Don’t Let Abuse Ruin Your Community – Set Guidelines, Report and Ban!

What do you want your community to be?

It’s the first question you should ask when starting a community, yet I wonder how many people do? This past weekend we ran a workshop at our offices and during my seminar on Community Management & Building the question of banning users came up. As a long-time community manager and owner my response to this question is always “Sometimes you have to!”. But, the real question is how did it come to that?

Online communities are not much different than offline communities. Whether it be your neighbourhood watch, a schools parent association, or a regular industry meetup, when a group of individuals are given the opportunity to “speak their mind” not everyone is going to agree, or be polite. As the number of people in the group grows, the more pollution you, as the moderator, need to deal with.

The web is rampant with volatile comments on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Communities are constantly under siege with a stream of negativity, racism, threats, homophobia, etc. yet, most moderators and owners choose to leave these comments. Community managers have debated the topic of deleting comments and banning users since the dawn of online forums and to this day there is no consensus on how, when, or if you should. It comes down to a personal choice as a member of the community to ignore the stupidity and as moderators and owners to set guidelines for their communities to be followed and acted upon – herein lies the problem!

Many online communities have little or no guidelines for their members to follow. At the beginning of this post I posed the question “What do you want your community to be?”. By understanding the kind of community you want to have you will be able to define some very basic, but essential, guidelines for your members to follow to ensure the goal of your community is being met and that the core philosophy and mission is intact leaving a satisfying experience for your members. Members join for a reason. It is up to you to support them in finding the answers they seek.

First rule of community building – set guidelines!

Don’t look at them as rules that must be followed, though they essentially are, but consider them the defining points that enable your members to get the support they need. For example: I belong to the Montréal + Startups Facebook group. A group dedicated to helping startups in Montreal learn and collaborate with each-other. I don’t post about my kids in this group. Why? Because the group manager has set some very basic guidelines “pinned” to the top of the page to help existing and new members understand the purpose of this group:

Promotion of books, events or services without relationship to Montreal+Startups group is banned.

Discussing knowledge, startup tips, sharing montreal startup news, community events and success stories, are good.

So think twice on how your post can benefit the community. Thanks!

Simple and effective! As a current or potential member I know what this group is for. If I break the “rules” I will be warned. If I continue to break the rules I will be banned. You should never be afraid to stamp out abuse in your community!

Let’s take a look at another example from Penny Arcade, one of the largest gaming forums on the web, their rules are rather lengthy, you can read the full thread here, but here’s the opening:

Screen Shot 2013-10-29 at 11.59.59 AMAn Important Note About The Nature Of These Rules

This thread is intended as a guide to the most important rules that must be followed by all members of our forums. It contains all of the most crucial information you will need in order to participate and also contains a FAQ about our forum culture.

What’s key here is the opening sentence ” … This thread is intended as a guide to the most important rules … ” They make it very clear that it is a guide to what they consider most important. They go on to explain why every member must follow these guidelines. They break down expectations for each category of the forum and make it very clear that you will “banned” if you don’t follow these guidelines.

Penny Arcade went through a tough period of growth where the guidelines they had were not good enough and abuse was at an all time high leaving many members no option but to leave for peace of mind. Like most things on the web, guidelines need to scale and change with your community’s growth. Strong communities look to their members for advice on their guidelines. Setting guidelines is essential to building a genuine culture around your community. Ask your community what kind of experience they want and expect. You can always change the guidelines, but you can’t change bad members!

I came across this great post, a framework for online community management, that discusses how to determine what is considered good or bad behaviour in your community. Sangeet Paul Choudary is an internet geek who currently works for 500 startups and explains the basics behind understanding user activity, regulation and prevention of actions taken in most online communities. It’s a solid read and I highly recommend it.

I also stumbled upon a Quora post asking “What are some good books for community managers to read” it’s a big list but there are definitely some gems in there. I would recommend reading Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and The Thank You Economy by Gary Vaynerchuk – 2 of my faves!

There’s plenty to be said on this subject and I hope I’ve given you something to think about if you’re considering starting your own community or if you have abuse issues in the one you currently run. I hope to write more on this subject in the future.

All feedback is welcome in the comments below! I’m always curious what other community mangers have to say on this topic 🙂

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