Fostering Meaningful Discussion in Low Trust Environments

In May of 2020, I took over a dead sub for my small town of Aberdeen, Washington called r/aberdeenwa. I think it had like 9 members when I found it. Membership currently sits at 126.

This sub got off to a rocky start when a troll joined day one. After a few months, this blew up and I banned three people in short order and then took the sub private to prevent that negative pattern from growing unchecked while I sorted my thoughts and came up with a plan for how to handle things.

When I re-opened it, I posted a note of explanation and began reshaping the forum. Step one: Go through everything I had ever posted and remove things that didn't fit with my new, clearer vision of what I wanted to do with this space.

What you leave out can be as important as what you leave in for shaping a space. This is non-obvious and also non-trivial. Subtracting problem content helped reshape the tone of the space.

I also began posting original content of my own on a regular basis.

I try to take photos of the town when I am out and about. I try to think up an angle and kind of tell a story mostly in photos.
  • No personal attacks allowed. It's a small town. That stuff really sticks and wants to not die once it gets started.
  • I want to both keep it real and stay positive, which is challenging but do-able.
  • The difference between positive and negative is often a matter of framing more than subject matter per se.
I take a lot of photos. Some turn out badly for various reasons. I absolutely do not post all of my photos to the sub.

I try to be a little choosy, though that might not be obvious because I don't have a professional level camera and these are not "award winning" type photos. They mostly look pretty ordinary but not terrible.

I initially would post a few photos and then leave a long wordy comment. I have slowly moved towards limiting my written content to the title, captions and a link as supported by the Reddit interface.

It's a different form of telling a story or connecting people to information than what I am used to doing, but it is working better than what I had been doing.

I tend to be a talker and one of the downsides is that people think I am trying to make everything about me rather trying to explain something. There is a history of people taking an excess, lurid interest in me as an individual and it's problematic for me and also undermines my actual goals of getting eyes on the subject matter insted of eyes on me.

Leaving photos, a title, caption and link seems to help avoid that. It helps keep the focus on the place in question rather than on the person presenting the info.

This sub is about a place, not a person. It's not intended to be a means for me personally to make friends or solve my own loneliness or something like that.

So the goal is to make people feel comfortable talking there, which began with just rooting out a lot of negative stuff in part because a troll had taken an interest in the space. But at the same time I don't want this to be about people feeling strongly connected to me and like I am the reason to be there, even though I am currently providing most of the content.

So how do you do that? How do you be the person posting a lot and actively avoid making it about you as an individual?

I am pursuing a practice I think of as side-by-side conversations rather than face-to-face conversations.

Face-to-face conversations work fine for people who know each other well, are comfortable with each other and trust each other. They don't work so well with people you barely know or for touchy subjects where people don't feel secure that you will really respect them, care about them and help them.

You have to lower the level of interpersonal engagement and help people be in the same space together comfortably without all being good friends. You have to make it possible to engage together with a specific shared interest without the people part getting in the way.

My mental model for side-by-side conversation comes from experiences like riding in cars with people I didn't know well. People are often very chatty sitting side-by-side in a car, not looking at each other, secure that there are inherent limits on how much time you have together, how much you can physically interact and so forth.

It also comes from being able to sometimes sort out hard problems by talking them over while engaging in a shared activity, such as washing dishes, rather than sitting down face-to-face to confront the topic and each other in direct conversation.

Side-by-side conversation gives people mental and emotional maneuvering room to interact with the topic and not feel like they need to fight against the other person's ideas every step of the way. It actively disengages from the inerpersonal part and puts the focus elsewhere.

This helps remove some of the interpersonal power dynamics and questions of intimacy. It helps make it about just sharing information about a particular topic and less about the people involved and their relationship to each other.

It helps take away the idea that "I am telling you something that I expect you to act upon or care about." It helps make it "I am just expressing myself here and not expecting a particular reaction."

Fostering the ability of other people to express themselves helped lead to Project Bike Rack. I feel very satisfied with how things are going so far.


The sub r/aberdeenwa has gone through more changes since this post was written. As of February 2023, it is positioned as a photo album.

The Project Bike Rack page was updated at some point to Cycling Infrastructure.

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