Social networks are fascinating. They are made up of all kinds of people, from all walks of life, brought together out of a shared interest or interests, into a big pot of text, audio and video soup. Sure, there are plenty of people who have become good friends on the Internet…fallen in love, even. Heck, I met my husband online! So I know that it IS a great way to meet and foster important relationships with other people.

But those aren’t the relationships I’m speaking of. I’m talking about people who may share a common interest, but may not see it the same way. These are people that  would probably not socialize in person…they are too different. It’s those differences of opinion that keep the conversation interesting. It’s impassioned, intelligent people talking about things that matter most to them.

There are many techniques for expressing differences of opinion, and strategies for debating, even arguing effectively. Toastmasters comes to mind as an organization that promotes effective debating skills. I’ve been noticing lately that although some people are extremely skilled at debate, argument, opinions, whatever you want to call them (Leo Laporte and his TWIT crew come immediately to mind), others are maybe not so skilled. After reading endless posts and videoblogs about the Sarah Lacy interview, and then today coming across the Duncan Riley/FriendFeed posts, I realized that maybe some people are not quite so skilled at expressing an opinion and perhaps more importantly, listening to other people’s opinions. When this happens, it ends up becoming nothing more than a defensive bitchfest. It becomes about one group of people being right and another group being wrong. It becomes more than a debate…it becomes a conflict. The point is, debate and opinion are positive forces that contribute to the overall good experience of being involved in the social network. Conflict is a negative force that causes defensiveness, overactive egos and hurt feelings. In extreme cases, it causes wars.

I am the last person who wants to do anything to disrupt the free flow of opinion, debate and conversation that makes the social network so powerful. However I’d like to propose the following list, to serve as a set of guidelines for people who want to debate, share opinions and, even argue without getting mired in conflict.

Proposed Rules of Engagement for the Social Network

  1. Respect the opinions of the community. You don’t have to agree with everyone, and nobody has to agree with you. Be OK with that.
  2. Listen to what others have to say before getting defensive. Sometimes there’s a lesson in other people’s critiques.
  3. Don’t call people names. It’s just cheap.
  4. Everyone is good at something. Figure out what you are good at and don’t knock other people if they aren’t good at it too.
  5. Be encouraging. Don’t discourage.
  6. Pick your battles.
  7. If someone is spreading mean or hateful messages about someone or something, it’s the responsibility of the community to try to stop them. Don’t tolerate hate.

I want to hear from you. Do you agree with this or disagree? Do you think it goes too far, or is it necessary in order to maintain the health of the community?