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.
Preventing harassment and bullying in your community requires two things
- Proactive moderation to address the inevitable problems that arise in any community
- A clear commitment to a culture that excludes harassers and bullies
It isn’t practical to imagine that you’ll have a community where no one ever does anything terrible. The important thing is that when harassment happens, you have moderator resources to cope with it. “Moderator resources” doesn’t simply refer to the amount and quality of your moderators though.
Do they have the necessary training?
Unless you’re lucky enough to find volunteers with a lot of experience, your moderators will need a certain amount of training to handle less common moderation scenarios. Ensure that your moderators have the training they need, and know that they can come to you for advice when they need to.
Do they feel empowered to take action to stop harassment when it occurs?
Inexperienced moderators are frequently paralysed when a difficult situation arises, not knowing if they have the authority to deal with the situation. The problem is, of course, compounded if they don’t have access to the training resources they need. As we’ve said before, part of the key to good moderation is having the trust of the community manager to act independently and effectively
Do they have the necessary moderation tools to do so?
Similarly, if your moderators are lacking in tools they’ll be unable to step in when necessary. Your moderators either need to be able to ban and warn troublesome members or be able to quickly and simply escalate problems to someone that can.
Another key is that your members need to have a way to inform moderators about harassment. I’ve used some older systems where all abuse had to be reported privately, and I’d never be willing to go back to one. Any modern forum software should feature a robust reporting system that allows members to flag a problem situation to moderators for a fast response.
If harassment is happening through the private messaging system (a common problem), someone will also need to have the ability to check member inboxes. This is a tool that can be easily abused, and should potentially be restricted to more experienced moderators or employees.
Most importantly, do they even know that stopping harassment and bullying is a priority, and what your definition of those terms are?
Moderators aren’t mind readers, and aren’t generally tasked with setting community priorities and guidelines themselves. I’ve seen a surprising number of communities where moderators didn’t address bullying because they simply hadn’t been told to. The community rules and guidelines made no mention of it, and the prevailing culture around the community had grown into one where harassment and bullying were both acceptable.
If you don’t make it clear that your forum doesn’t tolerate harassment both through words and deeds, your community will become a magnet for harassers. No community is too big or too small for it to be a problem. Silence on the issue or ineffective enforcement will always be interpreted as an endorsement of the behaviour. Just ask Twitter.