Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Matt Asay Asks: Should You Ever Fire a Community Member?

Matt asks the question that comes to every online community manager's mind at one time or another, even if they never voice it outloud: "Gosh, life would be so much easier if I would just tell userxyz to get bent. After all, he/she never adds anything of value to the conversation, and they just drain everyone's time."

It's such a tempting proposition - and one that each community has treated differently. Back when Marc Fleury ruled the roost, JBoss forums were notorious for their low tolerance of newbies who didn't RTFM - or so I've been told. At an Open Source community managers' meetup at OSCON, perhaps the most cogent statement on the subject came from someone whose name I've unfortunately forgotten: the first time someone asks a question, be very responsive; the next time, take slightly longer; the third time, even longer, and so on. The thinking is that this approach encourages users to think for themselves.

In fact, it's a lot like parenting. Reward good behavior; punish bad. Sure, you *can* go negative (yelling, physically punishing child) and reap the short-term benefits of immediate obeisance, but you may end up laying the groundwork for more work in the future. It's better to make sure good behavior is properly rewarded, thus giving all members a clear indication of what behaviors the community encourages and those they will not tolerate. Sure, as community manager, you can ex-communicate whomever you please, but that doesn't exactly set the tone of trust that you want the rest of the community members to feel. As Matt notes, it might lead others to conclude...

what would those other 95 percent think if they saw a community member--even an obnoxious one--dumped from the forums? That doesn't sound like the sort of community I'd want to join, where your voice is only valid if you happen to be singing in tune with everyone else.

The community manager's role is to make sure that no one becomes a nuisance, so that does require some active participation, but not outright antagonism. The challenge is to nurture a culture of respect, where users will naturally shun those who are potentially abusive. The community manager must actively set the tone and demonstrate the rules of engagement for others. Eventually, those who earn the "annoying" mark will either shape up or ship out.


havork said...

Very true and it doesn't just apply to open source communities but to all communities.

sjk said...

John, thanks for your thoughtful comments on what can be a complex, underacknowledged, and important (IMO) topic. I generally agree with you and also with havork, that this questioning can be broadly applicable to all communities. Pandora's box has been opened so my apologies for this lengthy feedback. :)

There's hardly a day when I'm not confronted with the issue of how to handle "perceived misbehavior" on some online community. The symptoms seem most similar and easily recognizable on larger public forums with a wide diversity of members with different ages, interests, skills, egos, etc.

Sometimes it's just a relatively minor irritation that only affects myself or a small minority. If it intolerably persists then simply leaving the group can be the most acceptable option rather than escalating the issue… unless, for instance, my participation is valued by other members. In that case I usually prefer trying to resolve the situation privately rather than risk making an unintended public spectacle of it. Yet …

I'm most comfortable participating in groups that function well with and sustain a mostly self-managed/policing policy where members do publicly speak up (infrequently), for the group's benefit, without being chastised if they feel someone's out-of-line and there's no intention of humiliation.

Hopefully there needn't be intervention from any specific "community manager" to resolve most conflicts and misbehaviors. Sometimes a public reminder to offenders of the acceptable boundaries of participation can be useful to the rest of the community. In certain cases a mutual acknowledgment of annoyances and nuisances seems one way to help sustain higher levels of group satisfaction.

I'll wrap up these directionless observations and opinions by mentioning that issues of reputation are another significant issue of personal consideration with [online] communities, as both a newcomer and veteran with varying degrees of participation. I'm overdue to launch my own blog and write more about that sort of thing. :)

John Mark said...


Thank you for taking the time to write down your well thought out comments. I appreciate it.

I admit that I basically self-select by participating in groups with a high signal to noise ratio. I have had experiences with not-so-friendly communities in the past, but it was easy to part ways on account of the fact that I was not too heavily involved. Luckily, none of the communities in which I've actively participated have been rancorous. I can only hope this proves to be true for a while longer :)

-John Mark