What do you want your community to be? It’s probably the first question you should ask when you start a forum, and I wonder how many people do. The Penny Arcade forums pre-dated me, but after I was given the helm it was a question I asked myself. The longest standing rule on the forums at that point was that new users shouldn't make a thread to introduce themselves, the dreaded “Hi, I’m new!” thread. Those who did so would be flamed, mercilessly. Sometimes wittily, more frequently not so. Always viciously. In the relatively early days of forums, before “community management” was a concept that anyone talked about, the sharp, biting vitriol of our forums seemed pretty fresh, and the idea of an internet meritocracy where the wittiest and most thick-skinned survived seemed like a worthwhile one.
By the time I was given the reigns and told to make my mark, internet culture had changed. Now every forum was like that, and the survival of the fittest concept hadn’t worked. Instead of the wittiest and brightest sticking around, they had understandably grown weary of the constant negativity and moved on. Sometimes to other forums, but often leaving internet communities behind completely. The ones who stuck around were instead the dullest, most boorish and unpleasant. The snide, the cynical and the relentlessly sarcastic. It seems obvious now that anyone with a real sense of wit and humour would have little patience for constantly belittling strangers online.
The forum wasn’t as bad as some, certainly. The moderation staff (who I numbered among) had been working hard for a long time to keep some sense of civility, but it was still pretty grim. We’d gotten through 3 community managers within 2 years, some of the cleverest, funniest, most warm-hearted people I know. They were too smart and sensitive to continue the psychic agony of constantly dealing with people insisted on acting like gloriously self-entitled arseholes. Our own site management had largely cordoned the forums off as a hazard zone. When I asked myself “what do I want this community to be?” the answer that stuck out the most was “not this”. Once you realize that the status quo is unacceptable, the hard part is over. The rest is simply bloody minded persistence. I had a great team, and a lot of great forumers to work with, and over time the forums were detoxified. It was a slog, and there are enough stories of mistakes and arguments to bore anyone to tears, but together, as a community, we beat the forums into shape. No one is ashamed of us now. We don’t need to be cordoned off. We decided who we wanted to be, and the answer was simply “good”.
The tone of the internet in general hasn’t raised significantly since then. Quite the opposite. Youtube comments, Twitter, Facebook, article talkbacks and gaming services are under siege from a constant stream of negativity, racism, physical threats, homophobia, transphobia… there’s no point in listing them because every kind of unpleasantness is represented. Recent headlines have seen teenage girls committing suicide, apparently due to online abuse. Female bloggers have posted logs of rape and death threats that they’ve received on X Box Live, which received no reaction when reported. Absolutely any Youtube video that you can think of will have a comments section filled with seething bile and hatred. Anyone with any kind of high profile on Twitter can expect a torrent of abuse and threats to both them and their family. I recently reported an image of a severely beaten and injured woman that had been posted on Facebook with a misogynistic punchline underneath it, and received the response that it did not constitute an image of violence as forbidden by Facebook’s TOS. I could only ask, baffled, as to what in the hell did constitute an image of violence. Forums, my specialist subject, frequently fare no better. The official forums of any games company is almost certain to be an abattoir, a screaming din of noise and fury. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, EA and other big gaming companies; what makes these juggernauts unable to tackle the PR nightmare that faces them daily?
My guess? Fear. Companies, even titans like the ones above, are terrified beyond all measure of tackling the malignant tumor that represents a loud part of their userbase. It certainly isn’t a lack of resources, each of those companies makes sufficient profit to justify a large moderation presence. Their programmers are easily capable of creating robust reporting and moderation tools at a moments notice. I doubt that the problem is that these problems are going unseen. No, the problem is fear. The idea that every customer, every user, should be pandered to no matter how heinous their behaviour. Their money/ad hits spend as well as anyone’s right? There’s no reason to kick them off, to make it clear beyond boilerplate lipservice that their behaviour is absolutely unacceptable. These large, slow-moving companies are unable to react quickly enough to the increasingly apparent fact that toxic users are actively driving away other users. A mid sized forum that hired me as a consultant last year responded to my suggestion that their biggest problem user simply be banned with “but he has so many posts!”
I sometimes get told that running the forums at Penny Arcade must be a hard job. It often is, but any challenges I face must pale in comparison to the soul destroying nightmare of being deliberately hamstrung and prevented from doing my job by middle and upper management. People who for some reason refuse to see suffering, hurt and bullying in their name as bigger problems than the temporary dip on a graph that would come from making it clear that such behaviour is not welcome. Not on their property. Not in their name.
Most of the people reading this run communities on Vanilla software, communities of all different shapes and sizes. A lot of you have probably seen some degree of toxicity, and wondered whether taking a stand against it is going to decrease your traffic and kill your community. It won’t. Not if your community is worth a damn. It’s your community, your problem, your responsibility. It’s up to you whether abuse happens on your property, in your name. Communities are increasingly going to be divided into the brave and the weak. The good and the bad. Decide which one you want to be.
Guest post by Patrick Groome. Patrick is the Administrator of the Penny Arcade forums. Penny Arcade is one of the most popular and long running gaming webcomics and organizer of the PAX gaming conference.