SxSW09 panel notes: Building (and Managing) Strong Online Communities

by marycw on March 17, 2009

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I’ll be posting my notes on several of the SxSw panels over the next few days.   My notes, all errors mine.

Building Strong Online Communities

Panelists: Ken Fisher (Ars Technica), Alexis Ohanian (, Drew Curtis (Fark), Erin Kotecki Vest (BlogHer).

This panel was about how to create or build a new community online.

( NOTE:  many tweets commented that there actually wasn’t much content on attracting / building community — most of the discussion was about moderating a community you already have.)

How to balance your own/founder’s vision for the site versus what people in the community suggest and want to see.

There are many voices in a community. You have to listen but also take any single person with a grain of salt. You often get a few people who have a particular axe to grind/hot button, and they complain about that in threads etc.

Beware the tyranny of well organized minorities — they often don’t represent the wishes of the silent majority.

Reddit uses the search tool for twitter to see when people are talking about reddit.

Most community feedback: through posts on the community site itself, and through emails to support etc.

Most members are NOT frequent participants in online discussions. On Ars Technica — only 4% of readers actually visit the discussion forums.

On the other hand — when you have “enough” people actively complaining about something ( no magic number here — 40 people? 50 people? you have to decide for your community ) — you need to respond in some way. You want members to know that you’re listening and you care.

It’s important to provide a “feedback forum” where people can just log their feedback / complaints (separate from other discussion threads/forums).

As the community grows, so does the amount of feedback. You will need to scale up resources (employees or volunteers) to help stay on top of it.

Core principles that your community provides / adheres to — need to be clear in the community guidelines — and need to enforce. Over time, the community (may) become more self-policing.

Fark has the “nark” button — a “flag” or “complaint” button for a user to complain about somebody else’s post being offensive — throws the comment into a queue that the moderators have to review. (However note that some users will use the Nark button just as part of their activity on the site, as a lark or to harrass other users — not for a valid purpose. Also note that moderators have to go back to the full thread before judging one comment out of context — context is key.)

Drew:  “If I were on FARK as a user myself, I’d get an infraction at least once/month because I drink a lot.”

Need to clearly state the rules and publicize them — and quote the rule when someone is banned or a comment is blocked. Have to be careful, however, about writing a huge list of dos and don’t. That’s not effective.

What do you do with unacceptable content — pull it, or leave it and comment on why it’s not acceptable? BlogHer deletes that content and the moderator notifies the writer why the comment was killed. Other sites don’t delete at all, or don’t delete as frequently. It also depends on ability to “undelete” comments later on, put them back in. In some communities, participants don’t like it when comments are deleted.

There are ~5,000 banned from FARK at any given moment. FARK does attract a rambunctious bunch so there are always lots of complaints going on all the time.

Note that spammers get deleted ASAP. No mercy there.

Need for moderation may vary from forum to forum, not just from community to community. Example: during election period, much more moderation was required in the political forums.

Have different periods for banning — ban for a week, ban for a month, or permanent ban (permaban). (Fark)

What about people coming back under a new identity? Actually people get very attached to their online identity/ pseud — they want to come back under that old identity and retain that history and set of connections.

Goal is to have banning be infrequent. One site (Fark?) bans only about 1 person every month (not including spanners).

It is possible to have strong heated discussions without deteriorating into flame wars.

People will come back and argue when they’re banned — but you can’t let them distract you from correct moderation.

Making changes to an existing community is often noisy — gets lots of feedback, positive and negative. Can be hard to figure out how to best respond.

You don’t want to listen to your community *too* much — esp right after a change. “Some people if you go to their house and turn their cat figurines around, they freak out.”

One community has a two week time limit — if users are still upset and angry two weeks after a change — then consider changing it back / again.

Some sites use surveys to get feedback — others don’t consider surveys useful.

You need a community space that’s appropriate to your community size. You shouldn’t have a million different rooms/threads that are all mostly empty. Start small — a community needs to develop a group sense / be able to find people.

When managing an online community — don’t let your ego get in the way — you have to be able to take criticism, some of it harsh and extreme. Also be careful not to get sucked into the drama — it’s a big time waste. Deal with the issue and move on.

Characteristics of a good community manager: level headed, calm, neutral, multi tasker. Someone who won’t be rattled, who will handle drama with grace. Someone who can multi task, because you have to switch quickly between issues.

Building a new community site: don’t worry about the competititors — think about your niche and how you’ll stand out. You need to have passion for the topic / niche. Passion and honesty will attract like-minded people.

Most sites don’t allow fully anonymous comments — you have to register and have a name/pseud. Just registering adds a barrier that keeps the worst Anonymous Cowards out. Yes there’s some good feedback that’s anonymous that you will be losing, but most people are able to attach their online name to their comment.

Story of Greenpeace: Greenpeace asked for input on what to name a particular whale. They had wanted some dignified name like PeaceLove but the internet voted to name the whale Mr. Splashypants. Greenpeace was initially annoyed and did the vote again — the outcome was the same. Greenpeace went with the name and actually got a lot of press out of it.

As your community grows, you have to do things to help it still feel small / manageable to the user.

Removing posts for poor content quality — some communities do that, esp for a starting post. You can’t put up “xyz sucks” — you have to give reasons why it sucks. Simply giving a value judgment doesn’t help the conversation.

Some communities put up / down vote arrows next to anything and get useful feedback on the item. Other communities only use with with certain items (individual posts, comments etc.).

The history of a community also matters — adding new features later gets a different response to having them from the get-go.

Have to be careful about up / down voting though. Democracy / populism isn’t always the best way to go. It can bury important views that aren’t popular but are key and should be heard.

What about the issue of quality vs taste — a community trying to attract serious artists, but a lot of the stuff on the site is kitch. How to attract more serious artists? Should they ban / delete the stuff that doesn’t fit their idea of what the site should be? tricky issue.  Can’t force “desireable” people to join, and don’t want to turn off the people who are in fact showing up.


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