It is pretty clear there are certain subject areas where the discussion simply never goes well here. This isn't a Tildes thing really. Frankly these topics rarely go well anywhere online but, as we have aspirations 'round these parts of being more sophisticated than the Reddit rabble, I think it's worth digging into.
Overall Tildes is a fairly low-activity site, but if I ever see a topic that even tangentially touches on "identarian" issues get past double-digit comments, there will almost surely be an acrimonious exchange inside. I don't want to pretend I'm above this, I've been sucked into these back-and-forths myself as, I think, has almost every regular poster at one time or another. I've largely disengaged from participating in these at this point and mostly just watch from the sidelines now.
Unlike most of the common complaints with Tildes, I don't think this one will get better as the site grows and diversifies. If anything, I think it's going to end up creating norms and a culture that will bleed over into other controversial topics from tabs/spaces to iOS/Android. To keep that from happening, the community will need to form a consensus on what "high quality discussion" means and what we hope to get out of having conversations on these issues here.
To start, when I say "doesn't go well" I'm thinking of indicators where some combination of the following happen:
- None of the participants learn anything new about the subject, themselves, or another viewpoint
- Preponderance of "Malice" and "Noise" tags
- Heated back-and-forth exchanges (related to the above)
- Frequent accusations (and evidence) of speaking in bad-faith or mischaracterization of peoples' statements
These threads end in people being angry or frustrated with each other, and it's become pretty clear that members of the community have begun to form cliques and rivalries based on these battle lines. It also seems like the stridency and tone are making people leave out of frustration, either deleting their accounts or just logging off for extended stretches of time, which is also an outcome we don't want. So let's go into what we can do to both change ourselves and how others engage with us so people feel like they're being heard without everything breaking down into arguments.
The "Whys" of this are varied and I'm sure I don't see the whole picture. Obviously people come into any community bringing different background experiences and with different things they're hoping to get out of it. But in my view the root cause comes down to approaching discussions as a win/lose battle rather than a shared opportunity to learn about a subject or perspective. From observing many of these discussions without engaging, there are evident patterns in how they develop. The main thrust seems to be that criticism and pushback pretty quickly evolve from specific and constructive (e.g. "This [statement or behavior] is problematic because [reason]") to general and defamatory (e.g. "[Person] is [bad thing], as evidenced by them doing/making [action/statement]").
This approach very quickly turns a conversation between two people into a symbolic battle about making Tildes/the world safe for [community], defending the wrongfully accused, striking a blow against censorship, or some other broad principle that the actual discussion participants may or may not actually be invested in. Once this happens the participants are no longer trying to listen or learn from each other, they're trying to mine their posts for things they can pick through to make them look bad or invalidate their participation. This has the effect of obliterating nuance and polarizing the participants. Discussions quickly devolve from people speaking candidly to people accusing each other of mischaracterizing what they've said. This makes people defensive, frustrated, and creates a feedback loop of negativity.
The win/lose battle approach permeates political discussion on Tildes (and elsewhere), which is a separate issue, but it gets especially problematic in these threads since the subject matter is intensely personal for many people. As a result, it's important to take care that pushback on specific positions should always endeavor to make people feel heard and accepted despite disagreement. On the flip side, there needs to be a principle of charity in place where one accepts that "no offense/harm intended" actually means no offense intended without dissecting the particulars of word-choice to uncover secret agendas. If a charitable interpretation is available, it isn't constructive to insist or default to the uncharitable one. It may not feel fair if you know that the more negative interpretation is correct, but it is literally impossible to have productive discussion any other way. If you can't imagine that a well informed, intelligent, and decent person might hold a certain view then the only conclusion you can draw is that they're either ignorant, stupid, or evil and every response you make to them is going to sound like you think this of them. That's not a position where minds are going to be changed from. English isn't necessarily a first language for everyone here and, even if it is, not everyone keeps up to date on the fast moving world of shifting norms and connotations in social media. What's more, not all cultures and places approach these issues with the same assumptions and biases you're familiar with.
Now I don't actually believe in appealing to peoples' sense of virtue to keep things going constructively in situations like this. Without very active moderation to reinforce it, it just never works and can't scale. So I think operationalizing these norms is going to take some kind of work. Right now we freeze out comments when they have a lot of back-and-forth, which I think is good. But maybe we should make it a bit more humanistic. What if we rate limited with a note to say "Hey this discussion seems to be pretty heated. Maybe reflect on your state of mind for a second and take a breather if you're upset."
Or, in long threads with lots of my bad indicators, the submit button can send to the post preview rather than immediately posting. It could then flash a banner to be a quick reminder of the ground rules (e.g. Try to assume good faith, Remember the Human, Listen to understand rather than respond, Careful with the snark, It's not about winning/losing, etc.) This would introduce just a touch of friction to the posting process, hopefully just enough to make people think "Maybe I could phrase that better" or "You know, this isn't worth my time" and disengage (Obligatory relevant XKCD)
Alternatively, maybe it is the case that this is honestly just intractable without some sort of third-party mediation mechanic and we freeze out comments under such topics entirely. Like I said before, I worry the frequency with which these discussions turn dispiriting has a chance of acculturating new users or signaling to prospective users that this is an expected way for this community to engage.
This is a long post, and I hope it does not itself turn into another case study in the issues I'm trying to raise. I want to open the floor to anyone who has other ideas about causes and solutions. I also ask that we try to keep any critiques to specific actions and behaviors without trying to put blame on any groups of people. We all contribute to the vibe one way or another so we can all stand to try a little harder on this front.