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Keeping online communities friendly 

With the rise of forums, blogs, social networks and other mediums allowing for user generated content, the amount of nastiness out on the web has risen exponentially. Your users and customers can provide great content, but toxic stuff as well. You'll need to make a decision early on in the piece on how to deal with it as once the floodgates are left opened for too long, they are really hard to close again.

It's not unusual for site owners who offer features for user generated content to find themselves in a situation where members start posting inflammatory items. The site owner may be resistant to censorship in the fear of losing users, but this behavior can spark off others and wind up in regular flame wars - it becomes a cancer that can spread throughout a community.

It usually goes something like this

  • Person A posts a comment, usually it's still civil at this stage

  • Person B argues the point

  • Person A feels wounded, rebutts a little more forcefully, perhaps alluding to Person B being uninformed

  • Person B then starts getting personal

  • Person C,D,E joins in or starts the equivalent of yelling "fight, fight, fight!" from the sidelines.

Then there's the drive by flamings carried out by trolls; who post inflammatory items purely to bait other users into an argument. 

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Often this is carried out under a very thin veil of "passion" and quasi-intellectual debate, complete with big words that will have you scrabbling for your dictionary. You'd be surprised just how often people who seem to be level-headed will descend into such schoolyard-type brawls.

Imagine a first-time visitor viewing that exchange - what type of impression will it have on that person; not only of the community generally, but the way you approach business?

These slinging matches are bloody immature, life-wasting stuff and is the microcosm of the macrocosm - the reason the world's in such a darned mess. So many times I see interesting, informative discussions degrade into digital bloodshed - and people *do* get hurt. 

I was just reading an article about a 13 year old who hung herself after nasty comments were posted about her on a social network. Another instance that springs to mind is of a well known and respected blogger being stalked and his property damaged by an unbalanced community participant who had run amok. These sorts of incidents, while extreme, are unfortunately becoming increasingly common. 

Freedom of speech and responsibility

There seems to be a great misunderstanding of what freedom of speech really represents and it's one of the first things that offenders will start squawking about if you tried to nudge them into line.

Freedom without responsibility and accountability is just anarchy of the worst kind. True freedom is about accountability. It's up to those who run the communities to enforce these values as they appear to be severely lacking in people's general education these days.

If mud-slinging content becomes the dominant style in your community, you may get a lot of activity from people attracted to this sort of garbage, but it could drive a lot of people away who have something *really* valuable to contribute.

While some sites have built their success on this type of thing, I can't say it's my cup of tea - the world's a nasty enough place as it is. To be quite honest, I think that site administrators that allow this sort of behavior really aren't helping the evolution of the species, rather assisting it to become more aggressive - but that's just my personal opinion.

Democracy vs. benevolent dictatorship

The concept of democracy and non-censorship in a community is noble, but somewhat ill-placed in a world where anonymity provides a suit of armor for the spineless and those who don't understand the accountability attached to freedom. 

I suggest running your blogs, forums, reviews section as a benevolent dictatorship. That's benevolent, not malevolent :). In so many forums and communities I come across, there are guidelines stating that aggressive and demeaning comments are not permitted, yet these guidelines are not enforced.

If someone posts something you find a little too much on the snarky side; don't hesitate to scrub it, edit it - it's your site, don't be afraid of being labeled Big Brother or worse. Those people may jump up and down for a while, but they'll end up going elsewhere - misery loves company. 

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See this also as an opportunity to educate the offender without belittling him or her. Create some standard text you can send out to these people that explains to them what a constructive and supportive community is. 

Invite them to repost their comments in a more civilized manner - that way you're not shutting them out or telling the person that their opinions are unwanted, just the tone needs to be modified. If you feel the person is worth spending the time on, offer them suggestions as to how their comment can be restructured.

In the cases of trolls, and they will be very apparent - don't bother with the niceties; don't rise to the bait; delete, then ignore. Simple as that.

These suggestions don't mean you should rid your site of healthy debate, controversy or constructive criticism, but by giving your community too much power, you may well find yourself spending more time fending off complaints than benefiting from the activity and losing the folks who do play nice and have a great deal to give; that they'll then give elsewhere. 

It takes a special sort of person to enjoy working in *that* sort of environment :).

Related:

Dealing with complaints and the Streisand effect

Forums as a web marketing tool - tips and pitfalls

 

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
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