A question was asked on Twitter; this is my answer to it.
“Community” — 1. a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.
I like that definition a lot. It fully describes what we have here at Icrontic. We are a community based loosely around technology, computers, gaming, and other things that geeks love, but we also have much more than just our interests that bind us together.
Icrontic is ultimately made up of decent people; that’s the overriding thing I’ve realized after spending eight years involved with this crew. It’s rare to find another site that inspires members to post threads about how much they love the communty, or gets owners to get mushy and sentimental about their site. Of course, our shared history has quite a bit to do with how tight-knit we are, but ultimately the community is held together by a single common bond—we’re all good people.
In this age of web-based communities, it’s easy to become hardened to things like flaming, trolling, and general human garbage. We come to expect it as we surf around the net, looking for things that interest us. In fact, Penny Arcade has a comic describing this magic phenomenon. The theory goes like this; take a normal person; add an audience; add anonymity, and sometimes you get a bunch of garbage spewing out. One only has to take a quick jaunt to the seedier sides of the internet to see this equation in action.
Therefore, when one stumbles across a community such as ours, they breathe a sigh of relief, because they feel that they’ve found an oasis, free from rudeness, idiocy, flaming, and hate that runs rampant all over the Wild West Frontier that is the web.
But how did we get here? How did Icrontic become that oasis? Trust me when I say it didn’t “just happen”. It was no happy accident.
The “tone” of a community web site is ultimately the responsibility of the community management. The managers have to decide what kind of face they want to present to the public. Once they determine the direction they want the site to go in, they have to be willing to make some uncomfortable decisions in order to make it happen.
A community manager’s day to day job can be relatively simple once the tone is set; however, getting to that point can be like mountain climbing.
No matter what, there will always be people out there who cannot conduct themselves properly on the internet. The very first thing a community manager must realize is that there are people out there who will come to their community specifically to wreak havoc and cause trouble; therefore, they must be prepared to deal with them swiftly and without compunction.
If you break it down, a community manager really only has one tool in their arsenal to deal with negative elements: a ban. The software that runs websites today has plenty of tools to deal with banning unwanted users.
Sometimes the decision to ban is easy; a spambot posting links to free iPods is dealt with immediately and with no regret. Sometimes, it gets more complicated. If a longtime user who has shown a history of being able to conduct themselves occasionally suddenly goes apeshit and posts something completely inappropriate, it can be a hard choice to make. Ultimately, the manager has to make the call.
One thing I suggest not to do is to engage in public arguments with people who are trolling your site. It never ends well, and it solves nothing other than ego-stroking. If you have to publicly restate your position of authority (“I’m the admin! Remember that I can ban you at any time. I suggest you choose your next words carefully.” etc.) then you end up looking like a schmuck to the audience.
If the price of a smooth, welcoming, and enjoyable online community is the loss of users who are probably not valuable members anyway, it’s really not a question; the nature of the internet ensures that democratic principles are not the ideal way to run online communities. There are no checks and balances in place to deal with people who just want to be jerks, or who are socially inept. There is no punishment or threat that will move them or change them. You’re not going to reform a troll by arguing with them. People either want to participate in your community or they don’t.
Be careful, though. It is easy to get heavy handed and get ban- or edit-happy. Remember that you DO have an audience, and they can see how you run things; if you ban people for minor reasons, legitimate users may bail. Here’s something I experienced first hand:
I met a guy at a party who worked for a large website. We both play a game called Team Fortress 2, and we got to drinking and having a good time and talking smack to each other about the game. An “inter-site” battle was suggested, a friendly rivalry. A month or so later, I went onto his website and signed up for the forums, and posted. In my post I explained that I met their guy and that I was calling them out for a friendly game of TF2. I was banned immediately and called names.
I watched the thread with interest; regular members of their community (more than 1000 posts) started questioning the heavy handedness of the ban (“did you even read his post? it didn’t seem bannable…”) The admin relented and unbanned me. The only thing the ban did was make him look bad. It solved no problems, because there weren’t even any problems to solve. Now, perhaps that admin has lost a tiny bit of credibility in the eyes of regular community members.
As your community grows, you will definitely need help. Finding amazing volunteers whom you trust is difficult but extremely rewarding. Some of it is luck, but if you are a fair and decent community manager, you will naturally attract like minded people who may eventually be able to help you out. Icrontic would not be where it is today without our amazing volunteer staff of forum moderators and contributors.
When you do have assistance, however, it is important to be clear about your goals for the community; you don’t want a rogue volunteer admin making your site look bad.
The idea here is to look at your community as a garden; with proper care and minor tending, the flowers will bloom. You may have to remove a weed once in a while, or chase away a rabbit, but with gentle and subtle care, it will be a beautiful place.