One of the most important roles you’ll have in the new media environment is creating and managing community. What you do in a socially mediated world is at least as much about community as what you produce on your own. The conversations you foster online will help people understand what you’re doing, and will help you keep them involved.
Until very recently, newspapers and broadcasters have failed miserably at creating community. They’ve barely even grasped the basics, in part because their traditional one-to-many model fostered institutional arrogance. Luckily, we can learn from people who jumped in early.
Robert Niles, who has created a number of online services including the award-winning ThemeParkInsider.com, says that tomorrow’s journalists will need to be community organizers—and that you’ll need to understand that the people who pay the bills, not just the audience, comprise one of the communities you’ll need to organize and serve. This is true for a one-person effort or a larger one.
“Know what you’re doing online,” Niles says. “Embrace community organizing; create value for a community… [and] you will find a community that will value you.”
According to Niles, the role of a community organizer doesn’t just imply taking stands; it almost demands it. At the same time, one should never lose sight of journalistic principles:
Embrace advocacy, but let it be guided by smart reporting and thoughtful community engagement. That will be what distinguishes your site, and your community, from the many blogs and websites run by people who aren’t as capable as reporters, or as effective in community organizing.
You’ll find lots of resources online about community creation. We’ll list a bunch of them online, but in the end you’ll need to recognize that the key is you: If you don’t take this seriously, you won’t be able to make it work.
Trolls and Breakage
One essential part of community management is preventing the kind of damage that bad folks can cause, and fixing it when they inevitably do. This is about more than keeping your software up to date with security “patches” and other preventive maintenance. It’s about the conversation, too.
If you’ve participated in online conversations in a more-than-casual way, you probably know how quickly they can turn wrong. Scary, ugly wrong.
There’s something about speaking anonymously that inspires people to misbehave. They’ll say things to each other that they wouldn’t dream of saying in person, partly because they’re not within physical reach.
In Chapter 11 I’ll propose a community user-management system that (as far as I know) doesn’t yet exist. It would discriminate—I use that word deliberately—among various kinds of members, giving the most credence to people who use verified real names and are rated highly by other credible members of the community. Even though we don’t have an ideal system of this sort, we’re not helpless today in the face of the trolls.
Well-meaning people (including me) have suggested honor codes, blogger comment guidelines and all sorts of other non-technical ways to enforces civil behavior. I’m skeptical of anything that we might try to impose on anyone, but I do believe that we, as community hosts, have every right—even a duty—to impose rules inside our own sites. Simply put, I don’t invite people into my home and then tolerate them spitting on the living room rug (literally or figuratively). You shouldn’t, either. And you should enforce the rules you set.
When I ran a community site in 2005, I consulted several friends about rules of the road for folks who wanted to join the community. They included my friend Lisa Stone and her team at BlogHer.com, who have created a thoughtful set of guidelines; I recommend you start there when coming up with your own. My own site’s guidelines borrowed from BlogHer and several other sites. Here’s an excerpt:
In short, we aim here for civility and mutual respect. Beyond that, we encourage robust discussions and debate.
Members may be blocked from the site for vandalism, making personal attacks on other members, publishing others’ copyrighted material or for violating the guidelines and comments policy.
Offensive, inflammatory or otherwise inappropriate screen names are not permitted, and the use of these will be prevented through blocking of accounts. Members blocked for having an inappropriate name will be permitted to rejoin under a new name.
We also recognized that the rules weren’t the final word, and moreover that we couldn’t possibly watch everything. So we added:
Remember, we need your help.
This is a community. If you see material that violates our site rules and guidelines, please contact us.
Please also make suggestions, on our forums or via e-mail, on how we might improve these terms and guidelines.
Feel free to borrow and amend—that’s another way the Internet works at its best.
Comment-moderation systems are becoming more sophisticated, and the best community sites police themselves to some degree: The users spot the bad stuff and help the site managers get rid of it. But even the best-run sites have problems dealing with the truly malevolent people. The Web still has its trolls and others who wreck things for sport. This is an arms race that won’t end anytime soon, but if the community is on your—and its own—side, you can keep up.