Shouting over the fence.

I’m inspired tonight to blog on the subject of arguments.

I love a good barney as much as the next fellow, but it’s recently struck me how counterproductive the comments on blogs are for a good old fashioned row.

People have been using Bulletin Boards then Social site comments and message boards and more recently the comments sections of news blogs and even Twitter @ replies to engage each other in debate for years. It’s like using the letters page of the Times, but better because the whole exchange can be viewed and reviewed in one timeline.

However, it’s also no more productive than slanging matches conducted through broadsheet correspondence pages. Critically, you could end up looking like a monomaniacal muppet. Here are my personal guidelines to dealing with people who are wrong online:

1. Everybody thinks they are right. If you feel compelled to offer correction, do so with grace and be prepared to be contradicted or ignored.

2. Especially on Twitter, where anyone following you both will see the @ replies between you, avoid drawn out argumental exchanges. You may be right, justified, passionate and well informed. The other party will no doubt be badly mistaken and as stubborn as a mule. Everybody else just sees a pair of idiots yelling at each other over the fence.

3. You don’t need facts, truth, or evidence. It’s a disagreement. There are no rules saying you have to accept or refute what is said to you and if it’s really important you should pursue dialogue away from the public eye. Equally, nothing says you must be believed or respected. Reacting angrily to being told to go away is also pointless in the extreme.

4. Not replying infuriates those with a real axe to grind. The fury online will pass. If you are a Media org or public body expectations will differ, but as an individual you aren’t accountable to everyone with a modem and a keyboard.

5. Be human and do business. It’s very bad manners to publicise an argument anyway, but don’t be tempted to pursue someone with passive agression or copy your argument to everyone else. If it’s really that important, write them a letter, make a phone call or drop by (not unannounced, naturally) rather than rely on online exchanges of dry text. Escalating the coverage of your argument marks you out as attention seeking. You can’t regulate how people react to that, and you risk undermining your future reputation for confidentiality and maintaining a level head.

Of course, you are all more than welcome to disagree with me, and I’m not suggesting for a minute I always behave in this way.


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