In today’s hyper-connected world, maintaining and sustaining a civil online culture is incredibly important because it serves as the ethical foundation for the best the Internet has to offer today and in the future.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to hear stories of horrible online abuse and throw up our hands in despair thinking that nothing can be done.
That’s a big mistake. Of course there is difficulty in balancing the demands of freedom of expression and prevention of abuse. This challenge exists at both the level
of private website rules and at the level of legislation. Still, a civil online culture is
achievable, with the right mindset, willingness, and tools.
We live in an era where billions of people are already online, and billions more
are coming online. Citizens can communicate with each other, share knowledge,
debate issues, and become better human beings in the process. Citizens can also
engage in horrible abuse, idiotic commentary, and the spread of falsehoods. We
have a choice about how to behave ourselves, but we also have a choice about what
kinds of systems and social norms we create. That’s why we can and must choose
— Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, from the foreword to Civility in the Digital Age.
I’ve known Andrea Weckerle since the early days of the business use of social media (around 2004/2005). I’ve read Andrea’s blog and followed her progress online as we all experimented and learned about what was then a brave new digital frontier.
Andrea has long been interested in the topic of ‘civility’, about what makes discourse on the internet civil or otherwise, and what drives someone to be so uncivil as to provide the examples we see everyday on Facebook, on blogs, in forums.
Andrea is an American attorney and the founder of CiviliNation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity organization taking a stand against online hostility and adult cyberbullying. CiviliNation’s goal is to foster an online culture in which individuals can fully engage and contribute without fear or threat of being the target of unwarranted abuse, harassment, or lies.
Ok, so that’s her background, now what’s the book about?
Civility in the Digital Age is a practical guide to help you deal with difficult people online, keep your cool, solve problems, and effectively communicate your point of view. It will give you the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate and successfully participate in a frequently uncertain and volatile online environment, discover skills to recognize the different types of conflict and conflict protagonists (including heading them off when possible) and managing them when not.
Simply put, this book can help you take control by proactively dealing with the inevitable conflict inherent in online exchanges.
Much has been written about examples of incivility—the flame wars, the death threats, the ‘trolls’. But very little has been written on what to do about it if you are the victim yourself, or your organisation is. And nothing has been written as succinctly and calmly as this book.
It’s blimmin’ marvellous. Unlike a lot of business books that come out of North America, this one is not full of repetition and hyperbole—praise the heavens!
To prove that, here’s some examples of Andrea’s insights (from Chapter 10. 30-Day Plan for Better Conflict Management Online):
Day 3: Measure Your Existing Digital Footprint
To take inventory of your existing online presence, you need to examine the sites and the profiles you’ve created about your company and yourself, the ones created about you and your company by others, and the sentiment of the various sites or discussions taking place about your company and you, as well as their accuracy, weight, and importance.
☐ List all the websites you’ve created and any other sites that carry your name.
☐ Make a list of all the social media sites you use.
☐ Make a list of all the discussion boards and forums you participate in. (If
you are a business, you may be using your business name, but more likely a
designated person will be posting and commenting on your business’s behalf,
identifying themselves as speaking on behalf of the organization.)
☐ Make a comprehensive list of all the places you’re possibly mentioned online. (Start by putting your or your business’s name into all the major search engines to see what comes up, checking up to the first 10 pages, and making sure to do so both while logged into and out of any Google products such as Gmail, Google calendar, or YouTube.)
☐ Check the images and videos featured on search engines to see if you or your company are mentioned (search engines Google, Yahoo, Bing; image search engine Imagery at http://elzr.com/imagery ; the photo sharing sites Flickr and Photobucket, and websites such as Ask.com; and the video sharing sites YouTube, Metacafe, Vimeo, Dailymotion, Viddler, Revver and blip.tv).
☐ Check the discussion boards and forums that cover your particular industry to see if you or your company are mentioned, starting with Bog Boards and Boardtracker.
That’s an incredibly helpful list, useful not just for conflict management and preparation. Here’s another example of Andrea’s clear-cut writing (from Chapter 8. Into the Trenches: Conflict Resolution Skills and Strategies):
Determining If, When, and How to Respond
If you remember only one thing about how to approach online conflict, it should be this: Determine ahead of time if, when, and how to respond.
Ideally, much of the “ if ” will have been decided before a particular issue presents itself online. For example, if you create a spreadsheet identifying the biggest online conflicts and reputational threats your organization faces, along with their possible iterations, you won’t be caught off-guard when the inevitable dispute arises.
Obviously, not all online issues can or should be addressed (see Figure 8.1 ), but you must have a good idea of which ones you feel are urgent and require immediate action and which ones can wait. Think through legitimate explanations for why certain situations should take precedence over others. Creating this hierarchy can help you prioritize which disputes will need people and resources, and therefore assist you in allocating the necessary support ahead of time.
“When” to respond to conflict should be largely determined by the type and severity of the dispute. Serious disputes must obviously be dealt with quicker than noncritical ones, but there is also a benefit to quickly dealing with simpler and smaller ones to get them out of the way. You can then decide which ones are next in line but can be dealt with later, and which ones can be simply monitored but don’t require any response for the time being.
The reaction time for online problems needs to be much quicker than that in the offline environment. For example, social media crisis manager Melissa Agnes notes that with social media, “your first response to the crisis should be made within minutes of you discovering that the crisis exists. Your first response should simply say that you are aware of the situation, that you’re looking into it and that you will get back to them (your audience, the victims, the public) as soon as you know more. Your official response should be released/published as soon as you have all answers regarding the crisis—and this should be done as soon as physically possible.”
Agnes’s advice is sound and underscores the importance of speed, but not
at the expense of accuracy. Meanwhile, the “ how ,” not surprisingly, must be determined in part by the “if” and “when” previously mentioned. You must look at the disputants, opponents, or critics. If they are influential this is a greater problem than someone who is a bothersome “squeaky wheel” who has limited ability to garner attention and support (keeping in mind, however, that anything can go viral under the right circumstances).
Find out whether you’re dealing with a normal yet disgruntled and angry
individual, or a high conflict individual. According to High-Conflict Institute
co-founder Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., high conflict individuals “have a pattern of
high-conflict behavior that increases conflict rather than reducing or resolving it.
This pattern usually happens over and over again in many different situations with many different people.” They are people who are exceedingly difficult to deal with because of the intensity of their reaction to problems and their habitual blaming of others for things that go wrong. Deciding how you’re going to respond also includes determining which side stands to lose more. Is it you or the other party? This can influence the degree to which someone is willing to negotiate or, alternatively, fight hard if they feel their back is against the wall. Analyzing whether this is a single or repeat-occurrence dispute is also a factor to consider. A repeat occurrence may suggest that you need to approach such disputes differently to minimize their frequency, or that you should consider setting up an entire system to more efficiently deal with these regularly occurring disputes. Furthermore, the resources you have available to you also matter. Included might be a dedicated staff tasked with addressing disputes, in-house public relations professionals or a PR agency with which you have an ongoing relationship, a law firm on retainer in case you need immediate legal assistance, a dispute management budget that enables you to cover unanticipated costs, and supporters that will rally to your defense.
See? Solid info, not self-aggrandizing waffle. The whole book is full of invaluable information. It’s written by a trained mind, not a self-promoting one.
Can I make a couple of suggestions?
Firstly, that you head over to CiviliNation.org and get involved with what the organisation is trying to do – make the Internet a safer, more civil place, a place where “every person can freely participate in a democratic, open, rational and truth-based exchange of ideas and information, without fear or threat of being the target of unwarranted abuse, harassment or lies.”
Secondly, nip over to Amazon, or down to your local Dymocks, to buy a hard copy or Kindle copy of Civility in the Digital Age: How Companies and People Can Triumph over Haters, Trolls, Bullies and Other Jerks (Que Biz-Tech) for yourself.
Because this book is one of my ‘must-read’ books for 2013.