I was having a great discussion yesterday with some people who are just dipping their toe into social media.  One thing that was holding them back was the stories they hear about discussions and comments getting a bit out of hand.

It happens.

In my experience, the level of civility totally depends on how much of a relationship people share in real life.  Imagine that you go out to a professional sports game.  You’re sitting there with 10,000 or 50,000 people you don’t know, and probably will never see again.  Throw in a little alcohol to lower inhibitions, and you have a recipe for people saying the most bone-headed things.

In an online discussion, these kinds of things happen all the time.  The “alcohol” in this case is peoples’ sense of anonymity, which helps them avoid feeling responsible for what they’re writing.

Now, let’s imagine going to the same game with 20 other people from your company that you work with.  The discussion and behavior is going to be MUCH more self-regulated, because there’s an impact from what you do.  This is because you have relationships with the other people that you don’t want to damage.

And you’re not anonymous.

Now, don’t get fooled by Facebook calling people “friends.”  In Facebook, that just means that you’ve made a connection, period.  It can just as easily be with random people across the globe as it is with your immediate family.

But people tend to forget that.  It’s not uncommon for someone to post a rather incendiary political comment on one of their pages, forgetting that not everyone who’s connected shares even similar views.  In the worst case, other people will hop on the opportunity, lob back some verbal grenades, and the situation degenerates from there.  But even in the best case, people will get annoyed, say nothing, and eventually “unfriend” that person in disgust.

But it’s not all hopeless – there’s a couple of things which help bring us back to civil discourse.

First, if you’re forming an online community which is closely attached to people who are already connected in real life, the online discussions will reflect the social norms that the group has.  Others joining the online group might not understand that initially, but it can be quite powerful.  It’s what I call “self-policing” in groups which have developed some norms.

Second, if you take advantage of moderation tools, you can give someone permission to shut down things that get out of hand.  Most online discussion forums have a way for their owners to remove discussions and eject members.  It’s a crude tool, but effective as the ultimate “big stick” threat.

Most discussion forums list some “rules of behavior” which include respect, politeness, and such.  But in my experience, if people even read them they’re quickly forgotten, replaced by what people perceive as the group’s social norms.  So it’s much more important how people BEHAVE than whatever is written in a policy.  But the policy can help whoever does enforcement to have a basis for making those decisions.

Jump on in to social media!  But be aware that the relationships can sometimes feel different than they do in real life.