How To Save A Web Community’s Life


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 (I echoed a similar sentiment). 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?

Your Comments

  • Michelle Robbins

    Thanks for this post, and for your support of what we’re trying to accomplish at Sphinn, Lisa. You hit it right on the head with what you say about perception and needing to step in early. I also think common sense applies – and am perfectly happy going with the Warren court’s standard of “you know it when you see it” for looking at content – and at behavior within a community. Everyone wants (and benefits from) good content and a level playing field. We’re just reaffirming the standards we’d originally set, and communities should never shrink from doing so.

  • Dr. Pete

    It’s so tough when you’ve poured your blood, sweat and tears into a community – what’s easy to advise a client suddenly becomes personal when it’s your virtual baby. I went through it with SEOmoz – I was part of that “Class of 2006” or so, loved the vibe, learned a ton, and it was tough when a lot of people left. Partly, I had to realize that it wasn’t personal – many people went on to bigger things and just didn’t have the time.

    It got tougher when I took a more active role with SEOmoz as a contractor. Now, I had an active responsibility to protect the community. I had to learn that, on the one hand, it isn’t MINE (I’m just a voice), but on the other hand, tough love can be important. I also had to accept that things inevitably change and communities ebb and flow. I also had to admit that sometimes I’m the instigator who needs moderating – being an influencer means taking responsibility.

    Sorry, now I’m just rambling :) Short version: What you said.

  • Joanna Lord

    You certainly echoed many of the issues we all face when it comes to sustaining a community online. I’ve been fortunate to work for two amazing user-driven communities in my career (SEOmoz & VirtualTourist) and I have seen community managers, moderators, evangelists, and members struggle with much of what you talked about. Its a challenge to keep a community personal and positive while not suffocating it of it’s own momentum that often comes from the posting of sensational content and the resulting dialogues. You hit the nail on the head when you noted we all need to see the ripples more clearly and trust our guts when it comes to guiding those ripples in a positive direction.

    Also, I appreciate the shout out to SEOmoz, I know Jen has worked really hard at making sure our community lives up to the awesomeness already present in our industry.

    Okay enough warm fuzzies for one day, great post lady!

    • Lisa Barone

      Thanks, Joanna. I think Jen has done a great job setting a new tone at SEOmoz. Not that it was awful before, but there was a definite transition period with new faces and you guys came out of that really well. It’s been nice to watch. I’d totally comment more over there if I could ever remember my password. ;)

  • Scott Golembiewski

    When I saw the title of the Philly thread words like “put up” “shut up” – then scrolling quickly through the comments words jump out like “punch” and a couple more like that I don’t have much interest in it.

    But some people will, and typically from what I’ve seen they can also be the ones who will make/break a community.

    Communities age just like us, and there’s really no way to prevent it the only thing that can be done is to keep them contributing to something.

    I think thats what makes communities thrive, the collaboration towards solving a problem as a team. And a team without a problem to solve can find one.

  • Chris Miller

    Sigh, I don’t think we agree on anything, Lisa!

    Couldn’t people choose to stop reading the comments of a particular post? I waded through those 180 comments because I was bored, mostly, and I was a bit offended by some of the whiny people – but I could have hit that good ol’ back or Stumble button at any point, so all responsibility if I was offended is on me, right?

    What would be the point of censoring quazi-related replies? I love what SEOmoz is doing as far as quality of posts these days, but the comments, because they can be voted on, are all bland at best. Nobody wants to share an opinion which might get them voted off the island, so everybody tries to be liked by everyone else.

    I comment here more than anywhere else on the web because people are outspoken, even when it’s not something I agree with. Sometimes I even learn from those conflicting, quazi-unrelated rants.

    • Lisa Barone

      I definitely agree that one of the reasons the conversations here are so good (juicy?) is because people aren’t afraid to be outspoken. But I think there’s a difference between being outspoken and being rude/purposely offensive. I think we had more comments than I would have liked fall into the second category on that post and that’s what I’d like to be better about nixing. I’m all for debate and passionate responses and even mini-rants…but the personal attacks don’t sit well with me. If I was a new reader and saw that by leaving an unpopular opinion someone may personally attack me, I probably wouldn’t want to open my mouth. That’s actually why I stopped commented on SEOmoz back in the day – because every time I did, regardless of what I said, I was voted down by people who didn’t like me on a personal level. It doesn’t create an inviting atmosphere. I think OSM to rise above that.

      But the whiny comments really annoyed me too. We agree on that much. :)

      • Chris Miller

        So, here’s a thought. Now that we’ve established that “our” community is different from back from the SEOmoz vs Lisa Barone split, when Sphinn just came out and everyone was a buzz with the concept of voting on people instead of their content, what is actually different now? What still needs work?

        And the big point I was getting to on this, is who is the “our”? Who is this community, and in what way does it benefit / relate to / effect “our” actual work?

  • Rufus Dogg

    We have a strict “no whining” and “no logical fallacies” policy around here, in our real life office and on the blogs. Basically, everything you want to do, you better have a strong, reasoned and well-thought out argument. We enforce is rigorously. You will be challenged.

    Many of the comments on the Philly post were shining examples of logical fallacies and the inability of most commenters to construct reasoned argument. I think that is sad and reflective of our skills at discourse in general. Most people who write “hobby blogs” (and a few professional bloggers) don’t expect to get challenged. “I totally agree” seems to be the #1 comment on a lot of them. As a result, many don’t know how to retort logically. What usually results is a, “well, you’re just stupid.. and your mamma, too” type comment.

    Your blog post was a reasoned argument for the tax (fee?) Many of the comments were hyperbolic rants on why blogging should be free or some free speech argument, or big government and not a refudiation (sic) of your argument.

    So, I propose that you add a fifth condition:
    – When the perception is that logical fallacies are allowed to stand in place of reasoned argument, act.

    • Lisa Barone

      Great comment.

      I think my point in that post got a little lost because people took it too personally as if I was attacking their hobby blog. There’s nothing wrong with hobby blog, but if you have ads on it, it’s not a hobby. People start fighting over the differentiation and missed the rest of the post. Probably my fault.

  • Marjorie Clayman

    This is a very complicated issue, but I keep coming back to the fact that we are using new technology, new websites, new ways of engagement, yet we are basing everything we do on old definitions that no longer assist us in describing what we do. For example:

    Community: A few years ago, “community” was the people on your message board, the people in your MySpace group, maybe the people on your blog. What is community today? Is the Outspoken Media community here, or is it here, your clients as they exist in real life, Twitter, and everywhere else you are?

    Engagement: This word is used a lot, but what does it mean on a site like this or on Twitter or on Facebook? If I come to your blog and just say, “blah blah blah you smell like old muffins,” am I engaging? Am I engaging if I just click the “like” button? Do I have to do more than 1 thing to be really engaging?

    I think we need to look at how we define moderation. To my mind, and maybe to other people to, the word brings to mind heavy boots and a shaking index finger. “Nooo, you cannot say that. You are hereby banished!” But maybe that is not the kind of moderation we are talking about anymore. Maybe moderation is just trying to wing the outlying comments back in to where the conversation is going. Maybe community moderation is more like a sheepdog, less like a bulldog.

    Just a thought :)

    • Rufus Dogg

      @Marjorie I like your dog analogies and agree with the sheepdog one. I might be a bit biased though : )

      I think a lot of times we excuse human behavior by saying “this is all new technology” and the “old definitions of community, engagement, etc don’t apply.” I keep referring people back to the Hobo Code It applied in 1889 when the railroad was the “new technology” and applies still today when social media tools are the new technology.

      But, if finding the differences keeping us talking to each other, I’m all for rooting them out.

    • Lisa Barone

      I really like that analogy. Thank you for sharing. :)