How to have a civil online conversation…


One of the first things that people notice about the Internet when they first get online is that online conversations have a radically different feel than do face to face ones. Online conversations frequently devolve into flame-fests full of personal attacks, ad-hominum arguments and occasionally physical threats.

Learning how to have a useful conversation and also how to create a site that fosters good conversation is the mystical chimera that lots of folks have been chasing for years. Part of the problem is that our online anonymity seems to give people a sense of freedom to let the worst parts of their personality surface. (That’s one of the reasons that lots of blogs and forums won’t allow anonymous comments.) Part of the problem is that because we don’t know the people we meet online and understand or recognize the context of their statements, we often project our own fears onto what they say.

Link: Cleaning Messy Message Boards.

How to filter conversation has become a topic of intense discussion in its own right. As more and more Web surfers become familiar with message boards and comfortable firing off opinions, often anonymously, online sites are struggling to manage comments without either stifling conversation or becoming a platform for hateful speech.

The conversation over comment filtering is not new. But it was amplified recently, after a female technology blogger was threatened with sexual assault and murder in the comments section of another blog. For many online sites and publications, the ensuing blog discussions over how the hateful comments should have been handled underscored their own challenges with comments (see, 3/28/07, “Dispatches from the Blog Battle Zone”).

There are lots of folks working on how to manage this ongoing problem. There’s an article in Business Week that discusses how some sites (like Digg and Slashdot) have managed to harness their own readers to moderate the comments of others.

By letting readers then filter comments based on other reader’s feedback, the site allow full freedom of speech, but manage to avoid the worst of the problems of flame-fests and the attendant reduction in signal to noise.

I haven’t yet seen a blog that manages this well yet – have any of you? As more of us start reading and commenting on other people’s blogs on the Internet, flames are becoming an increasing problem – and a very poor witness to the Church.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Fr. Nick, Ship of Fools handles it in this way: flames, ad hominems, personal remarks, etc., are absolutely, strictly forbidden – except on the board called “Hell,” where people can say anything they want and let off steam. (I should add that threats would not be acceptable there, either, and I’m sure a person who made them would be permanently banned.) The result is that the quality of the serious discussions there can be quite high – with caveats for all the typical flaws in human personality and interaction.
    I used to be involved in running a discussion board for A.A. members and others trying to achieve sobriety. (And believe me, you ain’t seen nothin’ till you’ve seen a flame war in that environment!) They did the same thing; there were areas for serious discussion where any sort of personal attack was forbidden – and one board was “anything goes.”
    What you’re really doing is creating a board that absorbs all the noise – and it seems to work. It does require that people reqister, though, and so “Anonymous” comments are not allowed. I don’t see why that should be a problem. Would this work on blogs, do you think?

  2. What you’re describing bls is the same basic model that Kendall Harmon uses as well – super-users acting as moderators. A number of other sites, religious and non-religious use this model too. The advantage is that it’s easy to manage in terms of technology. (Which is why smaller sites use it.) The problem is that if you’re really trying to create a conversation space, you’ll need to allow “offensive” posts to stand if they have something important to say. Which requires a difficult decision and balancing act to work.
    My philosophy here has been to allow posts that attack me personally to stand un-edited. But when posts attack other people, I’ve either called people out, or deleted the posts. It works here (at least I think it does) because I have only about 400-500 daily readers, and relatively few of them comment.
    What I’m really thinking about is what might happen if the Episcopal Church website were to install message boards. (I don’t think that’s in the offing – it’s too radical an idea I’m afraid.) We’d probably see tens of thousands of people reading and a significant number of comments to manage.
    That’s where the power of community moderation really shines – it allows people to say what they want to say. And would allow anonymous comments – which would be important if say, a dean of a Cathedral were to post something his or her bishop would disagree with… grin. By allowing the community to set norms for the conversation, you both could avoid the trolls, but also could highlight posts that say very important things that the larger community should hear.
    But, to respond to your final question, I think it probably would. Blogs are smaller and more personal than a major site like Digg or Slashdot. A blog is more about allowing a reader to interact with other readers, and more importantly with the author. That’s the part I find so fascinating about blogs.

  3. Ship of Fools also has the “Dead Horses” board; that’s where the “oh-no-not-that-again” topics go to be beaten to death.
    The homosexuality tangents, as I’m sure you can imagine, end up on that board; one such thread there is almost 5,000 posts long, I think.
    BTW, “not anonymous” simply means, registered. A person can certainly use an alias, if they want to post without being known for who they are. (After awhile, I guess, everybody could probably figure it out, if they are the Bishop, though! So I guess a truly “anonymous” posting could also be allowed – but how often, really, would it be needed – and at the same time, valuable? Not very often, I’d guess.)

  4. Michael Cochise Young says

    Today’s (4/9/07) New York Times extends the examination of civil electronic discourse and who is accountable for the speech that appears on a blog, whether generated by the blogger or his/her respondents. This front-page article on a “blogger’s code of conduct” cites Lisa Stone’s caution that “Any community that does not make it clear what they are doing, why they are doing it, and who is welcome to join the conversation is at risk of finding it difficult to help guide the conversation later.”

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