When we think of content or community moderation, we often get a negative connotation. There is a binary of right vs. wrong, content police vs. keyboard warrior, and peacekeeper vs. internet troll. However, like many other things in the world of community, there exists a lot more nuance in the in-between.
Moderation is commonly a reactive process that happens only after something has disrupted the community. In many instances, that is far too late — the trust has been violated and the damage has already been done. Through developing codes of conduct and moderation processes proactively, community builders can foster an environment of trust that will have long-term benefits.
Effective moderation and codes of conduct can drive community growth through fostering trust, care, mutual respect and safety in the community. Through understanding the history of how we have approached moderation and online content, current best practices, and your organizations or community's values, you can develop a process that works best for you and your organization for the long run.
Understanding the perpetual dumping ground of the internet
As a millennial, I spent my formative years online probably way too much. I distinctly remember crafting the perfect “away” message or adding the right glitter GIFs to my MySpace page. The internet was an endless firehose of content that includes all content — good, bad, weird, wild, political, questionable, and the downright profane. Yet, it was always a wonderfully weird place where I could feel at home.
“ Effective moderation and codes of conduct can drive community growth”
The growth of this firehose of content is an indirect byproduct of making the internet more accessible to the masses. The more accessible we made the internet, the easier it became to make friends and build more perpetual weirdness together online. As a result, we developed codes of conduct for participation in forums, chat rooms, and even comment sections. There are now guidelines to follow, protocols to support, and best practices to abide by. Platforms enforced policies and the internet's weirdness started to have some semblance of boundaries.
With these boundaries, one may wonder if the internet and our online communities lack, well, a little spice. We are creating guidelines of what is regulated and telling people what they can and can not do in different corners of the web.
Caring about values and safety
The Council for Big Data, Ethics, and Society has documented a history of codes of conduct among professional organizations, with a specific rise in the mid-20th century in response to hateful rhetoric that surfaced during World War II. These codes of conduct were just the beginning. In 2008, The New York Times reported that 63% of all searches that occurred on the internet were conducted on Google, further leading to the mass assimilation of content surfaced to an individual. Knowing how content, and especially dangerous content at that, is surfaced eventually led to subsequent court decisions in the early 2000s with the goal of protecting internet users from misinformation and disinformation.
Given the current zeitgeist of the internet, and what we know in regards to how moderation is effectively carried out, this does not mean that moderation sucks the fun out of online spaces. Effective moderation is a demonstration of your values in this larger world.
It goes further than just your values, too. If not taken seriously,there can be serious legal ramifications for a lack of moderation, according to writer Ryan Broderick, founder of BuzzFeed's Garbage Day Newsletter.
“Moderating content and comments is one of the most vital responsibilities on the internet. It’s where free speech, community interests, censorship, harassment, spam, and overt criminality all butt up against each other. It has to account for a wide variety of always-evolving cultural norms and acceptable behaviors.”
Guidelines keep the community aligned within a shared interest. At Orbit, we define a community as “a group of individuals who are doing something together.” Guidelines and moderation keeps us focused on that latter part – “together”.
What does this mean for community builders?
Community builders craft spaces for belonging online. We foster relationships in the replies of a forum, in the conversations we facilitate, and in the platforms we converse on. In order to have healthy, meaningful conversations, we must craft spaces that provide community members (or potential community members) a feeling of trust.
All of us probably have personal boundaries of where trust lies. Writing a code of conduct is only the first step. Actually understanding and determining how you will moderate that community is another step.
Breaking down your personal, and organizational values within not only your community but also the organization is an important step towards creating spaces of belonging. Community builders should have an understanding of the dynamic between the community’s interests and the organization as a whole. Where might the organization and the community be at odds — and how is it addressed?
Community builders must work to navigate these value-driven guidelines to not only facilitate trust but also verify this trust with action.
Talk the talk and walk the walk
Involving consequences for members that no longer follow guidelines or break code of conduct within organizations can be tough at times. As a community builder myself, I have had to enforce boundaries within a community. The choice to do so is not always an easy one. This sometimes comes with confrontation and personal ramifications. Establish a plan within your team on how you will handle these situations in case they go poorly. This lays the groundwork for growing deeper relationships. You can now feel safe to communicate with others or enforce new boundaries in the future.
“ Moderation lends itself to community growth when it is used to create a safe space”
Moderation lends itself to community growth when it is used to create a safe space for gathering. It is not something to take lightly or to enact only when you have a problem, but rather something that should empower you as a community builder. That being said, how moderation tactically lends to growth depends on the community builder’s enforcement of those values.
Here are a few use cases to highlight how moderation can come in handy.
CONTAINING A DISTRACTING CONVERSATION
Do you have a group of community members having an off-topic conversation that bleeds into other areas of your community? Redirecting or containing this conversation keeps the community on topic and moving forward. It can be as simple as a friendly reminder, a DM to the group, or even a reminder to folks about how their actions are being perceived to get the conversation back on track.
QUARANTINING TOUGH TOPICS
Money, death, sex, politics – there are always a few hot button topics that get people riled up. When approaching these topics, how does your community handle them?
Limit conversations on tough topics, move them to a specific area, or allow them, but provide strict codes of conduct and behavioral guidelines that are simple to understand. Those who are new to the community or observing your community may be turned off by just following the conversation. Do not be afraid to act in an overly cautious manner to protect the community.
REMOVING A TOXIC MEMBER
If someone is still not getting with the program after several warnings, do not be afraid to remove a community member completely. Remember, protecting the community and their needs is your responsibility.
Be proactive with your community
Consider moderation as an active stance that you are taking in affirmation of your community’s values and outlines how you are continuing to make your community a safe place so that everyone can move forward with the same mission.
Here are a few steps towards leaning into community growth through moderation.
TAKE STOCK OF YOUR VALUES
What are the community’s values and how do you act in accordance with those values? Use these values to drive an open and honest conversation with your community team and key members of your community as well. Hold space for them to tell you what is important, and what they are trusting you to enforce as a community builder. You will find these conversations can be really fruitful in understanding your community’s culture as well.
CODIFY THESE VALUES IN A CODE OF CONDUCT
Write out the values and expectations for how the community will uphold them. Highlight what this means for your organization and how you will enforce it. Assume nothing in a code of conduct. Having explicit guidelines for participation not only reassures community members that you are serious about those values, but it will make it easier for you to enforce them later on as well.
GET ORGANIZATIONAL SIGN OFF
Get buy-in among your internal team and stakeholders. Hold yourself to the same standards that you hold your community members. Truly live your values by way of the code of conduct. Doing this is part of verifying that you actually care about the values that you uphold. Furthermore, this allows your community members to learn by example — they will mirror the behavior they see you perform.
DETERMINE HOW IT WILL BE ENFORCED
Understand that upholding community standards can be hard. Understand the intersections of your community members and your team members as well. Some individuals may be unfairly subjected to more harassment online, and may have different feelings towards confrontation when it comes to enforcing standards. Assess your teams comfort levels and how you should approach this.
For in-person gatherings, make safety a concern. When enforcing guidelines, especially when a community member is disgruntled or upset, make sure that you are in a public place and have a support system in place to keep you safe.
Remember that H.A.R.D. conversations – H.A.R.D. being an acronym for honest, accurate, respectful, and direct – are kind. When giving feedback or setting expectations, make sure it is a H.A.R.D. conversation. This is an act of kindness to yourself, to your community, and to the person who needs a bit more guidance.
EMBRACE THE ROLE OF AN ADVOCATE
When having conversations about codes of conduct, remember you are advocating for your values. Your role is to make sure your values are represented in rooms that you are not currently in. Be an advocate for your values and find ways that your community can help you uphold these values as well.
FIND YOUR COMMUNITY’S GOLDEN RULE
One of the best articles I have read on community moderation posted on David V. Kimball’s Medium page, highlighted the importance of this rule: "this community isn't subject to your definition of fairness.” While your community might not adopt that same rule, they may have another rule that they choose to adopt as a North Star. Find something that empowers your team to enforce behavior that does not align with your community’s soul.
BE STRICT WITH YOUR CODE OF CONDUCT
Unfortunately, there are people who gain cheap thrills by toeing the line or pressing a community’s buttons. It is not worth your time to engage or put yourself in a situation where your community’s values might be doubted. Arguments for arguments sake can be dangerous. Try to find an underlying reason and do not be afraid to end the conversation if it becomes unproductive. Remember your role as an advocate for your values and do not risk putting yourself in a situation where those values might be compromised.
Why we need to take a values-first approach
With community moderation and codes of conduct being talked about more, let us spend less time talking about the dark side of it and more time highlighting what this can do for your community.
Taking a values-first approach demonstrates your dedication to your mission and values and how you are committed to moving forward together. No two codes of conduct may be the same, but the goal at the end of the day should be this: codes of conduct allow each individual within your community to be the best version of themselves as they move forward on a shared mission.
Through having an understanding of shared values, you create space for people to have mutual respect and shared intentions. Naturally, this will draw in more open and honest conversation, which facilitates trust and belonging. That trust and belonging? That drives community growth. And growth is always best when it comes through building relationships with those who are values-aligned.