We study the changes in emotional states induced by reading and participating in online discussions, empirically testing a computational model of online emotional interaction. Using principles of dynamical systems, we quantify changes in valence and arousal through subjective reports, as recorded in three independent studies including 207 participants (110 female). In the context of online discussions, the dynamics of valence and arousal is composed of two forces: an internal relaxation towards baseline values independent of the emotional charge of the discussion and a driving force of emotional states that depends on the content of the discussion. The dynamics of valence show the existence of positive and negative tendencies, while arousal increases when reading emotional content regardless of its polarity. The tendency of participants to take part in the discussion increases with positive arousal. When participating in an online discussion, the content of participants’ expression depends on their valence, and their arousal significantly decreases afterwards as a regulation mechanism. We illustrate how these results allow the design of agent-based models to reproduce and analyse emotions in online communities. Our work empirically validates the microdynamics of a model of online collective emotions, bridging online data analysis with research in the laboratory.