The Unspoken Language – Misunderstandings on the Internet

One of the major problems with communication on the Internet is the lack of tone, context and body language. Major misunderstandings have emerged because of satire, the intended tone of a piece of writing or simply the brevity of the missive. This has become a major issue in blogging, I know that several of the progressive and conservative political blogs I read in the United States have fallen victim to misinterpretations. The high level of tension in political writing leads to some spectacular bickering and amusing misunderstandings.

These misunderstandings are an area of concern to be aware of when creating intentional communities on the Internet. Communities of Practice are not made up of the forum software or the server it is hosted on but the people involved. Cranky people with attitude and strong convictions. This is especially true with professionals and experts in their field. As an administrator of such communities you need to have a very deft touch in mediating disputes. Here are some basic rules for mediating disputes in online communities.

1. Have a community developed code of conduct and enforce it carefully and fairly. This should be written and posted in a very visible location in your forum.

2.  Identify your champions in the forum. These people are your core focus. This does not mean that they can get away with everything.

3. Welcome newcomers and encourage them to spend some time acclimating to the forums.

4. Use private messages to correct and encourage civility in heated disputes

5. Get a good moderating team together. A few of your top posters can review new messages, approve new  members and significantly reduce the workload of the person in charge of the forum.

As a case study and thought experiment, I’m going to use myself as an example. We always learn best from our own experiences.

I am an occasional writer of cranky letters to the editor, of which I’ll provide the most recent sample below.

LDS Protests Too Much

This letter elicited a response

Polygamy Debate

Think about the tone of each letter. Now try a bit of a thought experiment, reading the letters with different inflections and emotions in your mind.

Ernest

Sarcastic

Upset

Amused

Distant

Notice how different each letter appears?

Now this is only religion and politics. See the Consumerist for how bad it gets when you get business involved. [Grin]

The original article that sparked all this is here.

A sample of the letters I reference in my Letter to the Editor is here.

If the links are broken due to the limited archiving at the Calgary Herald, please feel free to contact me for PDF copies.

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