Making a habit of community

A post on one of the Pagan forums I spend time on caught my attention this week. This person was very unhappy with a post in a thread, and was upset that he couldn’t go and respond there. In other words, he didn’t really get the community culture.

All communities have an internal culture – at least if they’ve been going for more than a month or two. Some of this culture may be obvious – but some of it often isn’t. There are many nuances, and it’s often assumed that people will pick up the details as they go along. This isn’t hard – but a lot of people don’t seem to do it, or don’t seem conscious of how to. The list below – my list of “Stuff I pay attention to” isn’t new and bizarre. It’s stuff that works in your work life. If you move to a new area. And it works if you’re looking for a face to face group, whether that’s knitting or a coven.

Why care?

These days, online,  many people create an account, and immediately start posting – and then wonder why they’re having problems in their conversations. This is uncomfortable and unpleasant – but it’s also a direct result of some of their choices. The thing that’s always gotten me is that many of these issues are easily avoided: a little time, attention, and patience go a long way in making an entry to a new group fairly comfortable. You don’t need any special tools beyond what you’d already be using – just a little time, patience, and self-control.

Step 1) Do your homework.

Don’t sign up for every group you can find on a topic all at once. It’s easy to get confused between different forums, and it can be harder to learn a particular list or forum’s style and approach. (It’s also easy to get overwhelmed and have a hard time keeping up with new posts, and that’s not much fun.)

Focus on a couple of groups that seem like the best fit for what you’re looking for. Read their rules and guidelines – often these will tell you whether or not it might be a good fit for you. The guidelines often will mention their expectations, sensitive topics, and other things you will want to know to avoid a rough entry.

Larger groups often have rules about everything from signature size to where or how advertisements can be posted, to how they handle people asking for research participants. These rules are there because the situation’s come up, and needed to be addressed – even if the reason isn’t obvious to you, there’s probably a good reason for it. You can ask about it – later – if you still have questions, but for right now, just follow their rules.

2) Listen more than you talk for a while:

New posters online used to be advised to ‘lurk’ (read without posting) for 2 weeks or so when entering a new group. You’ll get a good sense of frequent posters, common topics, and issues that keep coming up. (My take on this is “I prefer to learn from other people’s mistakes – less painful!”)

You also begin to get a sense of the more frequent posters – who do you find thoughtful? And a sense of  people you might want to ignore or at least pay less attention to – people who constantly turn the discussion to their pet topic, who troll looking for emotional responses, or who are needlessly cruel or snippy. And you’d get a good sense of the way specific terms are used on the group, both terms in the area of interest – and some group in-jokes.

Restrain yourself from jumping in to correct someone who is obviously mistaken – chances are, in a larger forum, that someone else will post and correct factual errors – and people will tend to prefer their own opinions, preferences, or experiences to that of a total stranger. Give people time to get to know you, and you’ll be more persuasive. If you still really want to comment on something, let it sit overnight before posting: you’ll probably find ways to make your post a little calmer when you review it.

3) Learn the forum’s culture:

Some forums are fine with long, detailed posts. Some have many shorter posts, and people who apologise if they go over two paragraphs. It’s probably clear which of the two I tend to do better in! (Brevity and conciseness are not my virtues without a lot of editing work.) Some forums like examples and informal references – others rely heavily on personal experience and see references as distancing or elitist.

And in the Pagan community, there’s one particularly strong distinction: some forums are focused on fellowship and support, while others are focused on debate, discussion, or critical thinking and evaluation. People who want one and end up in the other tend to be uncomfortable – but fortunately, many forums make it clear which way they lean.

4) Take it slowly:

Once you’ve read for a bit, you’ll have an idea which topics may be sensitive, prone to producing lengthy discussion, or that may get a bit heated. If you’d like a more comfortable introduction to the forum, avoid those. Start with something else. As you continue to get a feel for the forum, you can branch out into more complex discussions more easily.

Plus, as regulars on the forum get a feel for you, they’re more likely to give you a little bit of leeway if you say something a bit odd. If you have consistently come across as friendly but very new to this and you say something that’s potentially insulting, you’ll get different responses than someone who’s come across as antagonistic from their first post.

5) Consider how you want to present yourself:

As in face-to-face settings, people will form opinions of you based on how you behave – this is especially true in your early interactions on a forum (the first 25-50 or so, depending on how often you post, and what about.) It’s worth paying some extra attention to how you come across – take a moment to check what you’ve written for clarity, and whether there’s anything that might be misread.

Don’t make your first posts to a new forum at a time when you’re really rushed, emotional, or unable to think clearly unless you really do need urgent help with something. (And if that’s the case, ask your questions, calm down, and *then* come back and post more.) Just like meeting a group of new people in a face to face setting, why not put your best foot forward?

6) If you have questions, be polite:

Assume that a rule is there for a reason. Don’t single people out. Be thoughtful and polite. (Please and thank you never hurt.) For example, the person who got me thinking about this would have gotten a different response if he’d said “Hey, what’s the reasoning behind the full membership thing? I saw something in a folder I can’t post in that frustrates me, but I can’t respond.” than he did by posting something more antagonistic (and quoting the specific post.) Sometimes, it’s all in the style.

(By polite, I don’t mean obsequious – I just mean that you should avoid insults, dismissals of others, and other things like that.)

And here’s the thing:

These things? If you treat them like habits, will make it easier for you, if and when you do go looking for a group in person. Or you move, and want to break into a new social community. Or you start a new job. They’re not an obsolete set of random rules, they’re things that are common to human communities.  But that only works if you make them a habit – and apply them in different areas of your life, so they become second nature.

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