Coding Horror

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What If We Could Weaponize Empathy?

One of my favorite insights on the subject of online community is from Tom Chick:

Here is something I've never articulated because I thought, perhaps naively, it was understood:

The priority for participating on this forum is not the quality of the content. I ultimately don't care how smart or funny or observant you are. Those are plusses, but they're never prerequisites. The priority is on how you treat each other. I expect spats, arguments, occasional insults, and even inevitable grudges. We've all done that. But in the end, I expect you to act like a group of friends who care about each other, no matter how dumb some of us might be, no matter what political opinions some of us hold, no matter what games some of us like or dislike. This community is small enough, intimate enough, that I feel it's a reasonable expectation.

Indeed, disagreement and arguments are inevitable and even healthy parts of any community. The difference between a sane community and a terrifying warzone is the degree to which disagreement is pursued in the community, gated by the level of respect community members have for each other.

In other words, if a fight is important to you, fight nasty. If that means lying, lie. If that means insults, insult. If that means silencing people, silence.

I may be a fan of the smackdown learning model and kayfabe, but I am definitely not a fan of fighting nasty.

I expect you to act like a group of friends who care about each other, no matter how dumb some of us might be, no matter what political opinions some of us hold, no matter what games some of us like or dislike.

There's a word for this: empathy.

One of the first things I learned when I began researching discussion platforms two years ago is the importance of empathy as the fundamental basis of all stable long term communities. The goal of discussion software shouldn't be to teach you how to click the reply button, and how to make bold text, but how to engage in civilized online discussion with other human beings without that discussion inevitably breaking down into the collective howling of wolves.

That's what the discussion software should be teaching you: Empathy.

You. Me. Us. We can all occasionally use a gentle reminder that there is a real human being on the other side of our screen, a person remarkably like us.

I've been immersed in the world of social discussion for two years now, and I keep going back to the well of empathy, time and time again. The first thing we did was start with a solid set of community guidelines on civilized discussion, and I'm proud to say that we ship and prominently feature those guidelines with every copy of Discourse. They are bedrock. But these guidelines only work to the extent that they are understood, and the community helps enforce them.

In Your Community Door, I described the danger of allowing cruel and hateful behavior in your community – behavior so obviously corrosive that it should never be tolerated in any quantity. If your community isn't capable of regularly exorcising the most toxic content, and the people responsible for that kind of content, it's in trouble. Those rare bad apples are group poison.

Hate is easy to recognize. Cruelty is easy to recognize. You do not tolerate these in your community, full stop.

But what about behavior that isn't so obviously corrosive? What about behavior patterns that seem sort of vaguely negative, but … nobody can show you exactly how this behavior is directly hurting anyone? What am I talking about? Take a look at the Flamewarriors Online Discussion Archetypes, a bunch of discussion behaviors that never quite run afoul of the rules, per se, but result in discussions that degenerate, go in circles, or make people not want to be around them.

What we're getting into is shades of grey, the really difficult part of community moderation. I've been working on Discourse long enough to identify some subtle dark patterns of community discussion that – while nowhere near as dangerous as hate and cruelty – are still harmful enough to the overall empathy level of a community that they should be actively recognized when they emerge, and interventions staged.

1. Endless Contrarianism

Disagreement is fine, even expected, provided people can disagree in an agreeable way. But when someone joins your community for the sole purpose of disagreeing, that's Endless Contrarianism.

Example: As an athiest, Edward shows up on a religion discussion area to educate everyone there about the futility of religion. Is that really the purpose of the community? Does anyone in the community expect to defend the very concept of religion while participating there?

If all a community member can seem to contribute is endlessly pointing out how wrong everyone else is, and how everything about this community is headed in the wrong direction – that's not building constructive discussion – or the community. Edward is just arguing for the sake of argument. Take it to debate school.

2. Axe-Grinding

Part of what makes discussion fun is that it's flexible; a variety of topics will be discussed, and those discussions may naturally meander a bit within the context defined by the site and whatever categories of discussion are allowed there. Axe-Grinding is when a user keeps constantly gravitating back to the same pet issue or theme for weeks or months on end.

Example: Sara finds any opportunity to trigger up a GMO debate, no matter what the actual topic is. Viewing Sara's post history, GMO and Monsanto are constant, repeated themes in any context. Sara's negative review of a movie will mention eating GMO popcorn, because it's not really about the movie – it's always about her pet issue.

This kind of inflexible, overbearing single-issue focus tends to drag discussion into strange, unwanted directions, and rapidly becomes tiresome to other participants who have probably heard everything this person has to say on that topic multiple times already. Either Sara needs to let that topic go, or she needs to find a dedicated place (e.g. GMO discussion areas) where others want to discuss it as much as she does, and take it there.

3. Griefing

In discussion, griefing is when someone goes out of their way to bait a particular person for weeks or months on end. By that I mean they pointedly follow them around, choosing to engage on whatever topic that person appears in, and needle the other person in any way they can, but always strictly by the book and not in violation of any rules… technically.

Example: Whenever Joe sees George in a discussion topic, Joe now pops in to represent the opposing position, or point out flaws in George's reasoning. Joe also takes any opportunity to remind people of previous mistakes George made, or times when George was rude.

When the discussion becomes more about the person than the topic, you're in deep trouble. It's not supposed to be about the participants, but the topic at hand. When griefing occurs, the discussion becomes a stage for personal conflict rather than a way to honestly explore topics and have an entertaining discussion. Ideally the root of the conflict between Joe and George can be addressed and resolved, or Joe can be encouraged to move on and leave the conflict behind. Otherwise, one of these users needs to find another place to go.

4. Persistent Negativity

Nobody expects discussions to be all sweetness and light, but neverending vitriol and negativity are giant wet blankets. It's hard to enjoy anything when someone's constantly reminding you how terrible the world is. Persistent negativity is when someone's negative contributions to the discussion far outweigh their positive contributions.

Example: Even long after the game shipped, Fred mentions that the game took far too long to ship, and that it shipped with bugs. He paid a lot of money for this game, and feels he didn't get the enjoyment from the game that was promised for the price. He warns people away from buying expansions because this game has a bad track record and will probably fail. Nobody will be playing it online soon because of all the problems, so why bother even trying? Wherever topics happen to go, Fred is there to tell everyone this game is worse than they knew.

If Fred doesn't have anything positive to contribute, what exactly is the purpose of his participation in that community? What does he hope to achieve? Criticism is welcome, but that shouldn't be the sum total of everything Fred contributes, and he should be reasonably constructive in his criticism. People join communities to build things and celebrate the enjoyment of those things, not have other people dump all over it and constantly describe how much they suck and disappoint them. If there isn't any silver lining in Fred's cloud, and he can't be encouraged to find one, he should be asked to find other places to haunt.

5. Ranting

Discussions are social, and thus emotional. You should feel something. But prolonged, extreme appeal to emotion is fatiguing and incites arguments. Nobody wants to join a dry, technical session at the Harvard Debate Club, because that'd be boring, but there is a big difference between a persuasive post and a straight-up rant.

Example: Holly posts at the extremes – either something is the worst thing that ever happened, or the best thing that ever happened. She will post 6 to 10 times in a topic and state her position as forcefully as possible, for as long and as loud as it takes, to as many individual people in the discussion as it takes, to get her point across. The stronger the language in the post, the better she likes it.

If Holly can't make her point in a reasonable way in one post and a followup, perhaps she should rethink her approach. Yelling at people, turning the volume to 11, and describing the situation in the most emotional, extreme terms possible to elicit a response – unless this really is the worst or best thing to happen in years – is a bit like yelling fire in a crowded theater. It's irresponsible. Either tone it down, or take it somewhere that everyone talks that way.

6. Grudges

In any discussion, there is a general expectation that everyone there is participating in good faith – that they have an open mind, no particular agenda, and no bias against the participants or the topic. While short term disagreement is fine, it's important that the people in your community have the ability to reset and approach each new topic with a clean(ish) slate. When you don't do that, when people carry ill will from previous discussions toward the participants or topic into new discussions, that's a grudge.

Example: Tad strongly disagrees with a decision the community made about not creating a new category to house some discussion he finds problematic. So he now views the other leaders in the community, and the moderators, with great distrust. Tad feels like the community has turned on him, and so he has soured on the community. But he has too much invested here to leave, so Tad now likes to point out all the consequences of this "bad" decision often, and cite it as an example of how the community is going wrong. He also follows another moderator, Steve, around because he views him as the ringleader of the original decision, and continually writes long, critical replies to his posts.

Grudges can easily lead to every other dark community pattern on this list. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to recognize grudges when they emerge so the community can intervene and point out what's happening, and all the negative consequences of a grudge. It's important in the broadest general life sense not to hold grudges; as the famous quote goes (as near as I can tell, attributed to Alcoholics Anonymous)

Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

So your community should be educating itself about the danger of grudges, the root of so many other community problems. But it is critically important that moderators never, and I mean never ever, hold grudges. That'd be disastrous.

What can you do?

I made a joke in the title of this post about weaponizing empathy. I'm not sure that's even possible. But you can start by having clear community guidelines, teaching your community to close the door on overt hate, and watching out for any overall empathy erosion caused by the six dark community behavior patterns I outlined above.

At the risk of sounding aspirational, here's one thing I know to be true, and I advise every community to take to heart: I expect you to act like a group of friends who care about each other, no matter how dumb some of us might be, no matter what political opinions some of us hold, no matter what things some of us like or dislike.

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Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: