One of my interests is how the Internet allows the formation of online communities of interest. This allows groups of people with like interests to communicate and interact even though they may be separated by distance. For some people these online groups become a significant part of their support group, their peers, their friends and, oddly, their enemies. If you work the graveyard shift, you may not get to see your neighbors much, but the online community is there for you 7/24/365. These communities may exist through electronic mailing lists, public or private message boards, blogs with comments allowed, or hosted Web sites ranging from Digg to MySpace.

As someone who participates in several online communities and tries to moderate one, often in vain I enjoyed this week’s article from Cory Doctorow entitled "How To Keep Hostile Jerks From Taking Over Your Online Community." (Doctorow is an writer who publishes the blog Boing Boing. A Directory of Wonderful Things, which is currently ranked by Technorati as the 1st or 2nd most popular blog of them all.)

Doctorow appreciates the emotional attachment that many have for their online communities."

  • "If you’re part of a nice little community of hamster-fanciers, Trekkers, or Volkswagen enthusiasts, it’s easy to slip into a kind of camaraderie, a social setting in which everyone talks about life, aspirations, family problems, personal triumphs. In some ways, it doesn’t matter what brought you together — the fact that you’re together is what matters."

But he points out a problem that anyone who has been a member of any online community for very long has experienced.

  • "The Internet Tough Guy is a feature in all Internet social forums. These are people who poison discussions with anger, hatred, and threats. Some are malicious. Some are crazy. Some are just afflicted with a rotten sense of humor. Whatever their motives, they’re a scourge. It takes precious little trolling to sour a message-board. A "troll" — someone who comes onto an online community looking to pick fights — has two victory conditions: Either everyone ends up talking about him, or no one talks at all…."

The entire article is worth reading. I hoped to find a solution that I had not yet tried, but did not find one. Although the concept of a troll whisperer is both cute and interesting.

One online community for solo and small firm lawyers is Solosez. They have had to totally ban political discussions. One announcement of a news item or happening is allowed, but no discussion thereafter. You’d think that since a lot of political activity has to do with the passing of laws there would be some interesting political discussions there. But experience shows otherwise. Rarely would a political discussion get past the first four or five e-mails until someone insulted another or questioned their proper parentage. It actually became sort of a running joke as to how many messages it took before someone compared someone they disagree with to the Nazis.

In Oklahoma, we have the OBA-NET. Participation is limited to Oklahoma lawyers only. Our rules for discussing emphasize respect and never attacking other people personally while you might disagree with their ideas. This week there was a discussion of a certain deceased political/religious leader. One person questioned the meaning of one person’s comment, which was met with the retort that if they couldn’t understand it, they should "turn in their bar card." So much for no personal attacks, I guess. A few months ago a lawyer questioned my mental ability because we disagreed on a court access policy, of all things.

The ironic thing is that both of these people are nice people in person. But when they post online they use rhetoric that I think they would likely never use in person. As we have all learned from e-mail, the  cold text of typed information separated from any other context is easily misunderstood. In a friendly debate around the office water coolor, a disparaging comment about someone’s lack of mental ability said with a grin would have little chance of being misunderstood and certainly couldn’t be located with Google years later.

Sports discussion groups often encourage insults and flaming. For many it is all in good fun. But I am sure people leave every week with hurt feelings. Lawyers should consider just how many biting words they wish to leave online to be indexed by Google and found years later. We’re pretty good at using our words. But sometimes not using some words may be the strongest tactic of all.

OBA-NET remains a vibrant online community. Young lawyers can receive mentoring. Every Oklahoma lawyer can get obscure questions answered. I’ve purchased several items online after being alerted to an Internet bargain by one of our members. If you are an Oklahoma lawyer and have never participated or have not logged in for while, come and see us here. Hopefully you won’t encounter any trolls.

if you want to read more about online communities of lawyers, check out Ellen Freedman’s post on the topic.