We're twenty years in to this world wide web thing. Today, I myself celebrate twelve years of writing this blog. And yet those of us who love this medium, who've had our lives changed by the possibility of publishing our words to the world without having to ask permission, are constantly charged with defending this wonderful, expressive medium in a way that creators in every other discipline seldom find themselves obligated to do.
Some of this is because the medium is new, of course. But in large part, it's because so many of the most visible, prominent, and popular places on the web are full of unkindness and hateful behavior.
The examples are already part of pop culture mythology: We can post a harmless video of a child's birthday party and be treated to profoundly racist non-sequiturs in the comments. We can read about a minor local traffic accident on a newspaper's website and see vicious personal attacks on the parties involved. A popular blog can write about harmless topics like real estate, restaurants or sports and see dozens of vitriolic, hate-filled spewings within just a few hours.
But that's just the web, right? Shouldn't we just keep shrugging our shoulders and shaking our heads and being disappointed in how terrible our fellow humans are?
This is a solved problem
As it turns out, we have a way to prevent gangs of humans from acting like savage packs of animals. In fact, we've developed entire disciplines based around this goal over thousands of years. We just ignore most of the lessons that have been learned when we create our communities online. But, by simply learning from disciplines like urban planning, zoning regulations, crowd control, effective and humane policing, and the simple practices it takes to stage an effective public event, we can come up with a set of principles to prevent the overwhelming majority of the worst behaviors on the Internet.
If you run a website, you need to follow these steps. if you don't, you're making the web, and the world, a worse place. And it's your fault. Put another way, take some goddamn responsibility for what you unleash on the world.
How many times have you seen a website say "We're not responsible for the content of our comments."? I know that when you webmasters put that up on your sites, you're trying to address your legal obligation. Well, let me tell you about your moral obligation: Hell yes, you are responsible. You absolutely are. When people are saying ruinously cruel things about each other, and you're the person who made it possible, it's 100% your fault. If you aren't willing to be a grown-up about that, then that's okay, but you're not ready to have a web business. Businesses that run cruise ships have to buy life preservers. Companies that sell alcohol have to keep it away from kids. And people who make communities on the web have to moderate them.
- You should have real humans dedicated to monitoring and responding to your community. One of the easiest ways to ensure valuable contributions on your site is to make people responsible by having dedicated, engaged, involved community moderators who have the power to delete comments and ban users (in the worst case) but also to answer questions and guide conversations for people who are unsure of appropriate behavior (in the best cases). Sites that do this, like MetaFilter and Stack Exchange sites (disclosure, I'm a proud board member of Stack Exchange) get good results. Those that don't, don't. If you can't afford to invest the time or money in grooming and rewarding good community moderators? Then maybe don't have comments. And keep in mind: You need lots of these moderators. The sites with the best communities have a really low ratio of community members to moderators.
- You should have community policies about what is and isn't acceptable behavior. Your community policy should be short, written in plain language, easily accessible, and phrased in flexible terms so people aren't trying to nitpick the details of the rules when they break them. And then back them up with significant consequences when people break them: Either temporary or permanent bans on participation.
- Your site should have accountable identities. No, people don't have to use their real names, or log in with Google or Facebook or Twitter unless you want them to. But truly anonymous commenting often makes it really easy to have a pile of shit on your website, especially if you don't have dedicated community moderators. When do newspapers publish anonymous sources? When the journalists know the actual identity and credibility of the person, and decide it is a public good to protect their identity. You may wish to follow the same principles, or you can embrace one of my favorite methods of identity: Persistent pseudonyms. Let users pick a handle that is attached to all of their contributions in a consistent way where other people can see what they've done on the site. Don't make reputation a number or a score, make it an actual representation of the person's behavior. And of course, if appropriate, don't be afraid to attach people's real names to their comments and contributions. But you'll find "real" identities are no cure for assholes showing up in your comments if you aren't following the rest of the principles described here.
- You should have the technology to easily identify and stop bad behaviors. If you have a community that's of decent size, it can be hard for even a sufficient number of moderators to read every single conversation thread. So a way for people to flag behavior that violates guidelines, and a simple set of tools for allowing moderators to respond quickly and appropriately, are a must-have so that people don't get overwhelmed.
- You should make a budget that supports having a good community, or you should find another line of work. Every single person who's going to object to these ideas is going to talk about how they can't afford to hire a community manager, or how it's so expensive to develop good tools for managing comments. Okay, then save money by turning off your web server. Or enjoy your city where you presumably don't want to pay for police because they're so expensive.
Just a start
Those are, of course, just a few starting points for how to have a successful community. You need many more key factors for a community to truly thrive, and I hope others can suggest them in the comments. (Yep, I know I'm asking for it by having comments on this post.)
But as I reflected back on the wonderful, meaningful conversations I've had in the last dozen years of this blog, I realized that one of the reasons people don't understand how I've had such a wonderful response from all of you over the years is because they simply don't believe great conversations can happen on the web. Fortunately, I have seen so much proof to the contrary.
Why are they so cynical about conversation on the web? Because a company like Google thinks it's okay to sell video ads on YouTube above conversations that are filled with vile, anonymous comments. Because almost every great newspaper in America believes that it's more important to get a few more page views on their website than to encourage meaningful discourse about current events within their community, even if many of those page views will be off-putting to the good people who are offended by the content of the comments. And because lots of publishers think that any conversation is good if it boosts traffic stats.
Well, the odds are I've been doing this blogging thing longer than you, so let me tell you what I've learned: When you engage with a community online in a constructive way, it can be one of the most meaningful experiences of your life. It doesn't have to be polite, or neat and tidy, or full of everyone agreeing with each other. It just has to not be hateful and destructive.
In that spirit, I've tried to hold off on actually naming names of people who run sites that encourage hateful horrible communities. Mostly because the people actually running the sites aren't being granted the resources or power to make the choices they need to make to have a fruitful community. But I'm lucky enough after all these years that my words sometimes get in front of those who do have the power to fix the web's worst communities.
So, I beseech you: Fix your communities. Stop allowing and excusing destructive and pointless conversations to be the fuel for your business. Advertisers, hold sites accountable if your advertising appears next to this hateful stuff. Take accountability for this medium so we can save it from the vilification that it still faces in our culture.
Because if your website is full of assholes, it's your fault. And if you have the power to fix it and don't do something about it, you're one of them.
Thank you to John Fraissinet for the image.