5 tips for community governance

I was asked for five tips on community governance by the lovely April Allen, over at Knowledge Bird.

Here they are.

1. Self-moderation is a myth

Some communities are proactive in regulating tone. Usually these are communities that have been around for some time, and have had a chance to establish a sense of group identity. But even these groups need a simple scaffold to help them stay safe and stable.

Offline communities need police forces, fire brigades and other specialist groups of people looking out for them when stuff goes awry. Ideally, they’re never needed. But knowing they’re there (with training, equipment and accountability) if stuff happens, is an important comfort that lets us relax and get on with life.

Online communities aren’t much different. Knowing they’re supported acts as a stabilising force.

An external, impartial guiding hand ensures that certain voices or personalities don’t hijack or dominant moderation, and will look out for the community as a whole, rather than special or individual interests.

If you’re a member of an online community, do you really want to be concerned with warning people about bad behaviour, removing spam, responding to copyright take-down notices or defamation claims? You want to get to the point, and let others look after the fine print, for everyone’s safety.

2. It’s all about context

Whether creating criteria for usernames and accounts, community guidelines, terms and conditions, oversight procedures and mechanisms for reporting, you need to ensure your governance acknowledges the legal and social contexts of your unique community.

A support community for a serious disease will have very different attitudes to anonymity than a community of public officials. A community of teenagers will have a different take on when insults cross a line than a community of small business owners. And sometimes you’d be surprised at those differences!

Don’t assume anything. Learn about your community and your members. Work to understand their needs, objectives and where they’re coming from. Do your best to appreciate what makes them tick. (listen to what they’re not saying as well as what they’re saying). Then make sure your choices, your style, the words you write and the processes you put in place resonate with and respect those realities.

3. Consistency, consistency, consistency

Flawless consistency isn’t human, but building a strong community over time means applying the rules equally, repeatedly. It’s even more important to strive for consistency when you’re behind a screen and usually not able to share all the details about a decision or moderation action. Your members will point to any sign of favourites or special treatment, and call you out on it.

A long term member who’s been a great contributor suddenly goes rogue and seriously violates the rules of engagement. Decisions and consequences can’t be lighter than a newcomer, but you might want to spend a little more time explaining the outcome to the community (or them).

Be careful of over justifying your actions in public, and keep it professional. Whlie transparency is the ideal, too much detail about moderation can actually breed dissent and weaken your community over time.

4. Share the burden

Letting community members contribute to their own safety and harmony gives them a critical sense of empowerment. While likely only a handful will step up to do this regularly (and you can’t rely on this alone), you can’t afford not to let your members help you with regulating the space.

As you scale, it’ll become indispensable. And there are legal considerations. You have to give members a straightforward, quick way to report things like defamation, copyright infringement or issues concerning younger users to ensure compliance and protect each other.

Over time, listening to and learning from the way members report bad actors, or behaviour they consider gives you invaluable insight into the true social mores of the group (which may be different than the ones they’d articulate if asked).

5. Consult, but don’t design by committee

Good governance steers but doesn’t trickle down or impose.  If you have the good fortune to develop guidelines and rules of engagement with your members from the start, do so.

Involve them in a way that shows you’re truly interested in their ideas about what their community will and won’t stand for, and how that bears out in operational practicalities. It shows you’re wiling to let them truly extend ownership over the shape of the community.

However, manage this input and the expectations around it smartly. For example, offer them input to a draft of guidelines, rather than open slather on creating them. Be careful not to imply that they have responsibilities they don’t, or more power than they do.

Until the law catches up with the realities of our networked lives, those keeping the lights on bear the cost and liability, and get sign off on house rules.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Tartlet says:

    Hi Venessa… just wondering if you are still following the death of TT. Most recently they have, in their wisdom, decided to disable PMs moving forward, tho “generously” (i really need a sarcasm font sometimes!!) have said they will try to get a PM archive up for people to save their old PMs.

    No real purpose to my comment, just that I was wondering if you were still following along x

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