You may have read the news about an engineer at a Seattle-based company, Chef, who resigned and decided to take a break from software engineering after he received death threats related to his work in the open-source software community. Unfortunately, in the online tech world, this type of trolling is far too familiar.
At Experts Exchange, we have run an online community for technology professionals since 1996. Our community serves as a technical resource to members of all skill sets, from novice to expert, and as a professional networking site for career building. While working to guarantee positive, constructive and respectful interactions, we’ve developed some moderation strategies that minimize trolling and maximize collaboration. Below are some of our solutions that technical communities can leverage to sustain respectful online interactions.
Policing a Community is Not Enough
Setting expectations of what behavior will and will not be tolerated in a community goes a long way, as long as the expectations are set and enforced. Enforcing behavior guidelines sets the tone, and assures positive, constructive and professional behavior. And while policing a community by removing spam or inappropriate comments is necessary, it does not inspire change. Instead of relying solely on policing, we recommend that you implement incentives for respectful and helpful interactions, such as tiered memberships or rewarding members with exclusive access. Good professional communities reward their most helpful members with recognitions and allow them to access exclusive, valuable information. In other words, reward members for quality contributions, instead of focusing solely on punishing individuals for bad behavior.
Share Responsibility with the Community
Ultimately, the community owner cannot be the only person guaranteeing good behaviors, and marshalling the bad. The community owner needs to partner with active moderators, and use positive reinforcement, to keep the Internet trolls in line. When possible, members with strong, positive reputations should be called upon to help with moderation. This provides for better collaboration between members and moderators, as members will see the member-moderator as one of their own, with whom they’ve usually already formed a relationship. Some even go as far as having their members elect the moderators, which ensures the moderators are active, trusted resources in the community. In an industry where constant learning is the key to career success, seasoned professionals should act as mentors; teaching tact and community conduct from an insider’s perspective.
Remove the ‘Dislike’ Button
You’ll notice that some popular networking sites, such as LinkedIn and Facebook, do not have a “dislike” button. This is because the dislike button serves trolls, whose goal is to put others down, without providing value for members. By removing the dislike button, you are removing the chance for members to easily, and anonymously, insult each other. This is especially important in communities with a varying skill levels. A question that someone with 15+ years of experience could view as “dumb”, may be extremely valuable to someone with one year of experience. Removing the dislike button encourages community members to collaborate on issues across all levels of experience, creating an environment where all members feel comfortable asking questions. In our experience, you never want members to second-guess themselves about whether their question is “dumb” – you want them to feel comfortable to ask the questions they have.
Continuously Audit the Community
This tip seems fairly obvious, but it remains important: continuously evaluate how your community is interacting by auditing often. What features or tactics work and don’t work? Do your tactics support the overarching goals of your community, while promoting respect, collaboration and tolerance? Just because a tactic worked in January, doesn’t mean it will work in July. Recently, after significant growth and changes to our community mission, an internal audit revealed that Experts Exchange needed additional resources to monitor our content areas and to promote more educational video content. The community wasn’t producing videos actively on their own, but the audit revealed that video would be very beneficial to members. It is important to keep auditing, because a community is a moving, evolving entity and should be treated as such.
Make Community Involvement an Organizational Priority
At Experts Exchange, we hired a VP of Product & Community, as well as a Community Manager, to act as advocates for the community members within the organization. They make sure our site is a thriving environment of positive interactions. Stack Overflow also recently hired a former moderator as a Community Manager. It is important that every level of your organization understands and values the importance of individual interactions in the community, rather than just focusing on membership numbers or new features.
So, what do you think of the current state of online tech industry communities? Have you tried any of the tactics above? Have you tried other tactics to successfully promote a better community? Have you had extremely positive or negative experiences with online communities?
We certainly can’t do away with bad community behavior overnight, but constant vigilance and increased use of the best practices above can help turn the tide.