Friends and colleagues who leave comments here, consider this a little love note, prompted by things I’ve seen happening on several other sites today.

Conversing on an online discussion board is a tricky art.Everybody knows that it’s difficult to know how their words are going to be perceived.

And it’s very easy, behind the glass barrier, to throw out words without concern about how the reader will feel on the other end.

I’ve often been shocked and dismayed at how my own contributions in online discussion have led to misunderstanding. And at times I’ve been provoked into arguments that I’m not proud of.  I’m learning to strive to prevent that from happening, although I still stumble from time to time.

In the history of this blog, I’ve only ever had to ban two readers from commenting, due to the disrespectful quality of their replies. Pretty astounding, actually, considering how many contributors I’ve encountered on other blogs who would have been banned from the Comments here in a heartbeat.

When commenters show up for little more than making corrections or brushing off what others have said, well, that persuades me that they’re at the table to produce something other than a welcoming discussion. No matter how knowledgeable or interesting their posts, they’re valuing their own contributions over the quality of the community’s conversation. Lately, I’ve become suspicious of a couple of Hollywood bloggers who, despite their often useful reports, put on quite a show of enmity and furious debate. I’m beginning to think they’ve actually conspired to do this as a way of attracting attention to themselves and each other. If I’m wrong on that count, well… either way, it’s sad.

I don’t mind debate, but disrespect does not encourage debate. It encourages mudslinging. And it discourages “lurkers” from mustering the courage to participate. There are a few blogs where I rarely ever dare comment, because I feel that many of the foul-mouthed participants are just predators, waiting for a sign of weakness, so they can show off their cleverness or cool-points by slamming down somebody else. You may not think what someone else said is right or relevant, but please, proceed with caution and grace.

I hope that seems like a welcoming place to you.

Some people may say, “Hey, some people are jerks. Grow a thicker skin.” I understand that — and I admire the thick-skinned. But they’re welcome to go host their own Fight Club. I like conversation, not contention. And I just don’t have the time or emotional resources to wrestle cantankerous commenters all day. I like round tables that are welcoming, not off-putting. I’m not in this to prove anything or score points for my ego. When an online conversation thrives based on trust and a mutual respect, it’s a wonderful thing.

There are ways to correct someone with grace. And it’s almost always best to preface a correction or a difference of opinion with an admission that this is “just your humble opinion” or “I may be wrong, but” … or something to prevent the statement from sounding condescending or arrogant.

I don’t mind being corrected, but I’m always grateful when someone points out an accident or a typo via email, or “offstage,” so I can correct it quickly without the Comments thread getting sidetracked. (Making a typo is embarrassing; having a whole conversation flower around that typo is both counterproductive and groan-inducing. In my enthusiasm and haste, I post mistakes all the time, and I’m always grateful for gracious corrections, especially when they’re offstage, so they don’t sidetrack the discussion.)

I’m grateful that most of the folks who comment on this blog are very well-behaved, humble, and even helpful.

So I’m asking you: If you were going to draw up a simple list of guidelines for blog comments, a simple list of prompts to encourage civility and make a place seem welcoming… what would you suggest?

And if you ever see a comment here that seems disrespectful, don’t hesitate to *email* me about it. Sometimes in my hurry to approve contributions, I might miss the poison in somebody’s response.

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