We've seen a plethora of meta diaries (GBCW, TTFN, "I ain't leavin'.") lately. I thought it might be worth taking a step back from the specific bones of contention that have so many people feeling uneasy. These diaries raise a more basic question.
If you think about it, the person who says, "I'm so fed up with this I'm leaving," and the person who says "Good riddance to you, I'm staying and proud of it," agree on something fundamental: the issues that divide the community either aren't resolvable or aren't worth resolving. That's not a question anybody can presume to answer for anyone else, but it's worth examining the cost of not resolving our differences.
To call a site like this a "community" is something of a stretch. Certainly participating in an on-line "community" contributes to many of the benefits of living in a community. But it lacks one key ingredient of a true community: having to deal with people who don't value things exactly as you do.
A few years ago there was a dispute in my town about replacing a school that was literally crumbling to pieces. It had been built seventy years earlier in a wetland, and the walls and ceilings had cave like gypsum crystals blooming on them as water migrated into the deteriorating shell of the building. Naturally we parents of young children thought replacing the school was a no-brainer, but we ran into a population of older residents who had already sent their children through school and complained of the impact of increased property taxes on people living on fixed incomes.
Who was right? Both sides, at least according to what was most important to them. In these fights one seldom sways people who have already taken sides; the battle is to win over those who can see reason in both points. In face of that challenge, the most potent argument we came up with was that the maintenance costs of the increasingly crumbling building would have raised taxes anyway. We'd just spent over a hundred thousand dollars the prior year in repairs and they all had to be done over. Having to face opposition sharpened our thinking beyond the "no brainer" stage. The pro-school side won, but it was a close call. Hopefully we learned our lesson too and won't be so cavalier about dismissing the concerns of people on fixed incomes.
So what does this mean for on-line "communities"? Does it really matter if we sort ourselves into like-minded groups? To answer that question, it's worth looking at a site where that has already happened.
[UPDATE: aravir objects to posting a link to Stormfront. I believe people here should read Stormfront, but accordinly I have replaced the link to the main site with the Internet Archive. However it is not possible to discussion threads so that link remains intact.]
Stormfront is a white supremacist website. If you were a Nazi, you'd probably be hanging out on Stormfront instead of Daily Kos. Recently I've been poking around on Stormfront to research the modern resurgence of the "racial science" theories of the 1930s. One of the things that struck me was how different the atmosphere of the site was from what I expected. The media stereotype of neo-Nazis is that of ranting, strident people with a love of hearing their own voices amplified through a megaphone. If only that were true. What I found was, compared to Daily Kos, a model of decorum and civility. "Civil" at least so far as the deportment of one Stormfront member toward another was concerned.
[Update: WARNING: the following link goes direct to Stormfront's discussion boards. If you don't want to go there, don't follow it.]
For example, take this anti-Obama post, entitled "White Rhythm and Black Brains". I won't reproduce the post for you, but basically he starts with the assertion that blacks despite their (supposed) innate rhythm (supposedly) never invented any musical instrument other than a (supposedly) inferior drum. Then he takes us on an admirably succinct and pithy tour of his view of World Civilization.
Now this post is practically a guide to the myriad ways that White Supremacist thinking is broken. It presents a hermetically sealed, more or less self-consistent view of the world unencumbered by any inconvenient questions that first hand knowledge of the matters in question might raise. Don't some blacks have poor rhythm? Is it really true Africa produced no musical instruments other than an inadequate drum? Why did all those supposedly inventive white brains spend the thousands of years prior to the the Renaissance making do with even worse instruments than these supposedly small-brained Africans had? Nobody raises these kinds of questions, but that doesn't mean that all Stormfront members do is pat each other on the back. This part of the post triggered an interesting response.
'Marxism is the bastard child of Middle Eastern Christianity, not of Western Christianity. Religious leaders always preferred the Old Testament version, where the priests ruled and the people obeyed, to the teachings of Jesus which gav them no power in this world.
Here is the response:
The thing you fail to point out is that Marx was a respected economist and journalist of his day, and still has his share of followers among intelligent circles. You cannot demonize him hoping that your thoughts will be supported by a kind of vague fear or foreign superstition among readers.
What follows is a surprisingly nuanced discussion of Marx's place in western thought that never quite devolves into the flame war you'd expect. Issues this contentious are seldom discussed so civilly on Daily Kos. It's instructive to ask "why?" There are elements that are worth emulating, and others that are cautionary to us.
I think the most important reason is that the people on Stormfront don't really disagree with each other. They go there to have their opinions validated, not challenged. So nobody is challenging the assumption that black brains are different and inferior than white brains. And certainly nobody is saying that Marxism may have a point. What is being challenged is asserting Marx's wrongness in a rashly broad way. To defend the notion that everything Marx might have thought was wrong, you'd have to be prepared to attack any common sense notion Marx might have agreed with. Marx would no doubt have agreed that bread baked out of wheat is more nutritious than bread formed from plaster. To prove him wrong one would be obligated to eat a slice of ceiling.
What is going on here is more skillful proponents of white supremacy are teaching the less skillful ones how to argue their common position more persuasively. That's certainly worth emulating, and if the idea of emulating some neo-Nazi is abhorrent to you, I have a plaster sandwich you might be interested in. Posts advocating popular positions on Daily Kos solicit scores of "right on" responses, but does that truly rise to the standard of supportiveness displayed by our Nazi counterparts?
Now let's look at what's not going on this Stormfront thread. What is not going on is any real challenge to anyone's beliefs. The kind of challenge that would make you a better thinker, not a less obvious crackpot.
It is not possible, I think, to have unlimited quantities of civility and unlimited quantities of diversity in any on-line community. If we merged Dailiy Kos and Stormfront, the results might be interesting, but they wouldn't be pretty. Every on-line community is a trade-off between these values. When a community starts to shed key members, that is a sign that the trade-off is shifting toward greater uniformity. If allowed to continue unchecked, the remaining community members will find themselves in their ideal "community", one in which everyone is perfectly civil and wonderfully supportive of each other. As wonderful as that might feel, it's not necessarily so wonderful for us as human beings.
[Now about the poll: It could certainly be made more nuanced. For a given level of diversity, higher levels of civility can be achieved through greater skill and effort. But the poll deliberately excludes the "have your cake and eat it too" option because that's too easy to choose. I want you to say which you would choose if you were faced with a tough choice. Then I want you to think about the consequences of that choice.]