No online community is perfect – there will come a time (if it hasn’t happened already) when a member becomes abusive or confrontational. Dealing with these bad apples can be a challenge – they will often stir up emotions and lead to a huge spike in member engagement and discussion. However, it’s unlikely that this is the kind of activity you want to see in your online community.
Arguments and controversy
The Just Chat message boards used to see more than their fair share of arguments and controversy – and it led to a great buzz in the forums. However, over time the arguments became more personal, more abusive and more unpleasant. Weighing up the negativity versus activity issue, I decided to fence off a section of the forums for those who wanted to engage in discussions of a more argumentative nature.
This worked for a while – however, the negative feelings soon spread back into the main forums. Eventually, conversations were becoming extremely confrontational and in very poor taste. After repeated warnings, we were forced to ban some of our most active members and we closed the more ‘liberal’ section of the boards.
This was a difficult decision to make as the members that were ultimately banned were amongst the most active. However, after some of the worst exchanges it was decided that we’d rather have no community at all than carry on as we were.
At the end of the day, less than five members were banned. A few more left in protest. The forum was extremely quiet for a number of weeks. However, after a while, activity crept back up and whilst we aren’t seeing as many posts per day as we did a year ago, the forums are now far more pleasant and welcoming. This helps draw in new members and keep existing ones around.
The morale of the story is this – controversy and arguments create activity and engagement, but they can easily spiral out of control and poison your community. Be very careful.
The importance of (some) rules
You can’t hope to earn the respect of your members when you edit or remove posts for breaching guidelines that don’t exist. You need to earn legitimacy and you do this by having clear and prominent community guidelines or rules.
Keep your rules short, basic and to the point. People won’t read them otherwise. Don’t try to list every possible infraction that isn’t allowed – instead, promote the use of common sense.
The more rules you have, the less likely your members are to read them and the more oppressive your community will feel.
Once you have rules, you can refer back to them when taking action against an abusive member. There’s no room for argument.
Enforcement and consistency
Enforce your community guidelines consistently. If one member breaks the rules and you warn them, you need to warn other members that do the same. Don’t be afraid to speak with your most active members if they break the guidelines – the rules apply just as much to them (perhaps even more so) as to others.
Sometimes this can be a real effort – that’s why you need to use common sense. A previously mature, sensible and valued member might have an off day. They might be under extreme stress. They might snap over what appears to be an innocent comment. Don’t crack down on them – they’re human, they make mistakes (just as you do).
The key is communication. Speak to that member (privately) – don’t issue warnings at the drop of a hat. Just talk at first; see what’s up. Show that you care. Cooling off periods often work wonders.
If the member is someone with a track record of causing trouble, you should have already tried reaching out to them. You know it’s not going to work if you keep on trying. In this case, go for the official warning in a professional manner (referring back to your community guidelines).
Some people just don’t get it. You’ll hear all the arguments. You’ll be called names. You’ll be accused of clamping down on free speech. Whatever – sometimes people just need to be sent packing. If you need to ban someone from your online community, do it privately. I don’t like it when I visit forums and see posts from members that have the word ‘Banned’ under their name. Just remove the posts that need to be removed, deactivate their username and move on.
Sometimes, you’ll need to be persistent. Some people will not get the message that they aren’t welcome in the community. They’ll register for a new account, and continue their tirades. If that’s the case, just continue with the same course of action and deactivate the accounts as they are made. I prefer to deactivate accounts rather than delete them – it makes the member register for a new email address each time which is more effort for them.
Don’t give in on this. Some people will really push you and test your patience. Consider manually approving new member applications for a limited time if necessary – after a cooling off period, things may get better. If not, stick to your guns. It’s much easier for you to click one button and deactivate an account than for a persistently abusive member to register a new email address, register for an account and start posting.
I’ve had a previously banned member rejoin one of my communities and begin to make what appeared to be genuine contributions. After writing a lot of posts, they revealed their true colours. You might be tempted to give them another chance – I’d argue against it. If you’ve banned someone, you’ve banned someone. Stick to your guns.
The most persistent individuals crave attention and recognition. They want to show that you can’t control them. They want to air their grievances. Don’t give them the platform to do this. Don’t mention them in the community. Don’t be drawn into discussions about why they were banned – they were banned because they broke the community guidelines. It really is as simple as that.
Move on – these incidents can leave a bad taste in your mouth and make you wonder just what some people could achieve if they focussed their efforts on more positive activities. You have a community to manage; that’s the bigger picture and the majority will thank you for dealing with the vocal and abusive minority.