Thumper’s Rule – Knowing When And How To Avoid An Online Argument

Are you an angry bird online? Are you the person alway starting arguments and heated discussions?

Are you an Angry Bird online? 'Angry bird puts a lid on it' courtesy of etee on Flickr via Creative Commons license

If you’re engaged in social media for either personal or professional purposes (and if you’re reading this, I’m betting you are), there’s an important skillset and rule that you might want to think about: The art of not replying.

Having been involved in social media for the last 20 years and having run my own large, web-based community, I have seen a LOT of flame wars, bullying, and online arguments that didn’t help the community in any way and, often, ended up with both sides losing the argument because they either got banned from the community or let their personal emotions get in the way of making a coherent argument.

I’m all for spirited debate via digital channels, but in my experience, the arguments that got out of hand weren’t based on a disagreement over facts, but instead began as well-intentioned discussions and devolved into personal attacks, positions with emotional bias but no real fact, or just hot-tempered community members who couldn’t resist pressing the “post” button.

As the site owner/community manager, I even had someone threaten to come to my house in person so he could discuss the fact that I edited one of his posts for racist comments. The post was accompanied by a photo of him holding his shotgun.

So, having been down this road once or twice before, I thought it might be a good idea to share some experiences that might help others when engaging in spirited debates online. I love the fact that the Web is a platform for sharing thoughts, ideas, experiences, and positions…but let’s try to keep it civil, folks.

1) Learn Thumper’s Rule – In case you have never seen the movie “Bambi”, you need to learn this one little piece of sage advice from the bunny rabbit named Thumper. His father taught him (and his mother reminded him) that “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Sometimes it’s just a good idea to walk away from the argument, especially before it gets personal.

2) Don’t argue just to argue – Community managers can spot them a mile away. Trolls who like to just stir the pot and start arguments. They’re the bane of our existence and when I spot one, I give one stern warning and then have no problem clicking the “Ban” button when they do it again. If you’re there just to argue, then go someplace else. If you’re there to contribute and enjoy the company of other people, great. But don’t be a troll. No one likes  a troll.

Here are some tips and tricks to help you avoid starting an online argument via social media channels

3) Know your position and why you’re defending it – Do you really believe in the argument you’re making or are you just attacking the person who is disagreeing with you. As humans, we sometimes let our distaste for someone else cloud our judgement as to whether they are making a valid argument. Playing “Devil’s Advocate” online doesn’t work as well as it does in-person, because the person on the other end of the debate doesn’t know you and doesn’t know whether you really believe your position or not. If you’re being contrary just to spur the debate, be VERY clear about it.

4) Think about the community – Is your argument about gun control really beneficial to a community focused on helping solve technology-related issues? Sure, frequent contributors to a site often get to know each other personally, but do you really need to bring off-topic arguments to a forum where they aren’t of benefit to the community? Before you go off on a rant, think about whether the content is actually useful to the other members of the community. If not, keep it to yourself or find the right channel to express your point of view.

5) Consider how others would view the discussion and your behavior – Is getting into a heated, online argument full of personal attacks about whose compound bow can shoot farther really worth the time and energy? What would your boss, spouse, significant other, or mother think if they read the conversation online? Would they remind you of Thumper’s rule? If so…maybe just close the browser and walk away?

6) Consult with the site owner or community manager – When in doubt, ask the community manager whether they are okay with the way the conversation is going. If they don’t like it, they’ll tell you. If they think it’s benefiting the community and those engaged are behaving appropriately, then they’ll tell you to proceed. It’s their community, let them have input before they have to jump in and moderate.

7) Learn to agree to disagree – Sometimes, there isn’t a right answer. Let me rephrase that…most of the time, there isn’t a right answer! You know what they say, opinions are like ********. Everyone has one and sometimes they stink. If your opinion is just that and not founded in any facts, then just accept the fact that others have their right to an opinion, too. No need to engage in personal attacks or threatening behavior. Express your side of the debate, let the other person/s respond, and then agree to disagree.

8 ) Consider learning from the person you are debating – Do you know everything? If you do, then turn off the computer because you’re done. There’s nothing left to learn and the Internet isn’t for you. If you don’t know everything, then take the opportunity to consider that the person on the other side of the debate might have something to teach you. Maybe they have significantly more experience with the issue. Maybe they have had training that you haven’t. I have been in many online debates about the “right and wrong” about the improper use of intellectual property (Napster, BearShare, Creative Commons, Pinterest, etc…) and the person on the other side of the debate has no idea that I’m trained as an intellectual property attorney. Yet, they often want to “school me” on copyright or trademark law.  Maybe you don’t know more than the other person, maybe you do….but consider the possibility that you don’t.

Do you really believe the arguments that you make online or are you being two-faced?

'two face' courtesy of Broderick on Flickr via Creative Commons license.

9) Be You…The Real You – Understand that who you are online should be reflective of who you are in real life. Ask yourself, “if I held this argument in person over a beer, would I be saying the same things?” If the answer is NO, then stop typing. Don’t say things online that you wouldn’t say in-person. You have no idea whether you’ll meet the person on the other side in real life someday, so don’t give them any excuse to punch you in the nose just because you want to stir an online debate. Don’t be THAT GUY/GAL!

10) Back up your position with real, verifiable facts – If you have facts to support your side of the debate, great. Prove it. But don’t quote YouTube videos, don’t argue that “they say” or that you read it on Wikipedia. Provide real facts, not links to some blogger’s opinion. If you don’t have verifiable facts, then understand that you’re position will be regard as opinion and refer to #6 above. If the other person has facts that are verifiable then don’t just keep arguing to argue. No one likes a sore loser.

Have other tips and tricks for avoiding online arguments? Have an experience to share that others could benefit from? I’d love to hear them in a comment!



Comments And Reactions

  1. A very nice post. This made me recall a certain website that has been invaded by trolls, with them running the show (yes, even the moderators were trolling). The bad thing is that when someone comes into the conversation with real, verifiable facts, its either they delete the post or close the thread.

    Thinking of Thumper, I decided to leave the site. I don’t want to waste my time and energy over such people.

    • I hear you, Tracey! I, too, have left communities because there were too many members who were there to either start an argument or just spout off-topic posts that didn’t benefit the community in any way.

      Being a community manager is a tough role that requires a LOT of time and attention and the larger the community grows, the tougher it is. I had to close down a large community because I didn’t have the time to moderate it and the number of trolls was growing. Rather than let it turn into a digital junkyard, I notified the members and shut down the site.

      Luckily, there are still plenty of good places to have online conversations 🙂



  2. @ 1) Learn Thumper’s Rule – there’s the old saying . . . nihil, nisi bene (nothing, exept good)

    NOW . . . don’t dare to discuss that with me . . . rofl . . . 😉

    Must hurry off now, there’s someone wrong on the Internet . . .

  3. Great article. The trick of course is agreeing to disagree, and not taking disagreement as personal. Anyone involved in the area of self publishing is sure to have a strong view, which is why they are into self publishing in the first place. That said, everyone should be prepared for some heat. That’s the nature of online. Blocking someone just because you don’t agree, or follow back is high school. Great read, thanks for this.

    • Thanks, Catherine!

      I completely agree that one of the key traits to a good community manager is thick skin and willingness to only use that block/ban button as a last resort. It’s a tough job and as companies delve into social media, they’re going to need to find good folks to do it.



  4. Gaye Crispin says:

    Hi Sean

    Great article. I can tell you have been there. I used to manage a large online forum and can relate very much to what you are saying.

    lt takes 2 to argue, online or anywhere.

    Thank you for the reminder of why I gave it up managing that forum.. I appreciate it 🙂


  5. Robert Zarywacz says:

    Brilliant concept! I was impressed with Thumper as a child and never thought he’d inform social media behaviour.

  6. Sean, thanks for this excellent piece! Made me realize how fortunate I am not to have “friends” who do this.

  7. Luckily I learned long ago if I started the thread, and someone replies with
    absolute derogatory claims toward you, to just let the rest of the club handle it.

    It’s worked perfect everytime not responding, with the others defending you,
    and sure enough, everyones back to Happy Hour.

  8. Very good article! However, if the subject at hand has no right or wrong answer having facts to back up your point of view doesn’t make it any less of an opinion. But, I think you’ve already said this and goes back the what #7 says. In situations like that it’s best to just agree to disagree. 🙂

  9. Learning logical fallacies helps avoid frustration from trolls, as you can spot the flaws in their claims much quicker, and just roll your eyes. This helped my indifference a lot as well.

  10. Laura Blair says:

    I love this article Sean! I post my personal opinions on my personal FB page and since I do have people who believe differently, they like to share their opinions about my posts. I’ve ‘unfriended’ people who started with personal attacks. Just because it is online doesn’t give you the right to be a jerk!


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