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.

Twitter and Facebook are not community platforms

I participate in a lot of Twitter chats. If you’ve been on Twitter for any length of time you’ve most like seen someone on your stream start tweeting far more than normal, using a hashtag in every tweet. I wrote about this on Icrontic last year, indicating my belief that using a hashtag for conversation is awkward, annoying to those who aren’t interested, and ultimately damaging to your community. As a follow-up to that, the very popular (in the Detroit area) #backchannel tag started getting spammed last week. There were a lot of complaints but there’s nothing anyone can do about it, because the community manager doesn’t own the platform, and therefore ultimately has no control over the conversation.

It works the same on Facebook. While controlling spam is definitely easier, Facebook can (and has, in the past) made changes that have forced community managers into panic mode to deal with drastic and unannounced changes. Just the other day, Facebook killed the “discussions” tab. How many communities do you think that impacted?

First of all, a community needs an online home that is not a microblog. Twitter is a fantastic outreach tool; Facebook is a good way to share information. They can both be used to help people find your community, but ultimately your online community needs a place to call home; a place uniquely theirs that lets them know they’re in the right place. For our clients, we install a custom-built system of Vanilla forums integrated with WordPress that gives all the advantages of a familiar blog format with the power, SEO benefit, and community tools of a discussion forum. We also install a gamification system that creates massive uptake in community member engagement.

But back to Twitter chats:

There are three Twitter chats I’ve been participating in for a long time: #Tweetea, #backchannel, and #cmgrchat. I feel like I’m a part of a community with each of those groups, but I have no online home to go to engage with other members. Each of those chats is on a schedule: #backchannel, for example, is every night during the local news broadcast. It seems inappropriate and like bad etiquette to Tweet #backchannel during “off” times. If I want to engage with those community members, where do I go?

The other problem with Twitter chats is that there is no archive or record of past chats. The content, ideas, and helpful nuggets of information are lost to the Twitter firehose after the chat is over. It can be very difficult to recall “Who was that funny person who said something awesome about that thing last week on #cmgrchat?”

Having those discussions moved into a forum, where chats are forever archived as discussion threads and posts, is a very elegant solution for this problem; imagine having a forever archive of your Twitter chats, with all the SEO and content longevity benefits. You now have a growing library of your community’s collective brainpower.

A better way to hashtag

Imagine a world in which Twitter supported #hashtags the same way they supported @replies: If you want to see Tweets from #hashtag, you follow it. If you want to engage #hashtag, you put it at the beginning. That way, only interested parties see (and follow) #hashtag chats.

A better way for Twitter to do hashtags

That part is a pipe dream; Twitter would benefit greatly from this. Regardless, with the Twitter API, we can integrate hashtagged Tweets beautifully and seamlessly with your forum.

If you manage a community that is using Twitter chat for discussion and outreach, consider moving to a forum setup. The benefits are tremendous, and your community will thank you.

Update from Jenn Pedde, one of the co-founders of #cmgrchat, who reached out to correct something I got wrong. She says,

“All chat digests are archived on www.thecommunitymanager.com and all discussions from the chat continue on the blog posts there (many community members write for the site, and we’re always asking for contributions), and conversations do continue on the www.facebook.com/thecmgr page. There will also be a forum coming soon. We actively try to take #cmgrchat into an owned property for the reasons you listed.”

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