I run quite a few online communities.
And treading the line between keeping a community harmonious without being over-censorius, is not an easy one.
Especially when it comes to some of the more subtle aspects of human interaction.
Many people use online social groups for help and support
We’ve all seen it in online forums and facebook groups. A forum member posts to the group that they have ‘messed up’
In my circles, they have usually messed up with their dog.
They’ve made a mistake in some way, which may or may not have led to an unwanted outcome – their dog has barked at someone, knocked over an old lady, bitten an annoying Chihuahua, stolen the contents of someone’s barbecue, or run off with the postman.
You know the kind of thing.
This is what the poster wants
The person posting is rarely looking for judgement. What they want is usually:
- Empathy: “that sucks, it nearly happened to me the other day”
- Validation: “you are not a bad person and you are doing your best”
- And sometimes (not always) they want advice “maybe you could offer to get them a new Chihuahua….”
Empathy, validation, advice. In that order
And to be fair, for the most part, this is what they get. Many people are empathic, kind and supportive. And most people will empathise to some degree before giving advice or home truths.
This is one of the truly uplifting aspects of creating a place where people can come together and support one another
You’ve met him
But then along comes Mr (or Mrs) Plain Speaking. You’ve met him already.
This person takes a pride in ‘telling it like it is’.
They don’t beat about the bush.
“You totally messed up” they cry, rather obviously considering that the poster has already acknowledged this.
Then in they plunge with the advice. “Your dog needs more training” or “You need to keep your dog on a leash”
She’s not listening
Often the advice they give makes sound sense, but by now the poster is so angry/embarrassed by being effectively called a ‘moron’ that he or she is not listening to any of it.
Here is the thing.
Giving advice without empathy or validation doesn’t work. Not ever.
Most people instinctively understand this. Validating and empathizing are two key social skills
Got some great advice to give? Don’t forget to validate the person you are advising first.
An incident like this happened in one of my online social groups recently.
As the person responsible for moderating or administrating the group, this kind of interaction is a downer. It tends to set alarm bells ringing. And it is often the precursor to an all out slanging match.
It is tempting to condemn the ‘plain speaker’, but difficult to remonstrate with them as they usually haven’t broken any particular rules.
Empathy is not a rule
Empathy is not a required component of every post on any internet forum that I’m aware of. And many unempathic posts will seem to cleverly straddle the fence between being lacking in empathy, and being downright rude.
Of course not all such posts are well-intentioned.
There are people that are not interested in helping others, they are simply there to make themselves look great. And they are under the false impression that lowering someone else’s status will elevate their own.
Look on the bright side
For the most part, I believe our ‘plain speaking friend means no harm
So perhaps the answer is just to have a bit of sympathy for him. This person is lacking in some seriously important social skills. It is not going to be doing him any favours in the real world.
I have to look on the bright side, there are far ruder and more aggressive people out there.
Our little doggy forums and groups are actually very nice, safe havens of support and fun. Whereas you need full body armour to enter some of the other online communities I visit from time to time!
Are online communities deteriorating?
Five years ago I despaired of the standards of behaviour in online communities. But actually, in broad terms I think we are slowly getting better at this.
As socializing online grows in popularity, more and more people are learning the potential pitfalls of leaving an indelible written record of their own attitudes and opinions to be held in digital perpetuity.
People are learning to take more care over what they say online.
And our understanding of logical arguments and reasoning strategies is improving. Twenty years ago, no-one outside the legal profession had heard of an ad hominem argument, and hardly any of us knew what a logical fallacy was. I think that is gradually changing.
There is no doubt that it would greatly help to raise public standards of debate if children were taught how to construct a reasoned argument in schools.
Perhaps in the meantime we need a document entitled “How to debate online without pissing off your social group” That might help
How about you? Do you think people’s online behaviour is getting worse or better?