Online Communities Gone Bad (and getting them back on track)

After my appearance on the podcast Masters of Scale, a lot of people have written to me for advice on managing their communities. Here’s one request and my response, which I posted with permission, in the interest of making the internet a more civilized place.

Things had gotten so bad in this founder’s community, that even employees were thinking of leaving. The team felt hamstrung by their users. He explains:

When we first started our community I was in there posting every day setting the tone. Over the years as the company scaled I chose to spend time on other things beside posting in the forum. Gradually over time things got bad…then really bad…now horrible. 5-10 members of the community have started berating everyone in between posting useful content. Do you have any principles or experiences I can draw upon to think about how to solve this?

Yes, I wrote back, this community has run amok. A garden needs both fertilizer and weedkiller. But most of all it needs a gardener. Go back in and participate as much as before. Community manage with a heavy hand. Promote good people, respond to them.  Make them shine. Build good admin tools to silence bad actors.

You have to take a “iron fist in velvet glove” approach; warn borderline cases, and discuss their behavior with them. Often they can be rehabilitated. But for those who will not change: ruthlessly delete the accounts of abusive people, irrespective of their contributions. Keeping 5-10 bad people have undoubtedly lost you dozens, even hundreds, that you don’t even know about. They’ve stifled other people who are still participating and darkened the atmosphere of the whole community.

Community management is art, not science. There is no black and white when dealing with people. Choose your community team carefully, and find people with good instincts. Have all members of the team participate in the community. And be present there yourself.

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