Festival2011/Cyberrhetoric: The Power of Online Discussion

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Workshop led by Rebecca Hanson at Mozilla Festival: Sunday 6 Nov 2011 2pm. (retrospective notes including points raised by participants)

For the purpose of this topic, mass online discussion is discussions in forums and discussions in the comment threads to newspaper articles, blogs and the like.

Cyberrhetoric is art of posting in disciplined ways designed to make mass online discussions thrive, to militate against the repeated expression of strong opinions which are not grounded in evidence and to defuse abusive behaviour. It is not the art of winning arguments – in fact it is quite the opposite – it is the art of diffusing arguments and turning them into vibrant discussions where participants with a wide variety of perspectives enjoy the opportunity to explore many deep aspects of a topic together.

For cyberrhetoric to work forum moderation needs to be light and impartial. If the moderation of the forum is partial, a poster who is well informed on issues which touch the sensitivities of the partial moderation and who applies the disciplines of cyberrhetoric is likely to threaten and/or diagnose the partialities of the moderation so abusive behaviour may increase and/or the participant may be banned.

It helps if the mass online discussion is structured so the participants who are prepared to share relevant information about themselves can easily do so.

It’s also helpful if mass online discussions either have either a PM (personal messaging) system or they have indentations within the thread to allow personal conversations.

Bilal Randeree from Al Jazeera described their moderation strategies at his fireside chat which were along the lines of – if a participant flags a post it disappears from their view. If (4?) participants flag a post it disappears and goes to the moderator who reinstates it if is disliked because it holds a strong view but deletes it if it uses inappropriate language or is spam or clearly breaches T&C.

Some general rules of cyberrhetoric

Never attack the person. Always comment on an aspect of the discussion. It doesn’t matter if lots of people were extremely abusive to you and you were only slightly unpleasant back. Don’t be!

Be clear who you are addressing in every part of every post. Use the PM system or indentation to explore issues relevant to you and one other participant but not to the whole discussion.

Never assume you know (or post as if you know) someone else’s position. People’s points of view are very complex and context specific and in mass online discussions they are often developing or changing. If you want to know someone’s point of view then ask, don’t assume. (Don’t “straw man” them).

Hang around the discussion and try to answer all questions people ask you even if your answer is "I'm sorry I don't know". A few times a day is ideal. You’ll need access to a keyboard.

Hold no sacred cows or at least as few as you can. Be prepared to be changed by new evidence and deeper insights. If you have them don’t hide them. Try to state them and live with them openly.

Off topic/related topic discussion can be useful, especially if it involves the exploration of a real example which illustrates an aspect of the discussion. In general if a conversation is getting stuck this is a useful device to try. If the conversation is losing focus and becoming chaotic post only on the original theme and ignore all side topics until coherency is restored. Be aware of the etiquette here. You should defer to the opening poster (OPer) if they are directing the discussion. If they are not and there is a dispute regarding whether the conversation should meander or should stick to the original theme, sticking to the original theme wins. If no one objects to a conversation drifting then it’s fine for it to drift.

Some good types of posts

Say what you think people have said (but not in an accusatorial way). Because of the missing body language cues people have rarely come across as they think they have. Here is an example of a good post structure:

  • Name*: It sounds like you’ve said *whatever*. It that what you intended to say? If so could you explain why you think that?

When you want to make a point, find an internet reference for it. Make your point and provide the hyperlink to your source. This invites deep analysis of your evidence while an unreferenced point invites another unreferenced opinion:

Here is an example of a suitable post:

  • Name*: You have raised concerns about China’s control of the world’s supplies of neodymium and how this might impact on the future costs of constructing turbines. You may be interested to note that there has recently been a very substantial discovery of neodymium reserves in Afghanistan:


Back down and apologise. If you behaved in an inappropriate way or you have changed your mind, apologise or state your change of mind clearly and then move on. E.g.:

  • Name*: I regret my comment to you which has offended you and I apologise to you for it.

You raised an interesting point regarding *an aspect of the topic being discussed*......* move on to your point*.

  • Name*: You are correct in saying that I stated *whatever you said*. I would like to clearly state that I no longer hold that view. My opinion is now that *whatever it is*.

It is fine and often necessary to repeat yourself. Make your point in a slightly different way each time. If people have not read your link and their comments indicate that they should then say so and say why it’s so important that they read the linked article.

Ignore all the bluster and abuse and create a reply which extracts a valid detail from a post and interacts only with that.

Help people with strong views you don’t necessarily agree with to express themselves clearly. People often have fears which have got out of control and this helps to bound them and make them easier to discuss.

Here is a genuine example of a reply which illustrates these two points:

Carol Rebecca: Can you hear me laughing at your stale impudence? Even your beloved Wiki lists the many acts of aggression against Israel from its neighbors. Or is Wiki part of the brainwashed system that's controlled by the Jews and US?

Reply from Rebecca: Which particular points regarding the aggression against Israel are you trying to make Carol? Please could you list and reference them? Wiki is fine.

The arrival of a new entrant into the discussion is often an excellent time to write a post which summarises key points arising so far. Reviewing a conversation is a useful thing to do. Important links you posted soon get lost in the depths for active discussions so it is useful to refresh them both so new entrants see those key links again and because you become expert at finding them rapidly whenever you need them.

The image of the dysfunctional dinner party

No set of rules is ever perfect and I used this image to try and humanise the experience of being in a difficult discussion forum so that when the rules fail you have a mental image to fall back on.

You will annoy people. You will write posts you regret. You may well get upset and annoyed. Conversations may rapidly move to topics which you have never talked about before and which you find emotionally difficult to engage with.

You will feel again and again like you’re making progress with someone’s extreme views only to find you’re not. You will probably need to take time out. You may need to leave or put some distance in time between writing your posts and posting the.

The consequences of your involvement may be that you find a new friend in one of the other participants and that can be a wonderful outcome.

However careful you are in your posts, it takes time to get to know the community of posters in a discussion or who comment on stories or blogs. Some people find lurking helps, but I find people often respond differently to me to how they do to others so it’s less useful. I simply make a start and work away at getting to know them slowly. If you’re commenting on a blog it helps to comment on most posts for a while so that the community of regular posters begin to get to know you and you get to know them.

My background is in teaching challenging classes of teenagers and that’s clearly one of the reasons I feel so comfortable in chaotic and confrontational forums. It takes time to become comfortable in situations where people are being strongly opinionated and aggressive towards you. Be kind to yourself and accept that it may take you a long time to adjust to this environment. In the early days kids and communities behave as if you won’t be around for long and my deliberately test you out to see if you can hack it. Just sticking around long enough for them get to know you is often important. When you start to get some successes – some people suddenly shifting from being abusive to being brilliantly insightful – you get an energy from it which inspires you to carry on.

A couple of discussions you may like to look at:

A recent discussion which has inspired me has been: on > linkedin.com in the group > TED: Ideas Worth Sharing on the thread > Why would/ should Palestine not request to be permenant member for UNO? (The TED group is an open group so if you’re on Linkedin.com adjust the window in the top right to search for groups and you should be able to find it and view it directly)

It’s inspired me because it took a long time to make it productive but it has become extremely informative place to be. It also makes me believe that the days when owning the media gave individuals tremendous power regarding what would be believed are nearly over. The thread does not, of course, show the substantial number of personal messages which passed between participants in the thread. This example from John Redwood’s blog shows how I interacted with both him and the commentators on his blog to shape a discussion which far more deeply informed his original post on the day he made that post. My interaction (as Rebecca Hanson) starts just over half way down the page. [2]

Next steps for me:

Following discussion at the workshop I have set up the twitter handle: @cyberrhetoric which I will use to make posts relevant to this topic. Please do follow it and please do interact with me on it as I have no idea how to use Twitter and need to learn.

I have also set up a blog for cyberrhetoric: [3]where I will post this and other documents.

I intend to write further on both cyberrhetoric and other key related topics – such as the benefits of mass online discussion and their applications to the enhancement of democracy and the generation of intellectual capital. I intend to publish any such articles on Scribd. com where you can find this earlier article: http://www.scribd.com/doc/55142332/Exploring-Discussion-Forums which explores the history of discussion forums as well as my personal journey into using and coming to love them.

I’d like to take this opportunity to offer my sincere thanks to all who took part in the cyberrhetoric workshop.

Rebecca 9th November 2011