Tuesday, February 10, 2015

internet forums: be excellent to each other, and party on

I used to frequent a forum which had sometimes heavy-handed moderation. The rules there boil down to "don't be a dick." This axiom, known as "Wheaton's Law," was formulated by Mr. Wheaton for competitive environments where people all generally recognize (if not explicitly share) the same goals and social norms--things you simply can't assume to any degree of precision on an internet discussion board.

I think it's better to distill them into something adaptive and proactive:

Relax. Be friendly and helpful. Put each other at ease.

When responding to someone, remember that there may be a disparity between their and your...
-style and manner of talking
-needs, circumstances, intentions, assumptions and expectations
-tolerance for ambiguity or uncertainty
-tolerance for rigor, detail, verbosity or frivolity
-preference for frank directness vs. polite indirectness
-jargon, definitions and categorizations
-available, familiar or preferred sources
...be willing to acknowledge the disparity and adapt to it. (If you can't adapt, yet still want to respond, then ask for help. There's probably someone around who can.)

If something about their communication seems off, ask clarifying questions to make sure you've understood it correctly. ("What makes you say that?" is a good general-purpose question.)

A surfeit of questions can seem menacing. When asking multiple questions, try to have as much helpful and contributive text as you do questions. Maybe preface them by stating your understanding of things and explain why you're asking. (When in doubt, figure out which question is most important and ask only that one.)

Acknowledge all questions posed to you. Either answer them to the best of your ability or, where you are unable or uninterested in doing so, give a polite excuse for backing down. (Redirecting their attention to a more important point is usually fair.)

If your post responds to only part (especially a minor part) of somebody's post, make it clear that you know that.

Read to the end of a thread before posting to it.

Until the Original Poster is satisfied with the results of the thread, tangents and digressions should be short--say, no more than two short posts. The third post in a tangent should either tie back into the main discussion or move the tangent to a newly created thread or to private messages.

Different people have different interests, and (unless you're the Original Poster) have the same right as you to express their ideas. Discussion will sometimes wander outside your interest--this is okay. Start a new thread that is within your interest.

If someone seems to be getting emotional or illogical (never accuse them of this--it doesn't help, and you'll probably put your foot in your mouth), backtrack to the closest point you were both in calm agreement on, and then try again with smaller, more careful steps.

People who post something for public review may be looking for reassurance or they may be looking to hone their skill. You can't know for certain which it is. Neophytes sometimes want honing, professionals sometimes want reassurance, and anyone who has invested a lot of time and energy into a project (especially a project with little real-world value) can get touchy. I guess cover your bases, be cautious until you get a better feel for the situation, and show enthusiasm. People usually enjoy being asked about how they accomplished the thing.

In my experience, most friction comes from people having different information, different expectations, or skipping steps in their logic. These're things that regular users can (with a little bit of care) identify and unravel pretty easily for themselves. 

Ideally, an internet forum will develop a culture where the regular users prevent issues from escalating to a point where moderators need to intervene. Here's things I try to do that I think help encourage that type of culture:
  • When someone (especially someone new) requests information, I provide the best I can within the limits of the Forum Rules. (Never tell someone to just "read/buy the book!") If I can't provide anything useful, I do what I can to make it easier for other people to help them.
  • When I see poor behavior (from anyone, whether admin, author, or common user), I express disapproval--briefly and politely appended to a normal contributive post, so as to avoid disrupting the thread.
  • If I think a user is going to unwittingly violate an undocumented "gotcha!" rule, I'll contact them privately to warn them and explain it.
  • If I think someone has good intentions (like a moderator or common user trying to enforce "correct" behavior, or a user trying to interact with another user I know to be difficult) but is going about it the wrong way, I'll ask them privately about their goal and method. (In cases where the user's actions appear to be endorsed by other users, I may have the discussion publicly.)
  • When I think I have wronged someone, I apologize (including a shame-faced emoticon) visibly in the same thread. I am not embarrassed by other types of error--when I think I have made a mistake, I acknowledge it readily, fix it, and move on.
I think the staff of a forum can do things to help encourage that type of culture, too, like giving themselves room to use a softer touch in ambiguous situations, and having the rules distinguish between normal users and problem users. (For instance: the first time any user violates a Rule, suppose the mods gently walk them through all of the history, reasoning and corner-cases related to Rule X, and don't issue a demerit until the second time the user violates Rule X. Repeat offenders still get penalized and the normal user is now capable of inoculating other normal users.)


  1. I had to go away and think about this and my answer is yes but..

    There is a cost benefit analysis to the amount of work one has to put into social interactions, and while i will quibble with nothing you said, because it's all good professional advice, I would add that it turns social interactions into professional events. At that point I look to see if I'm being paid.

    If not then I think it's easier to move on, walk on by, and basically avoid the hassle of having to work so hard having fun.

    YMMV, T&CA, E&OE.

    1. Well, I think for most people, most of the time, these things (everything from the bolded "relax" down to "in my experience") all come naturally. I mean, if you're interested in what someone is saying, I don't think it's difficult or unintuitive to ask questions instead of jumping to conclusions.

      You're completely right, of course; sometimes the effort outweighs your interest. I should probably have made "let it go" a more prominent option.

      Sometimes people get too invested to let go easily, though, and I think being reminded of these ideas here help with that. (And I'll admit that some of this *is* aimed at people who want to interact in a professional way or, the last section especially, who want to put extra work into molding their community.)

  2. And BTW well written piece. JIC my comment had made that obvious.

    1. Interesting enough to mull over before responding, and well-written also? I am doubly complimented. :)