Tales from Community: On Teamwork

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Community team members, including  moderators, and managers, usually operate within a larger structure. Teams might consist of several people with interrelated responsibilities, or sometimes just one. With multiple members, you have to make sure your teamwork is balanced enough to ensure that each member can take on different roles if needed. Having flexibility to compensate if it’s necessary is one mark of a strong team.

It reminds me of what my mother always taught me about egg cartons. When you remove eggs from a carton, you must remove them in such a way that the remaining weight is distributed with balance, otherwise the carton will tip over when you grab it, potentially leading to a mess if it falls. People aren’t eggs, but the comparison holds. Community, especially in a modern sense, is often a 24/7 experience. In an always-on field, you have to cover your bases and make sure to address the most pressing needs. In other words, your team, organization, and approach have to all be flexible enough to provide the balance you need to get the job done in line with your goals, but also be responsive. Too little coverage on one side, and your approach is unbalanced, possibly leading to a crash. Too little on one side might mean too much on another – so you have to be flexible in how you align your resources with regular checks against needs. Balance is not a static formula. You’ll have to use data and listen to feedback in order to come to the correct balance for the month, quarter, or year you’re focused on. Again, flexibility is necessary, especially when it comes to, as they say, putting out fires.

Services, apps, games, forums –wherever your community is centered–these can usually be accessed at any time. If you have a service and no one is minding the community, things can happen. For the most part, things tend to be a positive experience, but sometimes people can start taking it out on the community manager if a situation arises and there is no statement about it that the community deems helpful or valuable. Your words count when a troublesome moment happens, and having a good team can really take the sting out of an incident. That’s what we’re here for. One thing you have to do is truly love people. Because you’ll have to figure out how to address your community in the most reassuring manner that still takes care of business. You have to be able to triage what’s going on and then respond to what is happening. If you have a team working with you, this can be easier, but even small teams or single CMs have to deal with these.

egg carton with four eggs

Most people who have spent time in community have likely faced 1 or 2 in the morning while being summoned due to an incident. You’ll have to forego sleep for the next couple of hours, roll up your sleeves, and work on keeping communication channels open on both company and community ends to work through it.

In the beginning, one forum I worked for did not have great community tools, especially at the moderator level, where I started. The ability to bulk close post reports was missing, and I didn’t know how much we needed that until we got overrun by spammers or, occasionally, a community member who decided that it was time to flame out in a blaze of spam, swearing, and inappropriate posts. They can get pretty nasty. Those members who would do the absolute worst they could think of doing until we would be forced to ban them were very fond of saving their tirades for the wee hours of the morning, when we lacked sufficient coverage.

We had to look at each post report and close them individually, a process that took time. If someone made a concerted effort to get themselves banned from the site, and that effort resulted in 120 reports, that guy’s reports would have to be looked at, handled, deleted, and closed individually. You can probably understand that each report requiring individual attention meant this did not take five minutes to clear up. Meanwhile, with one person on duty, the site was nigh unusable with all of the nasty content. If the CM or an administrator were unavailable to bulk delete a member’s posts, it would be up to the moderator to delete everything manually, then close all of the reports individually, posting a justification of the decision in each closed report. Meanwhile, people would often post questions as to why there was no apparent moderator action happening. I started closing the most affected threads and posting a quick update in the inevitable thread someone would post with regards to the problem posts or spam spree.

That update would be something along the lines of:

Hey everyone,

I am temporarily closing some threads while we get the remaining problem posts cleaned up. Since we have to address and close every single post report individually, this takes some time to do. I’d appreciate it if you don’t report any more posts by johnusername5 since we are aware of the problem and are working on getting everything back in order. I’ll post again when I reopen this.


You have to use your best judgment to decide what material to remove first, because there are degrees to this. If it’s outright abusive, contains personal information, threats, or pornographic material, those are priority removals. Then, you filter the rest.

People would wonder if we were taking action at all.

“Where are the mods?” was not an uncommon question in the beginning. “How come no one is doing anything?” (We were, but they didn’t see it. Something had to change. Keep it visible.)

I began explaining in posts that we had to look at and take action on each report individually, and this took up a lot of time, but we were actively working on it. This helped soothe complaints and sometimes inspired some community members to defend our pace. Saying something in prominent posts made it known that we were actively working on the situation and gradually, things would return to normal. We had our members’ trust.

By working to remove the posts that most needed removal, and blending that with periodic communication with our community members (both in update posts and sometimes in responses to PMs sent directly to us), this tended to be effective in managing an average situation. Teamwork is important in reacting to situations as well as predicting situations. Though sometimes the best solution is as open an approach as you can manage. Update people, reassure them, and demonstrate that your community members matter. Sometimes you’ll still get impatient and occasionally irate feedback, but most will be understanding, with some leading in defense of you (and your team) when things get difficult.

Community team members have to be tuned in, to like people, and to believe in what they’re doing, otherwise it comes through and leads to burnout. Eventually, you get to know your members and how they communicate, and you can develop expectations. By doing so, you learn to anticipate their needs and then what works and what doesn’t work. It’s another way to provide that sense of balance. When all of your team members are tuned in, they can act with responsiveness and flexibility, even if everyone’s particular niche varies and you need a few extra hands to pitch in at a given moment.

Eventually, we got better moderation tools from our administrators. These included better spam filters, the ability to delete all user posts (an option previously limited to CM and administrators) and to bulk close all reports about the same user. If someone tried the old trick of spamming 150 times, we could delete all the spambot posts in one go, then close all associated reports just as fast. Something that might have taken an hour or more now took about three minutes.









Tales from Community: A Menagerie of Personalities

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One of the more difficult things in community can be personality clashes between members with vastly different communication styles. If your community features open communication, like a forum or a game, this should sound familiar. As community professionals, we aim to create a space where everyone feels good sticking around and spending their time (and sometimes money). You have to treat people like they matter, and knowing what’s important to them lets them know that they matter.

If one of your community members has an abrasive, blunt manner, but isn’t technically breaking any rules, it can turn some people off to the point of discomfort. If this is a veteran member, it might dissuade newbies from ever signing up, convince lurkers to stay silent, and eventually drive some others away. One blunt member isn’t typically going to ruin your community dynamics, but it can be different with many. You don’t want brash veterans to drive your newbies away because you need your new folks to stay in order to grow, so this situation is an example of something that has to be addressed. Word of mouth is too powerful to lose, so you have to make sure that your new members are sufficiently supported in more ways than one. Recently, The Community Roundtable published a brief guide on the value of supporting new members with proactive efforts.

Your community members choose to spend part of their day with a service, site, or app, so they have to feel welcome, listened to, and valued. You have to communicate this to community members of all communication styles — and mean it.

We have to ensure that veteran community members don’t trample on the newbies, send the message that there’s room for everyone, that everyone has a voice, and can feel comfortable. To start, having a clear set of rules will help set the tone on what kind of community you want to be. What are your organization’s goals, and how does community discussion fit into that? If your community is entirely text-based, that may cause a few problems since text communication is free of tone and vocal inflection. Context can help clarify meaning, as can the use of emoji, but it’s likely that some people won’t understand the intent, and this can lead to conflict.



Going back to the example of the harsh member (taken from a real example), if he has a very blunt style but is either toeing the line or not breaking any rules, there’s no reason to remove the member prematurely. Some might be calling for this person to be banned or punished, but creating a good experience for members also depends on not being an overly punitive environment. Having clear rules is a must, but emphasizing punishment is likely to turn many people off since they won’t feel free and comfortable to participate. Yet you also can’t ignore the people who message for help because they too feel uncomfortable with this member, and sometimes others like him, around.

Many members truly appreciate when you take the time to explain a situation or decision. If the particular incident was something borderline or mild, sometimes I would merely edit or delete the post and then send a message instead of an infraction. Other times I would issue the infraction, but message the user anyway.

Such messages would typically be something like this:

“It’s not just what you say, but how you say it. This came off as condescending and could be taken as insulting. If you could phrase it in a different way, it would not have earned you an infraction.”


“I closed your thread because you said this game “is the worst game ever” but you didn’t include why you feel that way. While we encourage everyone to post positive or negative opinions, our rules here require you back them up with at least a couple of reasons, since that gives everyone something to discuss instead of seeming like argument bait.”

Sometimes the person doubled down, became irate, called us names, and got defensive. Other times, I received PMs in which members thanked me for explaining, or even for issuing a one-day ban or a similar infraction intended to let the person cool off. These types were often followed with a small, but notable shift in tone or style.

As in the greater world, people’s communication styles vary, their preferences vary, and their needs and what they get out of being in a community vary. So you need “people skills” to learn to decipher all of these, how they are alike and differ, and to treat everyone like humans whose voices matter. After all, they’re spending time with your site or product. You want them to continue finding value in being there. If you’re tuned in, you can see if someone’s being harsh and possibly driving your more casual contributors away, or if certain people are argumentative with specific others.

Don’t make your attention solely negative either. In some communities, members don’t see the community team or moderators’ presence unless something negative requires a reponse. Like it or not, this can create an association between ‘community team action’ and ‘bad’, so be present, and use your system for positive reinforcement too! If someone is particularly helpful to new members, for instance, or has a specialty the person is eager to share, find ways to reward that. We gave away special titles, shining a spotlight on helpful gestures or good posts, and had a way for people to nominate others for consideration. Paying attention to the dynamics involved in a community is important. I can never emphasize enough the importance of being right there, immersed, and tuned in. This, coupled with attention to detail, intuition, and a good understanding of people, as well as a love for people, helps you learn how everyone interacts, how they connect, and why they do, or don’t do, certain things.





Tales from Community: An Origin Story

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Tales from Community is a new, semi-regular series about my time working in online communities, both paid and unpaid. This first entry is, fittingly, about my first steps into online communities, before I ever imagined a professional future in this field, and some early lessons learned.

I created my first online community over a decade ago in collaboration with a friend. Neither of us knew what we were doing, but we wanted to create a place where the two of us, students from different countries, could share our mutual love for a certain band with others out there. So we started a Yahoo! group. I named it after a hit song, edited some images for our banner, and wrote regular updates for the front page and discussion board. It took off. Suddenly, we began to attract members, and when we had several hundred, we had the largest group on Yahoo! for this band at the time. It was a learning experience, not just in creation, promotion, and community maintenance, but attracting members, keeping them, and managing a community. Given that my co-creator was in the UK, and I was in New York, we also both got a few lessons in remote collaboration.

My next community experience was another collaborative effort. I co-founded a video game guild, a player organization that let us organize group play, in-game events, as well as events outside the game. Our pre-release events helped our members, who were spread around the United States and England, get to know one another before the game’s release. We held events like movie night, where we’d each play our DVDs of a certain movie at the same time (this was just before streaming was a real option) and share the experience over voice chat. I also wrote up daily news updates, using a news CMS. The group was my introduction to Content Management Systems, which I used on the admin side, alongside answering questions, processing member applications, and writing content for our site and group. It was for this group that I learned Photoshop, which I used to create banners and avatars for members.

In-game events included taking new members on a tour around the game maps, unlocking all of the new areas and fast-travel points. I had previously unlocked them myself, then created a spreadsheet with coordinates. It was just after the game’s release, so I created these tours as a membership perk. This was just before internet guides were very popular for online games, especially MMOs, and neither YouTube nor Twitch were around yet to provide video walkthroughs. I gathered data, saw how it could be useful to others within a limited window, then created a way to meet player community needs in a hands-on way, which also served as promo for our organization.

My favorite event that I created and organized, however, has to be a Crimes of Fashion show in The Matrix Online. That game had more clothing options than I think I’ve ever had in my couple of decades of life. And while the leather, long coats, catsuits, boots, and sunglasses present in The Matrix trilogy were also in the game, that game also had a standout number of awful choices. I was inspired to rally our server and throw a massive party in one of the game’s nightclubs that would also be a showcase of player creativity. Whoever could come up with to create the worst outfits possible could model them down the runway and possibly walk away a winner. It was a successful event. We awarded the winners in-game currency and prizes, and turnout showed that there was demand for a fun event of that nature.

These may have been times when I was playing, but the connections made were helpful. The excitement of promoting our groups and seeing those careful promotions result in new members, as well as throwing events, finding the right incentives, arranging for music, sometimes for developer presence, at times competitive, and other times, collaborative or intended for a large group to simply enjoy. Our guild also organized new player events every once in a while, where we’d collectively donate to a pool of starter items (consumables, gear) and in-game currency that we would award just to new characters under level 10 or so to get them started. All of this took place before the rise of social media, through forums, game channels, and friendly word of mouth, but our events thrived, though we also had misses that served as lessons. One in particular, following several successful tournaments we held, was my personal project – a tournament just for the game’s rogue classes. I organized and promoted the tournament, secured the prizes out of our guild pool, and wrote up the rules.

Then I proudly posted the sign-up thread in the game forum. To a few signups and questions, which I answered. Then criticism. And finally, crickets. It was our only event that never got off the ground. Canceling that event, one that I was excited for and disappointed at its outcome, reinforced the need to have the right event, the right message, to the right audience. The server had plenty of rogues, but the tournament organization and structure just didn’t seem to appeal to more than the handful who signed up, not even filling the minimum number we needed. The next event I conceived and planned? The Crimes of Fashion show and competition.

Sometimes you have to get up, dust yourself off, fine tune your plans, learn where the demand is, and get set to create something that connects with others. While my pet project wasn’t successful, I learned what it meant to bounce back with something that the community did embrace.

These early collaborative, promotional, and community-driven events went on to lay the foundation for my future working in online community, a field that continues to grow, change, and develop while never losing sight of the people, and connections between them and the things they love that make it so valuable. While my natural empathy, extroversion, love for connecting people, and openness are all traits that align with the field, as you can see, it all began with a series of learning experiences that I have built upon over time.

Yes, Closing Comment Sections is a Loss

A person typing on a laptop.

Internet comments seem to be the subject of criticism that won’t go away. Hell, even Reddit is launching a new news site that won’t allow commenting.With comments often loaded with harassment, trolling, highly offensive language, and sometimes threats, it’s clear why some see comment sections to be a failure and offering little value to a site to continue. One of the latest sites to remove comment sections from its content is Motherboard, a publication of Vice. Motherboard’s Editor-in-Chief, Derek Mead, announced the removal of comments with the headline “We’re Replacing Comments With Something Better”. I clicked, curious to see what this “something better” was, and to find out whether or not it would turn out to be better.

Good moderation is valuable, and it requires companies treat moderators as more than simple comment police. Moderators are integral to the growth of communities, especially when moderators may be the first line of contact in the community team chain, depending on the side of your company or site. To get that quality, it has to be built into your operating costs. Many companies don’t cultivate community teams and invest in community development, backed up with sufficient funding to have good moderation and allow community managers and team members to spend a larger part of their days within the community instead of being marketing evangelists.

What Motherboard is doing is taking the comments section and instead of letting people comment as before, they have an open email address and other methods of communication for those who feel compelled to submit feedback. Making some effort a requirement on the behalf of the heretofore commenter in order to submit feedback is but one step that will probably reduce feedback, but might increase its quality.

The announcement noted that Motherboard’s staff had been contemplating the move for a year, and noted that those who justify comment sections note that when they are well-moderated, the cream can be filtered to the top and much of the harassment and noise can be eliminated. In other words, well-moderated comment sections provide value.

However, the announcement also included one important acknowledgment. Motherboard wants to devote its resources to content, meaning that it’s a direct admission that good moderation takes resources.

The argument for comments has long been that a well-moderated section lowers the barrier to entry for readers to share their thoughts, positive or otherwise. In a vacuum, that sounds like a dream, but the key there is “well-moderated.” Good comment sections exist, and social media can be just as abrasive an alternative.

Good moderation is an investment in people in your comments sections and in your communities who know your community members well, and can anticipate their needs, know their methods of expression, and serve their usage patterns.

Motherboard will select from received feedback once a week, the site will publish some of what the staff deems the most insightful comments. On the one hand, that is a form of moderation, but it’s after the fact, time has passed, the comment may no longer be topical, and it cuts off something very important when it comes to communities: interaction between people. This is, in effect, a version of the old “Letters to the Editor” segment of the newspaper. Letters to the Editor sections still exist, but the format that arose and, arguably took over, were internet comment sections. What Motherboard’s decision feels like is a potential step backward.

The people most in favor of closing comments seem to be those who will say you have a blog, a Facebook or Twitter account, so you can respond however you’d like, on your own spaces. These decentralized methods of responding to the same source material are still needed, but one hopes such decentralization is not the result of passing the buck.

By cutting off the immediacy of response and by dragging a wedge between users, a screen, between your audience members, you leave no room for a community to grow. Motherboard, in acknowledging the importance of good moderation and still dumping comments with a statement about redirecting its resources into content, is openly declaring quality moderation something not worth investing in for the site. Direct community building may not be ideal for some companies after all. Yet many sites do not want to make the investment in a good moderation and community team, instead preferring to pass the responsibility over to social media and blogging platforms. In other words: not our problem, but have fun when your users make it yours.