When online communities attack! Keeping your site hate-free

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A campaign of attacks on a much-loved blogger (click here for the background) has reignited a long-running debate over civil online behaviour. One leading voice in the social web has gone so far as to call for a blogger code of conduct.

From flame wars to hate speech to death threats, online communities have always had the potential to turn ugly. And once they do, a vicious circle can form; gentler users leave for sunnier destinations, and without their calming presence, conflicts escalate more quickly.

But this doesn't have to happen to your community. Here are a few simple steps you can take to stay on the right side of the line separating healthy conversation from verbal abuse.

  • Your initial users will set the tone for those who follow. When you're setting up your community, open it at first to a limited number of participants. Choose people whose conversational skills you admire – people with a proven ability to agree to disagree, and (even more important) to listen.
  • Set clear boundaries from the start. Make it clear when users join that this is a space that's going to be free of personal attacks and verbal violence. And phrase it positively: for the vast majority of your users, this is going to be a big plus.
  • Give users a way to report objectionable content (such as a "flag this as offensive" button). Respond quickly if they do.
  • Consider adding a "preview" step before a user confirms they want to submit a comment or post. Even a few seconds of reflection can be enough time for someone to reconsider a hasty, angry rejoinder.
  • If a conversation seems to be spiralling out of control, don't be afraid to intervene. Remind the participants that disagreeing with ideas is fine, but attacking individuals isn't. If the discussion is getting too heated, and especially if it reaches the stage where new arguments aren't being advanced any more, suggest that they move on to another topic.
  • Watch out for mobs ganging up on new users who ask "dumb" questions, or who reopen issues that old-timers think were settled long ago. You don't need to be heavy-handed; just treating the newcomer's post with respect can shift the tone of the discussion.
  • Set clear rules and enforce them consistently, regardless of how you feel about the issues at play. Let your community know what to expect when a user steps outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour – whether it's a warning, suspension or (in extreme cases, such as the repeat offenders who deliberately try to provoke conflict, known as "trolls") outright banning.
  • Be vigilant, but don't let paranoia stifle passion. If you've set a positive tone from the beginning (and if your community isn't focussed on party politics, Macs versus Windows or other religious conflicts), genuine mouse rage should be very rare.

In other words, participation – the heart of any online community – is also its immune system. Encourage that positive participation, and your community will be resilient enough to fend off the flames.


Norma Fares says

April 13, 2009 - 5:03pm

I'm keen to be good in The Lord's eye, with His kind help.

Being sane online i.e. keeping site hate-free is one of the most needed nowdays round the globe in general in Arab countries in particular. Spreading the use of verb like dislike instead of hate for the smallest things in life is to me a great achievement.

Sane tip. Thank you!

Norma - Lebanon


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