Joe Firestone has raised some issues / questions about how people operate in communities, particularly worrying about how some communities operate when participants raise questions or ideas that don't sit well with the community members. A big motivation for his writing about this is that he has seen rather negative reactions to his participation in several online communities associated with knowledge management. He discusses Rules and Learning in List Servs and then goes into deeper discussion of the nature of email-based communities with The Poverty of Communitarianism.
Joe describes experiences where he has attempted to enjoin the conversation, but has been rebuffed in fairly negative style: either personal attacks to (apparently) impersonal writings and / or having group members ask the moderators to kill the conversation. Of course, Joe is not the only person to whom this happens, and it will continue happening for as long as humans remain human. And Joe also suggests that he belongs to other online communities, where his ideas are not "attacked" but are discussed openly in the way he would expect. In the weblog posts mentioned above, Joe wonders why online communities permit this negative behavior and proposes both some rules as to how communities should operate and two models of communitarianism.
In my own experience with email "list servs," Usenet groups, web-based fora, as well as many live communities, it is clear that all communities have their norms and accepted practices. Frequently, community norms are not recorded except in the minds of the participants. Thus, for newcomers to a community, it is very difficult to know what to expect other than by observing for a time. This is one of the key things I've learned about communities: Observe the community discussion and even check the archives before asking questions or posting comments (for online communities). The topic may have already been discussed, and it annoys regulars to rehash the same issues. In addition, observing for a time gives you the opportunity to see how the community operates and gives clues as to how best to participate in the community. This gives you a sense of the level of discussion people normally employ in the community.
Back to Joe's discussion. While I don't think Joe has ever intentionally written to anger or inflame people to attack, people have done so because they perceive him stepping outside the bounds of the community's normal "style." It's easy to complain about the length of his posts - that it takes too long to read within a larger email discussion. What I see as the real problem is that the articles have the tone of speaking down to the participants in the group. Restated, people perceive that Joe is being pedantic - talking down to them - rather than discussing the idea with them. On top of this, these articles are frequently the first time the community has heard from Joe. Or his only participation is in pages-long essays on a topic that is being discussed within the community. In this light, I am not surprised that Joe's writing gets under people's skin, even if it comes with good intentions.
I hope we all recognize that Joe is not alone in this. I'll bet anyone that participates in online communities has the opportunity to "step outside the bounds" of the community and engender their wrath at some level or another.
How does one participate in communities and hold in-depth conversations without finding oneself at the wrong end of a flamethrower? In some cases it is difficult, but I think good preparation helps immensely.
- Get the lay of the land. Don't start writing without understanding the nature of the community.
- Let people get to know you. Don't assume that everyone is familiar with your website, books, writings in other fora, etc.
- Begin participation slowly. Respond to existing discussion with a few sentences, and if people get interested begin to build more detailed arguments. In some cases, it may make more sense to take conversations "off line" with the people who really want to delve into it.
- Prepare people for the "big discussion" or potentially contentious articles. Help them by summarizing first, since not everyone will have the time or inclination to read long articles. Maybe even summarize for the group and post the long article separately on your website.
- If all else fails, join a community that enjoys your style of discussion. This seems like a cop-out, but there are many communities, and there have to be some that prefer your style.
For more reading, Timothy Campbell has a thorough description of how online arguments get out of control: Flame Wars and Other Online Arguments. He identifies a dozen different ways online "flame wars" get started and then summarizes by reminding that once the argument gets going, it is flamed not by facts and figures but by pure emotion.