Online Rage and Community Moderation

Posted on Sep 15, 2011 in link building blog

Have you ever noticed that many UGC communities contain a near lawless atmosphere where acts of cruelty between members are almost to be expected? The comment sections of news organizations and even YouTube reach a Mad Max level of casual cruelty and lawlessness.  No doubt there are some admins who feel their members should have the right to abuse one another and the eco-system will self-regulate. Yet, is this lawless and uncivil atmosphere the way communities naturally evolve?  Or do communities end up that way because the community managers lack a clear plan for managing their communities? I’m going to discuss how to plan for a more civil community and make suggestions on how to gradually change the culture of an existing community. Many of the suggestions are based on my personal experience in founding and managing communities, in addition to my years of moderating at WebmasterWorld.com. What I discuss is from my experience in creating and managing communities.

How does a community become uncivil? It’s difficult to start a community.  An inactive forum perpetuates itself.  The fear of stifling growth is a strong incentive to take a hands off approach to moderation. But once the community has grown and evolved into whatever it was allowed to become over the course of it’s growth, it is difficult to impose a different culture from the top down. It almost seems inevitable that online communities will become unpleasant places.  But it doesn’t have to be that way. With planning and patience you can grow a community that encourages an exchange of ideas under a civil atmosphere that encourages and embraces new members, especially those who may be new to the topic. New members are important but newbies are especially important in term of cultivating growth and income.

I suspect that top down radical changes and enforcement of rules may drive out some members, even taking  a group with them to found a new forum. That’s the dreaded Exodus Event. Before you clean up your community, realize that there will be some push back. But from my experience, most people prefer civility and it is a smaller group that enjoys being able to harangue and rant. The so-called trolls. 

Are online communites uncivil by default?
I believe that most people are civil if given the oppportunity to understand they are in a civil environment and that to behave otherwise would make them appear as  a jerk to their peers. Most people think of themselves as civil and appreciate that kind of environment. It is the responsibility of community managers to cultivate that environment. Civility does not happen by itself. Road rage behavior blooms when a forum is left to drift on it’s own.

Most people, if given the opportunity, will side with civility.  The key is to provide community members with the opportunity to opt for civility. Road rage behavior is  a matter of circumstance. What people say and do within the bubble of distance provided within their automobiles would be unacceptable in the context of face to face interactions. How often do you think people flip the bird at the supermarket or in church versus in their cars? Typing words from the safety-bubble of one’s home has the same effect. Pop their bubble and replace it with clear social expectations and most people will behave courteously to one another as they do when face to face, when social expectations require them to.

I once received push back from a community member who took exception to having his post edited. He is a nice guy, an expert and a valued member of my community. But he was picking on newbs and making them feel ashamed for asking questions.  After a bit of back and forth what finally got through to him was when I  asked him if it is asking too much of him to be nice to people? “That’s all I am asking.” I told him. “Is it too heavy a burden, am I asking too much to ask that you simply be nice?”

Moderators – How to choose the best moderators for your community
Out of control communities often have their roots in the fact many are managed by folks who are experts or enthusiasts in whatever the topic is, but not so expert in community management.  Some of these communities began as an Exodus Event from other forums. Some of these communities gained life as part of a newspaper’s “online strategy” for user engagement.  All of those communities carry the DNA of their failure because the founders do not understand their leadership role as well as they understand their forum topic. In the case of professional community managers, the job is so new that at this time there are no widely accepted best practices beyond what is expedient, which has led to the Mad Max style online community ecosystem.  This applies to blog communities, the comment sections of news organizations, YouTube and most other UGC communities. Just because discourteous communities are common does not mean they have to be that way.

What is the solution to the bubble of distance that gives members the freedom to post in anonymity what they would never say face to face? Moderation. But first we must define the role of moderator. Mods must be examples of the kind of members you want to cultivate. And this is key. Members are cultivated. People will behave or misbehave according to how the forum is moderated. Lack of leadership has predictable results.

Moderator pitfalls
A poor experience may result when mods are chosen for qualities other than a love for the community. Being popular is not enough. They must exhibit qualities that recommend them for being examples of the kind of behavior you want to cultivate. Charisma and expertise are great but the more important quality is that of role model. Anything less will be the kinds of moderators that become divas, take the role too seriously, and eventually leave the community.

Mod selection is supremely important. Mods shape the feel of the forum. Do not choose mods soley on technical proficiency or their popularity.  The primary concern must be about the kind of example the mod candidate make. Are they civil? Are they level-headed? Are they impulsive? Technical ability is a secondary consideration.

What do moderators do?
Several years ago one of my forum members gave me feedback that we were over moderating, which gave rise to my “Don’t edit senior members without a discussion first” rule. Most members don’t reach senior level without absorbing the existing forum culture of civility. So they generally need to be treated differently, even given exceptions if it is not disruptive. That piece of member feedback saved us from a path I didn’t want my forum to take, which is creating a top level of elite moderators that were bureaucratically enforcing rules to the detrmiment of the community. Moderators are not cops. Apart from busting spam, Forum Police is the worst role a moderator can play. Moderators are the examples of the members you wish to cultivate. But just as importantly they are the tentacles that reach into the community and provide feedback to you about it’s state.

Members make posts. Mods read and interact with members. The admin receives feedback from the moderators about member sentiments and concerns. An admin/community manager cannot be everywhere. This is a second role moderators play, the eyes and ears of the admin. Moderators communicate the pulse of the community.

Another role moderators play is giving voice to the community in the way the forum is run. This is a personal and business issue. There are benefits to allowing moderators to help govern the way the forum is run. Moderators are often collectively more in touch with community than the admin is. The mods know the pulse. Having their fingers on the pulse of member sentiment helps the admins understand where everything stands but giving moderators the ability to influence board policy decisions gives voice to members and helps keep them happy because the forum gives them what they want. Moderators can play the role of the wire transmitting the electrical pulses of what the community needs.

Personally I am tired of going to my favorite forum, getting turned on by a discussion, then having a well meaning member ruin the discussion by accusing the OP of something negative. I am so apalled by the comments on YouTube, newspaper sites, and blogs that I do not participate in their discussions and no longer read them. I don’t believe this is the way online communities must be. I don’t believe this is the default mode of online communities.  It does not have to be that way.

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