How To Save A Web Community’s Life

August 27, 2010
By Lisa Barone in Branding

I’ve stopped responding to new comments on our Philly blogger tax post (don’t worry, still reading them). It’s not that I’m disinterested in the conversation or that I don’t value the time people are spending engaging there, it’s just too much. That conversation has spun in so many different directions and taken so many turns that I can’t find right side up anymore. It feels a little like the conversation I tried to start has now been lost. I don’t know how to get it back on track. I should have been sterner when the pursuit was still in progress.

A recent post on the Sphinn blog informed community members that site moderators would now be paying closer attention to enforcing longstanding guidelines. They’ll be keeping a close eye on voting patterns and taking steps to remove unexceptional content from the Sphinn home page. I think they feel a bit like their own conversation has been lost as the community is diluted with content of little value, pushed to the front page large writing teams or artificial voting circles. I’d encourage you to read the lengthy Sphinn conversation happening here because it’s quite good.

They’re both cases where someone or something was needed to step in and manage the actions of a community. Someone had to affirm their presence to help things remain productive and useful to members. However, one of us was a lot more successful at asserting that. And it sure wasn’t me.

Community management is something I tend to struggle with. When I work with clients, it’s easy. It’s easy to instruct them on how to put together guidelines, how to enforce them, and how to make judgment calls when something needs to be done. It’s black and white with client communities. However, I’m a bit slower to act when it’s my own backyard, more likely to give someone the benefit of the doubt and less likely to delete or edit a comment that I know doesn’t belong. It’s something I’m working on.

It’s not unusual for us to have passionate flare ups on the blog. And when we do, I’m left to ask myself: When do I step in? When, as the community manager, do you have to take back your community and reassert order?

You step in when the perception of your community is actually harming it.

In a completely unrelated conversation, Alysson Fergison tweeted at me that in the absence of substantiated evidence, perception is reality. And she’s right. When the perception of your community threatens it, that’s when you have to act.

  • When the perception is that you’ll allow spam comments through, act.
  • When the perception is that a few small entities control your community and that non-backed content will be ignored, act.
  • When the perception is that you’ll allow personal attacks and flaming, act.
  • When the perception is that you’re not listening, act.

My friend Gwen wrote a post on going viral earlier this week. Toward the end of that post she touches on the responsibility a person has once something is sent viral.

She writes:

We have to pay attention to our words, our status updates, because words (regardless of the length of the statement, and whether delivered in person or digitally) matter. We must be vigilant because we have a responsibility – not just to those we’re sure will hear what we say directly. We’re responsible to anyone who may experience the ripple.

I love that. You are responsible for the ripple you create. It is your job to make sure you’re casting your community in the correct light and that you’re not allowing it to harm others. If it is harming them, you have to act.

I’ve watched plenty of Web communities rot and die. We all have. Site X launches, serves as a really valuable hub of information for a while, and then devolves when the cool kids come in to spam it with their own nonsense. We’ve seen it happen on Sphinn and we’ve seen it happen on lots of other online communities. It’s rare that the community managers are able to step in, remove the issue, and put things back on a healthy course. But with proper moderation and butt kicking, it can. I’ll use SEOmoz as an example of a community I think has done a fantastic job of this. Not long ago Patrick Sexton congratulated SEOmoz on the refreshed feeling inside the community saying that he felt comfortable there again. But that’s rare. And it doesn’t happen by itself. SEOmoz made it happen.

Yesterday Michael Gray argued that you can’t maintain a community Web site without heavy moderation and trusted editors guiding the content. I couldn’t agree more. It’s like the old saying goes: spare the rod, spoil the child community.

I’m going to be more aware of the ripples that Outspoken is casting out and doing my best to guide the content and the discussions in a productive direction. Because I think the people here deserve that.  I also invite you to be more active calling out behavior you think doesn’t belong.  Together that’s how we’ll keep this space great.  I give Sphinn major kudos for being so transparent with their own issue and vowing to make it better.

How will you do the same with your community?

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