Noah Kulwin interviewed Joanne McNeil for The Outline (I offered my thoughts on her book just last week) and there’s one exchange in particular I’d like to pass along.
[…] You also talk in the book at length about the labor that goes into growing and maintaining digital communities like MetaFilter or Reddit. Of course, almost all that labor is uncompensated. How did this enthusiastic volunteerism of spaces like Echo in the ’90s become this economic engine of the internet years later?
I have really complicated feelings I tried to work out through that book, in the sense of volunteering as quite beneficial if it is for your own space. If you’re having a gathering or a party, you clean up afterward, as it’s your apartment. But that’s the nature of scale… when you get to that level that there are too many, say, beheading videos that we can’t make sure a platform is cleared of all of them, to me that’s evidence this is out of control and should be shut down. This is not a real community, it’s not organized by people who have their sense of values or through shared space. But on the other hand there are so many people who find imperfect tactics for maintaining spaces similar to Echo or those smaller ‘90s platforms.
This does seem to be the nature of the divide in thinking. Online community doesn’t scale. Or maybe we should say that persistent communities don’t.
Temporary or transient communities might, if only because they tend to be purpose-driven and if the problems of abuse and moderation arise within them they don’t last long because the communities themselves don’t last long. Any sort of ongoing concern, however, seems to have its limits.
One of the things that distributed efforts perhaps have a better handle on is that platforms aren’t communities but they can host communities if each community has access to community-building — and community-protecting — tools. But if the communities must rely on the platform handling all moderation and policing, it’s difficult if not ultimately impossible for communities to take hold.