Debate over censorship predate the emergence of online communities. They predate the internet. To get right down to it, they predate media in general. Your online community is no different and there will no doubt be times when it’s tempting to censor the group for the good of the whole. There will be times where this is appropriate, but as your community grows it’s also important to let it evolve on its own.
Set the Standards Early
Just as children look to their parents and other adults in their lives for cues as to how to behave, your young community will do the same. The early days of your community are important to shaping the tone and direction that it will take.
Be proactive. Make sure that community guidelines are clearly communicated, and that that your members follow it. It's important of setting the tone of your community early, and how your first 100 members will set the example for the next 1,000. As with children, the early days are important and it is far easier to let things get out of control than it is to get them back on track if they do. During this initial building period, you will want to be more vigilant over the direction the community is taking.
Community Rules and Guidelines are Important
All communities have guidelines they expect to be followed and yours should be no different. Try taking a look at Plex or Penny Arcade and see their guidelines. Both sites do a good job of boiling down their guidelines into this: be safe, be respectful, be courteous.
Establishing community guidelines are important to:
- Set the standard that members are expected to adhere to
- Establish zero tolerance policies on volatile issues
- Have a reference when members do step out of line
We’ve previously spoken about the need to take a stand on certain issues. In certain cases, where vulgarity, hatred, or discrimination are present, there is a need to act swiftly and decisively. Recently, Airbnb responded to longstanding claims of discrimination within their community and have outlined plans to take corrective action. The words of CEO Brian Chesky echo the sentiments of many who participate in building online communities: that such actions have no place in our world and need to be dealt with swiftly.
It is also important to note, however, that passionate discourse, debate, and even fighting can have a place in community and in act may be vital to their success. Simply put, a boring community is rarely an active community, and the presence of differing viewpoints is part of what keeps a community vibrant and engaged.
Most individuals who leave a community do so because they are not being stimulated and the community is not serving their needs. They rarely leave because of an individual. As your community grows this will become even more true. One bad apple stands out less, and is not nearly as impactful, when your community has 1,000 members as opposed to 100.
It’s for this reason that monitoring and censoring your community is more important in the early days as previously discussed, rather than later on. At that point, the community has evolved to take its own shape and tone.
Ways to Avoid Censoring Free Speech
In cases where outright censorship is not called for, there are other methods that community managers can use for moderating the flow of content.
- Peer Review Systems: Allow members of the community to police themselves and flag or vote on content that might be offensive or otherwise doesn’t serve the community well.
- One on One Moderation: Explaining to the offender why their content does not conform to the guidelines of the community.
- Restricted Access: Many community channels such as forums offer the ability to moderate a member’s access. Restricting post count, the ability to add links in their profile or posts, or having certain areas that are off limits to the general user can all help steer your community in the right direction. It is important that community members have the ability to achieve these levels and unlock these abilities, however the safeguards help ensure that the member has built up enough trust equity first and that their future actions will add, not detract, from the community as a whole.
Ultimately, It's Your Community.
Despite your best efforts, many users will undoubtedly cry “censorship police” at you on more than one occasion. As a community owner, your responsibility is always to the greater good of the community. Remember, it's your decision to determine what's acceptable and unacceptable behavior in your community. While the community will grow and take on characteristics you hadn’t anticipated or planned for, staying true to the fundamental goals of the community is important.
If that means having to censor your members from time to time, walk that line carefully but do not be afraid to do it when called for.