Why is the Internet the place where civil discussion goes to die? It must be something in the tubes. Before there even was a mainstream Internet, in 1990, Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Mike Godwin coined Godwin's Law: "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." If you put a group of slightly asocial, opinionated people behind usernames, the conversation descends into flame wars and miscellaneous insanity.
Which is why I am so impressed with Ask MetaFilter, a question-and-answer site that grew out of the MetaFilter community in 2003. It's one of the few places on the Internet where you can find sensible, accommodating, actually helpful discussion. For example, last October, the user "Hands of Manos" posed the following query: "How can I be less cynical?" He went on to explain, "I hate most movies, I lost faith in the God I was raised to believe in as a child and I find very little joy in most things now a days" and noted, "My wife is pissed because I'm so negative and doubtful of everything."
Thoughtful replies were posted immediately, with suggestions ranging from volunteering to banjo playing to avoiding "emotionally toxic" people to reading David McCullough's book on John Adams to looking at a blog that collects examples of how the world is getting better all the time. Many of the replies hit the sweet spot of being thoughtful in a nonoverbearing way: "I'm a firm believer that it's almost impossible to consciously change your attitudes (maybe even a little arrogant to try). Get out of your bad routine/loop of doing things that make you act cynical, and eventually your attitudes will change." The thread also had a nice sub-thread about how cynicism can lead to skepticism, a potentially good point of view.
Not all AskMeFi questions plumb such depths. Many are light-hearted, like "Should I get a hot tub?" (Yes: but make sure you buy a cover); many are narrowly practical, like "On average. How long does it take a first class letter to reach its destination in Sweden?"; and more than a few tread into strange, social spaces: "Some people have this mysterious ability to be—disarming. Please explain this skill and help me learn it!" But the questions are all united by having received helpful answers, usually written in complete sentences. This is a small miracle. Where are the personal attacks, the one-word putdowns, the LOLs, the mocking, the off-topic rants? Well, they get deleted.
To understand how AskMeFi encourages valuable typed conversation, I spoke with Jessamyn West, a noted rural librarian and one of the moderators at MetaFilter. From her home base in the center of Vermont, she spends a lot of time each day pruning and cultivating the threads at AskMeFi. Her ground rules are simple: "You have to answer the question. It doesn't matter how funny your joke is, we're going to remove it. Wisecracks don't help solve problems." She says that some members of the MeFi community feel that AskMeFi is too rigid, not playful enough, but West believes in keeping things goal-focused and civil: "It's a living room, a clubhouse, please don't come poop on our floor."
The rules start with what questions get accepted. There are certain topics that never go well: "Don't ask about circumcising your baby," says West. "Don't ask about declawing your cat. Questions about extreme paranoia are bad because we've found that people like to tease people who are hearing voices." Nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No questions about suicide. (In these cases, West responds with an e-mail suggesting counseling in the question-asker's area.) No questions like "Is my husband trying to kill me?" No revenge questions along the lines of "Help me get back at my shithead boss." No chatty questions such as "What is everyone's favorite color?" or useless, leading questions along the lines of "Why does everyone like Ted Nugent so much?"
What's left are questions about the news of the day, computer problems, taxes, pets, hotels, dreams, minor medical concerns, workplace situations, romance, clogged drains, and the daily ephemera that you wonder about and wonder if anyone else wonders about: "Is it rational for me to become irritated when I see people with their windshield wipers on full speed when there is only a light drizzle? Does this irritate anyone else?" When not watching the questions, West and her colleagues watch the responses. "It's amazing how deleting an early, dumb, shitty comment about, say, how bad the U.S. health care system is can mean that the rest of the thread is normal and civil," says West. (Apparently AskMeFi is riven with a lot of U.S.-Canada tension.)
West also points out that the people on AskMeFi have grown to know one another through their posts and questions. They flag inappropriate responses and generally feel that they have a stake in making the site function as a source of useful information. Fostering good conversation turns out not to be complex, but it does require effort: "There are real humans who pay attention to the site all the time." AskMeFi has one other key factor that promotes civility: It costs five bucks to join. In a New York Times article about vicious Internet feedback, Slate's Mickey Kaus said that "the world is crying out for the jerk-zapper." Perhaps five bucks is that jerk-zapper. The hit-and-run flame artists will go where comment is free and targets are ripe—a place like Yahoo Answers, say, where unlucky people ask: "Is duck tape really made with ducks?"
I joke about the jerk-zapper, but it would be a truly good thing, because when you see a functioning hive mind in action, like AskMeFi, the results are incredible. One guy wanted to find the address of the apartment where his late grandfather lived in Vienna before fleeing the Nazis. He spoke no German, no one in his family had any idea where the place was, he was leaving in a few weeks. He found the person who could answer his question in 32 minutes. Next, there are questions that, if posed elsewhere, would be met with an avalanche of mockery—"So … I'm fat! Still wanna meet up?"—but are answered on AskMeFi with perspective and sensitivity. If people stay on topic, an impressive knowledge resource can result. Whenever I need a starting point in an unfamiliar area, I look at this thread: "What single book is the best introduction to your field (or specialization within your field) for laypeople?" And, finally, there are those threads that may just change your life or, at least, amaze you for an afternoon.