Tips and Tactics for Online Facilitation

Tips and Tactics for Online Facilitation

Sandy Heierbacher
on Mar 28, 2013

What makes an online conversation enjoyable, worthwhile, and productive? What role does online facilitation play? There are many places online where people are engaging in conversation with each other, for better or for worse -- social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, collaborative spaces like Google docs and listservs, comment fields on new sites and video sharing sites, and innovative engagement platforms like The Civic Commons. What factors, aside from the technology, lead to "good", healthy conversations? Why are so many online conversation threads so uncivil and unproductive? What can a conversation host or facilitator do to actively nurture high-quality conversations online, no matter what platform is used? Let us know what you think!

http://ncdd.org/rc/item/category/collaborative-technology


Participants (12) See All

What do you think?

Anonymous
on 2017-10-21T10:07:43+00:00
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Recent Activity

Nancy Reeves
on Jun 07, 2013
"I thought there was both a time and response limitation, but hadn't gotten around to checking..."
Kim Crowley (Moderator)
on Jun 06, 2013
"Thanks, David. The 30 minute limit explains some inconsistencies I was wondering about. ="
David Rosenberg
on Jun 06, 2013
"When I clicked the Edit link, made some edits, and then tried to save them, I got an error..."
Kim Crowley (Moderator)
on Jun 05, 2013
"Update:  I posted my summary sometime before 1:30AM this morning, and it did not show up in..."
Nancy Reeves
on Jun 04, 2013
"It compiles sometime before 1:58.  (My 1:58 post in the sandbox did not show up in today's digest.)"
Nancy Reeves
on Jun 03, 2013
"I would have said that the daily message often came out slightly before 2:00 AM, but the time..."
Nancy Reeves
on Jun 03, 2013
"That sounds like a good plan, to me - with good reasoning behind it. The only change I would..."
David Rosenberg
on Jun 03, 2013
"Nancy, I think that Sandy is talking about a Q&A page that is in a private area on HackPad. ..."
Nancy Reeves
on Jun 02, 2013
"Are you putting together the equivalent of a FAQ? I had offered (to Mike) to pull something..."
Sandy Heierbacher
on Jun 02, 2013
"I think pointing out how the "reply to __" option is distinct from the "Post to this..."
Sandy Heierbacher
on Jun 02, 2013
"I appreciate this tip on Fargo!  Trying it out right now.  I'm a crazy list-maker, so I'm loving it!"
Kim Crowley (Moderator)
on Jun 02, 2013
"I'll also add that in the blog section of my local newspaper, I've often addressed other..."
Kim Crowley (Moderator)
on Jun 02, 2013
"A few months ago, FB added the option of "Reply" links on individual comments underneath the..."
Kim Crowley (Moderator)
on Jun 02, 2013
"If I post a Summary at 1:59AM eastern, will it show up in the 2AM daliy digest, or is there a delay?"
Mike Shafarenko
on Jun 02, 2013
"Thank you, Kim! Thankfully, our team was able to figure that out yesterday as well and made sure..."
Kim Crowley (Moderator)
on Jun 02, 2013
"Hi Mike, I discovered the reason for the scary warnings that Firefox has been giving me about..."
Nancy Reeves
on Jun 02, 2013
"The subthread title idea is interesting.  I'm not sure I've run across a conversation tool which..."
Nancy Reeves
on Jun 02, 2013
"Thanks for the suggestion - I'm always looking for new ways to support good conversations.  I'll..."
Nancy Reeves
on Jun 02, 2013
"Feel free to pick my brain - I'm always willing to help the Civic Commons, and the people who..."
David Rosenberg
on Jun 01, 2013
"Nancy, In one of the suggestions that I posted (below), I mentioned that you might like trying a..."
David Rosenberg
on Jun 01, 2013
"I have a few more suggestions, all of which work better if each post has (or at least, can have)..."
David Rosenberg
on Jun 01, 2013
"Nancy, You have a lot of great material here and you obviously have had a lot of experience..."
Nancy Reeves
on Jun 01, 2013
"David, If you had replied to me, I would have responded. I actually hadn't noticed that quirk..."
Nancy Reeves
on Jun 01, 2013
"Just to clarify - There is no limit, but the tiered structure stops 3 steps in(after that..."
David Rosenberg
on May 31, 2013
"I'd like to suggest that in addition to the current "social" FAQ, you add a "technical" FAQ. My..."
David Rosenberg
on May 31, 2013
"It might be nice to be able to attach a headline (or title) to a post."
David Rosenberg
on May 31, 2013
"Right now Civic Commons seems to have Users and Administrators, where Administrators have..."
Mike Shafarenko
on May 31, 2013
"That is correct. "
David Rosenberg
on May 31, 2013
"I'd like to make an enhancement suggestion that you add the ability to re-thread posts as..."
Mike Shafarenko
on May 31, 2013
"The "Reflect" feature was really intended to summarize the entirity of a dialogue once a) the..."
David Rosenberg
on May 31, 2013 - 11:44 pm

I'd like to suggest that in addition to the current "social" FAQ, you add a "technical" FAQ. My advice is that it is better to answer too many questions rather than too few. Of course, it is extremely helpful to have them organized into groups of related questions. I'd suggest taking advantage of the questions I've asked, other technical questions from today's GoToMeeting, technical questions that other moderators will ask, and technical questions gleaned from the https://getsatisfaction.com/theciviccommons forum as a starting set of questions. Then each time that someone asks a technical question, consider adding it and its answer to the technical FAQ (with a bias toward adding it, since if it confused one person who bothered to ask the question, it probably confused others who didn't bother to ask).

 
David Rosenberg
on May 31, 2013 - 11:26 pm

It might be nice to be able to attach a headline (or title) to a post.

 

Responses(2)

David Rosenberg
on Jun 01, 2013

I have a few more suggestions, all of which work better if each post has (or at least, can have) a headline (= title = subject).

Suggestion 1: Allow users to explicitly start a new sub-thread within a thread. (Typically, the headline would change for a new sub-thread and it would remain the same if a response were not starting a new sub-thread.)

Suggestion 2: Show a Table of Contents for all the threads and sub-threads in a conversation, at the top of the conversation. The entries in the Table of Contents should all be links that take you to the first post in that thread or sub-thread.

Suggestion 3: Right now you allow users to opt out of updates to specific conversations or opt out of updates to all Civic Commons conversations. It would be desirable to have much finer granularity and allow users to opt in to or opt out of specific threads or specific sub-threads within specific conversations. There should be an option to opt in to or out of "all new threads within a (specific) conversation or all new sub-threads within a (specific) thread or (specific) sub-thread.

As Nancy Reeves points out above, "the tiered (indented) structure stops 3 steps in (after that everything aligns to the same left edge)."

Suggestion 4: Don't fix the width of the window and stop at three levels, keep indenting to an arbitrary depth and keep making the window wider as required (and let users use the horizontal scroll bar in their browsers).

Suggestion 5: Don't indent more for every response to a response to a response. Only increase the indentation when a user declares that he is starting a new sub-thread.

Suggestion 6: Don't be as generous as you currently are with the amount of horizontal space you use for each indentation. If you tighten things up a bit, you'll have room for more levels of indentation in the same amount of horizontal space.

Suggestion 7: (This is a repeat of a suggestion that I made elsewhere in this conversation). Draw lines to indicate how things are connected to each other. All posts linked to the same vertical line would be part of the same thread or sub-thread. A horizontal line would link to the first post in a new sub-thread. (This is probably easier to understand by seeing an illustration than by reading a description.)

Suggestion 8. A Conversation with threads, sub-threads, sub-sub-threads, really becomes an outline structure. Rather than trying to reinvent too much, take advantage of all the work that has already been done with outline software. For example, see the documentation at http://smallpicture.com/fargoPress.htmlhttp://smallpicture.com/fargoDocs.html, and http://smallpicture.com/outlinerHowto.html. Then play with Fargo yourself at http://fargo.io/. (Whether you look at Fargo or not, Nancy Reeves might like taking it for a test drive.)

 
Nancy Reeves
on Jun 02, 2013

The subthread title idea is interesting.  I'm not sure I've run across a conversation tool which used it.  I've used conversation tools which use a single title for the conversation, and tools which use a title for each post.   I'll have to go back and look (and if I don't find any, to think through how that might play out).

 
Expand This Thread
David Rosenberg
on May 31, 2013 - 11:25 pm

Right now Civic Commons seems to have Users and Administrators, where Administrators have administrative privileges for all conversations. Thus, our moderators have to be treated as ordinary Users by the system, since making them Administrators would give them overly broad privileges.

I'd like to suggest an enhancement to be able to delegate some administrative privileges for particular conversations to designated users (in this case, moderators).

 
David Rosenberg
on May 31, 2013 - 11:13 pm

Sandy posted a first message. I responded to it and my response was indented under her message. Mike responded to my response and his response was indented under mine. I responded yo Mike's response. My response posted under Mike's but wasn't indented. Why not? If it is because of constrained horizontal space, is it possible (for a user) to make the window wider to get more horizontal space and hence more levels of indenting? 

I'd like to suggest using less horizontal indentation for each response, so as to allow more levels of indentation. I'd also like to suggest using vertical lines to connect items with the same indentation and using horizontal lines from those vertical lines to connect to items indented from the item at the top of the verical line. (If that is a bit confusing, I could provide a screenshot of a system that does what I'm trying to describe.)

 
David Rosenberg
on May 31, 2013 - 8:47 pm

Is it correct that to start a new thread in a conversation, one uses the "Post to this Conversation" button to the right of the first post in the conversation. If that's how I should have posted all my previous questions (instead of making them replies to Sandy's first post), I'm sorry.

 

Responses(12)

Mike Shafarenko
on May 31, 2013

Yes, you are absolutely correct. And, no need to apologize - it's a learning process for everyone. We've made best efforts to make the system as intuitive as possible. Yet, everyone's intuition is different. 

 
David Rosenberg
on May 31, 2013

Mike, Thanks for this and your other responses. In case it is of any use to you, I'll explain what confused me. The last post on the page was by Nancy Reeves and under it there is a "Respond to Nancy" button. When I clicked the "Post to this Conversation" button, it opened a word processing text entry field that still had the "Respond to Nancy" button immediately above it. That lead me to believe (or at least be concerned) that whatever I typed would be deemed a response to Nancy. I would have been more comfortable if it were clear that the "Respond to Nancy" button was associated with the previous post and not the word processing text entry field that just opened.

 
Nancy Reeves
on Jun 01, 2013

David,

If you had replied to me, I would have responded.

I actually hadn't noticed that quirk - congratulations!  It is rare someone notices something with this interface I have not already discovered.

But to clarify, in the upper left of the word processing text entry field is a label that tells you what you are up to ("Post to this conversation" or "Respond to so-and-so").  There is still the "Respond to so-and-so button associated with the last post in the thread (if you are posting a new thread).

 

 
David Rosenberg
on Jun 01, 2013

Nancy,

You have a lot of great material here and you obviously have had a lot of experience (and are very generous in sharing it). I expect that I'll be picking your brain a bit over the next weeks/months.

 
Nancy Reeves
on Jun 02, 2013

Feel free to pick my brain - I'm always willing to help the Civic Commons, and the people who hang out here! 

 
David Rosenberg
on Jun 01, 2013

Nancy, In one of the suggestions that I posted (below), I mentioned that you might like trying a new outliner named Fargo. I wrote:

A Conversation with threads, sub-threads, sub-sub-threads, really becomes an outline structure. Rather than trying to reinvent too much, take advantage of all the work that has already been done with outline software. For example, see the documentation at http://smallpicture.com/fargoPress.html, http://smallpicture.com/fargoDocs.html, and http://smallpicture.com/outlinerHowto.html. Then play with Fargo yourself at http://fargo.io/. (Whether you look at Fargo or not, Nancy Reeves might like taking it for a test drive.)

 
Nancy Reeves
on Jun 02, 2013

Thanks for the suggestion - I'm always looking for new ways to support good conversations.  I'll check it out!

 
Sandy Heierbacher
on Jun 02, 2013

I appreciate this tip on Fargo!  Trying it out right now.  I'm a crazy list-maker, so I'm loving it!

 
Sandy Heierbacher
on Jun 02, 2013

I think pointing out how the "reply to __" option is distinct from the "Post to this Conversation" button is critically important for our online moderators.  David - could you add this to the Q&A doc I created on Hackpad today?  I think that button is very easy to miss, especially since you don't see it if you scroll down a little on the page.

 
Nancy Reeves
on Jun 02, 2013

Are you putting together the equivalent of a FAQ?

I had offered (to Mike) to pull something together - but no sense in duplicating efforts if you're already well on your way!

 
David Rosenberg
on Jun 03, 2013

Nancy, I think that Sandy is talking about a Q&A page that is in a private area on HackPad.

But I've been thinking that there are only a few things that we need to discuss privately - and it seems a disservice to the Civic Commons community to use a private area for anything that could be shared with the entire Civic Commons community.

I think that I'll propose that we start several public conversations:

  • Q&A or FAQ questions that are not specific to our sub-community of moderators (and since the system sees our moderators as ordinary users, very little should be specific to our sub-community of moderators)
  • There might be some distinct kinds of questions that each deserve a separate conversation - I'm not sure about that
  • Enhancement and new feature suggestions to Civic Commons
  • Bug/Problem reports
  • The experimental Sandbox that I've already started at http://theciviccommons.com/conversations/sandbox-for-experimenting-with-the-civic-commons
 
Nancy Reeves
on Jun 03, 2013

That sounds like a good plan, to me - with good reasoning behind it.

The only change I would suggest is that the Feedback button works pretty well for bug reports.  Bugs don't need conversation as much as they need someone to fix them.   When conversations are moving quickly it is pretty easy for things to slip past without anyone noticing them, so they would probably get noticed more quickly if the Feeback button is used to report them.

 
Expand This Thread
Nancy Reeves
on Mar 29, 2013 - 6:34 pm

"What factors, aside from the technology, lead to "good", healthy conversations? Why are so many online conversation threads so uncivil and unproductive?"It may come as a surprise, but as a veteran of a dozen or so online communities from around 1985 to the present, the number of online conversations I have participated in which have been uncivil or unproductive is, perhaps, 1% of my total online conversation experience.  That is likely even an overestimate.  That experience puts me at odds with currently accepted common wisdom about the prevalence and the causes of the phenomenon – even though it remains my experience today.The elements shared by the communities I have participated in, which seem to me to contribute to my very different experience, include:

  • A shared purpose.  In some groups this is very narrowly defined (a support group for family members of individuals with a specific illness), in others very broadly (affinity with a political party).
  • An intent to be a community.  The members of each community view ourselves as a community, with each member making some level of commitment to the other members of the community and to the rules of engagement.
  • Rules of engagement.  These vary tremendously in smaller narrowly focused communities from almost no rules beyond “play nicely” to prohibiting discussion of specific topics or advocacy of specific positions in larger, more broadly focused, communities.
  • The means to enforce the rules of engagement.  Generally this includes a moderator with the authority to remove individuals who violate the rules; sometimes it includes teams of volunteers who rotate into service to help keep order; and in one instance I was honored to be a part of, a really creative and individualized solution devised to allow a long time member who clearly needed the support of the group to continue to participate, even though her behavior was frequently troubling enough that she could legitimately have been removed from the community.
  • A play space:  OT Friday (a rule permitting playful off topic posts on Fridays), the Lounge (which permitts lounge type humor which would not have been permitted elsewhere on the site), and playful interest forums like photography, or “good reads.”  I have really found these spaces, where I can be playful with folks I sometimes disagree with, to be quite helpful in softening how I respond when we inevitably do disagree about the on-topic issues.

The one thing missing from that list, which you probably expected to see, is a requirement that members use their real world name.  In the context of an intentional online community – which is what each of these is (although some might bristle at that label) - I have found absolutely no correlation between naming requirements and civility or productivity.Many people who consider me their friend, and who rely on my experience with a shared medical condition know me only as NEOH; several of them believe me to be male.   I have had very rich conversations with a woman I know only as Alameda about how Islam (her faith) and Friends (my faith) view plain dress and covering, and about when adhering to the rituals contradicts the purposes for which they were created.  And I have delved into the most recent research into gene expression, inflammatory bowel disease, and sleep inversion with a physician I “met” as Stefan (a pseudonym), and now know in real life.There are, in my opinion, very strong reasons to permit the use of pseudonyms – but that is more a conversation about how to create broadly inclusive online communities than about the tone of the conversations that take place within them.  I offer it here only to point out, in addition to the things I have found useful, my experience with the one thing which is frequently cited as crucial that I have found to be entirely irrelevant to good healthy online conversations.

 
Ben Roberts
on Mar 28, 2013 - 5:26 pm

When people think of "online" dialogue, they often leave out the option of live speech.  That's partly because teleconferences typically employ a talking heads approach, perhaps with a bit of Q&A, but rarely offer a chance for real dialogue or conversation.

But that need not be the case. I have had great success in hosting live virtual dialogue, particularly using the MaestroConference platform (although there are other options out there as well). A key to this is the ability to create breakout rooms for small groups. There is also a certain art to "holding space" on these calls that is a bit different from what is required in a room, or on a forum like this. I expect that as technology like Skype and Google hangouts improve, these kinds of engagements will be self-organized more commonly as well.

I have also found that pairing virtual synchronous (live) dialogue with asynchronous (text-based) tools can be very powerful.  And both of these can also be integrated with in person gatehrings as well. Much opportunity for innovation exists in this realm.

A lot of the discussion about virtual dialogue revolves around how to map or replicate in-person approaches, whether virtual can be as good as in-person or how to compensate for what you lose when you're not in the room with people.  To me, it is important to look at what the special values are of the various ways we can connect virtually. Synchronous virtual dialogue, for example, in addition to making it more convenient for people to gather on short notice and across wide distances, can also create a space that is more welcoming to introverts than an in-person gathering in a large room filled with noisy strangers.

Asynchronous dialogue also caters to introverts, and offers the additional benefit of allowing for large amounts of content to be shared (far more than a live connection can afford) and for greater amounts of reflection between posts. And it creates a virtual record that can be easily shared among a far large number of people than those who participated initially. 

I also think that we have only begun to figure out how to organize these asynch conversations most productively, both in terms of tools and processes.  This Civic Commons platform appears to be a nice innovation as we explore how to create truly generative online spaces for dialogue. Much more will evolve, I believe, as we all become more comfortable and experienced in these venues.