On dealing with bad apples

Community Management is a joy on most days. Those of us who have gravitated towards this career are suited for it. We love the banter, the challenges, and the triumphs of fostering a group of people as they share common goals.

However, as communities grow and flourish, they sometimes attract those who end up being disruptive.

Even for an experienced community manager, a few bad apples can make it seem like the whole world is against them. It can be subtle—starting off as innocent questions about the way things are handled or decisions that the management staff makes, but then it can grow into outright hostility. The challenge lies in knowing when to smooth things over, where to do it, and when to pull the trigger on outright banning or blocking.

Here’s a real-world example from one of the communities that we manage. The community is over eight years old and is very active. A person who had been a member for six months (long enough to feel like a real part of the community) suddenly felt that the moderators (volunteers who have been brought up from within the community to help manage the flow of discussion, deal with spam, and generally keep things on track) were overstepping their bounds and wasn’t happy with the way the site was managed.

This member then began conducting what almost, in hindsight, looks like psychological warfare on the community management team. He began firing off long, well-written explanations of what he felt was wrong with the way the site was run, all under the guise of being concerned for the health of the community. He then began mentioning “backroom” discussions with other unhappy members (off-channel: either they were discussing things on another medium or via the private messaging system), making it seem as if a tide of popular opinion was rising against the site. His consistent and deliberate arguments made it seem as if he was speaking for a whole group of community members—despite no actual evidence that this was the case.

At first, emotions kicked in. When a community manager is attacked, it’s one thing. When a community manager feels like they’re suddenly being attacked by a mob (even one spoken for by a single person), it becomes fuel for anger and rash communication.

In this particular case, the (volunteer) community manager in question came directly to us after a member had started attacking her—even going so far as to bring her personal life into the tirade. She did the right thing—copied the community managers on her response and included the original communication so that the community manager was in the loop. When the member escalated with further attacks, she bowed out and let us take over communication. The member was told that his tirade wasn’t appreciated and he escalated even further by suggesting that there was a movement against the way the community was managed.

This is the point where a community manager has a tough decision to make. In this case, we simply banned the member and ceased communication with him; it was clear that no matter how reasoned our communications were, he simply felt the need to continue berating us with paragraph upon paragraph of reasons why we were bad managers and why everybody hated us. Again, stepping back, it’s easy to see now that it was just a single person saying this, but by using language such as “we” and “a group of us” and “former members”, he was insinuating that there was a mob of people out there behind his back.

This is where we took a breath and stepped back: This guy was just simply being a jerk. The solution? Ban him and block communications. Problem solved. When we did that, several members came out of the woodwork to thank us for making the community a more welcoming place and for getting rid of the source of drama. The real mob was people who were cowed into silence by one aggressive and loud member. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

The most important take-aways for situations like this are:

  • Handle conversations like this privately, either through e-mail or private messaging
  • Realize that not everyone has the community’s best interests in mind
  • Don’t be afraid to simply ban and walk away
  • Don’t back down

As a community manager, it can be very tough to deal with situations like this because we become so attached to our online friends and communities. You want to make everyone happy, but it helps to step back and remember that the internet is full of somewhat anonymous strangers and that, once in a while, a bad apple will slip through. The arbitrator always comes down to: Does this person ultimately help move the community forward?

It can be extremely difficult to stop communications with people like that; but once you do, it’s like turning off a faucet that has broken and is spraying all over your bathroom: Suddenly, silence. Peace.

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