But forums still have their merits.
To avoid the frustration and disappointment of expecting netiquette from your fellow posters, you need to know the good and the bad of discussion boards.
Discussions online and offline
An in-person discussion is a mutual exchange between two or more people. Ideally, each person is heard and validated, and everyone benefits from the exploration of ideas.
In an online discussion, however, there are the obvious dangers of flaming and trolling. But there are also differences in format, delivery, and meaning, that impede upon the ways in which each poster involved can be “heard” and validated.
Structure of discussion threads
- Because of the nature of threaded comments (where comments thread after one another in list fashion), there can be several conversations within a conversation. So no one in the thread is obligated to read, consider, or respond to what you say when they post their own comment (all they have to do is pile onto the list).
- To further their argument, a poster can cleverly quote specific bits of what you say and ignore the rest (how’s that for fair debating?). So even if you ask direct questions, they can carry on with the conversation based on what they want to talk about—which is ideal for tactics such as evasion and deflection.
- Because the discussion takes place in cyberspace (not a physical space where you are physically present) there is less accountability for answering to you directly and honestly as if you were face-to-face.
Delivery and meaning
- Emotional tone can translate poorly to written text and can easily lead to misunderstanding.
- Meaning is easily convoluted when there is no emotional tone or when that tone is poorly translated.
- Sarcasm doesn’t translate well. Sarcasm in person is usually passive aggressive anyway, but on forums it comes across without the “passive.”
- While intended to be cute, smilies can be deployed as passive attacks (e.g., using a winking smilie to imply, “I’m right and you are wrong, and we both know it.”).
- If a poster finds your message offending or downright wrong, they can hairsplit it without actually considering what you are really saying. Hairsplitting is much easier with the manipulation of printed words.
- Because you may not know a poster personally, you have less to work with based on their personality, history, tone of voice, etc. And the same is true for them. So you and they can be quick to judge and interpret what’s said based on inaccurate assumptions.
- In an in-person conversation, it’s much easier to ask the other person directly to clarify on what they are saying—online, it can be cumbersome when lots of words are involved that may not have even been “heard” in the first place (especially if five other conversations are going on in the same space).
Then what’s so good about forum discussions?
Just because forum discussions come short in many ways that in-person discussions do not, they are still a valid form of communication.
Any form of communication is uniquely positioned with its own set of strengths and weaknesses. The trick is weeding through the shortcomings and seeking out the positive benefits.
If you reframe the weaknesses of forum discussions into strengths, you see that forums challenge you to hold your boundaries and learn healthy detachment. When posters ignore your main points, twist your words in their favor, take cheap shots with innocent smilie bystanders, or evade your confrontations by hiding in the cracks of cyberspace, you have a choice to:
- a) Get upset and react emotionally, possibly squalshing huge chunks of time with your carefully calculated and heated come-backs*
- b) Detach from the conversation and remember that you can rarely ever “win” a debate online anyway… since years later more posters can flood the thread with their own tunnel visions
Realizing and exercising that choice creates greater mindfulness, and ultimately serves your personal growth.
A forum is a mental-boundaries training ground
A forum is an ideal environment for practicing mental boundaries—boundaries that protect your mental resources, your ideas, your identity, and your integrity. Boundaries that protect you from wasting precious resources, such as your time or energy, by “defending” your beliefs when you don’t have to.
A forum challenges you to know what you know without having to make everyone agree with you—so that you can be more right than you were before. When you know what you know what you know—it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, or anonymously writes about online.
A forum is also a good place to gauge your responses to comments, no matter how outlandish those comments (or your responses) may be. It’s a good place to see what gets a rise from you—and why that is. It’s a great place to recognize what triggers you—and what you can do about that.
Here are some other strengths of forums:
- Everything is recorded, so you can take more time to digest ideas.
- Given posters don’t edit their posts, they have to be accountable for what they have previously stated. In an in-person scenario it’s easy for people have selective memory for what they said in the past—on a forum, it’s recorded.
- There’s no time constraint on the discussion, so you can take a few days to think about your next post.
- There’s no time constraint on the discussion, so it can endure for years and still be relevant, unlike most in-person discussions.
- Anyone can take the discussion off on their own tangent, so if you study the transcript, you may get a taste of the diverse viewpoints that would be hard to capture in many in-person discussion groups.
- Anonymity can allow posters to feel safe enough to divulge sensitive information that they may not feel comfortable sharing in an in-person environment. This can add depth to the conversation.
- Anyone can evade, deflect, veil attacks, be passive aggressive with smilies, and nitpick to their heart’s desire, which is an ideal opportunity for the psychoanalysts (like me) who enjoy seeing how people’s words are (in)congruent with their (posting) behaviors.
When to stay in the thread, when to walk away
The truth about online forum discussions is that they have many strengths and many weaknesses.
The truth is that they challenge you to practice healthy detachment.
What you need to know is how the conversation is going. Is it mutual between you and the others conversing with you? Is it fair? Is it worth your time? Is it upsetting you? Is it helping you understand your emotional triggers? Is it a good mental-boundaries training ground?
When you see that forums are there for you—for your intellectual development—it will be pretty clear when to stay in a thread, and when to walk away. ;)
*Keep in mind that sometimes option a is required for option b. Sometimes you have to get upset before you can realize what’s making you upset—and then solve the real problem, which may just be a dysfunctional belief you have.