Tina Loney On Hosting

I’m the first — I think — on the WELL to censor a posting made by a user. The ensuing brouhaha is probably still chronicled in the Archives Conference — if not, it should have been — and it still recycles periodically.

I didn’t have enough faith then in the power of community pressure to take care of the problem. For a long time after the incident I did have faith in community pressure. More recently, my faith has wavered some — the WELL is so big now that there are neighborhoods with varying standards.

Anyway, I see two kinds of conferences on the WELL — wet and dry. The dry conferences tend to be either technical or so utterly homogeneous that you have to work pretty hard to scare up an argument that lasts. Wet conferences, though, deal with human emotions and bodily fluids — blood, sweat, and tears. Topics in these conferences can get explosive, especially when the value systems of different posters collide. EFF, topic 595 — the dogtop/child molestation controversy, is a great recent example of a very wet topic in a wet conference.

I host one conference which stays pretty dry: Psychology. People there seem usually to prefer discussing theory to dealing with human emotions. The Berkeley conference, which I co-host with Reva Basch (all hail to founder Maurice Weitman) is a damp conference — occasional rancorous outbreaks over Peet’s coffee vs. Starbuck’s, the rights of bicycle riders, or what should be done about in-your-face panhandlers.

The wettest of my conferences by far is Parenting. I mean, we are WET over there, with topics like “What a Big Pee!” “All the Poop on Diapers,” and much more serious ones, such as those about the leukemia of Philcat’s son, or the trauma of Alex, whose son is in jail in Nebraska, or the 16-year-old who wants to stay in Ashland even though her mother is hospitalized in California and her dad has moved to the Bay Area.

The wetter the conference, the more important the people skills of the host, and the less important the technical skills. It’s much more important for me to help maintain a warm and supportive environment in Parenting than it is to change the opening screen every month. Technical problems are the easy ones: there’s always an answer somewhere, and I can always find someone to help. How to deal with the emotions — well, that’s a lot more complex.

As a sub-community or “neighborhood” on the WELL, Parenting has one huge advantage: everyone there cares deeply about children, their own AND those of others. That caring is a force that really fosters the cohesiveness of the Parenting neighborhood and helps each of us to be willing to understand points of view that differ from our own. The Parenting conference is, without a doubt, the gentlest place on the WELL. We originated the annual WELL Picnic; we did some fundraising to add some extras to the trip Phil’s family took to Hawaii; we sent some $$$ to Alex to help out with Chris’s needs.

Still, conflicts arise between people — misunderstanding a posting, for example, or conflicts between differing points of view: What ABOUT that false memory syndrome, anyway? — and occasionally between conferences — a linked topic between two conferences whose ambiance is just too different (Weird and Parenting, for example, would just NEVER work).

Dealing with conflict is seldom easy, and I have few suggestions beyond the obvious. Know your readers as well as you can. A testy posting from someone who’s usually gentle probably just means he/she’s having a bad day. If it’s a well-known crank posting, either backing off or allowing community pressure to work or using a sense of humor. Sigh. I could often use some lessons on how to defuse a situation with humor. I tend to jump in, all earnest and well-intentioned, and that is often NOT the thing to do. Learn to follow a conversation just as intently as you would in a f-2-f situation. If a poster responds to you or to someone else in a way that seems odd, chances are there’s been a misunderstanding. Last week I did a bit of mentoring by e-mailing the relatively new host of a pretty dry conference who had made a comment meant to tease another user; the comment had clearly had caused hurt feelings. I spotted the exchange right away and knew that the user had taken offense. So I e-mailed the host to explain what I had observed. “I wondered why I got that response,” the host answered. If a user’s posting leaves you wondering, check to be sure that you and everyone else have been clear. Misunderstanding can creep in through tiny cracks.

Model what you want in your conference. You want tolerance? Be tolerant. Humor? You get to be funny first! Technical savvy? Get out there! Good writing? You do it, and OFTEN. Sounds simple, but it is NOT easy to model tolerance or clear writing skills at the end of long workday to someone who’s been a thorn in your side for weeks! But you MUST: you — above all others — have the power to set the tone in your conference — to make it the place you want it to be.

Don’t be too easily hurt or offended. Take a deep breath. Count to ten. Log off and make a cup of tea, or a POT of tea. Don’t answer until an hour from now, or tomorrow. Let someone else jump in and post ahead of you, and perhaps take a topic on a slightly different tangent. This is a REALLY difficult rule sometimes. Example: I am a teacher in the public schools. In the Parenting Conference and in many other places on the WELL I read postings about teachers and schools which are often inaccurate or unfair. Many times — most times — I let those go by without saying anything. Unless I can contribute to a topic — clarity or new information — what’s the point? Anger is NOT a contribution of value. Trust me on this — deep breathing helps, especially in combination with Peet’s black currant tea.

I believe in the WELL as COMMUNITY. I have tried, since November of 1985, to be some kind of small force for good in that community. There’ve been times I’ve failed, and I can dish with the best of them — but I try. I feel that it’s a mistake and a limitation to see the WELL as only letters on a screen, or as a high school campus. There are real people at those keyboards, often sending their deep feelings out over their modems to somewhere like Parenting.