Thursday, June 07, 2007

Putting Out Flames

Imagine that there’s an empty house. It’s built of wood, siding, sheetrock, all the typical building materials. Then imagine that someone comes in and scatters some extra 2x4’s throughout the house. After that, someone puts a lot of papers up on the walls. There’s an old, dead Christmas tree in the corner. Next, someone walks through splattering gasoline throughout each room. Finally, someone lights a match and throws it through a window. Guess what happens?

What caused the fire?

See, some would say the match did. But if someone dropped a match into an empty house, it wouldn’t necessarily catch the whole house on fire. Is it the gasoline? Or the papers and the wood? Without the match, they’d just sit there.

Looking to see what caused the fire is tough, and ultimately, doesn’t change the fact that the house burned down. If you want to save the house, wouldn’t it have been more effective to take better care of it all around? Maybe to not leave flammable and explosive things all over? Maybe to not throw matches in?

So, where’s the analogy, here?

I’ve been participating in internet forums for many years. Back before, in fact, the WWW really took off. Bulletin boards, email groups, newsgroups, communities, they’re all great places to meet people and to network. I’ve met some of my best friends in these groups, and many of them, I’ll never meet face to face. I’ve done some good promotion of my websites in forums as well (although to do it right, you have to be careful not to cross certain lines).

One thing I’ve learned is that the groups are filled with people, and since people are people they don’t always act like people. I know it will surprise you, but some people didn’t learn to play nice with others in kindergarten.

And any time you get a diverse group of people together, either online, or offline, there will be differences of opinions and ideas. That’s part of what makes these groups great. Unfortunately, these differences can often be the wood, the paper, and even the gasoline that explodes when someone, even accidentally, strikes the match.

So, here’s some advice on how to handle things in a forum.

  1. Remember that what you do and say (type) in a forum will establish your reputation within the community. Remember that the community is also your potential customers. Do you want to be viewed as a troublemaker, or a peacemaker.
  2. It IS appropriate to disagree, in fact that’s vital to a living and exciting forum. The question is, are you disagreeing respectfully, or antagonistically?
  3. When you disagree, keep the focus on the idea you’re disagreeing with, not the author of that idea. It’s better to say, “You know, I think that it’s more like this…” than to say, “What were you thinking!?” This is an important concept in communications and relationships. It’s better to use “I” messages, rather than “You” messages. Focus on your response, rather than the other person. “I see it this way”, rather than “You’re crazy!”
  4. Be careful of absolutes. You may strongly believe that your position is right, but consider the possibility that you might not be. If your language is phrased like “I am right and you are wrong,” what happens when you later find out it was the other way around? Tone it back and say, “It seems to me that…”
  5. Often we say things as if they are fact, when the really are opinions. “That movie was garbage!” is stated as fact, but isn’t it really an opinion? You can still express yourself, even strongly, but own the opinion: “I thought that movie was garbage!” That still allows someone else to like it.
  6. Sarcasm, in a medium where you can’t hear tone of voice or read facial expressions, is almost always lost in the transmission. Avoid it, or at least be very careful how you use it. Even in the best of circumstances, face to face, it can be tricky to tell when someone’s being sarcastic or literal. It could be very easy to tick someone off.
  7. Sometimes, when you’re in the moment, writing out a heated response to a flamer, it’s very easy to just hit the “Send” button. Resist that temptation. Take a deep breath. Rewrite. Revise. Regroup.
  8. Keep in mind a sense of perspective. Ten years from now, will it really matter if you win this argument or not?
  9. And what is the prize you’re winning? If you’re wrestling in the dirt, you might win, but you end up just as dirty as the looser. You’re certainly not winning friends and customers.
  10. Keep in mind that you don’t have to reply to or even read every message. There will be many postings in many groups that don’t interest you or don’t pertain to you or your business. That’s fine. Skim them and delete them. That’s what the button is for.
  11. If, after a time, you discover that a particular group is not the group for you, it’s best to simply quietly unsubscribe quietly than to make a big pronouncement. Don’t cause a scene. As a group moderator, I can remember many times, when someone would get up in a huff, and announce that they will leave the group and never darken that little corner of the ‘net again. A few weeks later, I notice that they’re still on the list, still lurking, still reading the messages.

In business, it’s so much more effective to put out the flames, or even better, to prevent them before they happen, than it is to be seen as the guy throwing the matches around.

Mark is the co-director of, the search marketing consulting arm of Clickincome ( Mark also has other sites and blogs, including and his MoBoy blog.

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