Suggestions for Online EA Discussion Norms

by vaidehi_agarwalla5 min read24th Sep 20206 comments

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There aren’t many resources on online discussion norms within the EA community, particularly for Facebook. Recently there have been some thoughtful discussions on online discussion norms and I thought it would be useful to compile some of the advice that has been shared in the last few months in one place, since I learnt a lot of helpful advice from those posts. 

This is meant to be a collaborative post, so I’d be keen to hear further suggestions in the comments or directly to this google doc. Thank you to Sky Mayhew, Julia Wise, John Maxwell, David Nash and Geoffrey Yip for valuable contributions to the first version of this post. 

Steps everyone can take

Community members can help uphold and model good discussion norms, and also intervene when a discussion gets heated. Below are suggestions for what to do in both scenarios:

Modeling good discussion norms

The following are some standard communication advice, most of which apply to many different kinds of discussion (in-person, online, 1-1, group). Each of these are tools that will be useful some of the time, but you don't have to do all of them every time. They may come in more useful when discussing particularly controversial topics.  

Adopt a scout mindset

“The drive not to make one idea win or another lose, but to see what’s there as honestly and accurately as you can.” (Julia Galef)

Some specific ways to do this:

  1. Demonstrate epistemic modesty - communicate your personal view on a topic, rather than making broad declarative statements which could lead to other people moving into a more combative or defensive mode.
    • Use I-statements
    • Indicate how certain you are in the statements you are making (i.e. your epistemic status). You can also explain how you came to your beliefs (e.g. “I have a degree in biology” or “I spent 1 hour researching this topic”)
    • Avoid generalizations. Add details and context when posting, make statements or questions specific, include more information or references when possible. 
    • Remember we’re a global community and people bring different assumptions, experiences, “local” knowledge, and native languages to discussions. Although the US is a large presence, US assumptions might not be familiar to or preferred by someone from another country (the reverse is also true, of course).
  2. Engage in good faith. Paraphrasing the other person’s points can help identify actual disagreements versus perceived disagreements. You could also ask for clarifications on the other person's point before responding, even if you are sure of what they mean.
  3. Be willing to change your mind on a view (have epistemic humility), even if you are confident you are right.
    • When possible, try to think about what would need to be true in order for you to change your mind. Read More.
    • It can be useful to put numbers or estimates on what you think. This could sometimes feel pedantic to those of us more used to qualitative than quantitative assessments. But getting specifying your ballpark ranges might save you from a lot of frustration. Rather than 10 messages back and forth, you might realise that your disagreement is relatively minor or that you actually agree but have different concepts of “large” and “small” for example.
  4. Try to connect with and identify the emotions of the other person. Certain conversations can become very personal or emotional, and recognizing could help you engage better with the other person.

Be willing to disengage

Stop the conversation if you believe it is not productive or you don't wish to engage anymore. Sometimes, this may be the best outcome. 

Taking the discussion private

Some topics of conversation are best had in face-to-face, or real-time conversations. Consider taking the discussion to a private message or a call where you can work through information with more vulnerability. 

Private 1-on-1 communications are much higher bandwidth, less ego-driven, and more amenable to the resolution of misunderstandings. You could post afterwards about what you learned and whether you changed your mind on anything. More on this

Ask for help or advice if you need it

If you are frustrated or angry by an online discussion, or don’t know what the best thing to do is, take some time before posting to reflect on the conversation, what your response might be and how it would be received, and how all of this would affect you. 

You could talk to online discussion group moderators, local group organisers, trusted friends, colleagues, or CEA's community health team

Note: You can find Facebook group moderators via the “Members” tab of each group and message them from there. When you report a post or comment, the moderators are notified. Since most moderators are volunteers, keep in mind they may be slow to respond. 

Being an active bystander 

If you’re not directly involved, you may be able to help defuse a situation or prevent it from escalating. It will likely be easier to de-escalate a conversation before it gets too heated, and the main thing you could do here is to change the tone of the conversation as early as possible, since combativeness can beget combativeness. 

  1. You can report comments that you think are violating the standard discussion norms to the moderators.
  2. You can ask commenter(s) who are making unproductive comments to rephrase their comment(s) and express themselves in a friendlier or less confrontational tone. It will likely not be useful to ask them to change the content, meaning or position they hold (and may make them more defensive). Your goal is to change the tone of the conversation, not to convince the person they are right or wrong.
    • It is likely best to initiate a private conversation first, because private conversations are less confrontational than public comments. You can Facebook friend the person (it’s harder to view message requests from non-friends as they are often hidden). If you don’t want to add them as a friend you could ask one of the online discussion group moderators to do so.
    • When asking the person to rephrase their comment, it can be useful suggest a rewrite yourself.
      • Example: Someone noticed a commenter who appeared to be name calling another person. This is how they might have rewritten the comment: "I have this point of view because of this reason. I see other people with this different approach and I find it odd because it seems so much in conflict with what I've learned. I wonder how they got to that conclusion."
    • If they do not respond to your messages, you could comment something similar and try to rephrase/interpret their comments in a more productive way. This may prevent others inferring the worst from a comment and reacting strongly to it.
  3. You could ask the people in the discussion to take the discussion offline to a different platform or private message. There are several techniques for face-to-face discussions, one such method is an empathy circle.
  4. You could remind everyone in the conversation (including potential future readers) that the current platform may not be the best medium for this discussion and that engaging with combative comments may not be productive.
    • You could remind people that Facebook can make hard conversations worse and incentivize people to behave and perceive each other more negatively than they would on a different platform.
    • Facebook posts are optimized for easy posting, likes, and visibility, not for learning from each other. The platform may not "want" to slow things down, encourage people to read the full context before contributing, reduce pile-ons, reduce signaling, take things off-platform, etc.
    • Facebook discussions are shorter and asynchronous, and lack personal context, which could lead to more misunderstandings and make people less likely to engage in good faith.
    • From Sky at CEA: “I've had a lot of challenging conversations with people in the past and recently. Based on those experiences, I have strong reason to believe that if the exact same people started the exact same conversation on a different platform (or in person, obviously), it goes much, much better -- even when people still very much disagree.”

Steps community builders can take

Read Moderating Online Spaces by Julia Wise (CEA) about starting and moderating groups. It contains tips on the audience, topics of discussion, group policies and moderation. 

If you’re a local group organiser, or part of a local group

  1. You might want to have an explicit discussion at your next meetup if there seems to be a need. You could also send an email restating community guidelines & standards, and specifically highlight good practices for online discussion norms.
  2. You could run a Speed Updating or Productive Disagreements events every few months to try and encourage group members to adopt these discussion norms and deal with serious disagreements they might have.
  3. You could read some of the resources linked below to get a better understanding of the thinking about these issues.

If you’re a virtual group organiser or moderator

  • Think about how you filter people who join the group,  as this could reduce the need for moderation. See the tips in Julia’s document.
  • You could run regular virtual events so there is a space for people to have real-time, face-to-face conversations. Icebreaker works well for group members to get to know each, and you can also do virtual Speed Updating Icebreakers.
  • You could make a post reminding individuals of the community guidelines for your groups, and try to start a discussion around them if needed.

Further Reading

  • Part I of this guide to a Productive Disagreements activity on why disagreements are often unproductive by Spencer Greenberg
  • Summary of the article “Helping Others Reevaluate Deep Seated Beliefs” from the Harvard Business Review by David Nash
  • There has been some discussion in the rationality community on this topic.
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