Tech

The Secret to Great Online Communities

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

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

One essential ingredient is people like Kate Bilowitz.

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

You might imagine raging shout fests, but I’ve been watching 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’ve gotten teary reading the compassionate replies to someone worried about Covid vaccinations harming a loved one recovering from cancer.

Vaccine Talk isn’t perfect, and the group’s work is fraught. Facebook acknowledges that Vaccine Talk is the kind of group that it wants on its site, but Bilowitz told me that the group’s overseers 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 gathering, 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 one step to bring them more notice.

Vaccine Talk is a time-consuming labor. Bilowitz, who is a parent and works in real estate, said that she spent roughly 10 to 15 hours a week on the Facebook group. I asked why she devoted so much time to a volunteer role in which she’s occasionally yelled at by strangers.

“It is extremely rewarding when people tell us that the group helped them,” Bilowitz said. “We’re not here to preach at people, but when people are hesitant about vaccines and they find information that helps them become confident in their decision — honestly, that is the No. 1 reason why we do this.”

The irony of building great online communities is that if they’re working, they can seem effortless. They definitely are not. Bilowitz said the overseers of Vaccine Talk, like others who run online groups, worked hard to forge a healthy culture and design and enforce codes of conduct.

Vaccine Talk started more than four years ago and focused mostly on childhood vaccines like measles. The initial idea was to be a place for anything-goes conversations. “That did not work,” Bilowitz said. “It was not a civil discussion forum.” Many people — particularly those in the vast middle between strongly pro- or anti-vaccine views — tuned out.

Now, rules require people to be respectful, and the group offers tips on how to effectively back up claims with evidence. “Excessive complaining” about the group or how it’s run is off limits. Nearly 30 moderators scattered across multiple time zones keep a close watch on the comments and approve newcomers who want to join the group, which has about 77,000 members.

Bilowitz knows that some people feel stifled by Vaccine Talk’s guardrails, but she considers them essential for productive conversation.

The dangers of false information about vaccines complicate the group’s work and Facebook’s. To try to counter misinformation on its site, Facebook has rules against posting information on vaccines that fact-checking groups or health authorities consider false. But this poses a challenge to groups like Vaccine Talk, where people may sometimes post misinformation to get help debunking 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 the company’s policies against misinformation. Facebook told me it was aware that the group was taken down once, and said it was a mistake.

Understand the Facebook Papers


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A tech giant in trouble. The leak of internal documents by a former Facebook employee has provided an intimate look at the operations of the secretive social media company and renewed calls for better regulations of the company’s wide reach into the lives of its users.

How it began. In September, The Wall Street Journal published The Facebook Files, a series of reports based on leaked documents. The series exposed evidence that Facebook, which on Oct. 28 assumed the corporate name of Meta, knew Instagram, one of its products was worsening body-image issues among teenagers.

The whistle-blower. During an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired Oct. 3, Frances Haugen, a Facebook product manager who left the company in May, revealed that she was responsible for the leak of those internal documents.

Ms. Haugen’s testimony in Congress. On Oct. 5, Ms. Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee, saying that Facebook was willing to use hateful and harmful content on its site to keep users coming back. Facebook executives, including Mark Zuckerberg, called her accusations untrue.

The Facebook Papers. Ms. Haugen also filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided the documents to Congress in redacted form. A congressional staff member then supplied the documents, known as the Facebook Papers, to several news organizations, including The New York Times.

New revelations. Documents from the Facebook Papers show the degree to which Facebook knew of extremist groups on its site trying to polarize American voters before the election. They also reveal that internal researchers had repeatedly determined how Facebook’s key features amplified toxic content on the platform.

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

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

We also have a group chat on Slack, where you can talk with fellow readers about the changing role of technology in your life. You will get an invite to the group once you sign up for the event.

If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here.


Before we go …

  • ARE YOU EXCITED, GAMERS?! Microsoft on Monday surprised fans by releasing a portion of the next iteration of Halo, the popular Xbox video game. My colleague Kellen Browning explains what’s at stake for Microsoft with the first new version of Halo in more than five years.

    Plus: Fortnite gave up on China. It’s a warning for other companies eager to reach the country’s video-game-playing masses, Bloomberg News writes.

  • Alexander the Great also had “TikTok hair.” You might have seen a voluminous hairdo of fluffy waves or curls that has become popular with young men from TikTok tutorials. My colleague Danya Issawi traces the ancient origins of this specific hairdo “cycled through history many a time.”

  • “Super recognizers,” or humans with an unusual ability to remember faces and identify people in a crowd, have been doing a better job in London than facial recognition technology, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist explains.

Hugs to this

This is what it’s like to take a power walk with a porcupine. Don’t miss this pointy pal (reluctantly) hopping up a set of stairs.


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