General Etiquette > Techno-quette

When a thread goes wrong

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I'm wondering what you can do when a thread has gone off in a completely weird direction that results in the original situation or question being completely forgotten? Like if someone misunderstands something in the OP and people start responding to the misunderstanding rather than the actual post. Or if someone makes an off topic post and everyone starts talking about that instead.

I recently saw this happen in a forum I go to sometimes. Basically, the OP of a thread posted about something that had happened to him IRL which had upset him. The story was a little long, so at the end of the post he wrote a short analogy that had a similar scenario to the real story to explain why he was angry, just in case people got a bit lost in his story. I thought the analogy made sense, and it had the same general principles as the real situation. Even so, like all analogies that are written in about 5 seconds to illustrate a general point, it doesn't quite perfectly fit into the real scenario. Nevertheless, I understood why he used the analogy and I got where he was going with it.

But for some reason, a ton of posts only commented on the analogy. They were asking completely random questions, wondering why the clearly fake people in the analogy were even in this situation in the first place, why didn't they do X, why didn't they do Y, etc. Almost all of the posters completely ignored the actual situation and instead commented on the fictional people. They probably didn't read the whole post and just skipped to the end. Then others joined in, likely without reading the whole thread, and it got worse from there.

Is there anything you can do when a thread goes wrong, or is it out of your hands once you post the OP? Does it matter if you are the OP trying to get your own thread back on track, versus just some random poster who wants to get it back on track?

I just remembered that this happened to me once, awhile ago. I said something in a post about how I realized my "little" sister (age 19 at the time) was "all grown up" when I came home to find her drinking beer with our dad. I forgot that a parent giving alcohol to their child at home isn't legal everywhere, so I didn't think to clarify that my dad hadn't done anything wrong. When I came back to the thread, I found a ton of posts all telling me how illegal that was and how awful my dad was for doing that, etc. I ended up cutting my losses and leaving that thread. Personally, I think those posters should have minded their own business regardless, but whatever.

I'd like to know the answer, because I only belong to a few forums, but I feel that it happens here on EHell more than it happens anywhere else I've seen.

I know you can hit the "Report" button and complain if you are very offended by a post, but often, the first post is just a question or a clarification, so whether I'm the OP or just a participant, I don't find it overly offensive. Then, the second post on the tangential subject is just a reply to that question, so I don't want to report that either. Then, the third post on the tangential topic is generally not offensive all by itself but it's getting close to beating a dead horse.

So far, I've just ignored those off-topic posts altogether because I don't want to add to the drama. But I would like a better way to deal with it.

There's very little you can do, and I'm very happy with that. If you think that a thread has gone completely off you can report it to the mods here, but I don't think that keeping things to a very narrow focus is right. This is especially true when I see people trying to rein in a thread because it's going in a direction that is uncomfortable for them -- in particular, when things don't go the way that the OP wanted.

I think it's like conversation in real life. Sometimes you introduce a topic and it gets away from you and goes off in an unpredictable direction. Etiquette-wise I think it's okay to try to divert people back to the original topic or to let the conversation flow where it wants. It's a judgment call which you chose. It's just harder online to get a read on what will work to change the topic back.

I also think it's okay for anyone in the conversation to try to divert things back to the original topic or to correct misconceptions.

I think the best way to handle it as another poster is to post in the thread yourself, giving advice that's relevant to the OP's actual situation and/or pointing out where others seem to have misunderstood. The OP can respond to clear up misconceptions and ask again for advice concerning the actual situation, although I don't think the OP gets to dictate the direction of the thread.


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