Imagine a place on the internet where a post that begins with “I’m not a feminist” is met with comments quoting Virginia Woolf and asking serious, clarifying questions. A place where a conversation about gun-control legislation unfurls into a thread of analogies, statistics, and self-reflection; where a discussion on the benefits and drawbacks of immigration is carried out in a series of building logical arguments. A place where users with radically different political opinions interact productively and politely, where a willingness to participate thoughtfully is the rule rather than the exception, and where people readily admit when their views on a subject have been altered.
This vision seems like the stuff of technology fantasy; spend five minutes on the platforms that host most of the web’s political arguments, and you’re likely to find name-calling, bigotry, sarcasm, and stubborn assumption. It’s a rare thing to stumble on an online dispute about politics that hasn’t devolved into a furious and chaotic shouting match, where no one can make out what is being said for the noise.
But civil discourse does exist, at least in a small pocket of the internet. Reddit’s Change My View forum, founded in 2013 by Kal Turnbull, then a teenage musician in Scotland, is an online space that promotes respectful conversation between people who disagree with each other. Its mission statement says that the subreddit is “built around the idea that in order to resolve our differences, we must first understand them.” Turnbull says that he created Change My View because of what he saw as a lack of places to turn to if you wanted to discuss an issue with people who took the opposite perspective. There was social media, but the goal on those platforms was largely not to listen and engage in search of insight. He wanted the forum to be conversational—a way of learning about an issue that wasn’t limited to self-directed research. Because of the unique oasis that Change My View represents from the troll-stalked depths of the rest of the internet, a number of academic studies have used its data to analyze how persuasion and civility work online. It has also spawned a blog and a podcast.