Last week I was asked to do an interview on community management and it got me thinking. One of the questions was about staff structure and management and it coincided with a blog post coming through on my feed that talked about how the attitude of forum staff can affect peoples’ perception of the community as a whole.
There have been two occasions during my time on staff at the SitePoint forums when we have had to work very hard to shake a reputation. The first of those was many years ago when I first became a moderator. We had a name for being heavy handed and unwelcoming. As a community manager, those two descriptions make me cringe. They are about as far from what any community manager wants for their staff as it’s possible to get. We worked very hard to shake that reputation and even though it took a couple of years, we did it. The SitePoint forums became a place where new people felt welcome and comfortable, and staff were seen as people to approach with problems – like those ambassadors that some cities have on street corners – rather than cops that slam on the handcuffs the second someone raises their voice.
More recently the staff and I have been in discussion over the way we deal with perceived troublemakers in our community. As anyone that has ever worked as a volunteer knows, you do it for the love of it. With the exception of me, no SitePoint forum staff member is paid. They all do their job because they value the work that we do and they want to give back. They are brand ambassadors and they are proud of what SitePoint stands for. Along with that tends to come a fierce loyalty. When you work really hard to build something that you’re proud of, you don’t like to see it mistreated or misused and when it is, you come out fighting.
See, here’s the thing. An online community is not a democracy. We want people to be able to openly voice their opinion (as long as it’s not their opinion on religion or politics!) but at the end of the day it is our responsibility to ensure that that isn’t to the detriment of other members. New people don’t want to hear established members go off on a rant just because they have heard the question before. We need to cut them some slack. They won’t learn anything if they are too daunted to come back! On the flip side, people that have been around for a while don’t want a new person to come in and start slinging mud. And no one likes a troll.
Throw into the mix a bit of staff loyalty and things get even more complicated. No one likes to see someone they care about insulted. It’s that whole “I can say what I like about my brother, but if you say anything bad about him I’ll kill you” mentality. If a community member takes exception to a staff member it is very difficult for that person’s team to stand back and let it slide. We’re people too. We take things personally. Sure, in an ideal world we’d say “Hey, I’m having trouble being objective here so it would be great if someone else could stand in”, but it feels so much more satisfying to tell someone what you really think.
Things will go wrong occasionally, that is a given, but it is how you react that will shape how your community behave and respond to you in the future. Treat them with respect and you’ll get it back in spades. Crack your whip and they’ll vote with their feet.
We have realised that we may have lost sight of this a bit recently. We have had several members over the last few months disagree with the way we work and we haven’t always reacted ideally. I have a tendency to shoot from the hip and I have to work very hard to keep that in check. The rest of the team help me to do that and they keep themselves nicely balanced for the most part.
But please remember that our decisions are carefully thought out and we always act in the way that we believe will best benefit the community. If you have an experience that upsets you, please make sure you let us know, but think about how you do that. Sure, posting your grievance publicly on the forums is one way to do that – people seem to think that it will make us accountable for our perceived actions – but it isn’t always the most productive way of dealing with something. We are all for transparency, but in order to protect the privacy of other members we won’t always publish details so you are less likely to get the answers that you’d like. Send a private message or an email to me if you have concerns about staff members and I’ll do what I can to make sure we reach an outcome that is satisfactory for everyone.
That’s how a healthy community works.