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In Which A Calvinist Recommends Treehouses Over Forums

Technology will never inherently mitigate our nature.

A wave of Facebook friends have been informing me that they are “moving” to other social networks such as MeWe and Parler. While the long-term sustainability of these alternative social networks is an open-ended question as of the time of this writing, I don’t foresee the bigger problems inherent to democratized public forums, such as state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, becoming a thing of the past.

Assumption: Purely democratic groups don’t scale very well.

Compound this with the Doctrine of Total Depravity, namely that man is born sinful by nature. I believe this is the key contributor to the problems we encounter on the Web. This is because technology will never inherently mitigate our nature. The best it can do is limit the effects of some of the symptoms (such as banning users for using racist words).

I experience the most joy interacting individually and in smaller groups with my messaging apps.

Whilst Shinto religious beliefs are not part of my faith, asking the famous Marie Kondo question of “what sparks joy” is a valid question to ask oneself when evaluating your choices of interactions and entertainment. For me, I experience the most joy interacting individually and in smaller groups with my messaging apps. I use Discord, Slack, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger daily.

Assumption: If I experience the most joy in messaging apps then many others do as well.

Instead of fixing the problem by making massively-scaled forums, I believe that smaller, human-moderated groups on messaging apps, which I consider the Web’s equivalent of “treehouses”, are more likely to isolate some of the problems the come with massive scale.

man in black leather jacket standing beside brown wooden house during daytime

What constitutes a successful “treehouse”? Here is my working rubric.

Delegate the most mature, most qualified individuals to enforce against sinful behavior and sinful content.

  1. Less than 50 total members – I admit, it’s an arbitrary number. You might be able to succeed with a larger number if your moderation is working well, but make sure your community doesn’t get so big that it lacks personality and/or collapses under its own weight. If your Discord group gets so big that you have to rate-limit users’ posts, for example, then it’s too big.
  2. At least 1 moderator per 10 members – I’ve seen drama happen on a messaging app group as small as 4 people on more than one occasion. Delegate the most mature, most qualified individuals to enforce against sinful behavior and sinful content.
  3. Enact rules meant to stop slurs and to stop intimidating behavior against women – there are certain forms of sinful behavior on the Internet that are frequently inflicted against women and minorities. For example, commentary on a woman’s appearance to objectify her or using Anti-Semitic slurs on Jewish group members. It is horrifying to behold, but even people who claim to know Jesus will engage in this behavior. Even if the perpetrator “didn’t mean it” your group will need a zero-tolerance policy in regards to this behavior.
  4. A consistent Meritocracy, not an inconsistent Democracy – promote the best-behaved members with more privileges, demote or remove members who refuse to stop committing repeat offenses. Smaller groups can do this organically, but larger groups could benefit from a rubric of some kind.
  5. Don’t censor cordial disagreement, even when the person you disagree with is wrong – Different people coming from different perspectives are bound to disagree. Assuming it is a polite disagreement that does not directly promote harm against anybody, the worst thing you can do is censor disagreement when a thoughtful discussion in a small setting is possibly more likely to change minds than a public forum. However, if you are concerned that political discussion is bound to be divisive in your group, then it stands to reason to ban political discussion (like I have in my private Discord group) but make sure to enforce it consistently.
  6. Friendly vibes, not strict vibes – This is a tough one to balance when you have rules. One way to you could institute friendly vibes is to be very welcoming of newcomers and to post wholesome content frequently. Puppy and kitten pics are what the Web was made for! Another way to keep up a friendly vibe is to remind people of the rules in a private chat instead of in front of the whole group. Just be nice and be creative in how to be nice.

There is no substitute for in-person communication, and even more so there is no substitute for being controlled by the Holy Spirit. For those moments where we are interacting from a distance, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, I hope the above tips will help you in interacting in a Sprit-led manner, perhaps in ways you haven’t considered yet.

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