25 ways to make yourself unpopular: #25 Contribute to education technology discussions

Reports that I have become a grumpy old man are not simply untrue – they are potentially libellous. I mean, what’s with the “old”? Still, I can understand why people might think I’m impossible to please, given that I think not contributing to discussions is not ok, but also, apparently, that contributing is not ok either. So let me explain.

Online discussions should be conducted like physical onesContributing to discussions is good in my book, but there are some ways of going about it which could be counter-productive. Here are some pointers about what not to do if you can help it.

Don’t cross-post

Cross-posting is the practice of posting the same message in different forums. Conventional wisdom has it that you shouldn’t do so, for fear of upsetting those people who are members of all of them. I can understand that, and I know myself I get fed up when the same message arrives in my inbox several times.  You could take the view that if people subscribe to more than one forum, it’s their problem. However, I think it helps if you could do one of the following, preferably the second:

  • Apologise for cross-posting. This at least acknowledges that you’re being a pain in the posterior.
  • Customise your messages to suit each forum. For example, let’s suppose there is a new report on cyberbullying just published. You could announce that in an e-safety forum. If you then decide to announce it in a forum for secondary (high) school teachers, announce it as before, but with an extra sentence like “The summary of ways to deal with teens on page 43 is pretty useful.” If announcing it in a primary (elementary) teachers’ forum, replace that sentence with a similar one aimed them. And change the subject headings accordingly. It’s still cross-posting, but at least you’ve gone to the trouble of making it relevant for each target group.

But sometimes it isn’t possible to easily and quickly do either of these. In posting a link or message to Linked-in via AddThis, for example, or when bookmarking a web page in Diigo, posting a link to several groups can be achieved in one action rather than several. I think the best advice here is to make sure that you only post simultaneously to groups that are all likely to have a definite and central interest in what you are posting, not just a peripheral one.

For example, if I came across a brilliant web 2.0 type of website, I wouldn’t include an e-safety group in a general posting about it to groups concerned with “cool web 2.0 tools”. If I thought there were potential e-safety issues, I’d start a separate discussion on that topic specifically in the e-safety group.

Don’t go on…

There are some people whose discussion posts go on and on and on and …. Eventually, I give up or just skim read it and try to pick out the most important points. I think if you feel the need for a really full post to a forum or mailing list, you should either make it easy to read quickly by using subheadings or lists, or refer people to a blog post that you have written for the occasion. But maybe that’s just me.

… About the same old thing

Stephen Potter, in his book Supermanship, discusses the subject of giving lectures, and cites the case of someone who gave only one lecture: “The contrast between English and American Humour”. In fact, he gave this lecture whatever the actual title of the talk he was asked to give. Thus:

Today, if I am interpreting your Chairman’s wishes correctly, in speaking about the “Gothic in Art”, I will approach it specially from the standpoint of the contrast between English and American humour.

Well, there are some people who seem to do exactly the same thing in discussion forums. So, let’s say I have a bee in my bonnet about the need to have a large cooling fan in computers. (I don’t, and I don’t know anyone who does: this is purely for illustration purposes.) That person’s post about the newly-published cyberbullying report might be something like:

I’m disappointed that in its report on cyberbullying, the Government failed to pay enough attention to the fact that when computers overheat through not having a big enough fan, that may lead to other people posting derogatory comments about them on Facebook.

OK, I’ve exaggerated to make the point, but you see what I’m getting at. I actually think this is a difficult one. We all approach issues from our own particular point of view. For instance, a particular bugbear of mine is management issues, so I would be posting something like:

The advice on page 43 is OK as far as it goes, but would be pretty time-consuming with a class of 30 kids.

So perhaps I might be accused of doing the very thing I’m complaining about. Perhaps it’s a question of balance and degree.

Don’t advertise yourself

I think an email-type signature at the bottom of your posts is fine. What is irritating is when people post “discussion” points which are obviously designed to advertise their own services. Again, it’s a matter of degree. If you have something that is likely to be useful, and especially if it’s free, then it’s probably OK. For example, a post in response to the publication of a cyberbullying report which included:

In case colleagues are interested, I’ve produced a 20 point guide to dealing with cyber-bullying, which you can download for free from my website at …

is probably fine. I think if the 20 point guide was for sale, or if you did something like that in every message you posted, people would start to become fed up. Eventually, it would be an own goal because people would stop reading your posts.

The bottom line, I think, and the common element in all four points I’ve made here, is the need for sensitivity to other people. As the old British Telecom advert said, “it’s good to talk”; but it’s good to avoid being annoying whilst doing so!