Sunday, December 30, 2007

So you want to be a benevolent dictator: rules for running a virtual community

I have recently attended an interesting discussion about virtual community management. It made me think about communities, their rules and their users, hence this blog post. It is based on my experiences with being a member of and running virtual communities since 1992 (for more details about my tech past, see my previous blog post).

The relationship between users and administrators in a virtual community is a tricky one. On one hand, absolute power rests with the administrators; on the other hand, the users invest their time, add value to the community and demand a stake in the way it's been run. It is a tricky situation and one of the common pitfalls of any virtual community. The balance is delicate; one step over the line by any party is sure to damage trust and bring quarrels to the community. What can an administrator do to avoid the problem?

The first thing to keep in mind is that the community = the users, plain and simple. Yes, the work done by the administrators is valuable; but you can have a community without administrators (albeit a chaotic one) - however, without the users, there is NO community.

The second thing to remember is the power disparity. The users know that they have little to no actual power - they cannot click on someone and ban them, for example , but have to plead their case before the administratorss. While the users know this, they hate to be reminded of this. It's the same in real life: the police COULD, in theory, throw you in jail even if you are innocent; but we do our best to forget this and count on the legal system to help us in that case.

The third thing is planning ahead. Like Wayne Gretzky said - "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it is." Some decisions might seem like a good idea at the time, but might not be in the long run. It's the same in business: once the company crosses a certain size threshold, it is better to do things following a set process. Yes, it might take a bit more time compared to a gung-ho, quick-fix solution; but the extra time buys you predictability and enables easier connections among co-workers and departments - or among community members.

So, based on this, what can we extrapolate?

1. The opinion of the users should be more important than the opinion of the administrators

In order to tip the scales toward the users, their opinions should matter more than the administrators'. That does not mean that the administrators should do anything the users say; but it means that in a regular discussion, it is the administrator who should gracefully bow out of the conversation - even if it is to "agree to disagree".

2. The administrators should lay down clear rules and follow them.

While there should be some latitude allowed for the users, there should be none for the administrators. Think of the example with the police: if random innocent people would be detained and the law system would not work in their favour, would you feel safe? The belief that the same laws hold true for everybody - policeman or not, administrator or not - fosters trust and a feeling of safety. Remember the importance of safety in Maslow's hierarchy; only when we are feeling safe can we satisfy our needs for belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization - which is what communities are all about.

A virtual community is an intangible thing; in the absence of face-to-face inputs, a framework of clear rules allows the users to fit in more easily and conduct themselves with more assurance.

Again: this does not mean exclusion of common sense. Balancing common sense with adherence to the rules is another challenge for the community administrators.

3. A muti-tiered system of management is preferable

As in real life, with the CEO and the board of directors, community administrators should be divided into two groups. The first one - the administrators - sets the rules and takes care for the technical side. The second group - the moderators - runs the community based on those rules. Administrators themselves should "keep their hands clean" - not enter into arguments with users, nor ban users unless a moderator requests it. Another option that I have not yet witnessed in a virtual community is a three-tiered system: the admins, the moderators, and the dispute resolution section. This probably sounds very familiar, and it should. Most probably, it is the way your country is run - with a body that makes the laws, a body that rules based on that laws and the courts to decide when laws have been broken.

Of course, the problem of selecting moderators is a complex one and a blog post in its own right. Based on my experience, many systems work. Perhaps the best one was used on the old FidoNet network where the moderators would be elected by the users. It demands more from both the users and the administrators, however the sense of joint participation in community more than makes up for it.

4. The administrator should NEVER get into an argument with a user

This rule seems very obvious and simple, but is almost never followed. Engaging in flame wars damages reputation and undermines trust. The fact is that the users will have more fun in a community than the administrators; it is, as I have said earlier, their community after all. Leadership is not a magic fun-ride - it's tough work that demands sacrifices. They must lead by example - be the most courteous, the most attentive to other's needs, the most willing to understand another's point of view and least affected by emotions.

5. The disciplinary actions should be public

While this may seem like an additional punishment for the offending user, it is actually quite effective in preventing misbehavior. But that is just a useful side-effect - the main benefit of having a public list of disciplinary actions is for the users to keep tabs on the administrators. It forces the administrators into explaining their actions and thus into following the rules more closely.

6. Users should be involved in rule changes and strategic decisions

Blindingly obvious, but included for completeness' sake.

7. Admit mistakes and learn from them

Everybody makes mistakes - in communities and in real life. If we admit them and how we deal with them is what defines us as a human being and evaluates our capacity for management. This does not mean that in every dispute, you should give way; but you should define guidelines on what constitutes a mistake (say, a vote by the users; or more than X posts by Y users on the subject) and adhere by them. It is perfectly fine for a community to have one or more smart alecks that know everything and can not be budged; but it is potentially very destructive when the smart aleck is in charge.


Zis is Fun said...

Also, give your users ability to express themselves, otherwise they'll have to do it in other places.

Even if you just have "Other/chit-chat" section

IYan Writer said...

I totally agree. This is also valid for business user communities - you have to give users a place to talk about other stuff than work, to promote community bonding.

Galatea said...

Question for you: how do you deal with a situation when, even though the rules are laid down and being followed, one user insists on loudly proclaiming that they're being violated? I'll use a hypothetical example: I run a sim, and a user in the sim built a house shaped like a trapezoid. Now, there's no rule in the covenant saying you can't build a house shaped like a trapezoid, but there's no rule saying you can, either. The covenant is entirely mute on the subject of trapezoidal houses. I think most people would agree that no rule of the covenant has been violated. However, one user insists that the covenant is being violated. When asked to point to what rule is being violated (repeatedly), they never point it out, but loudly ask the first user to point to the rule authorizing the building of trapezoidal houses, and since there's no specific rule for that, considers himself proven right by the inability to point to such a rule. This turns the covenant, essentially the law of the land, on its head: instead of being allowed to do something unless it's forbidden, he insists we're forbidden to do anything unless it's specifically allowed. Not only is this a rather totalitarian view of how the law should be viewed, but it's clearly wrong -- it's understood by everyone that no rule in the covenant has been violated, the accuser himself refuses when asked to point out which rule has been violated (he can't, because there isn't one), but still insists the rules have been violated and engages in the handwaving above.

I understand that getting into arguments with users is not a good idea, but when a user continually insists on publicly engaging in slander, claiming something that's clearly not true to be so, what are you supposed to do? Just nod and say, "Yes, you're right." even though they're clearly not? Allow one user to hijack the law, the very thing they claim is important to follow, by inventing new rules that aren't in the constitution but that user wishes were there?

We've been considering ways for users to propose and ratify amendments, which would do a lot for allowing users to add rules they think should be there when they aren't. But what do you do about the user who continues to slander you in public for violating the rule that isn't there to be violated, without appearing to be arguing with that user, particularly when that user refuses to budge from that view, no matter how obviously factually wrong it is?

You're long on advice on how to try to avoid these conflicts, but your advice doesn't include any on how to deal with the user who clearly is the one in the wrong, but won't admit it. Clearly, allowing them to commit public slander isn't the answer, but doing anything else seems to violate the "don't argue with the user" rule, so what is one to do?

IYan Writer said...

Hi, Galatea!

I agree that specific action can (and usually is) problematic. But my post was more about basic community administration principles than specific actions.

So, I really cannot answer your question - except by saying that it is my honest opinion that if the rules from the post are followed when dealing with a problematic individual, I believe the outcome will be as close to optimal as possible.

Natsumi said...


The solution to your specific example is simple.

Anything not specifically disallowed by the covenant should be allowed.

Problem solved! See how easy? ;)


IYan Writer said...

Hi Natsumi,

agreed - that is the same principle that is valid in RL.

Robbie Kiama said...

Must agree that if this is not disallowed, then it is allowed.

but on the other hand you cannot disallow everything - there sometimes just must be a common sense factor. I once read Googles corporate rules of condutc for their employees - and there were many rules what you can and what you can't do, but then even they had this "Common sense" point, because you really can't write down everything :)