“Social media” as we know them are only about fifteen years old. But when it comes to keeping an online discussion civil, we have decades of history to draw on. Sites like Slashdot and MetaFilter, and even older community discussion forums like newsgroups and bulletin boards, have been struggling with trolls, flame wars, spam, hoaxes, and other unpleasant content since before Mark Zuckerberg was even in college, much less building Facebook. In the process, these sites have gotten insights into what does and doesn’t work when it comes to fostering reasonable discussion online.
Here are some thoughts from what community managers have learned. They’re mostly at the level of “I manage this whole site,” but think:
What lessons here could help manage your daily conversations, too?
How could you change which sites you visit most often, to choose healthier discussions?
There’s a great piece of Old Internet Culture called Charles’ Rules of Argument. I’ve found it to be extremely useful in how I discuss difficult issues online… Here it is, with my notes in brackets:
Don’t go looking for an argument [there will always be enough of those headed your way]
State your position once, speaking to the audience [it’s hard to convince people to change their minds, but you can often sway observers who are less invested in Being Correct]…
1. Talk about something you know
You can learn a lot by debating subjects about which you don’t have much knowledge, but chances are that other people probably won’t productively debate your points if your argument is weak from the start. When entering in an online debate, try to choose something of which you have at least some familiarity, but about which your views aren’t completely immutable.
2. Choose your opponent/s carefully
Remember, the people you engage with are not your enemies, just people who hold ideas that you disagree with. But if you spot ad-hominem attacks or straw man fallacies in their words, think carefully about if you’re only really engaging them because they irritate you.
When I agreed to teach audience development to a class of undergrads at West Virginia University (WVU), I wanted to focus on a few key segments of community management…. What I didn’t count on was how much I would first have to teach the skills of basic listening….
The hardest lesson to teach around listening is that you’re not doing it right the first time around. What do most people do instead of hearing people? We take in specific phrases and words. We become activated and excited by ideas that mimic our own, and then we wait for our turn to say something about those ideas.
Create community guidelines and enforce them
It’s hard to overstate the importance of community guidelines. Don’t bury yours in legalese. Make it clear to people what the boundaries are in your community, and stand by them. This will make you, or your community, less popular with people who like to push boundaries….
Encourage strong contributions
Modeling community behavior is one of the most important things community managers can do. It sets community norms; with every post, every interaction, you’re showing members what kinds of contributions are valuable to the community, and intentionally building a community culture.
I grew to believe that the easier it is to post a drive-by comment, and the easier it is to remain faceless, reputation-less, and real-world-less while doing so, the greater the volume of antisocial behavior that follows. I decided that no online community could remain civil after it grew too large, and gave up on that aspect of internet life….
We hired a community manager, and equipped our comments system with a secret weapon: the "disemvoweller." If someone's misbehaving, she can remove all the vowels from their screed with one click. The dialogue stays, but the misanthrope looks ridiculous, and the emotional sting is neutralized.
—Xeni Jardin, BoingBoing, on “disemvowelling”
MetaFilter is unusual in that it requires a small fee at sign-up time but has no annual costs to users. This fee is negotiable for people who come from places where it is actually an obstacle to their participation, but it means that people have an investment, even a tiny one, in being there. It also means that people think twice before they spam the community because there is a cost associated with spamming.
The way we think of comments today, as mostly garbage to be ignored and phasing out rapidly in many places, is largely due to the lack of community management.
By actively participating in our community, steering the conversation, and constantly re-seeding the discussion with new stories every 45 minutes or so, [Slashdot’s] system had become self perpetuating. But as the community grew from dozens to hundreds to thousands, the motivation to abuse the system increased.
For more thoughts on the best ways to foster healthy digital communities, check out more guest posts on the Coral Project’s blog. And for more on why internet discussions always seem to end in rage, pick up a copy of Keep Calm and Log On!