The debate online.

Recently I was contacted by Darren Barefoot about, and the lack of serious debate on the site.

It’s an issue I think about a lot. I don’t think debate is bad, by any means, but rarely do I see healthy debate online. It’s usually vicious and caustic and blocks honest discussion. When we started back in July, we cultivated the community carefully. We reached out to specific people who we felt we could trust to nurture and grow the community and handed the site to them for two months before launching it wider.

One thing we learned from the kind folks at The Tyee was that the first 500 members of an online community set the tone. We wanted to make sure that the tone was one of positive change-making, where good ideas would flourish and those who wanted to spew anger and attack their peers would not feel welcome.

Much of the credit goes to the Online Community Moderator Kate, who nurtures the community in a deliberate and wonderful way, as well as Social Signal, who identified early in the planning process that we needed to spend more time discussing the development rather than the moderation of the community. For companies who engage in the social web, it’s easy to get caught up in blocking conversations we are prone not to like, rather than promote discussion that we do want. Rob sums it up so well when he says that we need to be a concierge not a security guard. Nicely put!

After receiving our response to his questions about online debate on, Darren posted about this issue and it was great to read his thoughts on the matter. It’s obviously an issue he’s thought about a lot, and he’s someone who enjoys a lively debate online and off.

There seems to be some division here between communities that group around a lifestyle (green, goth, whatever) and those that group around a hobby or common love (skydiving, Lindsay Lohan, whatever). The former are, I’d guess, less likely to experience the diversity of opinions which drive debate.

I also love what Todd Sieling had to say in the comments:

I think people seek out some communities where debate doesn’t happen so much because they’re fatigued by the fact that it is almost everywhere that you can discuss stuff on the interwebs.

That is, after too many discussions that start from mere disagreement and devolve into personal attacks, misinterpretations and lack of closure, people just want a place where they feel they can say something and not have to get out the flak jacket just to do so. It can be a value of a community that people are just allowed to have their personal conch without stirring up debate, like the therapy couch where all answers are ok.

Well put. One of the things I love most about is that the discussion is positive and respectful. There are so many places you can go to engage in vigourous debate, but not so many where you can be encouraged by total strangers to make changes in your life. I am happy that my colleagues at Vancity are respectful and protective of this special place we’ve created online, it’s something I’m incredibly proud of.

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