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Web Community Management Tips

Whether intentional or not, Bob Garfield from NPR’s “On the Media” reopened an old wound when he questioned the need for user comments on newspaper Web sites.

The “comments issue” is polarizing. Die-hard community advocates believe comments are an integral part of the online experience. Detractors draw a straight line between user comments and the apocalypse. It’s a contentious topic with very little middle ground.

For our purposes, there’s no point in looking at all the arguments and counter-arguments. The comments debate has been going on for at least 10 years (much longer, if you count Usenet), and it will persist as long as trolls continue to lower the conversational bar. That’s just the way it is.

However, this latest flare up offers an opportunity to redirect the focus to some of the time-tested best practices for managing Web communities. Derek Powazek (whom we recently interviewed for an unrelated piece) offers an excellent starting point with “10 Ways Newspapers Can Improve Comments,” and Cory Doctorow’s “How To Keep Hostile Jerks From Taking Over Your Online Community” is also recommended reading.

I’ve also picked up a few bits of wisdom from my own experiences as a community manager:

  1. Nurture the Good — The majority of people want to do the right thing. They want to engage in fruitful and fulfilling conversations. They want to build and protect special communities. These are the people you focus on.
  2. Push Trolls to the Margins — All popular communities will eventually suffer through a troll infestation. The trick is the minimize a troll’s impact by not taking the bait. Moderators should never engage in a public argument, and key community members should be encouraged via private messages and back channels to ignore troll attacks. A marginalized troll is a useless troll, and they know it.
  3. Share Ownership — I focused on inclusiveness in my first community because I was unsure about my own voice and opinions. In a serendipitous twist, the “we’re all equal and we’re all in this together” perspective led to a shared sense of ownership. It took a while for folks to buy what I was selling, but a consistent focus on collaboration and equality eventually led to individual responsibility and effective self-policing. I’ve used this same technique on subsequent communities and the results have always been positive.
  4. Calm by Example — Experienced community managers know that the Web is a fickle place; today’s egregious opinion often evaporates within a matter of days. A measured community manager allows fiery debates to run their course without spilling out of control, and on those rare occasions when guidance is required, a calm force is far more powerful.

What community tips do you have? Please share your thoughts in the comments area (unless you’re a troll).

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  • http://oreilly.com Sarah Kim

    I have found the following advice to be very helpful:

    * Clarify, model, and encourage the type of behavior you want to see in your community.

    * Display clear guidelines for what is acceptable in your community and enforce those guidelines as consistently as possible so moderation is not personal.

    I also prefer to require a login to post comments so there is some investment in joining and being a part of the conversation. Plus, moderation as well as rewarding valuable contributors becomes much easier.

  • TF

    Actually, BoingBoing (of which Doctorow is part-owner) has a rather heavy-handed moderation policy. Disagreeing with any of the posts is grounds for disemvowelling, censoring, or banning users. I understand trolls have to be kept in check, but hearing it from Doctorow is a little bit like a despot talking about limitations on free speech – it’s always done in a heavy-handed way to stop any discussion opposing their point of view. It ends up being suppression of free speech and valid challenges to the despot’s point of view. Funny, no matter how many times we’ve seen that pattern in governments, it seems that even the “liberal” bloggers at BoingBoing can’t help but fall prey to the desire of all dictators to squelch free speech.

  • exception

    Know how to delegate, managing a large community all on your own can be stressful at times. It helps to have a team you can delegate tasks to.