Two Causes of Toxic Online Spaces (and some solutions)

This is adapted from my talk at Bridge Keepers.

speeding cars

Have you ever gone over the speed limit?

Probably. In an observational study, 7 out of 10 drivers sped in an urban area. At some point, you were likely part of that 7.

Have you heard of how toxic the community for the game League of Legends is? Legendary. (Pun intended.) And you would expect that this is mainly generated by a bunch of bad actors. But it turns out only about 5% of negativity came from trolls – the rest came from normal folks “having a bad day”.

So what is it that causes relatively normal people to behave so badly?

I think there are two major things at play: Normalization and Lack of Punishment.

Normalization

We like to think that we are individuals, unaffected by others. But it’s just not true.

The amazing researcher Dan Ariely (author of one of my favorite books) did a study in which he found that people would change their choice of beer at a brewery based on what the person before them ordered. If that person ordered what they were planning on ordering, they changed their order.

That’s kind of insane. If you want one type of beer, why order a different type? Well, because there’s a norm at play that we should achieve variety to better know what options we have, and our brain automatically kicks in. Even though, as found in the study, people who make these group-motivated choices are generally unhappier with the result.

What I’m saying is: Observing others’ behavior actually changes ours.

Which means if we see someone tweet something this horrible…

Tweet from Milo Yiannopoulos offensive tweet: There's a new feminist Barbie. When you pull the string it says "Math is hard, let's lie about rape."

…then we think this tweet must be acceptable, because at least it’s a joke! Right? Right??

Offensive tweet: A lesbian, an alcoholic, and a heavily sedated woman walks into a bar. The bartender asks, "What'll you have, Hillary?"

Types of Norms

There are two types of norms.

 Injunctive norms are basically rules.

 Descriptive norms are the norms we understand from our interactions with others or the actual reality we see in the world around us.

Going back to the speeding example: We all know that speeding is illegal. And we know what the rules are. But the descriptive norm is “eh, it’s ok to speed a little bit”. So we do it without thinking of ourselves as criminals.

ivy covering a building

The problem with this is that norms are like ivy. Once they’re firmly rooted, they’re very hard to change.

So, how do we create positive norms?

Clear Guidelines

Obvious, but bears repeating. Your community needs to have guidelines, and they should be:

1. Simple. If they’re complex, nobody will bother reading them.

2. In-line. Nobody is going out of their way to find your rules. Put them in-line where possible. Many subreddits do a great job of this:

Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 8.29.09 PM

3. General. If your rules are too specific people won’t bother spending the time understanding what they can and can’t do. (And bad actors may try to find a way to technically obey the rules while causing trouble.)

Consistently Applied Guidelines

Studies show that people are much more likely to obey the rules if they’re consistently applied. This means:

1. Train, train, train your team. Being consistent is hard. You should drill, review past moderations together, do flashcards, whatever you need to do to get consistent across your whole org.

2. Create awareness of implicit bias. None of us wants to think we’re biased, but as shown in the beer experiment above, we often are without even realizing it. And when we are rule enforcers, this can be really problematic. There’s immense evidence that police are biased, and that’s something that has very serious consequences. Are these police racist? No, they’re just operating off biases they may not realize they have. There are plenty of great orgs that help teams work on realizing what implicit biases they have. (A few that have been recommended to me: Paradigm, Project Include, Women’s Leadership Institute.)

Self-Moderation

I think this is one of the most criminally underrated set of tools for driving specific behavior.

1. Display true norm rates. People adjust their habits when they see how others behave (like these college students that drank less once they saw the average number of drinks their peers were drinking).

2. Prime people. Putting people in the right mindset can be incredibly effective. League of Legends found that simply displaying messages before a game (like “Players perform better if you give them constructive feedback after a mistake”) they decreased bad behavior by 11%.

3. Add friction. We are obsessed in the tech world with “frictionless” experiences. But if someone’s action may negative affect dozens, hundreds, millions of people? A little friction can be good. Nextdoor added some additional steps you have to take before posting about suspicious people on their platform, and racial profiling dropped by 75%.

Bad news, though…Guidelines backfire if behavior doesn’t match.

coffee-987119_1920 (1)

The more litter we see? The more likely we are to litter.

The more we see rule breakers unpunished? The more likely we are to break rules.

Rules are not effective if they’re not enforced.

Especially if there’s a big benefit to breaking the rules. After all, if:

  • Attention is the goal

  • And negativity generates attention

  • And punishment is rare…

…why would you stop? Especially if you can get a book deal from being horrible?

This is the Tragedy of the Commons.

We all know the world would be better if we all obey the rules. But if you personally gain benefit from you personally breaking the rules, you may do it at the expense of others.

Certainty of Punishment

So how do you make these guidelines affective? Create certainty of punishment. If punishment is unlikely, you will continue offending.

The death penalty? Doesn’t look like it actually decreases crimes. Because even though it’s a severe punishment, you’re unlikely to get caught and unlikely to be given this sentence.

Blood alcohol checkpoints? Very effective at decreasing drinking and driving. Because you’re very likely to be caught and punished.

So, how do we create certainty of punishment?

Automation

This is the baseline stuff you should be doing.

1. Blacklist words. Anyone using unacceptable words should automatically be penalized.

2. Spot suspicious behavior. Multiple posts in a short period of time? Similar posts across sub-forums? Shut it down automatically.

Flagging

User flagging is a key tool in the fight against negative behavior. Your users are on the front line and they will always be faster than your team.

1. Make it prevalent. This functionality should be really easy to find, always.

2. Create specific flows. People often struggle with flagging because so many things get flagged that they get overwhelmed. Consider more complex flows depending on what flag was thrown. Marked as annoying? Deprioritize? Marked as racist? Prioritize. Marked as “bugs me”? Implement a clever self-resolution flow like Greater Good and Facebook did.

Reputation Systems

Treat repeat offenders differently. Go pick up Building Web Reputation Systems and figure out what’s best for you.

1. Create visibility thresholds. Have repeat offenders’ posts be less visible to others (which really hurts their desire for attention). Or require people to get special flags to show up to general audiences, like Kinja did.

2. Have reputation affect flag weight. If a repeat offender’s post gets a single flag, weigh that more heavily than a single flag on a good actor’s post.

The punchline: Investing in moderation now saves money later.

I know it’s hard to prioritize spending for moderation, especially when you’re starting out. But “we’ll deal with that issue if it comes up” and “I’m sure people will behave” clearly don’t bear out. And if you wait until you have truly toxic norms and lack of certainty of punishment, it’s going to be way more costly.

Let’s go back to that ivy example. Have you seen what walls look like after you laboriously remove the ivy?

ivy suckers left on wall

You have to sand those suckers off and repaint.

The equivalent for communities? A whole lot of messaging, a whole lot of banning, and a whole lot of complaints until a new norm is established. Just ask Reddit.


 

A few notes…

Much of the research here is taking from the hard-to-read but incredibly valuable “Building Successful Online Communities”.

Although I have 10 years of experience in the world of community, I am not an expert at moderation or trust & safety. I’m sure I missed things or mischaracterized things. I would love to hear your insights in the comments!

 

Always a CMXer

Earlier this year, I got to do something I’ve always wanted to do. I got to join a company I love and admire and work with friends.

I’m incredibly proud of my year at CMX.

When I joined, there was a legacy of great CMX Summits and CMX Series events but not a lot of process and structure. The team was expanding into new areas (like their amazing training course) and we all agreed that CMX Summit needed to become a more efficient machine and CMX Series needed an actual strategic plan.

Evan Hamilton CMX Summit

Since then I’ve run two CMX Summit conferences, greatly improved the documentation and processes around them, and added a bunch of additional creative elements I was excited about (lightning talks, spaces for introverts, more networking opportunities, tracks, improved breakout sessions, and even a marching band). I developed an in-depth plan for expanding CMX Series and helped with the process of hiring someone to run it, which is just one of the things I’m really excited to see from CMX in 2017.

I’ve accomplished the goals we set out when I joined, and it’s time to pass the torch. CMX has the pieces in place to take the company to the next level. The next step is focus. I’m really excited about the team they’ll be hiring, which will give them not just more hands on deck but deeper skills and energy in specific areas. There is so much more CMX will do, and I can’t wait to see them pull it off in 2017.

I’m wrapping up my time as an employee but I’ll always be a member of the CMX community. I’ve been to all but one CMX Summit (Someday I’ll beat your record, Tim Falls!) and been a member of the community since the beginning. Getting to be part of building CMX bigger and brighter has been a dream come true. Now I’m incredibly excited to participate in the CMX community without having to check my spreadsheets and clipboards.

What’s next for me?

I’m excited to move on to my next community adventure, and to bring with me everything I learned from being deeply involved in the hub of the industry. I’ll spend the first part of the year consulting with as many companies as possible, helping spread the gospel of community and implement all the strategies and tactics that this year has added to my playbook. Later in the year, I’d like to find my next long-term home, a company that wants to invest deeply in community and customers, where I can lead a team and generate win-wins between company, customers, and employees.

If you’re interested in working with me as a consultant, check out my new consulting page. If you have a full-time opportunity that you think might be a fit, get in touch. You can find more info about my experience on LinkedIn.

Thank you to everyone who made this a spectacular year. David and Carrie at CMX, who taught me so much. The CMX community, for your endless contributions to our cause. The CMX speakers, who generously donated their time and let me soak up their lessons. All of my friends and colleagues who helped make connections and offer advice.

I will always be a CMXer, and I can’t wait to join you in more adventures!

My month of giving back

Creating a conference means asking a lot of favors. Over this past year I’ve asked people to speak, asked people for introductions, asked people to volunteer, even asked people to join me in a crazy marching band. Thankfully, I have an amazing network of fantastic colleagues, friends, and even relative strangers who helped me create two wonderful conference experiences this year.

So now it’s time for me to give back.

Since it’s the season of giving, I’m giving you all as much of my attention as possible this month. Want to grab a coffee or hop on Google Hangouts to discuss your challenges as a community professional? Done. Want to get my advice on how to use community to drive your business to the next level? Let’s schedule some time. Need an extra hand (or a weird marching band) at your event? Sign me up.Need a connection to someone? I’ll do my best. Feeling totally burnt out and stressed and concerned about the future? I’m super-good at listening, let’s talk.

I rely on my network, so I now want to make sure I’m giving back to you. Whether we know each other well, haven’t spoken in years, or are even complete strangers, I’m here for you.

Drop me a line at evan at evanhamilton dot com and let’s connect!

My AMA with Bassey Etim, Community Desk Editor at The New York Times

Last week I had the pleasure of hosting an AMA with the very smart, very pleasant Community Desk Editor at The New York Times, Bassey Etim. Taking questions from me and the crowd, Bassey mulled on building moderation teams, the future of journalism, and getting buy-in from coworkers.

(Feel free to skip the first minute, which is mostly me getting set up in Blab and waiting for Bassey to call in.)

Bassey is speaking alongside folks from Etsy, Spark Capital, Genius, and Pure House at CMX Summit East, which I’m organizing!

My interview on Community Signal

Last month I had the great pleasure of being on Patrick O’Keefe’s Community Signal podcast. I’ve been a big fan of Patrick’s excellent blogging on community for some time, and his podcast has maintained that high level of quality.

Patrick did excellent prep and obviously knows his stuff, so I think he really got one of the best interviews of my career out of me. We touch on retention, volunteer management, legality of community members doing free work, the reddit revolution, free speech, choosing the right company to work for, and more.

Listen to the podcast here.

I’m joining CMX!

Evan Hamilton speaking at CMX East 2015
Me speaking at CMX East 2015.

I’ve been consulting for the last couple of months, because I wanted to find the right fit for my next full-time position. I wanted to find a company that could be home, where I could feel supported but also challenged, where I could feel respected but be constantly learning, where I could care about the product, where the founders truly understood and valued community.

And so, I’m incredibly pleased to announce I’ll be joining the team over at CMX Media as Director of Community! I’ve been a huge fan of the work that David Spinks has been doing in the community space for years. I’ve been to all but one CMX Summit (and spoke in NYC last year), many of their meetups, and recently discovered I am the top contributor on their fantastic Facebook group.

Their mission of advancing the community industry is one that is very close to my heart (I’ve literally been hosting my community manager meetup for 5 years). So I was over the moon when David and Carrie asked me to join the team. I highly respect both of them and can’t wait to learn from them on an everyday basis (plus, they’re a ton of fun to be around). And I’m excited to take a break from larger startups and get my hands dirty at a small company once again.

I’ll be transitioning into this full-time role over the next few months as I wrap up my consulting contracts. My initial focus will be making CMX Summit East 2016 the best Summit yet (A tall order!), and gradually I’ll start focusing on the CMX Series events, the Facebook group, and any other way I can think of to connect those in our industry and push it forward. I’ll need your help! Either in the comments here, via email (evan at cmxhub dot com), or via Twitter/LinkedIn, let me know what you want to see from CMX. David and Carrie have created an amazing community, but all three of us have a lot more we want to do, and your voices are a crucial part of that process.

I look forward to interacting with you all even more than I do now! See you soon. :)


Notes:

Community Manager Breakfast, my newsletter, and this blog will continue operating independent of CMX.

If you were interested in working with me on a consulting basis: I will still be available for consulting alongside the super-talented CMX team, so please do still drop me a line.

Looking back on 5 years of Community Manager Breakfast

According to my records, I’ve been hosting Community Manager Breakfast for five years. Wow. That’s a long time, especially in the world of startups! With that in mind, and in honor of today’s Community Manager Appreciation Day celebration, I decided to mull over the changes I’ve seen since I first launched this little meetup back in 2011.

1) We’re less focused on social media.

That’s huge. When I first started in community management, it was clear that social media was going to be “a thing”. And we all wanted to be part of it. But it wasn’t 100% clear how it fit in with community management. For a moment, we seemed to toy with being content creators, garnering likes and retweets. We had a lot of big discussions around social media during those early breakfasts. But gradually something became clear: social media was a great tool for engaging an audience, but not always a great tool for connecting people to each other. And as many of those channels become increasingly noisy and broadcast-focused, I am glad we didn’t hitch our success to them.

2) Individual specializations are starting to develop within community management.

Five years ago, community managers did a lot of things…but not in a good way. We often were the first marketer, the website copy writer, the office manager, the customer support rep, etc. These days we’re increasingly being actually hired to do what we do: bring people together. And this means we can start to specialize within that general focus. Now we see developer evangelists, event organizers, open source facilitators, support community managers, and more. This gives our discipline more depth and more directions for practitioners to grow in.

3) We’re formalizing our practice.

While five years ago we were merely seeking to bring some sense and definition to community management, now we’re focusing on formalizing, documenting, and improving it. While it’ll forever develop and change and improve, we now are starting to see things like the commitment curve providing repeatable structures that we can build off of, rather than always starting from scratch.

4) Community managers were and are great people.

I’m so lucky to have met every single person who has come to breakfast and for all the support you’ve given me over the years. I’ve met so many of you that, to my great embarrassment, I can’t always remember everyone’s name! But please know next time you see me: I think you’re great, I thank you for coming, and remind me of your name and we’ll have an awesome conversation. :)


Here’s to another five years of breakfasts! Hope to see you at one if you’re in SF or NYC!

Nobody seems to own retention. Let’s take it on.

The other day I ran across Bill Johnston’s analysis of a report on customer lifecycle marketing. Next time I see Bill, I’m going to have to buy him a drink, because he’s spot on.

Here are the basic punchlines:

  • Customer lifecycle marketing is one of the hot new things. It’s simple: Instead of thinking about customers just when you’re trying to woo them, think about customers throughout their whole lifecycle with your company.
  • Retention is a HUGE part of that.
  • …but nobody seems to own retention.

This is where community professionals come in.

I’ve long argued that community-building is uniquely suited to focus on retention. What other practice emphasizes long-term gains, engagement, satisfaction, and return business as heavily? None I can think of. There are oodles of professionals focused on acquiring customers, but very few focused on retaining them.

Community professionals should own retention.

Not help out. Not advise. Own. We are the best people to do this, and it gives us a seat at the table that “helping with acquisition” or “decreasing support costs” or “making people happy” doesn’t.

Ask around. Who owns retention at your company? Likely, nobody. Take it on. Do cohort retention analysis. Ask people why they unsubscribe. Plaster “retention” on your cubicle, because this is your chance to make a huge difference, get the attention you deserve, and build some wins for company and customers.

It’s not the big stuff that destroys trust

We like to highlight the big screwups companies make. Perhaps it’s so we can learn from their mistakes. Perhaps it’s relief that it wasn’t us. Perhaps we just can’t imagine how such a big foul-up could happen.

But honestly? Most of the time it’s the little stuff adding up that hurts a company the most.

The bad customer support interactions, the interrupted service with no communication, the extra charge that takes you 30 minutes on the phone to resolve, the advertisements the company sends you even though you’re already signed up for their service. It all builds, creating a consistently negative perception of the company much deeper than that created by a one-off faux pas.

Then the new guy comes along. He has lower rates, looks great, and when you talk to him on the phone he’s incredibly helpful.

Even if the experience once you sign up might be just as bad as with the old guy, you’re comparing the so-far great new guy to the mental list of all the lame things the old guy did. And then: “What? 50% off my first month? And it’s really easy to switch?” It’s all over at that point.

Sure, have crisis plans and avoid massive screwups. But worry less about the giant disasters. Worry more about death by a thousand papercuts.