(More) DOs and DON’Ts of online conversations

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I’ve already discussed a few DON’Ts for online conversations, but after some feedback from readers I’ve compiled another list of DON’Ts as well as a conversation DO.

DON’T use sarcasm

This was suggested by a few people, and I can’t believe I didn’t think of it for my original set of conversation DON’Ts.

I love sarcasm (and its cousin, satire), but in an online conversation, especially with people who don’t know you — sarcasm should be avoided. In fact, anything requiring inflection or face/body language should probably be avoided. It’s too easy for people to become confused and misinterpret your words.

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen someone attempt to use sarcasm, only to be applauded by someone that actually disagrees with them and thinks they’re being serious (it’s funny, but also not).

DON’T commit logical fallacies

This is one I’m still trying to get more acquainted with myself and was suggested by Manachron. I like the idea though. Logical fallacies are misconceptions that result from incorrect reasoning — and they are numerous. Knowing the various logical fallacies cannot only help you pick apart someone else’s argument and force them back to the drawing board to analyze their own ideas, but it’s a great way to help you analyze your OWN arguments and make sure they are up to snuff.

DON’T use anecdotes

This was suggested by psychologistmimi, who says “I like to see statistics and corresponding sources.”

I touched on the need to cite sources in my earlier post, but taking that one step further, hard information is a boon to any argument. Your personal experience with something, while obviously important to you, is a representative sample of one: Yourself. It’s easily dismissible and provides no real data to back up your point of view. I’ve also seen cases where people twist their opposition’s anecdote to suit their argument — something that is much harder to do with statistics and outside data.

That said, Mimi admits “a really deeply moving anecdote can help a little.”

DO take the time to digest each comment before responding

This is a biggie. In a real-life confrontation or debate, you don’t get much of a chance to ponder what has just been said before you need to respond. The internet is not like that, and it’s something I suggest taking advantage of as much as possible. Taking some time to re-read and ponder what someone has just thrown at you before responding is good for a variety of reasons:

— You might have misinterpreted something the first time through and a second read can suddenly make the actual intent clear.

— You might glean some new information that you missed the first time through, which could be necessary for a proper rebuttal.

— It gives you a chance to calm down and collect yourself, which can keep you from resorting to name-calling or personal attacks, or otherwise letting your emotions get the better of you and compromising the effectiveness of your rebuttal.

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EDIT: I loved this comment I received from a friend, so I thought I’d share it:

“I also use anecdotes frequently – but! – I use them as illustrative examples, not as facts or proof (unless it is a case of proof that it is POSSIBLE, in which case a sample size of one is all that is needed :P).”

SOUND OFF: What do you like to see in a conversation? What do you try to avoid?

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Google before you post

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I generally believe that someone’s Twitter or Facebook wall should be whatever they want it to be. But posts dealing in misinformation are problematic. They can lead people to make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t make (sometimes dangerous ones), divert time and resources from government agencies, and unfairly malign people and organizations.

Often these posts have been re-shared hundreds of times. Often they’re political, but sometimes they deal with science, major companies, religion, or other issues. Generally they all carry the same underlying emotions — fear, anger, or worry.

Here are a few quick examples of such posts, along with examples of how to use Google to find the truth.

Facebook Privacy Notice

This one crops up every few months. A post claiming that if you share it on your wall, it keeps Facebook from owning/using the content you post. It often invokes uniform commercial code (UCC) 1-103 1-308.

Search: “Facebook Privacy Notice”+”snopes” OR “UCC 1-103 1-308″+”snopes”

Result: It’s a hoax. When you sign up for Facebook and agree to the terms and conditions, you give Facebook the authority to use any content you post, and once you agree to that, there’s nothing you can do.

Missing children

This is another one that gets a lot of play on Facebook and Twitter. It will reference a lost child, complete with their name, and often direct you to call a police station in the child’s home state if you spot the child. These hoaxes can be particularly time-consuming for the agencies listed in the hoax because they have to deal with constant calls about the “child” — diverting them from real cases that need their attention.

Search: “(child’s name)”+”missing” (add “snopes” if you want, usually it’s not necessary). If I can’t find any information about the child through that, I will also search for the agency listed in the post and see if the numbers match up. If they do, I will often give a quick call and ask if the case posted is legit.

Result: 9 times out of 10 the “missing child” either is completely fabricated or has been found. Every now and then though, the post proves to be legit (and if that’s the case I always share it).

Political posts

These are too numerous to count. But they usually defame a politician or purport that a piece of legislation will have disastrous effects.

Search: “(person)”+”(action committed)”+”(Snopes or Politifact)” OR “(legislation)”+”(disastrous effect)”+”(Snopes or Politifact)” — I particularly suggest Snopes or Politifact because they tend to be unbiased. When it comes to politics, I don’t trust other sites to have the commitment to pure fact that these sites have shown themselves to have.

Result: 9 times out of 10, these are either outright lies or half-truths. It’s good to get the whole story before passing judgement.

Evil companies

Much like the political posts, these tend to defame a company, corporation, or CEO.

Search: “(person/organization/company)”+”(action committed)” — sometimes I will add “Snopes” too, if I’m unsatisfied with the results my original search gets.

Results: This one is usually more of a mixed bag. Oftentimes there seems to be more half-truths or truths than outright lies, but still, it’s always good to get the full story.

Unwitting victims

The Internet is full of lies — some harmless, some not. Don’t risk it and be a victim, and don’t make your friends unwitting victims either. Always look into an issue or story before you share it.

Censorship: Corroding the “marketplace of ideas” and silencing truth

With the recent revelation that Facebook is censoring not only breastfeeding photos, but also political activists, I wanted to take a moment to discuss censorship — especially as it pertains to social media and business-consumer relations.

I think it’s fine to have a “curse filter” to help keep dialogue on your site family friendly, but that’s about as far as I’m willing to go. I’ve mentioned before that I only delete comments if they’re potentially libelous, and there’s an important reason for that.

Filtering anything beyond that is liable to make people suspicious of an agenda or ulterior motive (which can make you a target for radicalized individuals or groups). It also dampens the “marketplace of ideas” — the idea that the more people you have engaged in a conversation, and the more viewpoints you have at the table, the more likely the truth will emerge. This is especially important to me.

Granted, it’s a very double-edged sword. In order to get the truest results, even the worst ideas must be able to be represented. But I’ve noticed these ideas often get filtered out quickly. The longer a conversation goes on, the more I see people reach across the aisle and come to some consensus. And even when they don’t, they still bring a wealth of information to the table for others to pore over and come to their own conclusions as well.

The end result, I believe, is that everyone is better informed than they were before. And that is one of the fundamental building block to progress. Informed people make better thinkers and doers. In a capitalist democracy, that is especially important. Voting, what you consume, health, environmental quality… so many things depend on being an informed person.

But what about when people aim negative things at you (or your organization)?

The first thing I do is take any negative feedback (or questions) to the people they are aimed at. I talk with them about it and try to get their side of the story. Often, they have a good explanation and it will satisfy a disgruntled customer/critic.

Sometimes there isn’t a good explanation and the person just plain screwed up. For that, an apology is in order. An apology should always be sincere, and it’s best to try and explain what happened as best you can and assure the complainant that it won’t happen again. I always thank the complainants for being vocal about their concern as well, because even negative feedback is a good lesson for everyone.

If that isn’t good enough for them and they keep egging you on, you have to take the high road. You can reiterate that you’ve done all you can, and steps have been taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and you are sorry to hear they aren’t satisfied — but that’s all you can do. At no point should you respond disrespectfully, and at no point should you delete their comment or your conversation — that’s a great way to dig yourself a hole.

After all, censoring others can also weaken your own ideas and lower your credibility. As a colleague once said to me, “How do you expect to forward a proposition (or yourself), if you have to silence opposing points of view?”

(Thanks to manachron for linking me the article from The Conversation.)

SOUND OFF: What do you think about censorship of comments — is it necessary?

3 things to avoid in online conversations

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In my line of work I’m constantly looking at what people are saying to each other. It’s one of the simultaneously enlightening and often aggravating things about my job. Whether or not people agree with what someone is saying, I’ve found that people are a lot more receptive to their idea when these three things are avoided.

Absolutes/extremes

Absolutes are absolutely aggravating. If you have to resort to an impossible, convoluted or extreme scenario to make a point, most commenters agree that you’re standing on thin ice. Quite simply, there will always be exceptions to the rule — but that doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s premise is bad.

The worst is when you get two commenters who do this in the same discussion. Their back-and-forth can quickly spiral outward and drown out the more reasonable dialogue going on.

Not citing your sources

“What’s your source?” “Who said that?” “Where did you get that statistic?”

Commenters will halt a conversation when someone throws out a statistic or the result of a study without including the link or source. Always make sure to provide attribution to your information. If you can’t, try to find it — usually a Google search will do. If you come up empty-handed, avoid sharing the information at all.

Speaking of sources, make sure it’s a good one. If the source could appear partisan, people will quickly discredit it. The best sources are neutral and impartial groups. If you don’t know the way a source leans on a particular topic, a look at the source’s homepage or Wikipedia entry will usually give you a good idea. If you know what sources your opponent trusts, try to find information to back up your point from that source.

Name-calling and personal attacks

This is the quickest way to either end a conversation or turn it into a shouting match. Simply put: don’t do it. Your debate is about the topic at hand, not your opponent.