Roger's Rules for Online Behaviour

02/05/2016 21:50

Much online behaviour is terrible. We take things personally, throw insults, shut down debate, never challenge our own ideas, and generally act like idiots. Not you, of course  - but lots of other people. There is a better way.

While I identify as being younger, I'm actually pretty old. I'm so old that I've been advising on what should and shouldn't be allowed online for over 25 years.

From founding the multi-player extendable online game Nanvaent in 1991 (think World of Warcraft with no graphics), through over two decades of online discussion, and working as a media and technology lawyer, I've had a lot of experience in keeping online spaces civil.
I don't know everything. I may know less than you. But I've been around the block a few times, and I'd like to offer guidance on how online discussions can be better.

This isn't mandatory. I'm not saying that you shouldn't talk to someone if they don't follow my rules. I do feel that if more people behaved this way more often, the world would be a better place.

I was going to call them 'Dubar's Laws', but 'Roger's Rules' is better.

Here they are, for discussion. Let me know what you think.

Speak with humility. You might be wrong. The person you are speaking to might be wrong too, but they could have something useful to tell you, if you pay attention. You may both be wrong. There is often no single 'truth', and while facts are facts, not all facts are equal. Mathematical proofs may be rigorously true, but everything else is provisional and our understanding may be refined or replaced at some point in the future. Knowledge is not final, although people who are experts in their field are likely to be less wrong about their specialism than the general public.

Speak with respect. You have no idea what other people have gone through. Even if they are horrible to you, it costs nothing to be nice back. You are allowed to disagree with them. They are allowed to disagree with you. You are allowed to say things that might offend them. They are allowed to say things that might offend you. You being unpleasant doesn't help convince anyone that you are right and they are wrong. People can have access to exactly the same information than you and come up with different conclusions.

Speak with compassion. Has someone said something monumentally stupid or offensive? You flying off the handle isn't going to fix that. We all say and do stupid things sometimes. Maybe you've not quite understood that they are saying? Maybe they've phrased it badly? If you assume the worst about everyone, you will see the worst in everyone. You don't have to assume everything is sunshine, flowers and rainbows: but let's remember that people are people, and that we are all flawed. Cut yourself some slack. Cut everyone else some slack too.

Be aware of context. Something posted to the world as a joke is rarely meant as a personal insult to you. You might find it insulting, but that's not an excuse to abuse someone else. The right of free expression gives us a wide discretion to say what we want, but this should not be used to harass, or incite hatred or violence. That can be illegal. At the very least it's rude. Saying something in a small forum with like-minded people is very different from saying it directly to someone with the purpose of causing offence. Simply finding something offensive is not enough to prevent others from hearing it. Bigotry is intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from you.

Then, there's Roger's Rule of Abuse:

Anyone who sends anyone abuse about anything is wrong.

You mock ideas, religions, ideologies and attitudes  -  but do it with humility, respect and compassion, and not to be personal.

If someone mocks or ridicules or dismisses something dear to you, try not to take it as an insult. Not everyone can or should agree about everything.

You cannot control how other people react. But you can control how you react.

Finally, never dismiss an argument because of the identity of the person making it, or by labelling them a something-phobe. That's what the Nazis would've done.

What would you argue, add, or take away? Let's talk about it.