Editor’s note: In preparation for this month’s #BirthGenius chat, we asked Jodine Chase if she would guest blog about how online communities can start to think about how to manage conflict and dissent online. We’re thrilled she contributed this piece, which also ran today on her blog, Jodine’s World. Want to keep the convo going? Join us for our chat on Friday at 1:30 eastern.

Our social media communities are no strangers to dissent and conflict. A cozy virtual living room discussion with trusted friends sharing birthing and breastfeeding stories can turn to red hot anger or ice-cold silence in the click of a keystroke.

And what if it’s not your virtual living room, but rather your virtual waiting room? What if your professional reputation, your livelihood is at stake?

What do you do when things go off the rails? How can you keep your online community a civil and respectful place while still encouraging the dissent that makes it vibrant and valuable? How can you respect all members and provide a safe and supportive environment?

All of us have spent years honing our ability to mediate conflict and dissent in real life – we do it without thinking. We don’t really think about “rules” when it comes to face-to-face communication, but that’s because we have spent a lifetime learning the rules of civil discourse. Look people in the eye whey you’re talking to them. Listen more than you talk. Be as polite as you would to a stranger. Remember the Golden Rule, treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.

So when we participate in social networks we are in fact bringing a lifetime of adherence to the rules of civil discourse to those virtual spaces.

So why does it break down so often?

Well, remember, it breaks down in real life too. Who hasn’t lost their mind after waiting in a long supermarket lineup only to get to the front of the line and have the clerk put down the “closed.” sign? We can all think of times when civil discourse degenerated into chaos. Tears. Slammed doors. Storming out of rooms. Like the Thanksgiving dinner when Uncle Ted had too much to drink and told his new daughter-in-law what he really thinks about her mother.

We know the rules, and we know when we are breaking them, whether it’s online, or face-to-face. The next day Aunt Jill takes Uncle Ted aside and says “you know you had too much to drink and when you drink you’re an ass. Now you will go make this right.” And at the next family dinner the hard liquor is put away and Uncle Ted keeps himself to one glass of wine.

In the online world there must be a whole new level of discourse and care in communication. Online there are no visual cues. You can’t see Aunt Jill off in the corner turning three new and vibrant shades of red. Uncle Ted, even in his pickled state can sometimes see his new daughter-in-law’s crushed expression and figure he’s gone too far.

And in the family sitting room the offended party can’t just push a button and make the whole scene go away as in an online chat room. In the face-to-face world there is no off button. Oh, you can run out of a room ‘cause your boozy uncle is a cad, but you have to find your keys, your car, your way home. There is time. Time for Aunt Jill to soothe hurt feelings, time for daughter-in-laws hubby to make a gallant stand, time to explain what was said and even mitigate it a bit, since in the world of face-to-face, there is no written record.

But that’s what the Internet is all about. There is a written record, and it’s darn near immutable. Harsh, black and white. There are no tones, no whispers… no shouts save all caps and the overused exclamation point!

Yet the key to managing conflict and dissent online is to apply the lessons of face-to-face communication – follow the rules. But surprisingly, many communities don’t even have rules. Or there are pages of rules that nobody reads.

Jodine Chase Guest Post Image 2

Over on the Daily Kos in 2011 member Wee Mama used this image in her outline of rules for civil online behaviour in a lovely essay, Civility, Citizens and Siglines. It’s based on Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement as outlined in Paul Graham’s essay How to Disagree.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Recently I joined a forum and was presented with this argument pyramid and told, “keep it in the top two or three and you’re good to go.”

NationBuilder, a software firm that helps build communities, offers a strong suite of tools for forum moderators, and advises:

Rules: The simplest and surprisingly most effective way to keep a nation civil is by having a set of rules and enforcing them.

NationBuilder’s suggested rules are very simple, things like: “1 account per person”, “be civil, no personal attacks,” “respect everyone’s time, no spam.”

Moderating is of course more complex than a well-crafted set of rules. How you enforce them is key to your success. Some people may call out rule-breakers in public forum as a way of showing rule-breakers won’t be tolerated. Others prefer a behind-the scenes approach. I’ve seen good success simply by having key community members model the tone you want others to adopt.

Some never ban, while others run a very strict site. Some communities have no censorship rules, others have off-limit subjects. NationBuilder doesn’t recommend banning unruly members as a way to resolve conflict, noting it’s difficult to keep persistent people from coming back with a fake ID. But Michael Brito, social business VP for Edelman Digital, who was in my home town of Edmonton recently, was asked about the challenges of moderating online communities. Brito’s response was tailored to corporations and brands, and he said it succinctly- you need a rule of thumb for the good, the bad and the ugly:

Amplify the positive, allow and refute the negative, and ban the ugly.

His examples of what constitutes ‘ugly’ was hate speech. Bullying. Things that are illegal. You decide your threshold.

How do you manage your online communities? Have you changed your approach over the years? Do different communities require different styles of moderation?

On Friday, April 26, 2013 at 1:30 pm eastern I’ll be the Guest Moderator of a #BirthGenius Chat Managing Conflict and Dissent Online. I’d love for you to join me and the Birth Genius hosts along with other birth and breastfeeding professionals for a chat about how you cope with trolls and whether or not you declare subjects off-topic. Tell us how you keep the peace and encourage healthy and vibrant communication in your virtual communities. Do you have rules?

Jodine ChaseAbout Jodine Chase:  Jodine  is a longtime breastfeeding advocate and owner of MediaWorksWest, a strategic communications firm specializing in news analysis for issues and crisis management. She is an expert in both creating change using social media as well as managing conflict when it comes to your page or community.

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