Category Archives: Community

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.

Pros

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.

Cons

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.

No SEO

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.

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 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.