Managing Online Conflict – Kathy Jackson

“Never read the comments.” This has become such a truism that it’s almost ridiculous to say anything about it. However, there are still online spaces where it is safe, and even enjoyable, to talk freely about difficult issues with people on the other side of the screen. How does that happen?

First, let me flourish some credentials on the subject. In one form or another, I have been moderating online discussions since at least 1998. That was the year that I joined an email list for the first time. On that first list, we had around seventy members, sometimes as many as a hundred. Group members sent about a hundred long messages to the list every day, so it was quite busy for the era. The topic was Christian theology, a contentious subject if ever there was one. And yet group members managed to maintain decorum on the list for the most part – at least, they did so as long as we moderators did our jobs well.

Fast forward a few years and I found myself hanging out in IRC channels. For those who never participated or don’t remember, IRC was (and for all I know still is) a way to chat with other people in real time. As a regular participant in a handful of channels I soon found myself working in the role of moderator. Moderating real-time discussions among anonymous strangers turned out to be quite different from trying to keep long form email conversations among known group members from running off the rails. There were a few commonalities, however. We found that intelligent and thoughtful people would stick around in a well-run forum, but would quickly vanish at the first sign of trolls. Trolls, however, didn’t mind and in fact enjoyed sharing the channel with those same thoughtful and intelligent people – at least until they ran the good people off. When we failed to enforce our mutually agreed-upon rules, it would not be long until there was nobody left to talk to in the channel except jerks and idiots. This did not create a pleasant online experience for any of us. On the other hand, when we did set boundaries and enforce them ruthlessly, that generally led to good people sticking around and not-so-good people behaving better than their unregulated natures would otherwise have done. We were able to have genuine, enjoyable interactions with a wide spectrum of real people in real time. That’s a win.

Since 2000 or thereabouts, I have participated in many different firearms discussion bulletin boards, first as a member and then later as a moderator. I worked as a moderator on The High Road, a relatively busy forum, for roughly seven years before I walked away from it. I’m still a moderator on The Firing Line where I have been a member since 2000 and a moderator since 2007. As before, I found that when the technology changed, so did the techniques a moderator needed to use in order to keep the good people engaged and the less-helpful members quiescent. But as before, I found that the core principles remained the same regardless of how the technology changed.

In 2011, I started my own blog for the first time. Felt a little silly to be so late starting a blog when I’d been relatively early with most other forms of online interaction, but there we have it. Until that time, my Cornered Cat pages were relatively static and offered no user interactions. Moderating the blog comments wasn’t a big shift from moderating forum comments, though I noticed that the core principles became even more noticeable in “my” space than they were in more-public spaces such as bulletin boards that belonged to everyone and to no one.

Like almost everyone else in 2015, I have a personal Facebook account, which provides lots of opportunities to hone my skills at managing online conflict. As a small business owner, I also run several public and private pages linked with my firearms education and training business. Facebook is an odd chimera, almost a return to the days in the wilds of IRC real-time chat, but with elements similar to bulletin boards as well. The format encourages brevity to the point of thoughtlessness, and it’s difficult to return to an older conversation to add new information to it. For this reason, it’s easy to chatter in quick and simple ways, but difficult to engage in meaningful discussion – and risky to bring up tough subjects. Unlike earlier technologies there’s very little transparency to what you might be doing as the moderator. You can hide bits of the public conversation from yourself, but there’s always a question as to whether you’re successfully hiding it from the audience at large. This makes it even more important to manage the conversation proactively rather than simply using technological tools to sweep conflicts out of sight.

Still, the core techniques that help keep conversations running smoothly along, that allow good people to connect with each other while keeping less helpful voices muted, remain about the same on Facebook as they were on earlier technologies. I suppose that tomorrow or the next day, there will be some new way to interact, and we will all abandon Facebook in favor of that form of interaction. When we do, the same principles and concepts that make interaction pleasant now can help us meet those new challenges as well.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years.

Own your space. Regardless of the form or the forum, when you’re partly or entirely responsible to keep the conversations pleasant, the first step is simply to own that space and be up front that you own it. Be courageous enough to meet your responsibility boldly, and don’t expect anyone else to sweep up the mess when there is one.

What about shared spaces? If moderating a space is a responsibility you share with others, you will usually want to talk to those others behind the scenes to be sure you’re all on the same page before you act. This isn’t always an option, however. Realize that sometimes you will need to act boldly and immediately, without taking time to consult with others. Be prepared to do that, and be prepared to publicly support them when they do likewise, even if the specific action they take isn’t one you yourself would have taken. As much as is humanly possible, work out your differences with other moderators behind the scenes and present a united face in public.

Set clear expectations. This can be done explicitly and up-front, when members first join your group, as is generally done on bulletin boards and email lists. Or it can be done implicitly and in line with the group conversation, as generally happens on Facebook. In either case, most people appreciate knowing what’s expected of them in online spaces, and appreciate knowing what they can expect from others.

Frame expectations positively. People don’t always appreciate being told what to do, but they don’t mind it nearly as much as they mind being told what not to do. Especially after they’ve already done it.

Reinforce expectations when needed. “Quick reminder: please treat others gently in this space. If you have a personal problem with someone else, contact them privately to work it out. Thanks.”

Be part of the conversation. As moderator, it sometimes feels awkward to join in the general conversation. The temptation is to stay out of it, and only step in if there’s a problem. Counterintuitively, this is a much more difficult way to manage online spaces. The easier way to do things is to happily join in the conversation so you can steer it where you believe it can most fruitfully go, and so that you can quietly redirect small conflicts before they become messy problems.

Gently intervene early. Start potentially-contentious conversations only when you have time to babysit the resulting discussion, at least for the first little while. No matter what the venue, the rule is that light interventions early on usually prevent needing to take drastic measures later. The first few responses really set the tone for everything that follows, so watch the first responses carefully and make gentle course corrections as early as possible if the conversation looks likely to take an ugly turn. This becomes easier as you become more familiar with your audience and their particular hot buttons.

Assume goodwill. When the conversation really gets going, it’s easy to begin assigning motives to the other participants. Maybe the person on the other side of the screen is actually stupid and evil. Maybe they’re drunk. Maybe they’re trolling and trying to get a rise out of you. Maybe this, maybe that. Instead of playing that game, try assuming that questions are simply questions (answer them), that arguments are genuine attempts to reach the truth (join them in looking for it), that disagreements are nothing more than evidence of separate minds approaching problems in different ways (enjoy figuring out how other people’s thought processes work). When you do spot a specific behavior that needs to be corrected, focus on the behavior itself as much as possible. After all, it’s not your job to solve their psychological problems or get them into an AA meeting; it’s simply to keep your online space a pleasant place for people to interact.  

Praise good behavior. Call people out when they say something well or when they keep the peace through a potentially-upsetting conversation. Praise the good stuff both generally and specifically: “I love it when people have such thoughtful conversations in my forum!” and “John, you did a great job with Sue’s question. Thanks for sharing your expertise on that one.”

Use private channels appropriately. Some conversations shouldn’t be for public consumption. My rule of thumb is that I prefer to contact people in private whenever the conversation becomes more about monkey-brain issues than about purely logical ones. We can proactively make human connections and build bridges in both public and private conversations, but if we need to repair a broken bridge, that’s almost always more easily done in private. Along the same lines, if someone does or says something praiseworthy, tell them so in public! But if someone needs to be corrected or reprimanded in some way, that’s best done in private.

Remember that’s a human. It’s easy to get caught up in proving some logical point, in winning an argument, in being right and making sure everyone knows it. It’s easy to forget that there’s a living, breathing, feeling human being on the other side of the impersonal computer screen. Before posting your comments, especially when you’re playing the role of moderator and know that your words will have special weight, always look them over for potential hurt feelings and other monkey-brain issues. Can you sweeten your words while still making your point?

Make human connections. Especially on Facebook and other social media, it’s surprisingly easy to forget that people we know in real life are watching our interactions. One simple way to redirect a conversation that’s getting too heated: introduce your friends to each other. (“Steve, this is Mary. I’ve known her since we were in college together. She’s the one who introduced me to my husband. Mary, this is Steve. He’s a friend I met on my last job. I’m glad you’re finally having the chance to meet online and I hope you’ll be kind to each other on my page.”) A quiet reminder that both of them are important to you and that you do expect people to play nicely in your space never hurts.

Provide an out. Sometimes, the conversation makes it apparent that one person is objectively right and the other, objectively wrong. When you’re the one in the right or the one moderating the space, actively work to provide a gracious way for the person in the wrong to back down. You’ll appreciate it when they do likewise for you when it’s your turn to be wrong.

Admit it when you’re wrong. When it’s your turn to be wrong, admit it. Your monkey brain will tell you that admitting your mistakes will make you look weak. But you know that is not true. You lose respect when you behave unreasonably, but you gain respect when you gracefully make room for someone else to be right. You gain respect when you back away from an untenable position. You gain respect by being more committed to finding the truth than you are to playing monkey games.

Apologize gracefully. When you’ve been a jerk, say so. Your monkey brain will tell you that an apology will make you look weak. But you know that is not true. You lose respect when you treat others disrespectfully, but you gain that respect back, and more, when you own up to your mistake and strive to do better in future. Cultivate the art of apologizing gracefully. (Script: “I’m sorry for <specific act>. This is wrong because <specific reason>. In the future, I will <specific, positive replacement behavior>. Will you forgive me?”) When you make a mistake, own it. Own your entire mistake, not just part of it. Own only the mistake you actually made; don’t apologize for stuff you didn’t actually do. And never ruin an apology with an excuse.

Emphasize common ground. Especially on contentious topics, it’s a good idea to consciously seek out and emphasize the things you have in common with other participants. For example, one of my personal hot button topics is gun control. I’m against it, in all its forms. When I engage in conversation with someone who wants some new law or restriction on legal firearms, we can have a fruitful and pleasant interaction if we start by agreeing on what we do have in common: we both want our families and our communities to be safe. We both want to feel at ease in our daily interactions with others, and we both want a world where violence does not spiral out of control. Whenever the conversation becomes heated, we can always return to those touchstones to cool ourselves down and remember our shared goals.

Redirect toward common goals. As moderator, I can help other people find – and later, remember – their common ground and shared goals. Stepping in to remind people what they have in common can often redirect the conversation back into fruitful territory, and avoid having to use more active measures to control later misbehavior.

Focus on the human problem. Every hot-button topic contains both a human element and a monkey element. The human element is the specific issue that needs to be analyzed and perhaps solved. The monkey element is the way people feel about that issue, and all the tribal concerns that go with that. When people get into their monkey brains, they often end up flinging poo all over each other and all over the shared space, and there’s not a lot of fruitful discussion that accompanies that. So good moderators first acknowledge monkey feelings, then redirect conversations toward the human problem.   

Manage your own emotions. We readily notice when other people have gotten heated, but it’s sometimes more difficult to keep track of our own emotional temperature. Make a habit of noticing your respiration and heart rate before you post. If they’re elevated while you’re sitting at the computer, it probably wasn’t because you were doing jumping jacks while you were reading. That’s emotional excitement at work. Take a few minutes to calm down before you type anything. Better still? Sleep on it. The conversation will probably still be there in the morning.

Follow through. The specific way that you as moderator can follow through to enforce your rules and expectations will depend upon the technology, but nearly every platform has the equivalent of a ‘ban’ button. Don’t be afraid to use it. When you use that button, you are honoring the thoughtful and pleasant people who want a good online experience. Remember that trolls will gleefully interact with thoughtful people, but respectful and thoughtful people will almost always shut up and go elsewhere when trolls invade. What kind of people do you want in your space? What type of behavior do you want to reward and what type do you want to discourage? Be willing to make the hard calls.


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