Is serious discussion possible in online communities?

by Martin Reed on 11 June 2009 in Articles

serious discussion in online communities

I was recently emailed by John Monroe, an editor at Federal Computer Week. He recently wrote about the problems faced by the White House when they attempted to invite public input on how to make government more transparent. Individuals and groups that want President Obama to release his birth certificate took over the Open Government Brainstorm to push their own agenda. This led to John wondering whether serious online dialogue can take place without it descending into mudslinging. I think it can.

Problems at the White House

The problem faced by the OGB was that it was too open. Prior to the hijacking of the site by the ‘birth certificate’ proponents, there were no clear submission guidelines. They have now rectified this situation somewhat, and link to them a little more prominently from the homepage.

As far as visitors were concerned, any comment they submitted would be published and consequent discussion would be permitted. When this didn’t happen, those who submitted content felt a little cheated – resulting in them continuing to resubmit their comments and encouraging others to do the same.

Over time, this situation would only ever get worse – as people felt unfairly treated, they continued to press their case and encouraged others to do the same. Eventually something had to give.

Online communities cannot moderate themselves

The reaction was to introduce a ‘Thumbs Up’ and ‘Thumbs Down’ system on OGB. This isn’t going to fix the problem, though – the groups looking to push their own agenda will simply ‘Thumb Up’ content related to their cause, and ‘Thumb Down’ everything else.

All online communities need some form of management and moderation. In this case, here is what I would recommend.

Serious discussion is possible in online communities

You can’t expect people to abide by community guidelines if they don’t know what they are. The OGB needs to make these clearer on the site. They should consider displaying them on the submission form to ensure all users are familiar with them.

Secondly, the site needs to be moderated more effectively. New ideas shouldn’t be displayed until they have been moderated – yes, this could be a huge task but the BBC manages to pre-moderate comments effectively, so it is possible.

Normally, I am not a proponent of pre-moderation – I prefer a reactive moderation policy. However, on a site with a serious agenda where the content is more sensitive than most, submissions really do need to be pre-approved before going live.

There need not be claims of censorship – as long as people know how submissions are being moderated and why. Again, this comes down to ensuring the guidelines are clear and prominently displayed.

Reputation and credibility – hard to achieve, easy to lose

Perhaps the biggest problem facing the OGB right now is that it has been completely distracted by the ‘birth certificate’ proponents pushing their own agenda. These people no longer trust the site as they feel their suggestions and comments are being censored and ignored. As the whole purpose of the OGB is to promote transparency, its credibility has been destroyed in the eyes of these people.

If the project is to move forward, it needs to address their grievances. It should engage in a private dialogue with these individuals and groups to see if a compromise can be met whereby they feel their comments and views are being recognised and respected and the administration is happy that the comments to be published are not inflammatory or against guidelines or existing legislation.

Of course, if the guidelines and moderation process were made clear from the start, this situation may have been avoided. However, the project can still move forward and get over this challenge through communication.

Five ways to encourage mature, serious discussion

Let me conclude by recommending the following for communities (or any site encouraging user generated content) looking to hold discussions of a serious or sensitive nature:

1. Have clear, prominent guidelines from day one.

2. Ensure all visitors know what the moderation process is.

3. Have a clear appeals process – how do users report their grievances? (Answer: privately).

4. If individuals or groups try to hijack the community, engage in a private dialogue and compromise.

5. Do not draw attention to individuals or special interest groups.

Openness encourages conflict

Some will always insist that open discussions (particularly those taking place online) will always degenerate into abuse or be hijacked by a minority. Without guidelines or a moderation process, this will almost certainly be the case.

Even in free societies there are rules and laws – these need to be in place in online communities, too. Just because you are promoting transparency, it doesn’t mean you can’t have rules and a moderation process. Indeed – because you are promoting transparency and honesty, clear rules and a strong moderation process are essential.

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Nicole Price June 13, 2009 at 10:40 am

A timely and well presented post. It is sad that many online communities end up being hijacked by a handful of malcontents and what follows is not good for the site.

Mark Woodward June 13, 2009 at 5:29 pm

I don’t think that there is any magic voodoo about online community? The scenario above would play itself out in the ‘real world’ much the same way I think.

For instance, if it were an anonymous costume party…or one where you signed a register at the door…I think the results would be the same. If on the other hand, it was at a workplace cafeteria where the people had some real ‘skin’ in the game…the behavior would be quite different.

In the scenario above, I would think that pre-post moderation (resource intensive) might be the best solution…just my 2 cents,


Timo June 18, 2009 at 8:54 am

Yes, serious discussion is certainly possible, but the site should be maintained by a handful of people to keep malcontents at bay as Nicole pointed out rightly.

Alfred June 19, 2009 at 8:31 am

I think serious discussion with online communities is not possible. Since it is online discussion i think that no will be serious with it and no one can be benefited with it.

Robert Star June 20, 2009 at 11:27 am

well what i think..serious discussion is possible and should be done….through this people will get the right to give out their views on serious matter and decision making process…but yes moderation is very much required with clear and certified rules and guidelines….

Mr Woc June 22, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Hi there

Serious discussion is possible of course, but controvertial issues are different, we had a thread about abortion once, never again would I let people discuss something like that, as it got totally out of hand.

Which in some ways is a shame, its a shame some people feel they can say what ever they like once they get behind a keyboard !


Jean Célibataire Endurci June 24, 2009 at 1:35 am

I agree with your solutions for the problems at the White Hose, especially to the pre-moderation. I would just like to express my doubt on the “consider displaying [community guidelines] on the submission form to ensure all users are familiar with them” -part. This would be like accepting the general terms and conditions for accessing that web page, which everybody checks (because it is mandatory) but no body ever reads! Why would it b any different on that particular page?

Martin Reed - Blog Author June 24, 2009 at 1:46 pm

Jean – Placing a link or a brief reminder of the community guidelines on the submission form would make them far more prominent and visible. People can’t then give the excuse that they ‘didn’t see’ or ‘couldn’t find’ the guidelines.

Yuuko June 30, 2009 at 3:24 am

Yes, i also believe that we can talk about serious matters on online communities. It is just sad because most of the forums online only talks about celebrities and other insignificant things.

Shawn July 2, 2009 at 9:15 am

It really depends on the setting and moderation of the community I believe. It’s definitely a thin rope to walk.

Steve Horvat July 13, 2009 at 11:24 am

Serious discussion is definitely possible, but only with quality moderators !

Ryan v. July 23, 2009 at 7:48 pm

Serious discussion rarely occurs in any large commenting type community. Everyone has an “E-personality” separate from how they probably act in the “real word”. Sarcasm and harassment are aplenty. I suppose if you search deep enough you can find some place however.

Martin Reed - Community Manager July 24, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Ryan – How do you define a ‘commenting type community’?

Paul November 20, 2009 at 12:48 pm

It seems that people don’t hold back in forums and will really say what they think so it seems like most communities do have serious discussions.

Andy Jones December 27, 2009 at 8:11 am

Yes, i think serious online discussion is possible, however, proactive monitoring is required. Unfortunately, the internet offers users complete anonimity which they would not be afforded in an offline environment, and this lack of accountability inevitably means that certain ‘rogue’ elements will use this to harbour unwanted radical and extremist views.

Christina March 19, 2010 at 5:44 pm

I think serious online conversations are possible, but without good moderation, things can get out of hand. The example above demonstrates how people will promote their own agendas whenever given the opportunity. Clear guidelines will help, but not eliminate the problem.

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