Harassment is one of the biggest issues facing online communities at the moment. From tiny enthusiast communities to social media giants like Twitter, the ugly side of the internet is big news at the moment. For community managers, harassment represents a critical liability. No one wants to be hit with a harassment or bullying scandal. Harassment problems grow exponentially if left unchecked, and sites like Twitter are learning how hard it is to solve when the problem is allowed to advance. No type of community is immune from these problems, I’ve seen bullying take place in communities with subjects ranging from video games to maternity. The human instinct to be awful is part of all kinds of people.
Make no mistake: the hands-off, “free speech” approach espoused by many does not work. It’s a cowardly, tacit endorsement of harassing behaviour. I’ve never seen a community where the approach led to anything but a toxic environment ruled by its worst elements. In an enthusiast community, this leads to an unwelcoming, insular environment that stagnates as it fails to gain new members. They can limp on for years, a shadow of a real community. In a customer community, at best the community dies completely. At worst, it becomes a stain on the brand itself as people start to associate it with the worst excesses of the community.