Why I’m Optimistic About Our New Forum

Jessie Mannisto / March 8, 2021

We’re trying to cultivate a high-quality space for Third Factor’s intellectually engaged readers to develop meaningful connections and have robust discussions. So why is this so hard on Facebook? Our editor in chief ponders why our new forum, at least so far, seems to suit us better than Facebook.

It can be hard to find a good place for conversation online these days. Perhaps that’s why so many Third Factor readers tell us they’d like the magazine to offer some sort of community platform—a forum that pulls together people sharing enough to connect, but with enough diversity to make it interesting.

Our first attempt at a forum opened in December 2019.  It was on Facebook, as we figured we ought to go where most people already were.

But though it did reasonably well, something was lacking.  Though a lot of lovely people joined our group, logging on to Facebook felt like a chore.  Something about the platform seemed to be getting in the way of healthy, meaningful connection.

As more and more participants told me that they felt the same, we began to consider other options.  Now I’m happy to report that I think we’ve found a platform that will work much better for us.  At least, that’s the verdict of the group of volunteers who have been beta-testing it for the past couple months. It’s early yet; problems may well creep in as we grow.

And yet, it still seems worth asking, for anyone who engages in social media: why has this platform worked better for us?

I figure it’s because of what we’re missing, and why we’re missing it.

Adrift on Facebook’s Raging, Lonely River

The thing is, if you want to have a certain type of conversation, you need some kind of shared purpose and values.  You’ll also usually be talking to a known, specific audience (whether that audience is a single person or a group), so you can tailor your message to them.  That’s how we form satisfying connections. We don’t just shout to everyone we know at once.

But that’s not how Facebook works.  It’s a raging river of mental traffic in which you’re talking to everyone and no one in particular.

But what about Facebook groups? you might ask.  After all, those people all had a shared interest, or they wouldn’t have joined the group.

I thought so too, early on. But now here’s what I think: Facebook groups are like trying to host a club by pulling together a group of kayaks in the midst of that raging algorithmic river.  Each user saw the group’s posts mixed in with all manner of other noise—noise that may have distracted or even agitated them.  Many of our members (including me) found it hard to set aside the habits of engagement they’d developed for the River Facebook as a whole and apply a different set of habits to a group that was floating in the middle of it.  It was tough to set aside the negative emotions you felt when Aunt Krystal posted something that pushed your buttons, even if she wasn’t a member of the group.

Moreover (and our members may not realize this, not having been on the moderating end), people very often came by and joined without really knowing what our group was about.  You know those questions you get asked when joining a new group, and that box you have to check saying you’ve read and agree to the rules?  You might be surprised (I certainly was) to learn how few people answer those.  When they did, their answers often indicated that they quite misunderstood what the group was about. They just saw that group of kayakers and just latched on hopefully.

And so there we were: a group of people looking for connection, trying to hold together a group of kayaks in the rapids of Facebook while dodging a barge steered by Captain Aunt Krystal.

Why Circle Is Better Than Facebook

Our Facebook group was a good first attempt.  But it wasn’t living up to my standards.  And it was clear to me that the medium was the primary reason.

So I sprang for a Circle membership.  It’s not cheap; it was a leap of faith based on a gut instinct (and a suggestion from a regular contributor to our Facebook group—thanks, Ralph!)  But so far, it seems my gut (and Ralph’s experience) were good guides.  Far from the chore it used to be to paddle through Facebook’s rapids, I actually want to log in and engage in this space.

But why?  Why is this more fun? I’ve given it some thought, and I have some theories.

Active Opt-In

First, this is a small community that actually made the choice to be here and engage.  And they did so knowing what the forum was all about.

Now, the metaphor is no longer a raging river; it’s now a small, independent cafe.  Members of the new forum come and sit down intentionally at one of our tables, order a pot of tea or a cup of coffee, and wait for fellow members of the club to show up.

In keeping with this active opt-in, I should note that we’ve implemented a small monthly charge for participation.  The platform is not free; the cafe must pay its rent.  So we’re now asking for a $2/month minimum contribution through Patreon or PayPal to join.  (If this is truly not possible for you but you want to join us, we do have community sponsored spaces, funded by generous patrons paying over that rate each month.)

A Better Blend of On-Topic and Off-Topic

When fellow members arrive at this cafe, they come with an understanding of what they’ve signed up for.  They stick to the general topics and values—while at the same time, making room for spontaneity and digression.

I’ve come to see this balance as essential to building a quality online community.  See, people often feel annoyed when others in a narrowly-defined Facebook group go off topic.  You don’t need more detritus in your algorithmic river, let alone from strangers who don’t even know you and don’t care to.

When it comes to getting to know the fellow patrons of that independent cafe, however, you don’t just want to limit your conversation that much. On the contrary: you want to be able to build your knowledge of the full human being behind the posts.

That’s why our community has subforums: one each devoted to intellectual parsing, emotional exploration, and creative pursuits, as well as one to discuss the magazine content in general.  But it also has one where you can share whatever excites you—just toss out what brings you joy.  You never know: maybe someone else who shares your excitement will come along.

And even if you don’t share another member’s interest, these sort of posts help flesh out the person who shares them.  Though it takes time and investment, members won’t only know each other through their takes on the narrow topic at hand.  That’s important to building a platform for meaningful connection.

Less Time Pressure

Then there’s the issue of time pressure.  Not able to jump in the river the moment a particularly interesting boat sails by?  That’s not a problem with our new forum.  The Circle platform offers subject headings that you can click on if they interest you.  If you don’t have time to reply to them now, they’ll still be there tomorrow.  Or next week.  Heck, you can dig up an old one months later, if you want to.

This isn’t just about convenience; it’s about quality.  See, this slower pace supports both an emotional buffer and deeper analysis—and that, I hope, will encourage more of the good and less of the bad. If you want to write a robust response to something in the analytical subforum, you can do that when you finally have the time.  And if something stirs up your emotions, you can step away for as long as you need and come back if and when the time is right.

Should You Join Us?

“Go to where you are kindest.” So says Silicon Valley insider-but-contrarian Jaron Lanier in his excellent little book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.  He makes it clear that he doesn’t think online social media necessarily has to be done badly; he just thinks that our current major social media platforms have been shaped by forces that led them to do a terrible job.

Go to where you are kindest.

Jaron Lanier

As a fan of Lanier’s work, I like to think we’re making progress toward what he’s calling for.  One of our beta-testing members had this to say after trying out the new forum:

So I’ve just spent WAY more time on Circle than I would have on fb… but it’s because there is so much more vulnerability and depth there. I really felt compelled to read every introduction and then take some time to be thoughtful and intentional with my own. People’s stories are so interesting! It really led me to slow down a bit. I didn’t have time to get to the other threads tonight (nor share my post), but I’m eager to go back. This is great, because I’m looking forward to some really high quality engagement and meaningful relationship. On the other hand, it will require me to be much more intentional and scheduled with the time I spend there. No more “fly-by” comments.

Of course, one thing this observation makes clear is that it does take an investment of time to participate here. So you have to ask yourself this: in a world saturated with demands on your time and attention: why join this community, out of all the communities you could join?  The only good reason is because it’s offering something specific, and that’s something you want.

So I’ll conclude here by reiterating our mission statement.  Among our highest values are critical thinking and courage.  We are all about parrhesia—about fearless speech—as well as magnanimity, defined by Merriam-Webster as loftiness of spirit enabling one to bear trouble calmly, to disdain meanness and pettiness, and to display a noble generosity.  I ask everyone in the forum to strive to uphold this value.

In other words, to adopt an excellent framing by writer Angel Eduardo, we ask our members to practice star-manning:

To star-man is to not only engage with the most charitable version of your opponent’s argument, but also with the most charitable version of your opponent, by acknowledging their good intentions and your shared desires despite your disagreements.

This is a new project.  There’s still much shaping left to do.  It’s not guaranteed that we’ll succeed.  But it’s off to a great start, and we’re giving it our best shot.

If you’d like to join us, here’s the information you need.

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