Online Communities and suppression of diverse viewpoints

Message boards are all over the web. They have been around ever since the Internet was invented – right from BBS’ and dial-up modems to now. Having worked extensively with one of the most visible message boards on one of the highest profile websites on the web for better part of a decade, I know the complexities that come with managing them. It is important to maintain good discussion standards. Its especially hard when a bunch of anonymous strangers are involved on the Internet.

One of the hardest aspects of running a message board is to protect diverse viewpoints. Typically people with similar opinions try suppressing opposing or even slightly differing view points. They use different techniques to achieve this goal based on the features that the message board offers. A lot of message boards offer the ability to rate comments by up voting or down voting. A comment that attracts a lot of down votes is usually considered poor content and usually hidden. Most message boards use a karma like feature to decide who gets to downvote. A lot of online communities employ this feature viz. StackOverflow, Hacker News, etc. Usually users with high karma are trusted users. They’re expected to maintain good quality discussions and flag poor content.

In theory this is expected to work well. However, in practice it doesn’t. The main issue is that people with high karma are also human beings. They have their own biases and may not value a diverse (opposing) viewpoint. When you have a high concentration of such individuals, I guarantee that diverse viewpoints cannot surface. I have observed this not only on HackerNews but also StackOverflow. Unsurprisingly, most people on these message boards do not consider this to be a serious issue. They think the system is perfect >_< Do you see the irony in this?

The prime reason this is an issue is that the people who have attained the privilege do so by being similar to those who already have that privilege. Unless the group recognizes this as an issue and makes attempts an injecting more diverse viewpoints it becomes a difficult issue to resolve. Addition of more members with same viewpoints only reinforces the group’s flawed belief systems. This lack of diversity makes the group extremely closed to new ideas and opinions ultimately leading to failure as they cannot adapt to changing times or cultural norms. This similar to what happens when a gene pool lacks genetic diversity usually leading to weaker offsprings and ultimate collapse of the population.

This is not to say that StackOverlow or HackerNews are bound to fail. They are good places to find information but as online communities they fail to respect diverse viewpoints and are unwilling to see it.


Senior Software Engineer @ Apple | ex-Yahoo Finance Eng | Distributed Computing @ Georgia Tech | Python, Java | Scalability, ML/AI, C* | 🇮🇳 | Opinions mine only

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