My first experience with online communication was bulletin board systems in the early 90s. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The experience of running a blog is almost exactly the same as it was running a BBS 15 years ago. The only difference is the sheer number of channels available for communication.
Where there was once up to 100 to 200 local BBSes there are now so many online forums for communication that it might as well be infinite., New forums for communication are being created all the time. Mainstream sites like the New York Times let you comment on articles, and each person has their own discussion forum thanks to sites like Facebook and MySpace.
“When I was involved in the BBS/IRC scene as a teenager I was surrounded by flame wars; one-upmanship was part of the attraction. I thought it was because of the immaturity of the participants, but now I think it is a natural offshoot of digital communication. We lose all the visual and auditory cues that are a normal part of human dialog and instead focus on words that can be easy to misinterpret (especially if looking for a reason to fight).” quoting myself
Winter is one of the worst for flame wars because environmental conditions make people more irritable and more likely to spend more time online. Here are some tips for navigating online discussions from someone who has been participating and managing public forums for over 15 years.
Tips for Administrators
Tip #1: Disemvowel
From Wikipedia: “In the fields of Internet discussion and forum moderation, disemvoweling is the removal of vowels from text either as a method of self-censorship, or as a technique by forum moderators to censor Internet trolling and other unwanted posting. When used by a forum moderator, the net effect of disemvowelling text is to render it illegible or legible only through significant cognitive effort.
Xeni Jardin, co-editor of Boing Boing says of the practice, “the dialogue stays, but the misanthrope looks ridiculous, and the emotional sting is neutralized.”
This original sentence:
In the fields of Internet discussion and forum moderation, disemvoweling (also spelled disemvowelling) is the removal of vowels from text.
would be disemvowelled to look like this:
n th flds f ntrnt dscssn nd frm mdrtn, Dsmvwlng (ls splld dsmvwllng) s th rmvl f vwls frm txt.”
You can disemvowel any text using this tool. There is also a Firefox extension that lets you disemvowel comments if you’re a WordPress administrator. The same guy has a Firefox extension for handling religious trolls.
Tip #2: Temporarily disable comments for that post
This works well if you’ve been linked to from another site and it’s bringing a lot of tolls (IE: Digg, Slashdot). You can turn the comments on after a day or two without having to wade through the 100+ comments telling you how much of an idiot you are because they don’t agree with some minor minutiae of your argument.
Tip #3: Take the discussion to email
Nothing kills a flame war like removing the audience.
Quoting myself: “There is a different between scrawling messages on a public site and having a one on one conversation. The flame wars that are routine on some sites rarely exist in personal email. People stop being disembodied words and ideas and you remember that there is a person behind all of that typing.”
Comment Ninja is a handy Firefox extension for WordPress blog administrators that makes it easy to respond to commenters on your blog by email.
Tip #4: Never post personal information
Because you are an administrator, you have access to a commenters email address and their IP address. This information is usually enough to find out anything else you want to about who they are. (IE: put their email address into Facebook to find their real name, use their IP address to find out where they work)
It can be tempting to deal with a troll by removing their anonymity, but making it personal can change a one time nuisance into someone with a grudge that won’t go away.
Tips for Anyone
Tip #5: Let it stew
If something really gets your goat, then sit on it. Come back and re-read what bothered you later on and you may find that you were reading between the lines and interpreting an emotional undertone that isn’t there. The human mind is great at adding missing context, but it can also trick you into reading what you want to believe.
Revisiting something that filled you with rage days latter can leave you scratching your head trying to find what it was that pulled your chain.
Tip #6: Leave it where you found it
As I said earlier, it is ridiculously easy to collect personal identifying information about someone and find other parts of their online identity. Other than bringing a public argument to a private means of communication, you should leave the argument where you found it. Letting it spill over to other websites, or worse, following the person on to other aspects of their online identity makes you look like a stalker or a crazy person.
It doesn’t matter how justified you feel your actions are, the simple act of not being able to let go of things hurts your credibility.
Tip #7: Social proof is important
No matter how well reasoned your argument is, trying to convince someone of something they vehemently disbelieve in is next to impossible when they don’t know you from a hole in the wall.
From Wikipedia: “Social proof, also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, they will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed.”
Every online forum is an ambiguous social situation because you don’t know who you are communicating with. The social proof of who you are in that community will play a bigger role than your actual argument.
Tip #8: Always let a fool have the last word
Slant Six Creative covers this in depth: “Healthy argument and debate only work when everyone’s a willing participant, and no amount of reason or good sense is going to convince someone whose only goal is to throw a monkey wrench. At the same time, trying to dismiss that person or shut him up will usually just make him go that much harder. That and it makes you look like a dictator, which you never want to be.
So, give him the last word on the point and move on. Doing so might mean a short-term hit to your pride, but in the long run it helps you build credibility with the people you’re really trying to talk to.”
Tip #9: Walk away
Communicating online has some clear benefits because you can take as much time as you want to develop your arguments and it is easy to re-read past points without falling into a rehashing of who said what. But it can also be time consuming and pointless when there is no resolution in sight. There’s a big difference between debating a subject and a flame war in the emotional response you feel and the benefit you get from the discussion. The only way you can win a flame war is by turning off the computer and getting on with your life.
Online discussion is easily archived and searchable, so who knows if this discussion will be dredged up years later. Is it really worth it?