Responding to a community revolt

by Martin Reed on 8 May 2007 in Articles

Communities are simply groups of people coming together to interact. As community site owners, we have little control over what these individuals will choose to talk about – sure we can define clear site rules and state what kind of content or conversations are off limits, but apart from this we have little control over how conversations will evolve.

Unpredictability is great for a community

We shouldn’t try to restrict user interactions – by doing this you will often stifle the most interesting debates. If your community is one that a regular member can visit and not be sure what conversations will be taking place on a given day, you are well on your way to success.

Moderation should always be light, and people should be guided rather than forced to obey your rules.

Responding to a community revolt

Unfortunately at times you will fall out with your community. You may decide to close or delete a thread, change your policies or rules or even ban a once popular member. The nightmare begins when it appears your community (which you have poured your heart and soul into getting established) turns against you.

Don’t panic or make rash decisions

The first thing to consider when dealing with a community revolt is to ensure you do not make any rash decisions. Consider the following:

  1. What are the reasons for this community revolt?
  2. Are you willing/able to calm the revolt?
  3. Is this just a knee-jerk reaction from your members that will soon die down?
  4. How many of your members are actually causing problems?
  5. What is your best course of action to diffuse the situation?
  6. Is the revolt actually beneficial?!?

Finding the reasons for the revolt

Communities do not revolt without reason. This may sound obvious, but make sure you clearly understand the reasons for the current problems. Clarify the issue with your members; make sure you understand their grievances so you don’t end up addressing a problem that doesn’t exist!

The easy way out?

Is there an easy way to address this revolt? If you closed a forum thread, are you willing to reopen it to diffuse the problem? Have your members raised some valid concerns causing you to rethink your actions? There is no shame in admitting you are wrong – your community will only come to respect you more for it.

Is this a serious revolt?

Often communities exhibit knee-jerk reactions to what are often quite trivial things. You will find that more times than not, allowing them to vent their frustration or unhappiness for a few days will see the dissent quell and things will soon get back to normal.

See how things run for a couple of days before determining the seriousness of the current situation.

How big is the problem?

Many communities are dominated by a minority of strongly voiced and opinionated users. It can be easy to think that your whole community is against you, when in fact this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Before you jump to conclusions, take the time to actually find out just how many people are currently causing problems – it may well be significantly less than you assumed.

Diffusing the situation

If the revolt is still going strong after a few days and you are losing visitors it is clear that you will need to take action.

After following the steps I have described above, you should by now have a clear idea of the exact issue that is damaging your community. Now you need to decide on what action to take.

Perhaps you need to reverse a controversial decision you have made. Maybe you just need to clarify your position on a certain issue and refuse to budge.

Whatever you decide, make sure you tread carefully and remain calm, professional and courteous at all times.

The wildcard – is a revolt a bad thing?

I thought I would throw this one in as a sidenote – perhaps you should consider whether a community revolt is such a bad thing? Just take a look at the recent community revolt at digg – this generated huge traffic for digg, created a huge number of additional links to the site, and increased their brand awareness even further.

Perhaps the odd revolt now and again is no bad thing, and just goes to remind you that online communities do consist of real, emotional human beings!

Have you suffered a revolt in your community? Have you witnessed forum fury? Blog bashing? Chat room chastisement? Share your experiences here and let me know how you dealt with it.

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Chicago 2016 May 8, 2007 at 3:25 pm

I’m still new to the idea of building online communities. I’d love to read about an example of this. Are there types of sites more prone to online revolts?

Biddy May 8, 2007 at 3:43 pm

Very interesting. I recently witnessed a rather nasty mess in a forum that my husband frequents. Members started criticising over-heavy moderation; anyone who criticised was blocked from the site – and then the owner of the site started following members to *other* forums, and blocking anyone who criticised his site in those forums too. Frankly, I think the guy does not have the right temperament to be running any kind of online community.

Martin Reed May 8, 2007 at 4:31 pm

Chicago – I think all community sites are vulnerable to user revolts! I find that the older the community or the more entrenched the members are, the bigger the revolt will be if one occurs! I will see what I can do about putting up a live example in the future.

Biddy – Well that was a little overhanded, eh? Unfortunately it can be all too easy to lose your cool at the slightest sign of trouble. It is so important to be calm and take stock before reacting. Additionally there is nothing wrong in admitting you are wrong if on reflection you regret any changes you have made.

Chasing people down to other forums just sounds ridiculous and I am sure that if this person were honest with themselves, they would be regretting their actions.

As I mention in my article, I am a firm believer in light moderation as opposed to heavy-handedness. This makes a community far more pleasant and encourages interaction.

Josh Buckley May 8, 2007 at 6:19 pm

Great article, something i really can relate to. I’ve had some problems with my community in the past. I always find letting it die down the best way to go.

Ray May 8, 2007 at 8:46 pm

Some great advice here. I plan to start my first forum in June and I am quite worried about this sort of thing.


Martin Reed May 8, 2007 at 11:00 pm

Josh: Thanks for the comment, I am glad you enjoyed the article! I agree that sometimes the best way of addressing a revolt is to do nothing.

Ray: It’s great to hear that you are planning on starting a forum from scratch in June. I hope you take the time to dig around the ‘Archives’ and ‘Top Posts’ sections of this blog for some relevant articles that will be useful to you.

Tathar December 7, 2008 at 11:59 pm

Actually, if you ensure that all staff/moderators follow effective moderation at all times (and not take action if they’re unsure it helps the community) then it’s very unlikely you’ll have this problem. The site I linked to has never had a major community revolt because all moderators and staff are effective mediators and never practice overzealous moderation.

Link to the moderator guidelines:

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 8, 2008 at 4:53 pm

Tathar – Thanks for linking to your moderator guidelines; all communities that have moderators should be giving guidelines to their staff, and I applaud you for doing so. You’re right when you suggest that by ensuring moderators know what is expected of them and know how to behave, you are reducing the risk of a community revolt. It is worth pointing out, though that not all revolts will be as a result of moderator actions. For example, you might decide to change a site feature or design which could have your members up in arms!

Even if you do have patient and mature moderators, you still may find you have no choice but to ban a popular member. This may result in a community revolt. Having effective moderators will definitely reduce the likelihood of a community revolt, but it won’t necessarily prevent them.

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