Your obligation is to keep your members safe

by Martin Reed on 20 August 2007 in Articles

Keep your members safe

In any environment where people meet and mix, you will encounter a few individuals you would not normally wish to meet. As an online community developer, you are obliged to keep every one of your members as safe as possible.

Ensure you educate your members

We have all read the scare stories published in the media about people meeting up with an individual they met in a chat room with less than favourable consequences. The fact is that if these individuals were educated to know that meeting up with someone they only knew online was not a good idea, these situations could have been avoided.

You need to ensure that if those that visit your site have not been educated about the possible dangers posed by the Internet, you are obliged to do so.

Offer safety advice

Your site should offer clear, prominent safety advice. Regardless of who you want your community to be accessible to, the fact is that pretty much anyone with an Internet connection can join your site. As a result, not everyone who visits your site will be the type of person you would otherwise wish to become a member.

You should recognise the fact that your community is not immune from such ‘undesirables’ – there are steps you can take to limit the risk posed to your community from such people (for example restricting membership to those over the age of 18, establishing and enforcing site rules, etc) but you can never eradicate them.

Offer safety features

As well as educating your members, you should also ensure you offer safety features. Forum software such as vBulletin and phpBB enable members to communicate anonymously via a private messaging system. You should ensure that any communications that take place between your members can be made anonymously.

The Just Chat email penpals section allows users to communicate via our own internal messaging system – this means people can interact with other members without revealing personal information such as their email address. Should a member ever feel uncomfortable, they can simply block a member or delete their epals account.

Similarly, out chat rooms enable users to place other members on ‘Ignore’ – if someone is receiving messages from a member they do not wish to hear from, they can simply block all future messages from that individual. Similarly, they can also choose to block all private messages.

Always recognise that your online community will never be completely safe from undesirable individuals. Educate your users – teach them how they can stay safe online, and offer safety features for your online community.

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Shane August 22, 2007 at 4:56 am

I don’t know too much about forums Martin, but it might be a good idea to have a sort of “block watch” program in the forum where members can look out for other members or contact a moderator if there’s a weirdo on the loose.

Martin Reed - Blog Author August 22, 2007 at 12:13 pm

Shane – There are add-ons for forum software such as vBulletin and phpBB which allow users to click a button to report a post to the moderators. Often this is only worth installing on huge forums, as I would argue that moderators should normally notice abusive members or posts before needing to be notified.

Smiley September 22, 2007 at 9:57 pm

I remembered this article today whilst visiting my chat client. The new client has a ‘public broadcast’ feature, where I can set automatic messages that post to the room every 20 minutes (or however long I decide to set it for).

This is a great tool for reminding visitors of safety advice.,2.jpg

Martin Reed - Blog Author September 23, 2007 at 3:51 pm

Smiley – Great minds think alike; I have already set a public broadcast to warn people never to reveal personal information online. Oh, and I even have it set to 20 minutes as well!

Smiley September 23, 2007 at 5:45 pm

Ha ha ha, yes, I see you’ve switched from Chat Forum, too. Good move I think. Do you mind if I ask why you changed, or is that a secret?

I changed because it just doesn’t have anything ‘new’ to offer from a new site. My site just wasn’t getting anywhere with it, the forums took off, and I was receiving visitors in the Chat Forum all the time, but none were staying, they mainly sat in the forum list.

After moving servers, I had to convince my old regulars to come back, so showed them I was making a bigger effort to attract new visitors.

It’s still not packed, far from it, but new people tend to stay much longer now as they enter the chat room straight away and have regulars to chat to and, hopefully, convert them into regulars themselves!

I think it’s very important to remind people not to give out personal information, I reckon 20 minutes is about right for public broadcasts.

It’s amazing how many communities I’ve browsed along my travels lately (research) to find NO public attempts to advise their visitors.

Martin Reed - Blog Author September 24, 2007 at 5:54 pm

Smiley – The reason we changed is no secret – I really didn’t like the new version of the Chat-Forum software, and the company didn’t seem to care about my concerns or opinions – even though I was running a beta test with them.

Chat-Forum was also very limiting when it came to customisation and admin features. The new software is pretty similar in terms of its user interface, so it shouldn’t confuse our visitors. At the same time, we have software which costs us less, is more flexible and offers more features.

Smiley September 24, 2007 at 7:55 pm

Well, good move. Maybe several months down the line I can request that linkage again, huh, now I’ve differentiated??

And you lucky bugger, my software cost me MORE. It’s flash, it’s still user-friendly and simple etc. I just wanted to provide something different than other new sites.

I know you were loyal to Chat-Forum for a long time, so they should have listened to your concerns, surely? I think you made the right choice moving.

Anyway, off for that curry now! I shall post on your latest article once I return.

Oh, before I go.. if you do not have a TOS that is public, then technically, you cannot threaten “legal action” if someone “advertises” on your site, right? (long story, one of my regulars have gotten me into trouble with another site.. lol)

Martin Reed - Blog Author September 26, 2007 at 6:07 pm

Smiley – If a user doesn’t know that you do not allow advertising without permission on your site, it would be difficult for you to pursue or even justify the threat of legal action. Draw up some terms and publish them publicly so users know what is, and what is not, acceptable on your site!

Smiley September 26, 2007 at 8:20 pm

Oh it was another site threatening me on behalf of a user I have no official affiliation with. But they don’t even have a TOS. Anyway, I had a bit of a go at them in my reply to them, explaining I can’t control users in other sites and pointed out they don’t even have a TOS.. they’ve backed down!

Martin Reed - Blog Author September 28, 2007 at 6:43 pm

Smiley – No surprises, there! Just ensure your members understand you don’t want them to spam other sites – it’ll hardly give your site a good reputation!

Michelle from the Coulee Region October 26, 2007 at 8:01 pm

This is something I’ve been worried about myself. I’ve been online for so long and have my real name in so many places that I don’t have a chance of being anonymous. I do my best to always treat people online like I would to their face and so usually get along with everyone. But you never know when you’ll run into a crazy.

I definitely advise people on my site to be careful since it’s a local community site. More likely that crazy will be local to you. Right now it’s kinda buried in my TOS. After reading this, I’ve decided to put warnings in more prominent places.



Martin Reed - Blog Author October 29, 2007 at 9:47 pm

Michelle – I really do believe it is a good idea to ensure you have clear and prominent safety advice on a community website. You are right that there are a few crazy people out there – the least we should do as responsible community developers is try and educate our members by offering them safety advice.

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