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Online Forums: No, I Do NOT Want an Argument

I’ve been watching online communities go through their biorhythms for 22 years now, and the same patterns happen again and again. I still screw up now and again, but at least I’ve learned to recognize the steps of the dance.

This is what I’ve learned.

Text-Based Communication Isn’t

Everybody knows that text-based communication strips out tone. Somehow, posts tend to sound sharper, blunter, more snide or sarcastic or unpleasant than when you can see soft eyes or a smile to add a little warmth to people’s statements.

Crowdsourcing Outrage

Another problem is the speed of communication. Somebody posts a complaint, and it’s like a spark in dry tinder: it sets off everybody, and everybody has an opinion, and an admin can stop by after 5 hours and find a wildfire raging. It is so dangerously easy to crowdsource outrage.

Posting Online Is Like Posting Drunk

As a species, we have learned how to interact in social groups to survive. Unconsciously, we monitor those around us for clues showing how our words are striking people. Over the millennia, those who weren’t adept at reading conversations and adapting to public opinion got hit with a rock, stabbed, shot, or otherwise removed from the population. Therefore, learning to communicate our views without pissing people off is a deep-seated survival mechanism.

Online, we lose 99% of the cues and signals from face-to-face and group interaction. It’s like trying to do archery wearing four pairs of dark sunglasses. Suddenly, we’re all like my friend Cal who puts his foot in his mouth up to the kneecap and never notices he’s shocked half the room and offended the other half. We’re asserting ourselves without the benefit of our built-in inhibitions and self-filters that help us function smoothly in social settings. Thanks to that lack of inhibitions, it’s like being drunk.

This can sometimes be a positive, because people share things with great frankness. The flip side, however, is obvious.

Counteracting the Problem

As I’ve stated on more than one occasion, the reason why I have a harpy avatar (actually a siren) is to remind myself with every post to watch my claws. That’s precisely because I’ve thrown a lot of rocks, and bear the scars of others. I’ve got a stubborn streak a mile wide, dig my heels in, and try to convince, persuade and prove with research and lengthy argument. I get very worked up about some topics, just like everyone else.

Yet how often does an online argument really matter?  Sometimes, when money or fairness to others is involved, one has to speak up. Even then, if it’s not going to matter or be remembered six months from now, it probably doesn’t matter now. We use online forums to post our content, do business and exchange ideas, share comments and support one another. When it stops being about any of those things, personally, I walk away.

Which brings me to the trigger for this post.

Defending Ourselves…Does It Help?

Do as I say, not as I do.

Recently, in response to a critical post that I felt was aimed at me, I responded defensively. Two days later I came back from a RL fender bender, shaken up and  seeking some support on Squidoo, only to find a furious debate raging after the original poster called me “abusive.” Gack.

I’m not here to rehash that conversation, although that is why I’ve been avoiding SquidU lately. It upset me more than I let on. Which is silly of me, in light of many other incredibly generous and kind comments directed my way.

At any rate, my point is this. When each person feels like she’s been attacked by the other, unless you can kiss and make up, continuing to debate will only exacerbate the situation. It doesn’t matter who’s right. It doesn’t matter who started it. It’s become a barfight, and there are bystanders trying to drink their beer.

Name-calling or fingerpointing is against SquidU’s rules and won’t help. But surely, we should be able to defend ourselves? You’d think so. Unfortunately, due to the problems with the text-based medium I mentioned above, it’s nearly impossible to defend yourself without escalating tensions.

When you’re frustrated and upset, that is precisely when the “posting while drunk” effect is at its worst.

Some Other Approaches to Try

If the person who’s attacked you really is being unfair, abusive, and failing to respect community rules of conduct, three things can happen.

  • If you’ve conducted yourself fairly and generously, other members will speak up for you. Or, at the least, your actions will speak for themselves.
  • You report the comment privately to the moderators. The moderator locks the thread and/or takes action against your attacker.
  • You report an attack to the moderator, and the moderator fails to intervene. Golly, that sucks, doesn’t it? But maybe it’s not worth pursuing. Go do something productive and see if that helps you feel better.

Occasionally, when I am extremely upset, I vent my frustrations privately in the report box to the moderator, as if I were using it as a confession box, so that I don’t let my anger leak out in public. Oddly, I received my last moderator job from an admin who appreciated my discretion…even though he was sometimes the target of my private verbal diatribes.

I digress. The bottom line is this.

When we get into a forum debate that’s stupid and petty and annoying and frustrating, chances are, a year from now, it really won’t matter. Is it really worth continuing the conversation? Isn’t it more likely that the fight will just drag on, and people will keep sniping, squabbling, and refusing to listen to each other? Is the person you’re arguing with really going to listen to you?

When that seems to be the way the wind is blowing, I try to make myself step out and get back to work.

Of course, it’s hard to step away without responding when someone accuses you of something that you did not do. You may feel you need to say, “I did not do that.” But if that’s all you say, and then you leave (and contact the moderator), then the truth is where it needs to be. If you conduct yourself with honor, generosity, and responsibility, the accusation will most likely redound on the accuser, because the community knows better.


  1. AJ says:

    In the cold light of day, this all makes perfect sense. But when you are in the middle of it and people are accusing you of doing stuff you did not do, while the very people who could resolve it do nothing is a very difficult situation to be in.

    Sweeping problems under the carpet is no way to run a community.

    1. Greekgeek says:

      I know, AJ, I know.

      I’ve been there. It’s so easy to say all this when you’re not actually in such a situation. And forum explosions always seem to happen on the weekends, or whenever moderators aren’t around to step in and put out the sparks. *hugs*

      I saw what was happening. It was distressing…these are real people, people I respect, people I like, caught in the middle of one of these forum messes. But every time I tried to post anything, I’d consider what I wanted to write and realize, “this is going to add fuel to the fire.” So I wouldn’t post.

      But I really felt badly for people in that thread. I feel bad that I wasn’t able to come up with a danged thing to help defuse the mess.

      The one consolation I have to offer — although you know this — is that things like that always blow over. You may feel less safe in a community for a while, you may bury yourself in work or readjust priorities… but in time, it’ll be in the past, and people won’t remember it too often.

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