Participate in an online discussion

Saturday, October 11, 2008

One of the things I enjoy doing in Second Life is participating in, and helping with, online discussion groups. I volunteer with a group called Play as Being, which holds daily meetings in Second Life for the purpose of discussing the results of their experimentation with meditation techniques.

There’s not a teacher or a lecturer; rather, it’s a loose grouping of people having a free-form discussion which sometimes closely follows the meditation topic and sometimes only touches on it. The participants, a mix of regulars and new drop-ins, are diverse in their geographic locations, level of expertise in the topic, and spiritual beliefs.

As a group leader for the Thursday night meeting (7 p.m. SLT), my responsibility is mostly to welcome new people and explain the premise of the group as needed. I also help facilitate a good discussion by asking questions and clarifying to keep people engaged, but I don’t guide or teach, because I am not an expert by any means.

With the permission of the participants, we save the chat log from the meetings and post them to our Play as Being wiki with comments from the “Guardian” that was facilitating at the meeting.

After participating in these meetings for a few months, I now realize there is a natural pattern to these meetings which helps everyone have a better experience in the discussion. What follows is my attempt to offer some suggestions to all participants of online discussion groups, in Second Life or otherwise, which will make the overall group experience much richer.

Basic etiquette for any gathering in a 3D world:

  1. Take care to choose your appearance to match the formality of the group; avoid wearing extremely revealing or possibly
    offensive clothing or attachments until you know the group norms better. If everyone else has a hat on, get out a hat. 🙂

  2. Adjust the size of your avatar or use a smaller avatar if it looks like it will be too large to fit in the discussion area. Some avatars are very large and could fill entire rooms or block views.

  3. Avoid using sounds or gestures unless the group is okay with that. In Second Life dancing events, for example, it’s considered polite to show appreciation for the musician or DJ by making cheering noises such as Hooooooo! In a quieter discussion group, this would be off-putting.

  4. Follow group behavior norms about avatar positioning to avoid distractions. If everyone else is standing, stand. If everyone else is sitting, sit.

  5. If someone offers you inventory, such as a toy or a garment or a notecard, be sure to thank them in regular chat or in IM. If possible without disrupting the group activity, wear the object or in some way try it out to show your appreciation.

  6. Tipping of the musician/DJ and hosts is customary in entertainment venues. It’s not expected and probably would be considered rude to directly tip a discussion group leader. If you appreciate what the group is doing and want to help, ask the leader if there is a tip box somewhere in the region. There usually is, and donations would be appreciated there.

  7. Choose your entry and exit points with consideration for others. In 3D worlds like Second Life, you can teleport to specific locations and save those locations as landmarks. Save the landmarks for locations slightly outside the discussion group area so that if you follow a landmark after the group has begun, you don’t suddenly appear on top of someone’s head. If someone lands on your head by accident, be forgiving. It happens sometimes. 🙂

Tips for better discussions in any kind of chat, 3D or otherwise:

  1. When you are responding to something another participant said, start your response with his or her assumed name. Even if you know someone’s real name, don’t use it in open chat.

  2. If you know that someone is in the middle of expressing an idea (i.e., you can see their hands typing or they’ve already said something that appears to be an incomplete thought), hold off on adding your comment to the chat until they have had a chance to finish. This will make the conversation flow more understandably.

  3. Try to stay with the general topic of the discussion group and try to contribute to the specific topic that’s being discussed during that particular meeting. Sometimes a change of topic is a helpful thing, but if the group is still chatting about a previous topic, it can be jarring to have a new one brought up.

  4. Differences of opinion can be stimulating and helpful for the discussion, but be sure to phrase your responses respectfully and in a way that will encourage everyone to keep participating.

  5. When you join the group late or must leave early, try not to interrupt the flow of the discussion beyond brief greetings and good-byes.

  6. Try to be mindful that each participant brings something of value to the discussion and comes from a different background. What they say may be different from what you would say, but each comment can further the exploration of the topic.

  7. Ask for clarification or more information when someone says something that you are not sure you understood completely, or when you sense that there is something interesting that’s being left unsaid.

  8. Share examples from your personal life, literature, or even pop culture.

  9. Remember to be careful about making jokes because they can easily be misunderstood in an environment where people cannot see each other’s faces. Humor is a wonderful addition to a group discussion, but be careful to phrase it so that it is not perceived as an attack.

  10. Phrase your remarks for a diverse audience to avoid accidentally offending someone. The participants’ names or avatars probably don’t match real life. For example, someone who appears male may be actually female, and someone who appears skinny may be in real life overweight.

  11. Role play should be reserved for regions where this is commonly agreed to be acceptable. While exploration of other appearances is fine and sometimes a great learning experience, in a serious discussion, adopting a whole new personality or faking experiences or knowledge can be offensive to the participants and misleading to those who are trying to explore a new concept.

Bonus suggestions (extra credit if you can do these):

  • If someone makes a “faux pas” in the group setting, try to have a sense of humor and be gentle. Understand that not everyone has had a chance to read this blog entry (LOL) and may need a little time to realize that there are norms to be observed. Patience and tolerance can enhance the group experience.

  • If you really like a group that you attend, tell others, give them landmarks, and bring them along to meetings. Be sure to give them a few pointers about the behavior norms for the group before their arrival so that they don’t suffer from embarrassment after missing a cue. Take care to remember the group’s preferences to make sure that the person you invite is not an inherently bad match for the overall tone of the group.

If you follow even a few of these suggestions, your group experience will be much more pleasant and constructive. Being a good group participant is an art and can lead to lasting and significant friendships.

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