Bad community is worse than no community

“By coupling a format that encourages intimacy with a network design that encourages out-of-context amplification, Twitter has evolved into something fundamentally volatile.”

2015 should be the year your digital publication rethinks its community strategy. First question: Do you really care enough to do it right?

ryan-gantzAs Kyle Chayka wrote this week, people are increasingly retreating to safe spaces. All the best conversation is happening in GroupMe, Slack, WhatsApp, private email lists, or over drinks after work. People feel comfortable analyzing, debating, and joking in these places, where they can express themselves without fear of judgment, unwanted notifications, or death threats.

We can’t say the same about many discussion platforms or public comment sections. And that’s too bad, because the web is an interactive medium. Let’s hope we never again see the phrase “Join the Conversation” as a call-to-action below an article. But going forward, where should that call-to-action even lead?

Medium fights Godwin’s Law by rethinking comments as something closer to distributed annotations, allowing users to engage throughout the article. Reddit’s upvoting system gives its most engaged users control over what’s amplified. Metafilter reinforces community guidelines and cultural norms thanks to a highly engaged readership, 24-hour moderator coverage, and tools developed over 15 years. On most Vox Media sites, authors and moderators regularly stay engaged in comments and forums, encouraging civil conversation and removing comments that violate community guidelines.

That’s the sort of work required to keep those spaces respectful, safe, and rewarding for participants, and it’s not always easy or successful. In a year when Pacific Standard and Popular Science shuttered their comments, launched with none.

Twitter functions well for RSS-style broadcasting, or for lighthearted status updates from straight cisgendered apolitical white men. But the year of #ferguson and #gamergate made it clear that Twitter is broken and downright toxic for nearly any other purpose, or for any other set of users. By coupling a format that encourages intimacy with a network design that encourages out-of-context amplification, Twitter has evolved into something fundamentally volatile. It’s fun, fast and powerful, but remains highly risky for anything approaching honest conversation, or even satire.

This fall, Paul Ford, on a whiskey-infused whim, created something called, where people granted shell access can…publish some HTML. Browser default fonts and starfield backgrounds promptly flourished. But what at first seemed like a nostalgic throwback quickly resonated with possibilities missing from the modern web: Thanks to relative server obscurity and the technical barriers to entry, people felt safe and downright excited expressing themselves on Tilde’s public pages. Thanks to a context-reset of a blank canvas, much of that expression came with an honesty and openness that’s been sadly lacking on the web for several years, as personal blogs have given way to streams and apps.

The environment for both reading and creating on Tilde is much different from the experience of posting to Medium, bantering on Twitter, chatting in iMessage, ignoring middle school friends on Facebook, reblogging on Tumblr, or replying to a thread on Gawker. What context does your site or product set up for the conversation you want your audience to have?

There’s a widespread notion now that every media company must also think like a technology company, investing in the platforms that power the creation, presentation, and distribution of our content. But if we truly want to engage with our readers, we also need to put in the time and resources required to create and maintain safe community spaces. We need to articulate to ourselves and our users what those spaces should be for, and why the effort is worth it.

Audience engagement in 2015 will either require interacting with readers on (often noisy) social platforms we don’t control or devoting the resources required to create and maintain healthy community spaces ourselves. Or both. We need to be thoughtful about what context we create to guide conversation, and how we engage with the people who are willing to interact to create value and a rewarding experience.

But not everyone in the publishing business needs to be in the community management business. Bad community is worse than no community. Feedback and conversation around published work will increasingly happen in spaces you can’t see, or forums you don’t like or understand, and in ways you can’t directly influence or control. If you don’t care enough to take on the responsibility of creating and maintaining a safe space, just disable comments, add a “Share on WhatsApp” button to your article template, and focus on the things you can do well.

Ryan Gantz is director of user experience for Vox Media.