All posts by Evan Hamilton

Why Adding Friction Could Make Your Community Healthier

Slippery warning sign

For years, designers have been talking about making things “frictionless”. And for good reason: the web was full of a lot of friction. Signup flows were labyrinthine, uploading and storing files was a hassle, and let’s not even talk about sites that didn’t work on mobile.

But in community design, friction is coming into vogue. Why? Because making it frictionless to say the first thing on your mind can often be a bad thing.

One of the biggest recent examples of this is Nextdoor‘s racial profiling problem. Nextdoor allows members of a neighborhood to create an online community where they can talk about things happening in their neighborhood, trade items, and report crime and safety issues. And that last area is where the problems arose, because people with implicit biases started posting things like concerns about “‘light-skinned black female’ walking her dog and talking on her cellphone” and following up with horrifying comments like “I don’t recognize her. Has anyone described any suspect of crime like her?”

Often, these “suspicious characters” were simply neighbors who wouldn’t have been called out if not for the color of their skin. The posts were offensive, reinforced racial stereotypes, and also made it hard for police to sort out posts talking about actual crime.

Generally, community platforms try to deal with this by having clear guidelines and taking action after an offensive post goes up. But guidelines are often easily ignored, and taking a post down doesn’t lessen the negative impact it had. The most effective way to affect biased behavior like this is to add friction to make people stop and think while they’re taking an action.

Nextdoor has done an amazing job addressing this. As soon as you mention race in a Crime & Safety post, you are required to list additional, non-racial attributes. This, they explain, creates “decision points to get people to stop and think as they’re observing people to cut down on implicit bias.” The result? Racial profiling posts have dropped by 75%.

Nextdoor crime posting

Nextdoor isn’t new to friction. They require those launching neighborhoods on the platform to recruit a certain number of members in a certain period of time, and all members must prove residence. This means many neighborhoods never get off the ground…but also means they avoid empty, inactive communities that would make their service look bad. Stack Exchange does the same thing with new sites on their networks, requiring them to amass a certain amount of activity before they’re publicly launched.

Airbnb, faced with similar racial profiling issues, is taking a number of actions including requiring hosts take a pledge promising not to be biased. You might think a pledge won’t change people’s actions, but studies have found that students required to pledge to obey their school’s honor code were less likely to cheat – even if the school didn’t have an honor code.

Discourse and Product Hunt boldly put friction at the very start of their experience. You previously couldn’t comment on Product Hunt without an invite from an existing member, and the Discourse community platform allows you to set certain achievements (number of votes, number of comments, etc) that a member must hit before they can take greater actions. Over at Reddit, we don’t allow you to create a subreddit unless your account has a minimum level of karma and is at least 30 days old.

Metafilter literally added a payment to their sign up process not in order to make money, but purely to create friction that prevented casual sign-ups. They only wanted people who were truly invested.

It’s exciting to see community design start to step away from traditional (and generally sales-based) design. Too long community professionals have labored within inflexible platforms and struggled to react to issues rather than prevent them. Once we start putting thought into where we create or remove friction, we can build communities that are more successful, productive, and civil.

Full disclosure: I consulted for Nextdoor from 2015-2016, but did not work on the project(s) listed above.

Thank you to the Social Media Clarity podcast for their great work summarizing this trend!

Urgency and Prioritization

For the last two years or so, I’ve been playing with a prioritization trick I picked up somewhere: choose 3 top priorities (I’ve seen and used this both in a weekly and daily context), and don’t do anything else until you have done those.

It’s been reasonably successful, until now. Now, it is very successful. Why? Because now I have 2-7 weeks until my child is born and I take weeks of paternity leave. So literally, I may only have two weeks to finish whatever I’m going to do this quarter and develop my plan for the next. Suddenly, the idea of only accomplishing top tasks is not simply academic. It’s very, very literal.

This has made things that I thought were important seem pointless. If I got these done in the next two weeks and then took leave, it wouldn’t really matter. Sure, I want to review employee engagement results with my team…but that pales in comparison to addressing the overwork a few of them are dealing with. Sure, we need to map out a commitment curve for our community…but not more than I need to send out our monthly communication with them. Sure, I want to create an orientation doc for new hires…but if I don’t get those hires approved it won’t matter.

Certainly, those things still should probably get done. Some, like the onboarding, I clearly must delegate. Some, like the commitment curve, will hopefully bubble back up if they’re important (and I should probably schedule some time when I return to mull on big ideas like this). Some, like the survey results, just won’t happen. And it won’t ruin anything.

I have found myself incredibly productive and engaged knowing that I have two weeks to accomplish these things, and these are the things, and nothing else are the things. It’s an attitude I hope to bring back with me once I return to work. The new most important thing will be my kid, so prioritization will be more important than ever.

Trolling isn’t outlier behavior, and we can stop it

Large troll standing over a house

For years the picture painted of trolls was pretty straightforward: while most members of online communities are good people, there are a few horrible, unchangeable, malicious people called “trolls” who live to make everyone’s life terrible. Our job was to try to keep them out, ban them when they showed up, and sigh and accept that they were an inevitable part of any online community.

What has become clear is that we were wrong; most trolls are regular people.

Two recently released studies have shown that the majority of “troll” behavior is actually generated by normal people who have been triggered into acting negatively, usually through a combination of their own mental state (i.e. having a bad day) and social norms (e.g. seeing other people troll and get away with it).

  1. The famously toxic League of Legends found that only about 1% of their players were consistently toxic, and those produced only about 5% of the toxicity. “The vast majority was from the average person just having a bad day.”
  2. Scientists from Cornell and Stanford found that people are more likely to troll if they were in a negative mood, late at night, and if the first comment on a thread was a “troll comment”.

This is a game-changer for several reasons.

One, it means we may have been banning or punishing a large number of normal people who were just doing what they saw others doing. It’s likely that we only reinforced their negative behavior, rather than helping them adjust it.

Two, it means there’s a lot more we can do to prevent trolling. A recent experiment on Reddit found that rule posts stuck to the top of a thread increased rule following by 7.3 percentage points and increased newcomer participation by 38.1%. League of Legends found that some simple priming “reduced negative attitudes by 8.3%, verbal abuse by 6.2% and offensive language by 11%”. Some people are further down the rabbit hole of negativity, but even they may be saved. We are not helpless to decrease trolling, and continuing to act like we are is irresponsible.

(You can find my much longer post on ways to create positive online spaces here.)

Three, it means community managers are even more important in any organization that has an interactive online space. We are no longer just reactive janitors, apologizing for the mess. We can be proactive social designers. (Be sure to go seek out some behavioral psychology books and classes, folks.)

To me, this is extremely exciting. It means our online communities can become more positive, safe places. And it means that our work is far from done. Complacency happens in every industry. The community industry has finally started pushing through our complacency about ROI. Next, let’s tackle trolling.

It’s important that I note that these findings don’t mean there aren’t real, horrible people on the internet. It doesn’t mean we need to put up with harassment just because someone had a bad day. I’m not condoning bad behavior – I’m just optimistic that we can change much of it.

Troll photo courtesy of EE Shawn

The pros and cons of Slack for communities

Slack logoThese days, it’s rare to hear anything but awe when community managers talk about Slack. The common consensus seems to be that Slack is the perfect community platform. This overexcitement worries me because a) it’s not and b) different communities require different types of platforms.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Slack. I think it’s a fantastic tool for company communication (especially for companies with more than one office) and it can be a good tool for community. Let’s explore the pros and cons without the rose-colored glasses on.


Synchronous Activity Drives Engagement

Usually the biggest health metric community professionals are looking at is engagement: how much are members interacting with each other? And when you put people in a space at the exact same time, engagement increases. This is the reason meetups and conferences are such powerful experiences and why it can be harder to drive engagement on asynchronous forums. The #1 reason most community professionals like Slack for community is the live chat drives significant engagement.

Many People Know How to Use It

Any time you introduce people to a community, you have to deal with the learning curve for the platform. This is why so many communities are built in Facebook Groups, despite even more significant drawbacks; everyone knows how to use Facebook. The same is quickly becoming true of Slack. Many organizations use Slack, so for many, a Slack community doesn’t involve any learning curve.

The Opportunities for Onboarding are Excellent

Getting new community members to add a profile photo, introduce themselves, or read the community guidelines can be hard. Very few people look at intro threads or sidebar guidelines. Even an email onboarding campaign has to compete with all the other emails in your inbox. Slack, on the other hand, has demonstrated how live chat bots can drastically improve onboarding uptake. This is a huge boon for community professionals.


Synchronicity Leaves Out Some Populations

If you have an international community, putting them on Slack immediately decreases the likelihood that people from different time zones will interact, because Slack is all about in the moment.

FOMO Can Drive Disengagement

Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) is often a strong tool for communities. You log in to see what happened while you were gone and add your contributions. But because Slack rewards being active in the moment, it favors those who have the time, attention, and professional setting where they can sit on Slack all day. And because the synchronicity drives significant engagement, returning to “check in” once a day can be overwhelming. In order to create a truly engaged community, you need to create a shared experience. I’ve disengaged from several very interesting Slack groups simply because I can’t be on them very often and returning to catch up is an unpleasant task that doesn’t make me feel part of the group.

Lack of Scannability

On top of that, it’s much harder to scan a train-of-thought Slack discussion than it is to scan a list of distinct topics in a forum. (The new threaded replies may help some, but don’t solve the problem entirely.)  This also makes it hard to point others to useful discussions at a later time.


For many companies, the search engine optimization benefits of their community are huge, driving new membership, deflecting potential support tickets, and even converting customers. Slack conversations don’t show up in search engine results.

Separate From Your Site

Whether for branding purposes, consistency, or simple navigation, it can be beneficial to have your community embedded into your site. Slack is a separate space.


Again, this is not a hit piece on Slack. Slack is a fantastic tool and can be great for some communities. But it’s dangerous for us to talk about the pros of any platform without discussing the cons. Choosing a community platform is about making the right choice for your community and company.

So, if you don’t need SEO benefits, have a relatively small group of people who are at a computer all day, able to chat, and in the same time zone, Slack could be perfect for you. If you have an international audience that can only check in online occasionally and your business needs relevant conversations to show up in search results and be easily retrievable, Slack’s probably not the right choice. Write down your must-haves and see where Slack and the many other platforms out there fit.

PUFF: My guide to giving a successful talk


I’ve spent a lot of time around stages. Some of it on them; I’ve performed a few hundred shows as a musician and given professional talks a dozen or so times. But I’ve also selected and coached speakers for 5 conferences over the last 10 years. And I’ve learned a few things. Key among them is this:

smart person ≠ great speaker

Not by default, at least. But a lot of times we stick smart people on stage and expect them to blow minds and deliver great results. Which brings us to our second, perhaps more surprising point:

great speaker ≠ effective teacher

If the goal of the event is to entertain and wow people, then being a great speaker will work out fine for you. But if the goal of the event is to teach people things, then you need to be an effective teacher as well as a great speaker.

The number one complaint I’ve seen about conferences (aside from temperature) is that there weren’t enough practical talks. People will come back and buy tickets again (or buy your book, if you’re the speaker) if you teach them something. Simply wow-ing them probably isn’t enough.

Ideally, you leave people wowed, their minds expanded, and their skills improved.


Based on my speaking experiences and coaching around a hundred speakers, I’ve developed the following system for developing a great talk.






We’re going to go through it backwards. (Why? Because FFUP is not nearly as good an acronym).


Focusing a camera

Have a Thesis

So you want to do a talk about marketing. Are you Gary Vaynerchuk? Or Jay Baer? No? Then why would people care to listen to your talk on marketing? Why wouldn’t they just go to a conference where Gary or Jay are speaking? Or go online and watch a talk from one of the experts?

The key to a great talk is focus. You should have a thesis. Share something that hasn’t been shared before. Share something unique. Share something personal. Share something that will catch the eye.

Look at the titles of some of the talks I’ve done:

“Everyone’s Customers Are Wrong and Their Data Is Lying”

“Community Management ROI in 20 Minutes”

“Critical Issue Escalation: Our Process”

“Cultivating Your Community Garden”

These aren’t generic. They’re focused, sometimes surprising, and generally clear about what they’re going to teach you. I’m not Gary Vaynerchuk, so I can’t just go up on stage and wax on “community”. I have to focus.

So what are you passionate about? What do you uniquely know? What topic have you not seen represented at other conferences? These questions will help you find your focus. Nobody comes to a conference for a 101 “intro to” talk – they can find those resources online. They come for your unique, well-delivered perspective.

Drop Everything Extraneous

Inevitably, you’ll be collecting thoughts and come across a great story or lesson or idea that is extraneous to your thesis. Drop it. Period.

The problem with this information is that it’s not a bonus feature. It’s a distraction. It makes people wonder how it relates to the thesis or if they’re missing something or if you are missing something. It’s not worth including.

Personally, I like to write down everything I know related to my thesis in very simple form and then cut out the things that don’t seem to fit. Recently I did this with sticky notes and it gave me an even more visual way to keep things focused.

Have Your Audience in Mind

It doesn’t matter how amazing your talk is if it isn’t helping your audience. What do you know about them? What can the event organizer tell you? What might they already know? What do they want to know? Ask all these questions as you figure out where to put your focus.


chalkboard in frame


A great talk isn’t worth anything if the audience can’t remember and repeat it. You are trying to make them come away feeling smarter. Your goal should be to communicate your thesis so clearly that the audience can explain it to their mom. 

This is very different from simply communicating the concept – this is about framing in a way that people can understand, repeat, and apply.

Framing Tools

Framing tools are key here; it’s hard for most of us to absorb a bunch of words. Books have chapters, titles, paragraphs, emphasis, etc so that they’re more absorbable. For your presentation, you’ll want to heavily uses frames like charts, images, acronyms (PUFF, anyone?), and the like.

Some of my favorite framing devices I encountered during my time at CMX:

The SPACE Model: Support Product Acquisition Content Engagement
SPACE is both a memorable acronym but also a descriptive one that allows for visuals to enhance your memory of it.
The CMX Community Engagement Cycle
The Community Engagement Cycle is something you can easily sketch on a piece of paper, making it an invaluable tool to walk away from a workshop with. Plus the icons help you immediately understand each phase.
The Community Commitment Curve
The Commitment Curve isn’t so much revolutionary as a great way to visualize something that you may already roughly understand. I’ve landed consulting gigs almost purely on showing them this – it makes the concept of community concrete.


My friend Shira Levine’s “Shiramyd” is super-goofy, but you ain’t gonna forget it.
The Community Strategy Canvas
The canvas here is probably the weakest image in this batch; it doesn’t have an acronym or a visual analogy. But it’s still more useful than a bunch of bullet points – it gives shape to a concept.

Although some framing tools can be more effective than others, any sort of frame will be better than simply explaining the concept.


The best way to ensure your audience is actually retaining the knowledge you’re sharing is by leading exercises. This might not always be completely possible in a conference setting, but there are a lot of ways you can handle this (in order of increasing complexity);

  • Asking the audience to repeat a concept you shared (“So, what is PUFF again?”)
  • Asking an audience member to answer a question using what you just taught them (“Choosing your thesis is part of which section of PUFF?”)
  • Asking the audience for examples (“What are some examples of framing devices you’ve seen used in a talk?”)
  • Splitting the audience into groups and having them do the first step of the lesson you’re teaching them (“Take this concept and develop a frame for it”)

It’s important for these sort of projects that you don’t try to have them complete every step of your program/concept – give them an initial step that helps them understand and feel confident about the subject.


confident dog

Physically Prepared

Presenting can be nerve-wracking. I’ve been on stage many, many times and I can still get nervous. The first step to avoiding this is preparing your body.

One way to do this is develop a ritual that helps you feel more confident. For some people this might be blasting a Beyoncé song. For others it might be doing some jumping jacks. For others it might be deep breaths.

That said, it’s important to remember that stress is actually good for you. It’s your body preparing for action, so don’t stress out when you feel your heart rate increase. It’ll pass once you’re in the groove, so just thank your body and let the adrenaline flow.

Mentally Prepared

Unflappable doesn’t mean inflexible. So you need to be prepared for curveballs, because they will come. And there’s nothing worse than delivering a great talk and then getting skewered in the Q&A. (It’s definitely happened to me!)

Do your presentation for coworkers. Do it for friends. Do it for your mom. Then see what questions they have. You have the Curse of Knowledge. They don’t know what you know, so they’ll undoubtably show you where the gaps in your presentation are or what questions you need to be prepared to answer during Q&A.

Still nervous? Picture the experience. The most nerve-wracking thing is something unexpected, so look at pictures of the stage, find out where the screen is going to be, find out if there’s a slide remote (and get one if they don’t have one) – eliminate all the unknowns you can.

Starting Strong

All the prep in the world won’t help if you start your presentation badly. So prepare yourself for a strong start.

The way you present yourself before you share any information will color how people accept that information. You don’t want to wander on to the stage, staring at the ground, loudly clearing your throat and shuffling through messy handheld notes, and then dive into your presentation without saying hello.

Be confident, whatever that means to you. It might be impossible for you to bound onstage with smiles and handshakes like some speakers. If that’s not you, don’t do it. I like to throw out a goofy joke (something self-deprecating or ridiculous). For you, maybe it’s actually nervous excitement – channeling this into an intentional style is better than awkwardly fighting it. I love Liz Milch’s fun, goofy intro in this CMX Summit talk.

Context is crucial. You need to ensure that your audience understands exactly what it is you’re going to be teaching them. Otherwise, the experience will be like wandering into a biology class in college halfway into the lecture: confusing and pointless.

Stick with that old gem: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. Just like in advertising, the more you repeat, the more likely they’ll remember it.

Set the stage for why people should be listening to you. This doesn’t mean 5 minutes of your bio (please don’t do that), but means touching on your relevant experience and perspective. That latter point is important. Unless you have a really impressive resume, you need to convince them that you are going to be relevant to speak about this topic. So that might be “I’ve been fascinated by this topic and taking notes on it for years” or “I had this special opportunity to discover this unique take”.

You can also drop examples from your work into the lessons you’re teaching, further emphasizing that you actually know this stuff and aren’t making it up.

Lastly, don’t let this section scare you! Screw-ups are ok, and they happen to everyone. Most speakers are nervous. It’s how you handle nervousness, or errors, or unexpected curveballs. If you screw up, move on very quickly or laugh at yourself. Don’t apologize – you’re just making an awkward moment more awkward. If you’re not super-confident onstage, don’t try to overdo it – just make your flaws an endearing part of your presentation. If something breaks, don’t complain about it or point it out, just roll with it.


swimmer in a lake

Actual Practice

“Duh, Evan. Of course I need to practice.”

Sure, but there’s practice and then there’s actual practice. Mouthing your talk while flipping through slides on the train is not actual practice.

Instead, you should stand up, speak loudly, hide your speaker notes, and practice as if you were on stage. Then record video of it, and watch it. Then do it again. Yep, it’s gonna be painful.

When you actually practice you’ll suddenly realize sections you added are way too wordy. You’ll realize you don’t know what to do with your hands. Or that you’re staring at the floor. Or that your talk is 10 minutes longer or shorter than it needs to be!

Memorize Beats, Not Lines

One of my favorite speaking tips comes from The Moth. It’s pretty simple: if you memorize (or worse yet, read) lines on stage, you’ll have very little energy and won’t connect with the audience. In a professional setting, it also comes across as a lack of knowledge about the subject. (If you know it, why do you have to memorize the exact lines or read off a piece of paper?) Instead, memorize the beats.

This has an added advantage if you run into any issues. If technical issues crop up, you can continue without your slides. If something unexpected happens (someone drops something loud in the back of the room, you drop the mic, etc), you don’t have to remember exactly what line you were on.

I have a painful, distinct memory of a talk a number of years ago where the presentation computer kept auto-advancing my slides. In fact, you can watch it. I am incredibly awkward until, finally, they just turn off the slides. And then? Suddenly, I’m confident and knowledgable. I had memorized the beats…I was just relying too much on the slides. Your slides should supplement the beats that you know by heart.


Most people think they can’t speak professionally. They have a lot of arguments: I’m not as knowledgable as those people on stage, I’m not as charismatic, I’m not experienced in teaching, I don’t have fancy graphs, etc.

This is all surmountable.

You have some unique thesis that nobody else can present as well as you.

You have your own style you can embrace and polish.

You can frame your learnings with something as simple as an acronym.

You can become a great presenter. You just have to work hard, believe in yourself, and PUFF.


Leadership is letting your team fail (safely)

“This is a bad post. Let’s delete it.”

My brain wasn’t wrong. It didn’t seem like a great post to me, based on my years of experience with content. But I kept my mouth shut. I let the post stay up. And, unsurprisingly, it failed.

Why did I do this? Because it’s way more convincing to learn from mistakes than from decrees.

Failure is Part of Learning

Think about your adolescence. Did you believe everything adults said, without question? No. You tried things on your own. You had crushing failures and exhilarating successes. You learned what did and didn’t work. You realized the world is relative and that you had to build your own system for navigating it. And hopefully your parents emphasized the right advice and rules: the ones that kept you alive while still allowing you to build your own personal spectrum of successes and failures. Too many rules leave you oppressed; too few leave you dead.

Failure is Part of Innovation

The professional world is no different. There are some hard lines, but not as many as you think; many of the major successes of the last few generations were due to bucking the status quo. It’s hard to argue with an employee that success is following the rules when Zuckerberg didn’t and is now worth 50 billion.

So how does one manage the business equivalent of a rebellious teenager? By letting them fail safely.

Too Much Freedom

I was managing a team of relative newbies, and our new project was content creation. They were fantastic at support, incredibly smart, and very empathetic – but they didn’t have a deep background in engaging content. I wanted to be the “cool boss” without too many rules, so I simply said: “Be creative.”

I told them to “think outside of the box.” I told them “there are no bad ideas.”

They came back with nothing.

Too Little Freedom

So I gave them more structure. I gave them brand guidelines and lots of examples. And they started to deliver! They had a direction to aim for, and so they moved.

Not all of it was good, of course. Some, to my trained eye, simply weren’t going to perform. At first, I said no to that content. But I immediately saw morale drop. They wanted to be creative – hell, that’s what I had asked of them – but I wasn’t letting them take risks. They trusted me, but they weren’t learning anything aside from my opinions. And it’s hard to get excited when you’re not learning.

Just Right

So I started saying yes. But I approved a lot of content I knew wasn’t going to perform. And? Most of the time, it didn’t perform. But the team was still excited and motivated.

Here’s the difference: They had been given the chance to experiment and see the actual result. They were much less likely to choose similar content again, because they knew firsthand what would happen. And they continued to be creative, because I gave them the freedom to.

By the end of my tenure, they were a content creation machine and could spot a high-quality piece of content from a mile away. Only occasionally did I have to weigh in, and often I was wrong!

As managers, it’s tempting to enforce rules and try to control people. We want a result, and the only way we know how to get it is by being in control. But this neither creates engaged employees nor scales.

Good managers give their team enough rules to avoid disaster and enough room to try, fail, and learn.

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.


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.)


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?


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.


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!