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Running Your Own Online Discussion Groups

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At their best, online discussion groups expand your business and social contacts, exposing you to information and opinion you wouldn’t find otherwise and to worldwide camaraderie.

In one discussion group I frequent, the camaraderie was recently shattered when the moderator decided to ban one of the regulars who kept sending inflammatory and insulting posts despite complaints from members and warnings from the moderator.

It was an agonizing decision for the moderator, and although members agreed with the decision for the most part, the group erupted into a paroxysm of analysis and debate about the incident.

Among other things, instead of discussing the subject matter of the group, people speculated about the mental status of the person banned. “There’s a lot of anger in him, which is very sad,” one said. Another said that she liked him, and “the rising level of antisocial behavior has me worried for him.” Online, such situations, sometimes, are inevitable.

Online discussion groups can be unmoderated or moderated. In an unmoderated group, people are free, in general, to speak as they wish, with the main constraint being group pressure. In a moderated group, people have to speak according to tighter rules and guidelines or risk having their posts censored or their participation completely banned.

If You Want to Start a Group

It’s easier than ever to form your own online discussion group today, whether you do it through your organization’s Web site, from your own personal blog, or with the help of Yahoo Groups (groups.yahoo.com), a part of the Yahoo complex of Internet services that also include Web searching, email accounts, online shopping and auctions, news and weather, and more.

Yahoo Groups is a free, advertising-supported service for those who participate in groups as well as those who create them. Creating them is easy. Yahoo’s automated system walks you through the process, even providing a handy way to send email to people inviting them to join.

Yahoo recommends that you first look through the Yahoo Groups directory to see whether a group like yours already exists–if it does, you may want to rethink creating your group–and how to categorize your group if you do create it.

People can participate in your Yahoo Group via email or from the Yahoo Groups Web site, with email participation being faster and more convenient. You receive messages from other participants just like any other email messages, but when you respond, your messages go to everybody in the group.

Tips for Moderators

Being a group moderator is tricky, however, whether you’re moderating a Yahoo Groups discussion group, or the discussion area of your company’s Web site, or your own personal blog. Some moderators look at themselves as lords of minifiefdoms, abusing the power that moderation gives them and heavy-handedly ordering people around or warning participants not to do anything to anger them.

Successful moderation requires a light touch and a heavy dose of tact,

empathy, patience, and self-effacement.

Russ Allbery, a system administrator at Stanford University who moderates several Usenet newsgroups, has put together an FAQ about moderation (www.eyrie.org/~eagle/faqs/mod-pitfalls.html). He offers these words of advice for would-be discussion group moderators:

“Are you able to be infallibly polite? Or at least know when you need to cool off a bit before responding? Remember, people expect anything they post to be approved, and you’re going to have to reject some of it. They’re going to be upset about that. Quite frequently they’re going to be angry. Sometimes very angry. You don’t get the luxury of losing your temper.”

Rejecting posts is inevitable. Joel Spolsky, designer of FogBugz (www.fogcreek.com), a project-management program for software developers with discussion group features, has this to say about online discussions:

“Any public discussion group elicits antisocial behavior from a small

number of disruptive users, whether through boredom, maliciousness, or the desire to perpetrate a scam. As soon as you delete their posts, whether they’re spam ads for mortgage refinancing or simply off-topic, people like this will log on under a different name to complain about censorship and prattle about their First Amendment rights.”

Spolsky continues: “This creates a secondary effect of well-meaning people who didn’t see the deleted post quoting Voltaire and complaining about censorship as well, and the downward spiral begins. If this happens too much, it will drive people away.”

To avoid this syndrome, Spolsky advises moderators to explain politely to a participant why a post was inappropriate and, if possible, to move it to an off-topic area, away from the main discussion.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.


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