Nine Rules For Discussing Tough Issues Online

Apropos of yesterday’s lament about uncivil behavior online, here are some rules I try to follow when discussing contentious issues on social media and in blog comment threads:

  1. Say nothing online I would not say in person
  2. Be very mild with language because it can be misconstrued and taken the wrong way
  3. Remember my conversation is public
  4. Never call someone by name if I am criticizing a view they hold (“Some people have argued that _____” not “Bill said ___”)
  5. Include statements that allow for disagreements (“I recognize others may disagree . . . “)
  6. Be mild in my proclamations (“I tend to think cats deserve cuddling” not “You should cuddle cats”)
  7. Protect others when they are attacked (on threads I am hosting, and sometimes elsewhere)
  8. If I change my mind, admit it and thank others for widening my views
  9. If I offend, apologize sincerely (without turning the blame back on them by saying I’m sorry they misunderstood me — a non-apology)

What would you add?

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

6 thoughts on “Nine Rules For Discussing Tough Issues Online”

  1. Great post Brad! The only thing I would add is advice I’ve heard about any touchy topics: Don’t engage in such conversations when you’re lonely, angry, hungry, tired — basically not equipped to check yourself. I often think some of these online conversations get ratcheted up late at night when people are isolated and tired. 

  2. That’s a great point — it’s amazing how our physical and emotional state colors our actions in ways that we don’t see when we are “in it.”

  3. I’d modify #4. In FB and other forums where there are multiple parties commenting, specifying who’s argument you are addressing is important. 

  4. Thanks, Lisa, for the comment. It may be a stylistic thing. However, having been the caretaker of an online community for many years, I’ve found that when people start addressing one another directly, it can add clarity but at the same time it adds negative energy. People feel attacked (often) when they are addressed directly — so it may be more effective and clear to state who you are talking to, it seems a good idea to take a great deal of care in how one makes one’s point. I’ve seen many threads spin out of control as people start throwing around @ Bill and @ Jane. SO I err on the err on the side of delicacy.

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