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‘Niceness,’ Conformity, And Community Quality

I’ve written a few times about the importance of ‘quality’ in building online communities.

Today the LA Times confronts the question, as a heated screed in response to an editorial on immigration was first left up, then taken down in response to reader reactions.

The comment in question was clearly heated and racially charged.

And I think we have an interest – especially about important and controversial issues – in promoting civil disagreement.

I’m very happy that the Times was willing to bring the issue up for discussion and comment (you can hop in and comment as well).

But there’s something here that makes me a little queasy. I think we play by somewhat different rules when we move from commerce to policy, and I think that blocking someone from participating simply because we don’t approve of or can’t get comfortable with their views – the commenter in question hadn’t abused other commenters or the author – is very dangerous. In fact, writing these words, I realize that it’s even dangerous in a commercial community.

Because part of the point of community is to allow the free market for ideas to actually work; to create a space where ideas and beliefs can be put to the test of honest and constructive debate.

Challenging the commenter to move the debate to underlying facts – is California’s economy badly damaged or helped by illegal immigration? is transnational gang crime a meaningful issue? what are the pros and cons of immigration, legal and otherwise? – is what a forum like the Times’ ought to be about.

People ought to have confidence that good ideas will survive exposure to the light of day, and that bad ideas will wither.

And as community owners and managers, I think we have to be careful about manicuring the community too closely. It’s certainly possible for a community to fall apart because it’s violently contentious and because of shouting and mutual disrespect.

But I’ll bet that it’s also possible that communities can become so insular and narrowly norm-enforcing that they fail as well.