Some time in the 1990s, I had terrible algae in my fish tank. I posted a question about it on USENET on the group alt.aquaria, and got a helpful answer from a guy I’ll call Oscar. Oscar really knows his fish, and spent a tremendous amount of time answering people’s questions on the group.
Later that day, I wandered into a crazy USENET flame war. Someone had created a group called alt.good-news. The group’s description said it was a place to share happy news—kind of like Upworthy in the days before the web. However, the phrase “the good news” has significant meaning to some Christians—it’s the good news that Christ is here to save us. Within hours, alt.good-news ironically deteriorated into a nasty flame fest with people arguing about whether it was a Christian group. I saw Oscar posting on the group, and sent him a private email: “Isn’t this flame war crazy? This group was supposed to be happy!” And he mailed me back:
“Don’t assume people always behave the way they behave when they talk about fish.”
It took only a moment’s exploration for me to learn that Oscar was actually a legendary USENET troll. Who just happened to also be an expert fish keeper who took pride in politely helping others with fish questions.
I think about Oscar a lot when I contemplate the mess that is Twitter. Social norms tend to be local, but on Twitter there is no local. People with radically different ideas of appropriate behavior run directly into one another. Or as one wise Redditor commented, “Twitter is like everyone shitposting on the same subreddit with no moderation.” Unfortunately, the blocking mechanisms we have at our disposal are crude. There’s no easy way to say, “I want to read what Oscar has to say about fish, but only about fish.” You either block Oscar or you don’t. And if you do decide to block him, there’s no easy way to say, “And please block him on the three other sites that we both use.” Our existing blocking mechanisms are too coarse grained and too weak.
The design of blocking mechanisms is in its infancy. Even farther behind is the design of understanding mechanisms. What if we could somehow scaffold people coming to a more nuanced understanding of the other person’s point of view, instead of just dismissing them entirely?
Got an idea for how to support more nuanced blocking or understanding? Leave me a comment!