Digital dialogues: online community exiles

Happy days!

A new book that I’ve contributed a chapter to has landed on my doorstep.

The book is Digital Dialogue and Community 2.0: After avatars, trolls and puppets, from Chandos, and it examines the impact of technology on the boundaries between connection, consciousness and community.

My contribution is drawn from my study of online commmunites and emphasises that a thriving social system will inevitably produce marginalisations and exclusions.

It recognises that we cast and define ourselves in the reflection of others – their presence, their absence, their sameness or their otherness. Many a community is forged by a shared definition of what its members are not.

And it calls out a social actor in online communities very real to many community managers and community members – the outcast turned serial pest.

Few among us haven’t heard of trolls. Community managers spend a great deal of time whacking them for the preservation of social harmony and sanity. Though they provide their own kind of, arguably necessary, social theatre for a collective, they are otherwise a casual force. Their tactics are drive-by and motivated by optimal lulz, irrespective of surrounds and personalities.

Established, bounded online communities (such as forums and virtual worlds) have their share of drop in trolls and sock puppets (the latter can sometimes be members looking to play identity dress ups out of boredom). But they also have exiles – former community members who are no longer welcome in that community, occasionally by their own volition, usually because of some gross infraction that causes them to be permanently expelled.

These are effectively macro-trolls; individuals who are so tethered to community identity that they cannot, or will not, let the group go once they are no longer welcome.

They have a bounded relationship to the entire community and will not go elsewhere to wreak havoc. As a one time member of the group, they are intimately familiar with the most effective ways to disrupt social fabric and community cohesion. They leverage the liquid identity of the web as a weapon and fill the role of parasite to the host ecosystem.

These characters are underwritten and uncomfortable to discuss. Based on lived experience and ethnographic work with fellow online community managers who look after discrete, sustained communities, I take a closer look at this character, and argue that they’re also inevitable, in an authentic social ecosystem, and can’t be “designed out”.

They’re not imperfections, or mistakes, they’re a natural, generative outcome of a community with a shared history over time. However, they are often resilient and may threaten social health, so we need talk more about their existence and how to negotiate them.

Some online communities have already been around 20 years. Many more will have long lives that transcend their original purpose or objective. As we increasingly conduct ourselves in these environments, we need to realise that there are real people behind those screens and devices and real consquences of virtually mediated ties.

I’d encourage online community managers to read Digital Dialogues, as there’s many great chapters from scholars that will challenge your assumptions and give you some great insights into your work.

And write your own books! We need more practitioner voices in our intellectual echo chambers – and vice versa.

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