Ugly on the Surface: The Online Polyamory Community vs. Reality

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Photo by  darkday / CC BY 2.0

The other day, I read a hilariously off the rails opinion piece criticizing the polyamory community for being too inclusive and engaging in identity politics, touting these things as harbingers of doom for polyamory. While I could certainly spend an entire entry ripping apart the notion that it’s a bad thing that there’s too many different people bringing their own ideals of how to be polyamorous and that marginalized groups are trying to get their two cents in is a problem, I can’t remember where I read the article and I’m not going to try to pick it apart from memory.

Instead, I’m going to write about a thought that occurred to me while I was reading the article. That the online polyamory community is not an accurate reflection of what the polyamory community is actually like. It feels like that should be stating the obvious, but there are a few key things that some people seem to miss about being a part of the online polyamory community.

  1. People are much more apt to aggressively soap box for their ideologies online.
  2. Controversial posts and arguments tend to generate a much larger number of comments. Positive posts rarely elicit a great deal of commenting back and forth.
  3. There are people for whom shit stirring online is a hobby.
  4. Facebook’s algorithms are inclined to keep shoving heavily commented on posts into your face via your feed so that you’ll see the same argument a dozen times while a dozen more positive posts will slip right by unseen.
  5. People arguing isn’t always a bad thing. Exchanging ideas is often a good thing, even when people can get a little overly passionate about advocating their point of view or are closed to other people’s points of view. Even when two stubborn assholes are going at it with no chance of either of them actually listening to the other, there’s an audience who that can possibly absorb both sides of the argument more objectively.

No, the polyamory community isn’t ever going to see eye to eye with itself over some things. What group that large does? I’m pretty sure there’s at least three major warring factions among Feminists and they’re still a larger and more powerful cultural force than polyamory can hope to be anytime soon, because ultimately for all the disagreements their goals overlap enough that they can generally come together for the important things. They’re not going away.

The polyamory community is the same. Some relationship anarchists might not be terribly supportive of the hierarchical polyamorists’ style of relationship on a philosophical level, but that won’t stop them from standing up for a FMF triad who is fighting against moralizing authorities trying to take their children over their relationship dynamic. We may bicker, but in the end we’re still a community and we still look out for each other where it counts, even when we can be judgmental pricks about how much more right our relationship paradigm is than someone else’s.

Most importantly, I can’t think of a single time in the two decades I’ve been proactively a part of any meat world polyamory community that I’ve been witness to any but the most civil of disagreements about ethical non-monogamy. I’ve yet to see people start viciously  ripping into a couple that talk about how they’re looking for a third to complete them. Online, I see so many newcomers to polyamory torn to shreds by people reacting with aggressive hostility towards their naivety, while any face to face gathering of polyamorous people I’ve been a part of has always been friendly and welcoming to people taking their first steps out of the monogamy box.

To have the best experience in the online polyamory community, I think it’s useful to keep the following in mind.

1. Take negative feedback with a grain of salt.

It’s good to consider constructive criticism, even if we ultimately don’t agree with it, but if someone’s riding on a high horse and being an asshole there’s not much point in even paying attention to them, much less getting emotionally invested in an argument with them.  Certainly don’t let such people dominate your experience within the community, because as long as you’re not an asshole yourself you can find plenty of non-asshole polyamorous people to engage in much more pleasant and constructive ways.

2. Be careful about how you give negative feedback.

I’m not going to tell you to never be critical of other people’s ideals, but do avoid being a dick about. It’s not like anyone is going to attribute much value to your opinion if you piss them off while expressing it. If you’re going to say something negative, it’s good to consider whether you’d phrase it in the same way if you were face to face with someone. If not, then you’re probably being an asshole. This measure of course only works if you’re not an asshole in real life too, instead of one of the many people who feel more confident behind a keyboard while simultaneously gaining a level of detachment from the idea that they’re talking to actual people that combines into a particular kind of callousness. It can be hard to maintain empathy for people you’re interacting with through a screen, but for civility’s sake try.

3. Don’t project  your own baggage onto someone else. Something you see a lot of in polyamory discussion groups is people who had an experience with an abusive relationship of a certain sort and they characterize all relationships of that sort as abusive rather than considering that what made the relationship abusive was the people they were involved with and not the style of the relationship.

There’s no such thing as a relationship style immune to potential abuse with the wrong partner, nor are there a lot of consensual relationship styles that don’t have the potential to be healthy and fulfilling with the right partners. So acting as though you can judge people solely by the kind of relationship they’re in or seeking is pretty shitty.

4. Look for well moderated groups. When left to their own devices, polyamory groups tend to be absolutely overrun with posts that are essentially personal ads. One of the most common frustrations in polyamory is finding suitable partners so without anything to rein that in, polyamory groups are among the thirstiest places on the internet. Which of course means that the other half of the posts become about people complaining about all those posts.  If you want to have meaningful conversations with other ethical non-monogamists, it’s best to find groups that have rules in place to prevent personal ads and admins that enforce those rules.

Anyway…

To get back to my original point, despite how ugly the online polyamory community can look on the surface, the polyamory community as a whole is doing just fine. While we can certainly stand to improve, we are thriving and expanding like crazy. Of course there are going to be some growing pains. That’s to be expected. However, I have seen no evidence that there’s anything to be worried about. The occasional online flame war isn’t going to burn the polyamory community to the ground anymore than any other community has been brought to its knees because its members argue online a lot. Sci-fi fandom? Sports enthusiasts? I’m pretty sure if the internet had been around in the 18th century, people would be flaming each other over Mozart.

Hell, there are probably people right now flaming each other over Mozart. Music fans are among the worst for shit talking each others tastes.  Yet music lives on and so will polyamory.

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