How to deal with bad apples in your online community

by Martin Reed on 29 October 2009 in Articles

dealing with abuse in online communities

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).

Persistence

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.

Ignore

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.

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Maver1ck October 29, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Very resourceful article. I work as a community moderator for an advertising company and I’ve found that banning members has posed the largest challenge for some of our clients. There is a bit of fear as to the consequences of this action so they shy away from it, even though it harms the community in the long run. Articles like this help reinforce what we’ve been saying from the start so I thank you for putting this together.

Michelle October 29, 2009 at 2:26 pm

I could have used this article a couple of months ago. I had a new and seemingly friendly user turn nasty very suddenly and he kept signing up new accounts and attacking the site. I’m afraid I handled it very badly from the initial event that caused him to turn all the way until the end where I finally decided to do as this article advises and approve accounts manually. I initially wrote that I would only accept accounts from non-free email addresses and that seems to have finally done the trick. But it was a stressful couple of weeks.

It’s amazing how much trouble one person can cause. But I also learned a lot and, hopefully, will handle it better the next time.

Michelle

Jesse Clark October 30, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Great article! I have only had to ban a few people from my network but it was because of spamming not because of abuse.

I was wondering though, do you have suggestions or an example terms of service?

Martin Reed - Community Manager November 2, 2009 at 9:10 am

Jesse – I’d recommend you take a look at Patrick O’Keefe’s book, ‘Managing Online Forums‘ – it contains a huge amount of templates you can use.

Nicole Price November 3, 2009 at 10:49 am

One, have rules. Two, members must be made aware of the rules. Three, implement the rules when things get out of hand, by pointing out the rule to the defaulter and warning that repeating the offense could get the member barred.

Other members, who are the vast majority, appreciate this as most do not want unpleasantness in forums.

Patrick November 3, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Thanks for the mention, Martin! Much appreciated. :)

“If you’ve banned someone, you’ve banned someone. Stick to your guns.”

Yes! :)

Patrick

Barbara Hannan November 5, 2009 at 10:53 am

I’m printing out this post and posting it over my phone for me to see at all times. Our community had a really nasty and persistent offender recently and was highly disruptive. I’m happy to say we followed many of your guidelines but it was a highly stressful, disturbing, energy sucking, time consuming experience. What it gave us a chance to see is our membership speak up and police itself which told us a lot.

We continue to wait for the “third shoe” to drop. You make a good point thought when you say – hey, you’ve got a community to run. Handle it and move on. Good to remember. The really tough one you mention is about regular contributors, sometimes even members of our Advisory Panel, who act up. I find it difficult to address them.

Karen Myers November 5, 2009 at 11:22 am

That’s a really good article. I’ve seen some communities where members have been of a great help to the admin against members behaving badly. Some of them offered their help ( for example asking to make them moderators) and they were dealing with “bad” community members on their own thus helping a lot and keeping forum without garbage

Mr Woc November 5, 2009 at 3:01 pm

Hi there

I agree with most of whats posted on here, I totally agree with u with reguards the controvertial forum posts, ie hanging stuff like that, as unfortunatly these kind of issues promote such a range of emotions, people just end up insulting each other lol, this to me is very sad as I would like people to be able to debate stuff like this unfortunatly it doesnt work in a bustling community im afraid !

Also dont take any hassle from your users let them know what you will accept and wont accept, many times ive seen problems coming and given people the benefit of the doubt, only to think back I knew i should have banned them or I should have dealt with that earlier, you will get abused when you ban people there is no doubt about it, you have to be prepared to deal with it, I even had a letter bomb threat at one point (seriously !!!), most of its hot air.

Dont ague with people when they are banned, just keep removing them, once they get bored they will disapear !

Woc

Martin Reed - Community Manager November 5, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Barbara – Who are the people that make up your advisory panel? Are they members with additional responsibilities? Do they represent your community in any way? If so, it’s even more important that they conduct themselves maturely. If they become negative and destructive, your community will be in trouble!

Karen – I am a big fan of trying to get members to deal with member problems. You do need to be careful to ensure you aren’t seen as choosing favourites, though. Also, make sure you pick the right people to be moderators – not just those that ask, or are the most popular.

Mr Woc – It’s all a learning process!

Amanda Fern November 6, 2009 at 5:52 pm

I like your last point the most. It always seems like those that are causing problems have that “bully” mentality. They just want to be noticed and given attention at any cost. Ignoring their requests is the best policy sometimes.

Miami John November 11, 2009 at 5:51 pm

Wow this is crazy. Sometimes people just go too far!! I had a forum once where people would get a little heated, but it wasn’t popular for long enough to get really out of control. Best of luck in the future.

Jonathan November 14, 2009 at 11:16 am

It is always critical to give your online community clear structures and guidelines to work to, and as you correctly point out it is unfair to penalise those contributors who you disagree with without have a clear structure in place. But they the reverse of this is how to manage your community without stiffling freedom of speech.

Jason Tipp November 16, 2009 at 3:54 am

An interesting post for me. I think that some people just don’t get used to cope with another web users. And the same situation we have in real world. Just see how offensive can some people be. Internet gives them a tool makes them invincible and invisible (this is how they see it). That is because some people are just too immature.

John Forbes November 16, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Make rules, apply rules. No more really needs to be said.

Paul December 3, 2009 at 2:16 pm

Thanks for writing a post on this. I have been trying to find information on dealing with these types of people in community. Again, another great community building article.

Katy December 4, 2009 at 10:46 am

It’s reassuring to know that others face similar challenges, and even more reassuring to know that I’ve handled them the same way as you. Thanks for the article.

Kevin Malone December 21, 2009 at 3:42 am

Yes, it’s important to be relaxed in your rules, but not arbitrary in their enforcement. Also, even if you do not like to use your administrative powers, there are times when you need to put your foot down not only for the health of your community, but for your health.

For example, there are trolls who will not be affected by argument, and will continue to try to rile people up no matter how many times they’ve embarrassed themselves in their passive-aggressive replies. People like this are not affected by what is said to them because it is irrelevant to their purpose: to undermine your community.

However, when you face a person like this, you need to be patient. Take action when necessary, and continue to try to work with him, but don’t be discouraged in doing what’s right because he mocks you. Allow him to build up his own case against himself in his posting history. After a time, you can draft your case, and remove him. At that point, it should be obvious to most there that his removal was for the best.

Be weary of the ban button, but don’t be afraid of it. By not being quick to take such extreme action, we get a more accurate portrait of someone, and we are less likely to make mistakes. Some people may change, too. I remember one member, for instance, who was trying to get a rise out of people, but was caught off guard when I treated him as a fellow adult and with politeness when I asked him to stop.

Martin Reed - Community Manager December 21, 2009 at 11:46 am

Kevin – I just have to say that I love your mantra, ‘be wary of the ban button, but don’t be afraid of it’. Excellent advice.

Gaston and Marie December 25, 2009 at 3:10 pm

On the other hand, there are communities that are notorious for banning folks just because.

For example, Digg is one of those.

They allow stories from Microsoft, the NFL and Major League Baseball, but ban anyone listing a story posted on small shop blogs, even if the blogs are not set up to sell anything commercially.

They have banned an entire college, Linda Christas College because their students are sposored by a group that runs such a blog.

One can run RAP, soft porn and abusive language on Digg, but let someone write an article about the history of Christmas candles posted on a blog that Digg Support believes commercial and you will be banned.

All Linda Christas College students wanted was for Digg to be fair. But, evidently that word is not in their vocabulary.

If we sound angry, we are. Our son is on scholarship, not from Microsoft or the NFL but from a small toy store in our town, ToysPeriod, which has a blog with beautiful uplifting stories, many of them written by college students.

However, post any one of them, the latest being how business innovation saved the Christmas stocking tradition, and Digg will ban you.

Hopefully the persons reading this blog will be at least intelligent when they ban folks.

Digg, a very prominent social bookmarking service, does not deserve its ranking.

We have complained to them, and, their reaction, of course, was to ban us as well.

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