Today’s social networking sites were originally created as places for people to connect, share ideas, and build a community. They’ve achieved that goal, and more. But “more” is not always a good thing. When we amass large numbers of connections and followers in open forums, we unwittingly invite trolls into the mix. And with relentless negativity, they hijack and corrupt the conversation and make honest and vulnerable communication seem very risky. Has there ever been a time when expressing an opinion or asking for help in a public forum has felt more intimidating?
That may explain why social media use is down, and curated communities such as Nextdoor, which has raised $285 million, are on the rise. At The Community Company, we are big fans of private and heavily curated communities that exist apart from the noise and frequent hostility of large social media sites. The strategies we’ve used to build these communities, often using private forums on top of major social networking sites (Facebook groups is one of our favorites) can be used by just about anyone seeking to create troll-free online communities. Here are some quick tips:
When you’re first starting your community, it’s important to build your foundation with a few people who are every bit as passionate as you are. When we started YEC (Young Entrepreneur Council), youth unemployment was at an all-time high, and we believed that access to better entrepreneurship education was a logical solution. The awareness campaigns that we launched around the topic attracted others who felt as strongly as we did, and these people became our anchors. Identifying anchors begins with defining your own distinctive mission and values. What do you stand for, and how will your group stand apart from similar communities?
The more focused and differentiated you are, the easier it will be to attract the kinds of anchors who will help grow your network with the right people, because they understand your mission and the need that you’re filling. They will also help set the standard, and ultimately help you manage your community. Trolls are always eager to hop on a bad-behavior bandwagon, so your community must have a zero-tolerance ethos from day one.
Set Standards And Moderate Diligently
The content that you and your anchors post will set the tone for your community, but you still should have a written set of guidelines that your members can refer to. We highlight our community guidelines in highly visible areas of our Facebook groups, websites, and in messages to members. This is a living document that gives specific advice on what to post and what not to post, and evolves as new challenges emerge.
For example, we don’t allow political commentary or petitions on the group, and we also won’t tolerate shameless self-promotion, negative comments about another member’s company, or obscene material. Having our guidelines in a document that is accessible to all gives us something to refer to if members do cross the line.
But just because everyone is aware of your guidelines doesn’t mean that those guidelines will be respected 100% of the time. Even the people who you think you know best will often make mistakes and post inappropriately, so you need to moderate your group as diligently as possible. Let a few nasty comments slide, and before you know it, the trolls will come out of the woodwork.
Curate Your Community
If you want a community where there’s deep respect for all, your members should feel that they are among a select group of peers who have been carefully vetted. To be part of YEC, for instance, you need to be a business owner 45 years old or younger with a company that does more than $1 million in revenue or has raised more than $1 million in funding.
But we also do extensive research on our prospective members. Do they volunteer locally? Do they mentor early-stage startups? What awards or acknowledgements have they received from respected organizations? We also scan Google results for unsavory behaviors that might indicate they’re not the right fit to join our ranks. For instance, if they’re exhibiting troll-like behavior on other platforms, chances are they’ll fall into the same bad habits with us.
Our top priority: Making sure that people we accept will make the group a better place. One of the biggest traps that new community builders fall into is believing that their community should cater to all people. Inevitably, this leads to the loudest voice dominating the direction of the community. Instead, you must understand who you exist to serve, and pursue them. We aren’t afraid to reject a member, or to remove a member who demonstrates a lack of respect for the community and its values.
Invest In Getting To Know Your Community
When we started YEC, we spent days on the phone with our members getting to know them and gathering more context than we ever could via email. The process not only reassured us that our members were who they said they were, but we also learned about what they needed help with, and how they might be of service to others. If, for example, an entrepreneur was getting ready to raise a Series A round of capital, we could instantly put him or her in touch with their peers who had been through that process in the past six months. By getting to know our members deeply, and by being as helpful as possible as frequently as possible, we form strong connections that naturally lead to positive, respectful interactions within our forums.
Enforce Your Guidelines
Sometimes, enough is enough. When you find an inappropriate post, save a copy of it by moving it to a staff-only section of your community, or by taking a screenshot, so that you have proof of the offending post. In our private forums, we then reach out to the member and explain why the post was deleted. These messages are meant to be educational, not punitive, so that we can help the member to participate in an exemplary way moving forward. Nine out of 10 times, the member has made an honest mistake, and we’re forgiving, although we’re always looking for recurring patterns. But every community manager should know what his or her non-negotiable offenses are–behavior that is so contrary to the spirit of the community that it results in immediate expulsion. Racism, for example, is part of our zero tolerance policy.
Creating a troll-free online community is not effortless, but it’s extraordinarily important if you want your members to feel safe enough to ask the kinds of vulnerable questions that will yield truly valuable professional and personal advice. Sadly, that’s becoming less and less possible on open social media platforms, where trolling is so out of control that it’s almost impossible to have a meaningful conversation anymore, or to express a strong point of view without being attacked. When the standards for open discourse seem to reach new lows every day, it makes more sense than ever to rise above the noise and negativity by creating your own purpose-focused community that unites people around common pursuits and passions.
Ryan Paugh is the COO of The Community Company, an organization that builds community-driven programs for media companies and global brands. He is also the coauthor of Superconnector: Stop Networking and Start Building Business Relationships That Matter.