edited December 30 2017

I think I have something to say about communities and the way we coexist with them.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about toxic online communities. A recent example comes from a lethal swatting incident that originated in the Call of Duty community. Some discussion elsewhere has centered around how toxic the Call of Duty community is. Maybe it shares some responsibility.

Twitter has been in and out of the news for the last several years for its role in enabling groups of racists, homophobes, and their kind to form communities (recent example). Reddit, too, and of course 4Chan, although these issues aren’t unique to any of those communities. Every community, online and offline, has had to struggle with the balance between moderation and free expression.

Reddit is a peculiar example because it is a community of communities. The same site hosts the AskHistorians subreddit and the The_Donald subreddit (and worse). We can mostly wipe away all of the variables for site design and userbase and see just how the rules of a community influence its behavior.

I suspect we, all of us, are far more malleable than we would like to admit. I think that when we form communities, our individual behavior shapes those communities, but those communities also influence our behavior. America is a land of hardy self-realized individualists who are that way because they grew up in a country that marketed itself as a land of hardy self-realized individualists.

Communities can change us as subtly as shifting our interests away from some subjects and into others, to as starkly alarming as feeding our innate prejudices until we stop seeing the people around us as fellow human beings, and they become “us”s and “them”s.

Snack foods are fine, but a steady diet of Cheetos is very bad for your health. A little alcohol now and again is fine also, just don’t drink yourself into oblivion every day. A little TV is fine entertainment, but if you’re staring at it 8 hours a day, there are going to be myriad harmful effects. Smartphones aren’t inherently unhealthy, unless you can’t get through a ten minute conversation without looking at yours. Each of these things is fine in small doses, but harmful in larger quantities.

I think our participation in online communities has to be treated the same way. No community is totally healthy for us when they become our main source of social interaction. Some communities likewise will make us better, more well-balanced people, and others will entertain us or feed our creativity until we lose ourselves to them. Some will turn us into monsters, and if we are very lucky, we will get to look back at some point, like any other addict, and it will all seem like a terrible dream.

We have junk food for our bodies, junk food for our brains, and now we have online communities as junk food for our souls.