Co-rumination: why you can’t let commiseration drag down your community

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girl talk

In 2007, I founded an online community component of my website, Offbeat Bride. The goal with the Offbeat Bride Tribe was to give people planning nontraditional weddings a venue to network, share inspiration, and compare notes.

Inevitably, I knew some of the notes being compared would be frustration and anger. Planning any wedding can be a difficult process, but when you’re planning a non-traditional wedding, there’s the added challenge of family conflict and swimming upstream against cultural norms and traditions.

I knew that I wanted to keep the community from spiraling into a cess-pool of negativity, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. “Let’s keep things constructive!” I’d shout into the growing storm of venting and rants. I worried that new members joining the community would be walking into the digital equivalent of a grumpy shouting match, and that instead of inspiration they’d be finding a chorus of people shouting “Everything suuuuucks!”

It wasn’t until I read a New York Times article about a psychology concept called “co-rumination” that I finally had a word to attach to spiral of negativity that can drag down online communities:

The term researchers use is “co-rumination” to describe frequently or obsessively discussing the same problem. The behavior is typical among teens — Why didn’t he call? Should I break up with him? And, psychologists say, it has intensified significantly with e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging and Facebook. And in certain cases it can spin into a potentially contagious and unhealthy emotional angst, experts say.

The research distinguishes between sharing or “self-disclosure,” which is associated with positive friendships and positive feelings, and dwelling on problems, concerns and frustrations. Dwelling and rehashing issues can keep women, who are more prone to depression and anxiety than men, stuck in negative thinking patterns, psychologists say.

While the article specifically addresses how young women are prone to the dangers of co-rumination, I strongly believe that the concept can be applied to any online community.

Co-rumination is highly contagious. When your members see each other using your community as a platform to vent and rant, they want to join in either by chiming “me to!” or by practicing grievance one-upsmanship, with members crowing, “Oh, you think YOU’VE got it bad!? Take a listen to this…”

Before you know it, your online community can from a platform for sharing and networking to a circle jerk of complaints and anger, filled with tooth-gnashing and arm waving at the awfulness and injustice of positively everything.

Now of course there are some communities where this kind of conversation is perfect appropriate — groups supporting people in times of grief or loss, or consumer communities about tracking frustrations. In some communities, commiseration is just fine.

But many online communities, co-rumination can lead the tone of the group into a downward spiraling, creating a grumbling, grinching negative space where more interesting conversation is ignored in leiu of “Yeah, I hate that too!” and “Listen to how bad *I* have it.”

I dealt with the challenge by creating a very specific sub-section of my online community for negative discussion. The sub-group is called “Bridal Bitching,” and I’m clear with all my new members that THAT’S the one place where they can vent and complain all they want. The rest of the community is focused on supporting each other and celebrating inspiration. The “Bridal Bitching” group is a darker corner of the website, but members know what they’re in for when they click into the group.

Of course, it shouldn’t be any surprise that “Bridal Bitching” is the most popular sub-group in the Offbeat Bride community. People love complaining and sharing their frustrations, and it would be a thankless task to try to eliminate negative discussion completely. The key is to give your members a way to do so that doesn’t drag the rest of your community down.

UPDATE: a few years after this was written, I eliminated the Bridal Bitching part of the Tribe. Here’s why.

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