Community Management Tidbits – Snakes in the Garden
Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?
It’s inevitable. Virtually every community open to the public is going to get its share of trolls and spam. To keep from being overrun, you need to be vigilant.
A troll is, essentially, a disruptive presence.
But know your community. Chances are that a community of young mothers will have a far different tolerance level for disruptions versus a community of gun enthusiasts. And disruption is also subject to a situational definition. A community of atheists very likely does not want to hear from someone extolling the virtues of prayer. Similarly, a community of fish owners may not wish to read about how to make fish ‘n chips. Or maybe they do.
You, as the Community Manager, are in a good position to shape the dialogue. One thing you can do is to help dictate the community’s response to, and level of tolerance for, off-topic digressions. For example, with the possible exception of a dating site, few communities are going to have the welcoming of new people as their main subject of conversation. Yet every community should have a means for the currently existing membership to welcome newbies. This is not only common courtesy; it can help newbies to stick around. So decide just how much going off-topic you wish to allow.
Next, enlist your super user(s). A super user is, essentially, someone who loves the site, is around a lot and probably makes a lot of good or at least decent content. These people can often be tastemakers so you can enlist their assistance to defuse a troll’s behaviors or bring discussions back on track. Or, at least, these people can take the lead in creating and promoting other content, thereby burying and nullifying a troll’s handiwork. Furthermore, if your super users can create, promote and magnify their own content, that can assist your other users in wielding a great and powerful weapon against trolls: ignoring them.
Another solution is to use blocking software, either to suspend the troll’s posting privileges or to curtail them. Or, if it’s available, allow your users to electronically ignore a troll (or at least demote or vote down that person’s posts), by either blocking the troll’s posts or disproportionately promoting those of their friends.
Completely suspending a troll from all usage of, and interaction on, your site is something of a nuclear option. It does not mean that this tactic should not be used at all, although I would advise you to use it relatively sparingly. After all, a troll may simply be someone unused to forums, who charged in without looking. Tone and humor are hard to gauge, even with a liberal sprinkling of emoticons. Everyone has bad days and your “troll” could actually be a perfectly good member — or even a superstar user — in disguise, if properly nurtured. So go easy on the heavy-handed moderation if you can. Pick your moments and battles: a person urging suicidal members to go through with it should not be tolerated, but isn’t a debate among music lovers about the merits of Bach versus Mozart, well, healthy?
Onto spam. Spam is essentially a form of commercial speech. You first need is to define it in your Terms of Service. You may wish to allow your members to promote their own blogs but not their own commercial ventures, or you may be more tolerant of commercial speech if it’s more on topic (say, a parts dealer’s site being touted on a Chevy enthusiasts’ board). But you need to get this rule clear, and you need to be consistent in its enforcement. You will, inevitably, miss an exception or two. Accept that as just something that’s going to happen, post your rules and move on. And make certain to make it clear that the Terms of Service may be subject to one-sided changes at any time. This is not the time to ask for a vote by the site’s membership.
Once you have spam defined, you really should go with a zero tolerance policy. First off, it’s easy to be overrun if you’re not careful. Plus, if you allow spam to remain on your site, you are allowing the spammers to piggyback on your SEO. Excise them and their messages quickly and, unlike in the case of trolls, don’t be afraid to rapidly go to the nuclear option.
You will, inevitably, get appeals on any form of communication you’ve provided to the membership, whether it’s in the form of a Help Desk ticket, a feedback form, an email address you’ve made public, a “contact us” link or something else. Monitor these channels and investigate every appeal. Some will be groundless, while others might not be. So, if it’s at all possible, make sure that you have fully reversible means for excising potentially spammy messages.
Also, provide your general membership with the means to report spam. The membership will not always perfectly understand your rules or apply them consistently and fairly. But that’s not their job. All you need is a report, and for them to be your eyes and ears on the ground. You, of course, should also be checking, along with your moderating team if you have one. But give your membership the means to report spam and they can help you. They want to help you.
Trolling and spamming are not the signs of a failed forum. To the contrary, they are often signs of success, that your forum is large enough that spammers wish to market to your members or trolls seek to shake them out of complacency. Spamming and trolling are only indicative of a failed forum if you let them take over your site, drive out all other means of interaction, and send your other members scurrying for the hills.