I've been watching a dispute in the comments and forums of our local newspaper for several months now. The tone has completely degenerated and any valid points over the initial topic are being lost amid the spew of name calling and nastiness. It's a topic about which I feel strongly, and it's been hard not to get involved. I've been so tempted to join in the fray, but am so glad I have not.
Online forums can be wonderful. I have formed some special and lasting friendships with people I have met online and learned so much from other forums - everything from what the noise that my car is making probably means and appliance recommendations to interval training routines and sources for fresh squash blossoms. Online forums are one of the strengths - and, sometimes, weaknesses - of the Internet.
Just as with regular email - and in real life - you must be careful in online forums. Online disagreements can quickly turn into much bigger disputes that slide into flame wars. This seems to be particularly true of parenting-related issues because they are issues so personal and individual and important to each of us. And that's no fun for anyone.
More than just email
When you choose to participate in a forum, there are some things you need to know:
- Tread carefully.
- If the forum has established rules, abide by them.
- Just like in real life, treat others in the forum as you would want to be treated. Just because it's mostly "faceless" medium of communication doesn't mean there aren't real faces and feelings on the other end.
- Be careful about what identifying information you reveal about yourself until you are really sure about the people who have access to that information.
- Think before you click send.
- Remember that feelings and emotions can be misconstrued in forum posts. Be careful - and quick to apologize.
With those basic rules, you should get along just fine and you probably will have a wonderful experience. But occasionally controversial issues come up. And, sometimes, before you realize it, you are in deep. The best thing to do in such situations is just stop. Seriously. Stop, get up from the computer and walk away. Take some deep breaths and consider your next action carefully (which may require some delicate diplomacy).
When you can't help it
If you find that you can't walk away, that you can't not get involved with a controversial topic, proceed very, very cautiously. By now you are probably deeply emotionally involved, so it's going to be tough to extract yourself, but you need to make sure you have outs. Try not to declare ultimatums or declare something from which you have no way of backing down.
Before clicking send, read and reread what you have written many times. Really and truly be sure it's something you would stand behind in two minutes, two hours, two days, two weeks or two months. Once it's out there, you can't get it back.
Sometimes - most of the time - you can't win
Online flame wars have no winners. Even if everyone else backs down, any sense of satisfaction is short-lived, and you may feel a bit isolated. Is it worth it to win the flame battle or war if, in the end, you lose the friendship the forum gave you in the first place?
And last, but definitely not least, as you engage in online communication, whether positive or a little "flamey," regular email or online forums, remember that your children are watching - whether you think they are or not. Be an example to them.