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."