What is the Jeremy Clarkson Effect?
The Jeremy Clarkson Effect is a phenomenon that strikes all kinds of communities, including workplaces, sports teams and of course, online communities. It begins with something great, a contributor in the community who provides great value of some kind. Maybe that contribution is great salesmanship, the ability to play a sport well or a unique facility for accurately comparing the engine noise of a car to some kind of wildcat. Either way, these contributors are highly desirable for the community.
The problem occurs when that contributor either turns toxic, or shifting cultural trends render their existing behaviour unpalatable. The effect is named after the ultimate example of this, BBC scion Jeremy Clarkson. Host of a globally popular TV show, a string of gaffes of escalating severity rendered him into a toxic presence in the BBC. Corporation bosses were left with a stark choice, to fire him and lose an extremely lucrative talent or to appease him and allow the situation to deteriorate further. The Jeremy Clarkson Effect is when a toxic presence in a community has value too high for them to be easily removed.
How does the Clarkson Effect manifest in online communities?
In online communities, members have a lot of ways of making themselves valuable. Some examples that jump immediately to mind include:
- Broad or extensive knowledge about relevant subject matter. These are the users with an encyclopaedic knowledge of your product or community topic, that contribute heavily to your knowledge base.
- “Whales”, who have bought everything your company puts out. These users are a huge revenue spinner in the mobile app market, both for direct revenue and encouraging a culture of prestige around purchases.
- Naturally charismatic users who provide value to normal users and fulfil unofficial leadership roles in the community. Whether they’re funny, interesting, wise or creative, they post interesting content that engage other users
- Users who simply post a lot. While over-posting can be tedious, frequent posters do drive a lot of traffic and engagement to the site. Some day, I will spin this into an article called The Norm From Cheers Effect
There are of course, as many (if not more ways) for a user to become toxic. Frequent problems include:
- Being unwelcoming to new blood in the community. Often, Clarksons will be protective of their status and attempt to subtly (or not so subtly) chase new users off to protect their turf.
- Excessive rudeness to other users in general.
- Belligerence towards the staff of the forum. Clarksons may feel that their status in the community gives them carte blanche to be abusive to the staff who make your community possible. This is, incidentally, the offence that finally dethroned Clarkson Prime.
- Displaying unwelcome prejudices (typically sexism, racism, homophobia etc). This can be due to evolving social mores that make previously acceptable behaviour unpalatable, and was a frequent cause of criticism for Clarkson Prime.
The danger of a true Clarkson is in the supporters that they have in the community. Popular users are divisive, but also seem “plumbed in”, as though they’ve always been there. The fear of a negative community reaction is what leads to community managers believing that a Clarkson is impossible to remove without disaster.
The BBC has the right idea
Of course, Clarkson Prime was eventually sacked by the BBC after one controversy too far. The timing of this removal was impeccable, and community managers should take note of it. Once it became clear that Clarkson Prime’s behaviour was going to get worse rather than better, and that appeasement was having no effect, they removed him from his position in the face of overwhelming opposition from his core fans.
This is precisely the right thing to do. Not all of the harm that a Clarkson causes is immediate or measurable. It may seem as though a user’s contributions outweigh the cost of their bullshit, but that’s because the cost can be invisible. You’ll never see the people who are immediately turned off by a bad user in your community, or easily measure the loss of reputation that they can cause.
Long term damage to your brand is absolutely on the table if these users aren’t dealt with properly. How many of the targets of a Clarkson Prime gaffe still feel disappointed and alienated by the BBC’s failure to step in on their behalf? To what extent was this failure compounded by the responses to previous gaffes, which (in their tepid response to racism) may have caused as much harm as the behaviour itself? Clarksons have got to go. Don’t be afraid to throw them out of the community, even if their ostensible popularity may make them seem untouchable. No one member is more valuable than the health of the community as a whole.
My own experiences with The Clarkson Effect
Over the years, this has come up countless times in my community. In each case, we had a member who believe that they were irreplaceable, untouchable members of the community. We’ve even had whole sub communities of Clarksons destroying the community’s reputation from within. In each case, they were removed. In each case, the ramifications were fleeting. Tempers and drama flared in the short term, but in a few months no one cared, and the name of the Clarksons soon left the lips of the general populace.
Getting rid of a Clarkson can be as simple as using the ban function, but it’s also possible to gradually change the culture that the Clarkson is thriving in, and allow them the opportunity to adapt or leave. Whatever your reason for removing a member, your reasons for doing so need to be clear, both internally and to the populace at large. Clarksons can be a real test of your ability to communicate effectively with your members. If your communications are clear and transparent, much of the backlash can be avoid.
The controversies aren’t always small, or easy to weather, but it’s vital to stay the course. Bringing a Clarkson back into a community due to backlash is almost certainly a horrible idea, as it vindicates the behaviour that made them a problem in the first place and reinforces the idea that they are bigger than the community. If you wish to rehabilitate a Clarkson, it’s vital that they express real contrition and an understanding of why their behaviour was unacceptable. This vital step is one that even Clarkson Prime seems to understand.