovered your blog long before. I do not write comments on blogs normally–this is an all-time first for me. But I commend your efforts and your talents and want to thank you for your contribution to the artistic life as well as your deep sense of humanity.

    • Wow. Thank you so much for that comment, and for providing me with your first-ever comment. I’m very moved. If you continue to comment on blogs, you are on a good path to contributing to much-needed online civility.

  2. Really enjoyed this post, Patrick. Commenting has been a concern of mine, too. And now that I’m starting a new website (hoping to build community there), the concern is renewed. I try to acknowledge all thoughtful commenters, but usually a negative comment is due to someone with an agenda from the get-go. BTW, the new website is up at Kickstarter now, and I’d really appreciate your readers’ support and/or sharing:

    http://kck.st/1eXoq6a

    Best wishes, Mike

    • Hi Mike!

      I just checked out your Kickstarter campaign. What an interesting and ambitious undertaking! It’s great that the success of your blog, including being Freshly Pressed, has spurred you to resurrect this creative endeavor. Thanks for taking me up on the invitation to provide a link, and check your Twitter Mentions feed to see my tweet!🙂

      Patrick

  3. We allow comments on articles in our monthly legal magazine but require that they log in, which means they are members of our association. When we started the comment function we did not want it open to everyone for the reasons you state in your post today. Reading comments to a random newspaper article is scary — people are meaner and crazier when they think you don’t know who they are! Just tweeted this post (@tennbarjournal); lots of good stuff in here.

    I do love your blog, btw. And congrats on the MFA. I started reading you when you first began the program. That sure flew by … for me anyway! ha ha.

    • Hi Suzanne! Thank you for the info on your journal. Yes, you not only have a community but they are professional peers, so I would hope that would contribute to civility. I’ve noticed some newspapers require you to comment now with your Facebook profile. I have a bit of trouble with that–I dislike promoting one particular social media platform, and I keep my personal Facebook account private–but I get the idea behind it, that Facebook is supposed to only be available for “real” people, so if you’re going to leave a nasty comment you at least have to put your name in front of it. Of course, the beautiful comment left earlier by “anonymous” shows that people can withhold their identity and be nice as well!🙂

      Thank you for being such a loyal reader. I’ll confess that the MFA flew by for me as well. I still feel like I’m in the program–I’m doing my best to maintain my writing schedule, and I’m in a “packet” reading group with fellow alums–but I think it will hit me that I’m no longer in the program when I don’t have to spend the New Year’s break in the snows of Montpelier this year!

      Thanks for the tweet!

  4. As long as people don’t make personal attacks or behave in a crude fashion, all comments and points of view are needed. That’s what makes healthy well-informed dialogue. Any of us can fall into the trap of simply writing off certain perspectives. I would rather know what people are thinking – even if it isn’t something I can buy into. I love the public square idea.

    • Yes, you are spot on in the point that it’s valuable when people share their opinion in a way that is respectful of others having a different opinion. We don’t talk politics on this blog, but we’ve had some spirited debates in the comments section on writing and creativity approaches. I’ve been impressed with how those in the discussions “listen” to what the other is saying while providing their own wisdom. Thanks for the comment!

  5. http://sorrygnat.wordpress.com/2013/08/25/fullness-of-days/

    We are more than bifurcated animals who now seem in charge of the cow pasture in our world. We are beings with inherent nobility, a desire for interconnectedness with all things, and how we treat one another is perhaps a sign of our lack of, or abundance of maturity. Some day we will be the Trust of One Another.” Loved your piece; yes, I find on my blog as well as all classes in creative writing I teach, encouragement and love causes us to soar. I wish you well, these days when you have left or finished that hallowed stretch to acquire your MFA. I delight in your comments.

  6. Patrick, we’ve been on a journey these past few blog-years. You’re very good at sharing your growth pains as well as your regressions, which is why we stick with you. And your community is part of that stickworthyness. I honestly feel that my comments are being heard by your e-clan, indeed, we’ve had some pithy back-and-forths that have made your blog a real forum. So, now what? I’m happy to remain attentive to your posts — indeed I still light up when I see that “New Post” in the Artist’s Road header — even if at times, like now, you’re just coasting and reflecting. It’s an intelligent little hollow we have here, so why fix it? Say I.

    • Ah, PJ, you’ve carried a heavy load the last year or two. You bring a wizened perspective to the conversation here, and you’ve helped spark–and drive–some good discussions. I also want to live your life! So thank you for your contribution to our “intelligent little hollow.”

  7. Wow. i am so happy to have found your blog; and I must say it was purely random. In my quest for something meatier to read, I started perusing Google. I have enjoyed the first few posts I have read and appreciate your candor as well as the useful information. I have just completed my first novel, but am so lost in this new world of digital publishing, networking and promoting one’s work. I suppose I envisioned a miracle world of traditional publishing wherein I would actually see my work in print, even if only upon my own shelf. I have a lot of trepidation regarding comments on various sites as I have been attacked, burned and somehow managed to affront on even the most benign forums, simply by being forthright. And yet there are the hit and run commenters that do indeed seem inspired to wreak havoc wherever they go. I would love to have you visit my blog where I write about our life lived in Costa Rica as well as publishing my novel-free, a few chapters at a time. I decided I wanted to share my work more than profit from it. I look forward to reading more here.

    • Thank you for these very kind words! Kudos on completing a novel, and for your bravery in putting yourself out there. I went to visit your blog but the link associated with your profile didn’t work; can you paste one in the comment field?

  8. Absolutely agree 100% with your theory that providing a sense of community is what keeps the comments positive.

    I regularly follow the blogs of a handful of writers, and I’ve left comments on many of them when I felt like I had something to say. Occasionally other commenters would reply to something I’d said, but when it came to the writers of the blog in question I’d kind of accepted the idea that I was one of those people who was quite good at being invisible to them. (What can I say? It’s a natural talent I’ve been honing since my schooldays😉 )

    I found your blog only recently, and just the other day left a comment on your post about whole brain thinking. I went back this morning to see if there were any new comments after mine… and almost fell off my chair. You’d replied to my comment! You, the actual author of this site! To actual me! And with such a friendly and positive vibe too. THAT HAS NEVER HAPPENED TO ME BEFORE. So thank you for taking the time to do that.

    So I’d say any site where the author ends up replying even to the little virtual wallflowers like me has DEFINITELY got a great community feel going.🙂

    • OK, Wendy, I just have to say that you need to go and find more blogs with more considerate authors!🙂 I think it’s essential that a blog’s author respond to comments. The commenter took the time to visit the blog; read the post; and formulate a comment they were willing to share with the world. That is a sign of true respect that deserves to be honored.

      I’m very glad you have found The Artist’s Road. You are a welcome member of our community.

  9. Hi, sorry the link didn’t work. That could be a real problem couldn’t it? And would explain a lot. The site is at tropicalaffair.wordpress.com. This should get you there. And thank you for the effort. I agree with Wendy. Feeling invisible can be disheartening. Thank you for seeing.

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