Communities Sans Debate

For no particular reason, I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about online communities lately. I recently encountered a phenomenon on which initially struck me as unusual. Upon further reflection I think it’s quite common: there’s very little disagreement and debate in their community.

I discovered this because I wrote what I thought was a fairly contradictory comment in response to a post about gas prices. To my surprise, nobody wanted to take me up on the debate (I eventually goaded Rob into it offline).

I love debate, so I tend to seek it out in online communities, whether it’s something old school like or more recent projects the always hotly-contested DeSmogBlog. So I was kind of bummed when nobody–not even the blogger herself–took on my challenge.

Then I started looking around the site. I browsed through a month of posts (this was a couple of weeks ago), and despite there being numerous hot button topics (local politics, global warming and so forth) and plenty of comments, I couldn’t find a single example of disagreement. That just struck me as weird.

A Positive Sense of Belonging and Encouragement

I asked the folks and here’s some of what they said. Community Manager (I hope that’s her title) Kate writes:

the first two months was live it was in ‘soft launch’ mode meaning that we were introducing people slowly and intentionally into the community to foster a positive sense of belonging and encouragement. I think of it kind of like introducing new fish into an aquarium. Because of this careful and deliberate building of the environment, the disagreements that do show up on the site (and there are several) tend to be civil and short lived. We were not aiming to create a place here people do not contradict one another, but rather that when they do they are respectful about it so that something truly progressive may be generated.

And Rob, who helped create the site, says:

Another reason speaks to the site’s purpose. For the most part, this is less a debate/argumentation site than a news/resource-sharing/collaboration site, and the culture of dialogue reflects that. Discussions tend to focus on “how” instead of “rather”, and where people weigh in, it’s usually to reinforce someone’s goals and cheer them on.

Finally, whether you’d call it groupthink or broad values alignment, the people who come to a Vancity-sponsored community-change site are different from those who come to a site that dives into the fray and takes on partisans in a highly-contested space, as DeSmogBlog does.

Broad Values Alignment

Indeed, my theory was that many community sites draw like-minded people, and the kind of folks who would join would have, as Rob puts it, ‘broad values alignment’. Kate says that they don’t market to VanCity members exclusively, but I’d imagine that’s where they drew most of their early adopters (and therefore conversation tone setters) from. Obviously, people who bank with VanCity have some values and ideals in common.

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.

Too much debate is a problem we experience on DeSmogBlog sometimes, but I think too little debate is an issue too. Debate enlivens a community, identifies its core values and sharpens its ideas. I suppose each group needs to find its own ideal level for this kind of discourse, but I was frustrated by ChangeEverything’s lack of cut-and-thrust. Happily, there are plenty of Interwebbians elsewhere who are happy to vehemently disagree with me.

On a vaguely related point, I recently learn about, which was launched this spring. It appears to be a sort of globalized version of ChangeEverything.


  1. 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.

  2. Yeah, agreed. It takes, what, both wombs and boxing rings to build a good community. Wow, I just created the world’s worst idiom.

  3. Although I sometimes like to take the contrarian argument just to watch the fur fly, more often then not things degenerate to the ad hominem. There seems to be a shortage of people who can debate and keep it on an adult level. Just look at the R&R on craigslist.

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