The Art of Hosting Good Conversations Online
By Howard Rheingold
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WHAT AN ONLINE HOST WANTS TO ACHIEVE:
GOOD ONLINE DISCUSSIONS:
- The ongoing goal is civil discourse: all kinds of people having conversations and arguments about a variety of subjects and treating each other decently.
- Authentic conversations -- from the head, the heart, and the gut.
- A feeling of ownership. Participants become evangelists.
- A spirit of group creativity, experimentation, exploration, good will.
- A shared committment to work together toward better communication, better conversations. If this is achieved, nothing else is needed.
- A system where people figure out where the conversation is going, by themselves, and settle conflicts among themselves.
- A place where everybody builds social capital individually by improving each other's knowledge capital collaboratively.
A HOST IS...
- Enable people to make contact with other people.
- Enable people to entertain themselves rather than being just the passive consumers of canned entertainment.
- Enable people to create a gift economy for knowledge-sharing.
- Create conditions for ongoing collaboration that return individual effort with a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
- Provide a way for people to get to know each other beyond their usual masks.
- Make newcomers feel welcomed, contributors valued, recreational hasslers ignored.
WHAT A HOST DOES, WHAT A HOST TRIES TO GROW
- A host is like a host at a party. You don't automatically throw a great party by hiring a room and buying some beer. Someone needs to invite an interesting mix of people, greet people at the door, make introductions, start conversations, avert fisticuffs, encourage people to let their hair down and entertain each other.
- A host is also an authority. The host is the person who enforces whatever rules there may be, and will therefore be seen by many as a species of law enforcement officer.
- A host is also an exemplar. Good hosts model the behavior they want others to emulate: read carefully and post entertainingly, informatively, and economically, acknowledge other people by name, assume good will, assert trust until convinced otherwise , add knowledge, offer help , be slow to anger, apologize when wrong, politely ask for clarification, exercise patience when your temper flares.
- A host is also a cybrarian. Good hosts nurture the community memory, pointing newcomers to archives, providing links to related conversations, past and present, hunting down resources to add to the collective pool of knowledge -- and teaching others to do it. Well performed voluntary cybrarianship is contagious.
- A host can be a character in the show, but the show is collaborative improvisation, with the audience onstage.
- All hosts are members of a community of hosts. You can't host communities without communities of hosts.
- Communities can't be manufactured, but you can design the conditions under which they are most likely to emerge, and encourage their growth when they do.
- Communities don't just happen automatically when you provide communication tools: under the right conditions, online communities grow. They are gardened.
- All online systems tend to fail to cohere without careful intervention. But the intervention has to be ground-up, not top-down.
- All online social systems are challenged by human social foibles and technological bugs that tend to split groups apart.
- Positive effort is required to create the conditions and garden the growth of a self-sustaining group.
- Clear rules, sparsely enforced, with an explicit expectation that the community's own norms will emerge later, is important at first. Establish the top-down part at the beginning, then move on. Those who don't like it will leave. The rest will make up their own minds after they get to know each other and the system.
- The kind of rules established before opening day helps determine the kind of crowd that will be found there a year later. The early crowd has a strong impact on later arrivals.
- Making rules after launching, or changing them from the top down is a mistake.
- Keep the rules as few as possible. Keep them simple and based on ordinary human courtesy.
- Within months, each community will want the tools and opportunity to make their own rules. This can be facilitated by means of a process handbook for democratic decision-making, and access to people who have experienced the process themselves.
- Only when everybody shares a clear understanding of a community's social contract can hosts model behavor according to the clearly stated social contract.
- Eventually, natural hosts emerge in each community, and existing hosts should scout and mentor them.
- One point of heart is worth ten points of intellect when recruiting hosts.
- Communities can learn to create their own social contracts and choose their own forms of governance, based on widely agreed, explicitly described, simple statements of purpose and principle, but it isn't easy.
- Remember that both civility and nastiness are contagious.
- Patience is rule numbers one through three: Deliberately add a time delay on your emotional responses before you make any public posting or private e-mail.
- In most cases, NOT saying anything outside the community of hosts is the best decision. The first art of the host is the knowledge of how and when not to act.
- Bring your situation to the host community if you are angry, puzzled, or otherwise uncertain about what to do.
- You need to be cautious about learning by trial-and-error because errors at the beginning can set long-ranging reactions in motion. Establish trust early or expect suspicion for a long time.
- Bend over backwards to be fair and civil when challenged. You are performing the public drama of the foundation myth of the community.
- Have fun! Signal that it's okay to experiment, okay to not take yourself and the whole enterprise too seriously.
- Hosts represent the authority of what few rules there are. People will challenge you just because you represent authority.
- Use Aikido: One ounce of elegance and grace is worth ten pounds of argument. You can charm or seduce discussions back on topic, and conflicts away from the brink of brawl, but you can't force them.
- You feed the behavior of challengers when you lash out at them.
- The way hosts respond to public conflict with citizens, especially the first such conflicts, provides the opportunity to wield the most powerful tool for modelling civil discourse. Do it right, and the community absorbs the lesson. It's also the most dangerous time, if you react angrily, unfairly, or even sarcastically, feeding a downward emotional spiral.
- Challenges are relatively infrequent if you handle the first incoming barrages gracefully. After that, challenges will be less frequent and less important. However, the opportunity and necessity for the host to model hospitable behavior continue as the community grows.
- Force backfires on authority online. You have to persuade and pull because pushing is an automatic loss for authority.
- Avoid taking sides. Not all conflict is to be avoided. If a conflict is important enough to have its hooks into the attention of a large number of members of the population: use it as an occasion to remind people that civility is essential if discussions are to cohere into communities. Conflict tests the boundaries of the community.
- In the long run, this is about democracy. Many communities of practice and interest thrive under autocratic moderation, and they are useful as informed, interactive versions of refereeed journals, but the power of increasing returns -- where the community itself directs the growth of its size and value -- can only emerge from an infectious spirit of voluntary collaboration.
- Don't freeze a topic to make a point. Think about whether the topic belongs to more people than just you. People get really pissed if you use a host power unjustly.
- Hosts get to know people -- from the beginning. Introduce yourself, let people get to know you. Be a good natured servant of the conversation, but you don't have to be characterless, egoless, or colorless.
- Welcome new people, and after the first ones get to know each other, continue to encourage oldtimers to welcome newcomers. Eventually, the community takes over the public welcoming function.
- People's first reactions are most important. Praise them by name. Be interested. Read their profiles and point them to information that you think will be personally relevant to them.
- Names have power. Put your newcomer up on a pedestal by name, for doing something that adds to the community, and that newcomer will amplify that behavior forever after.
- Communicate via email with both promising newcomers and troublemakers.
- Discourage snitching. Don't stir people up in private, but always respond to email queries about social problems by encouraging people to act on their principles publicly.
- Encourage people to talk among themselves.
- Check your participation files and learn who your regulars are. Don't spook your lurkers, but encourage them when they come out.
- Hosts catalyze, facilitate, nurture -- and get outta the way.
- Let the community co-create its own dramas, shared language, founding myth. These all must precede discussion of creating a social contract -- dramas that all witness and participate in, shared language, rituals, myths, jokes, customs are how people get to know and value one another enough to want to go to the trouble of creating a social contract.
- Be a model cybrarian. Show people how to start new topics or suggest them. Show them how to use the tools (links from posts, etc.). Be the memory of the conference -- point and link to relevant info in the past or elsewhere in the community. Encourage others to search and retrieve and link info that is valued by other members of the group -- and praise people who do so.
- Revive old topics by adding to them from time to time.
- Retire old and obsolete topics: put up a list of topics to retire, with a week for public pleading. If people plead, encourage them to revive. Then retire the rest. When in doubt, ask. In most circumstances, don't kill a topic if you can retire it.
- Pose questions for the group to consider.
- Encourage people to hide long responses or big graphics.
- Act as fairwitness. Point people to the classics of Netiquette. Point out the pitfalls of the medium that cause people to misunderstand each other (lack of visual and aural cues).
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