Why do Some Online Communities Become Toxic?






Olivier Sibai, Marius Luedicke, and Kristine de Valck recently published a new JCR paper that highlights the conditions under which online consumption communities become riddled by toxic verbal violence. I asked the authors to summarize their findings. Here’s an overview of this fascinating look into consumption communities.

Online consumption communities are places where people come together around shared interests in products, brands, and consumption practices. While these communities offer social connections and a sense of belonging, they are not always peaceful. Verbal violence, such as hate, harassment, and trolling, can become commonplace in online consumption communities, a phenomenon we theorize as community brutalization.

The study takes a deep dive into 18 years in the life of a London-based electronic dance music community that has been plagued by recurring violence. This extensive (n)ethnographic research aimed to unravel the complex dynamics at play within the community and to shed light on why community members who are peaceful in real life resort to verbal violence in the online world.

The study uncovered three brutalizing constellations of direct, structural and cultural violence that drive the brutalization of communities online: sadistic entertainment, clan warfare and vigilante justice.

Sadistic entertainment

Within online consumption communities, members sometimes engage in verbal attacks purely for amusement, relishing in inflicting harm on others or watching others being harmed – a form of twisted entertainment we call blood games. Blood games become commonplace when members’ desire for entertainment is persistently frustrated. Narratives of harmless play then emerge, minimizing the seriousness of what is happening (“it’s just online, it’s not real”) and members develop a Darwinian relationship that promotes the survival of the funniest. In this context, most participants (with the exception of the victim) experience fights as harmless games in which no one is really harmed. “The moderators hardly do anything about it because these fights can revitalise the community at the expense of individuals and the consequences only become visible later” explains Marius.

Clan warfare

Over time, communities often fragment into rival clans, each vying for dominance and status. Clan warfare develops in the community when one higher status clan becomes tyrannical, exaggerating its mandate to govern and systematically abusing its superior influence to silence the less influential clans. Narratives of cultural degradation then take hold, with the tyrannic clan justifying its use of verbal violence as a means of protecting the community’s culture against unwelcome intruders, while oppressed clans justify violence as a means to gain recognition. Status battles then multiply, with competing clans enacting protracted verbally violent conflicts to impose their views on which consumption practices, norms, and values should (not) be valued in the community. This division breeds contempt and animosity towards opposing groups, fueling a cycle of denigration and conflict.

Popular justice

Many online consumption communities have weak governance systems, with very limited moderation resources to regulate members whose behavior disrupts community life. In this context, members see themselves as having the right and the duty to enforce the community guidelines themselves – by means of verbal violence. They engage in in vigilante behaviors we call verbal lynchings: the (alleged or actual) offenders are insulted and humiliated until they leave the online community.  This sometimes goes so far as death threats. Within the community, vigilante behavior is legitimised by narratives framing victims’ treatment as just punishment for their behaviour.

These findings challenge the prevailing notion that consumption communities are inherently prosocial and highlight the darker undercurrents that can emerge within these online spaces. The study also examines the factors that contribute to the vulnerability of certain communities to brutalization, including their focus, homogeneity, and governance structures.

At least one result of the study gives cause for optimism: the toxic behaviour in the forum studied was confined to the online world, with little spillover into offline contexts. This can be attributed to the stronger social structures and accountability mechanisms that exist in face-to-face interactions.

To mitigate brutalization, the authors propose a multifaceted approach that addresses direct, structural, and cultural forms of violence. This includes taking decisive action against violent behaviors, promoting alternative forms of entertainment and debate that do not rely on harm, and fostering more democratic social structures within the community.

The implications of these findings extend beyond the confines of online consumption communities, offering valuable insights into broader social media interactions. Similar patterns of brutalization can be observed on social media platforms, where unmet desires for entertainment, status, and justice can fuel toxic behaviors.

Ultimately, understanding and addressing the dynamics of brutalization within online consumption communities is essential to cultivating a more civil and inclusive online environment. By identifying and addressing the root causes of verbal violence, communities can work towards fostering healthier and more respectful interactions among their members.

Read the full paper:

Why Online Consumption Communities Brutalize

Olivier Sibai, Marius K Luedicke, Kristine de Valck

Journal of Consumer Research, ucac022, https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucae022