The secret behind large online communities

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of previous columns.

We know that gatherings of people on the Internet can be either witty and insensitive or accommodating and informative. On Tech is hosting a virtual event this week for New York Times subscribers to talk about what makes healthy online communities tick and how to get more of them.

An essential ingredient is people like Kate Bilowitz.

Bilowitz is the co-founder of a Facebook group called Vaccine Talk, which describes itself as an “evidence-based discussion forum” for people with different beliefs about vaccinations to better understand each other.

You might imagine furious shouting parties, but I’ve seen Vaccine Talk since I read about the group in The Washington Post, and I’ve mostly seen discussions that are empathetic, civil, and nuanced. I have shed tears by reading the compassionate answers to someone who is concerned about Covid vaccinations harming a loved one recovering from cancer.

Vaccine Talk is not perfect and the group’s work is full. Facebook recognizes that Vaccine Talk is the kind of group they want on its site, but Bilowitz told me that the group’s supervisors are constantly worried about being shut down. (More on that in a minute.)

Vaccine Talk shows that our online experiences are shaped by the people who run our favorite Facebook group, Nextdoor neighborhood collection, Reddit parenting forum, or Discord book group.

In my ideal world, the best online community hosts would be as famous as Mark Zuckerberg. Consider this newsletter as a step to give them more notice.

Vaccine Talk is a time consuming job. Bilowitz, who is a parent and works in real estate, said she spent about 10 to 15 hours a week on the Facebook group. I asked why she devoted so much time to a volunteer role where she is occasionally shouted at by strangers.

“It’s extremely rewarding when people tell us the group helped them,” Bilowitz said. “We are not here to preach to people, but when people are hesitant about vaccines and they find information that helps them be confident in their decision – honestly, that’s the number one reason we do. this.”

The irony of building good online communities is that if they work, they can seem effortless. They certainly are not. Bilowitz said Vaccine Talk supervisors, like others who run online groups, worked hard to create a healthy culture and design and enforce codes of conduct.

Vaccine Talk started more than four years ago and focused mostly on childhood vaccines such as measles. The original idea was to be a place for everything that was supposed to be conversations. “It did not work,” Bilowitz said. “It was not a civilian discussion forum.” Many people – especially those in the middle between strongly pro- or anti-vaccine views – tuned out.

Now the rules require people to be respectful, and the group offers tips on how to effectively support claims with evidence. “Excessive complaints” about the group, or how it is run, are not allowed. Nearly 30 moderators spread across multiple time zones keep a close eye on the comments and approve newcomers who want to join the group, which has about 77,000 members.

Bilowitz knows that some people feel suffocated by Vaccine Talk’s crash barriers, but she considers them crucial to a productive conversation.

The dangers of false information about vaccines complicate the work of the group and Facebook. To try to counter misinformation on its website, Facebook has rules against publishing information about vaccines that fact-checking groups or health authorities consider fake. But this poses a challenge for groups like Vaccine Talk, where people can sometimes post misinformation to get help revealing it – something that is allowed in Facebook’s rules.

Bilowitz said that twice this year, Facebook disabled Vaccine Talk for several hours as a punishment for violating company policies against misinformation. Facebook told me it was aware that the group was removed once, and said it was a mistake.

A Facebook spokesman, Leonard Lam, told me there was “more the company can do to support well-meaning communities like Vaccine Talk.”

You will hear more from Bilowitz along with a founder of Reddit and a famous drag artist at the On Tech event on Thursday. I hope you will join me to better understand the work of people like her who shape technology into the lived reality of the rest of us.

We also have a group chat on Slack where you can talk to other readers about the changing role of technology in your life. You will receive an invitation to the group when you sign up for the event.

If you are not already receiving this newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.


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