So you've gotten your community news, information, or discussion site off the ground. People are showing up, reading what you've posted, posting their own content, and joining in discussions. It's all going great. That is, until ...
Someone gets nasty, in a comment or post -- maybe personally insulting or unjustly accusatory toward you or another community member. Almost immediately someone else takes offense, and lashes back on your site. Then more people join the fray from all sides, flaming each other brutally. Comment threads overflow with vitriol.
Distressed loyal community member start crying out -- on the site and via e-mail -- for you, the site manager, to stop the brawl and make the creeps shut up. Their concern is well-founded: When online communities get overrun by hostile posts, it has a chilling effect on all other conversation. If this happens too often, it can kill a community.
Is there a better way to ruin any online community manager's day?
The bad news is this: These kinds of problems are inevitable, at least occasionally, on any site where open discussion is allowed. The more controversial your site's content, the more frequently you'll have to battle flame wars. In short, if you allow discussion, you can bet that a fight will break out sometime.
The good news? There are many things you can do to cultivate a positive, constructive online community where vitriolic outbreaks are relatively rare, short-lived, and easy to handle. Here are 12 tips to keep your online community civil, constructive and lively:
Are you right for this job?
Managing any online community is mainly about people -- and that starts with you, the site manager. Are you the kind of person who tends to react quickly when you encounter rudeness or hostility? Have you posted things online that you later regret or retract? Do you have trouble maintaining your sense of humor under stress? Have people told you that you're thin-skinned? Do you tend to take remarks personally? Are you highly shy or conflict-averse?
If so, then the wisest move you can make is to delegate the task of shepherding your site's online discussions to someone with the right temperament. This is someone even-tempered, fair-minded, and probably not too emotionally attached to your online community. Passion is generally a good thing in online community, but when it comes to managing day-to-day conduct in blogs and forums, it can be a double-edged sword.
Also, cultivating a positive, constructive online community takes time and consistent attention and effort. If you can't keep an eye on your site's public discussions and manage them daily (maybe even several times a day), find skilled people who can assist with this task.
Publish conduct guidelines From the outset, be clear with your community what your expectations are for civil and constructive discourse. Draft up a set of conduct guidelines -- which should cover not just posts to the site, but also discussion threads.
Be positive. Make sure to ask for good behaviors, rather than simply listing prohibited bad behaviors. For instance, your guidelines might say:
"Give everyone -- even people with whom you disagree -- the benefit of the doubt. Respect others' right to disagree with you. It's OK to politely correct people on points of fact, or explain why you disagree. However, insulting, maligning, or accusing people and organizations does not move the conversation forward. We don't want to see that happen here."
Make sure your policies define reasonable, clear consequences for bad behavior. For instance, you could reserve the right to edit or to delete posts or comments that violate your conduct guidelines. You might impose probation or banning on repeat offenders.
It's a good idea to involve your community in discussing which kinds of violations are most destructive to conversation, and which consequences are appropriate. Inevitably, some people will call for a total, no-consequences free-for-all. But beware -- this approach almost never works. Chances are you'll have a lot of support in your community for appropriate conduct guidelines.
Set a good example
As a community leader, participants will look to your behavior to see how serious you are about your site's conduct policy, and to find a model for what's expected of them. So make sure that all contributions which you and your site's staff or volunteers add to the public conversation are positive and constructive. Be consistent. Lashing back at a hostile comment -- even once -- can set a lasting impression and can be taken as permission to dismiss your conduct guidelines.
Seeding: Invite and encourage civil people
The "if you build it, they will come" approach to online community rarely produces good results. Most people don't want to be the first one to strike up a public conversation. It's helpful to do some behind-the-scenes recruiting of knowledgeable, reasonable, friendly, interested, and gregarious people to check in with your community regularly.
This "seeding" strategy not only helps get discussion rolling; it also can help attract more positive, constructive people to your community. When recruiting, try to get at least five-to-eight people to start. It's wise to set light but reasonable expectations -- such as three posts or responses a week, for a month. Use private e-mail to gently, positively nudge the laggards. Suggest topics they might post about, or ask questions and encourage them to respond via a public post.
Prevent comment spam
Comment spam (when software "robots" automatically post irrelevant comments, often commercial, sometimes pornographic, to blogs or forums) is one of the great scourges of online communities. If your site is vulnerable to spambots, that infestation will probably kill your community quickly.
Most good blog and forum tools offer robust, automated comment spam protection tools -- such as the Akismet plugin for WordPress. When choosing tools for your online community, strong comment spam protection is a must. Don't use any tool that doesn't demonstrably intercept the vast majority of attempted comment spam.
As a secondary level of protection, you can implement a captcha tool for your site. This displays a visual or audible challenge-response test (such as a short string of distorted text) that the would-be participant must correctly interpret before posting a comment. This works with web-based community interfaces, but not as well with e-mail discussion lists or mobile devices.
Work behind the scenes
Use private e-mail. It's a crucial tool for any online community manager -- especially when you need to discourage misbehavior. For instance, if someone in your community starts posting off-topic threads, unsupported diatribes, or direct or veiled attacks, working behind the scenes is more likely to yield positive results.
No matter how nasty someone gets, never assume (and certainly don't accuse them of) ill intent. Be compassionate to their perspective -- or at least, act like you understand their perspective. It's possible to demonstrate compassion without agreeing with people or their behavior. Most people really just want to feel heard. It's best to start off private contacts this way to resolve problems.
Don't be too sympathetic, however. If someone has clearly stepped over the line by insulting someone, etc., quote back to them what they said and explain what line was crossed. Don't try too hard to justify your assessment. Convey confidence, and calmness.
If you have held a comment or post for moderation before it went public, ask them to modify their statement so it fits within community guidelines. Try to find any positive, constructive (or at least not destructive) way to approach what they were trying to say. If you must delete a public comment or post for violating community guidelines, make sure you leave a message in its place stating that is was removed in keeping with your policy. Don't simply "disappear" it without note. If people complain or ask questions about this decision, try as much as possible to handle those discussions via private e-mail or phone calls.
If someone's comments fall into a gray area (they may or may not violate your conduct policy), assume the best and see how the community reacts. Overzealous community managers tend to chill discussion as much as angry ranters.
Highlight the best contributions
Your online community can be a rich resource of content for your site. However, in most communities the quality of discussion varies greatly over time. It can be challenging to wade through a lively community to discover the most relevant or best content.
If possible, find a way to spotlight the best posts and threads from your community. Slate.com does this in its political forum, The Fray. That forum's main page highlights the following kinds of contributions: editor's picks, most read, and highest rated.
If your site isn't sophisticated enough to offer that sort of "window" onto your best content, then you could consider occasionally featuring particularly thoughtful posts or discussions on your site's home page.
Highlighting excellent contributions gives participants positive reinforcement. The more importance you give to those contributions, the more likely it is that your community members will vie constructively for that recognition.
Don't allow anonymous comments
Troublemakers generally seek to avoid accountability. Require that people attach their name to their contributions to your site - it's the first line of defense against bad behavior.
How you implement this measure depends on the tools you choose to build your site. Most blogging and forum tools offer administrative options to prevent anonymous comments. If you're deciding which tools to use for your online community, versatile control over comments is a must-have feature. Systems that require commenters to offer an e-mail address (not for publication, but for your administrative use), that track IP addresses for comments, and that allow you to ban commenters by a variety of identifiers are the most helpful.
By itself, forbidding anonymous comments is far from a foolproof strategy. Participants can choose to comment under pseudonyms, provide false e-mail addresses, or even try to impersonate others. If you suspect these problems are occurring on your site, you might want to move onto more stringent measures (see No. 9).
Moderate comments and/or posts
Most blogging and forum tools allow site administrators to choose to review (moderate) comments and posts before they get published to the site. Generally there are three ways to do this:
Moderate any participant's first (or first few) comments or posts.
Moderate all comments or posts from selected participants.
Moderate all comments or posts from everyone, all the time.
Since moderating comments requires time and attention from the site manager, and since it can delay public conversation, it's usually best to implement this measure only if you've been having a problem with misbehavior or off-topic contributions. If you do choose to introduce comment moderation, post to your site and tell your community what you're doing, why, and how it works. It's best to start with the least restrictive form of comment moderation, and see how it works before proceeding to more stringent measures (see No. 10).
Require user registration
This measure is controversial in many communities, often because some people are averse to revealing their identities publicly if airing controversial views. Some people have genuine concerns about being fired, vilified, and ostracized for their statements.
It's important to be sensitive to these concerns, but also to balance them against the needs and culture of your online community. If you think that at some point you may want to require every participant to register with your site (even if to post a comment), make sure to select site tools which allow this feature. If your site tools don't allow this, developing this custom feature can be difficult, costly, or even impossible to implement without a site overhaul.
Shut down destructive threads
Often one line of discussion ("thread") on a site blows up into a heated argument, while others crank along just fine. If your site tools allow it, you could selectively disable comments on problem threads -- effectively shutting them down.
As with introducing moderation, it's important to warn people before you do this. Give the community a chance to quell itself. If the problem thread persists, follow through with disabling further comments on that thread. Often when this happens, some especially passionate or stubborn participants may try to restart the same discussion under a new thread. It may help to mention in advance that you will counter these efforts if they prove uncivil. Keep a close eye on the situation.
Notice that we don't list as an option, "Disable comments for your site." That's because, if your goal is to engage and involve your community, comments are vital.
Keep your sense of humor
Whenever managing your online community annoys, angers, or stresses you -- and it will -- take time to find something you can laugh about in that situation. If your most effective sources of therapeutic mirth involve member-mocking or envisioning divine retribution upon particularly challenging community members, so be it. Just don't tell anyone.
However, if you can find a way to share your laughter without deriding or demeaning anyone in your community, you might post about it. Part of leading by example involves not taking yourself too seriously.