When a nonprofit, NGO or government agency starts an online community or hosts an online event, they envision questions being asked and the staff or event hosts answering such, all in an oh-so-orderly fashion. No arguments, no disagreements – just a reasoned exchange of online information by all participants.
However, online communities and events rarely work the way organizers or hosts envision. These communities or events have hardly any messages at all or an overwhelming number of such. They may be inactive for days, weeks, even months, and then suddenly, a lively debate may break out that sends message numbers through the roof and makes the organization feel uncomfortable. And on many communities, only a small percentage of members regularly share information or engage in discussions; the rest of the members, often 90% of such, are lurkers, reading messages but rarely responding to such.
Most users still get online community messages via email, so remind members, more than once, how to manage email – specifically, how to filter community or event messages automatically into a folder within their email program. The people who get the most upset about a surge in messages are people who subscribe via email digest, where all messages are put into one single email, so encourage members to change their subscriptions to individual messages and to filter these into a folder of their own, which makes it much easier to find the messages each person will want to read and to delete the messages a user doesn’t want to read.
Remember that lively debates are a natural, important part of a successful online community or event. Don’t panic when they happen: let them happen, think about why people are saying whatever it is they are saying, keep everyone fact-based, and let them run their course. Step in only if
- someone says something that is not fact-based,
- if arguments get personal,
- if people are repeating themselves,
- if your policies are violated, or
- if the argument reduces down to a back and forth between just one or two people.
You can tell people to take the argument off the group if you truly believe the argument has run its course with other members, or even dismiss someone from the group if he or she has violated policy – but be ready to quote from their messages and your written policy to clearly show the violation.
When should you suspend or dismiss an online community member? If that person:
- uses inappropriate language or images, as you define such (be ready to cite specific examples in your dismissal; inappropriate is a really vague term!)
- makes false or misleading statements even after being cited for such (again, be ready to quote examples)
- posts off-topic even after being warned not to
- violates confidentiality rules
- encourages illegal activity (if you are worried that your community could be held liable if a community member does, indeed, engage in that activity and get caught or hurt)
- violates copyright or trademark laws such that your online community could be held liable
- misrepresents himself or herself (for instance, as running a nonprofit organization that turns out not to exist, or as being a staff person from an organization when, in fact, he or she isn’t)
- chronically posts inaccurate information (claims an organization engages in activities that it actually doesn’t, claims there are certain rules and regulations about an activity when, actually, there are not, etc.)
- contacts community members or event participants off-list and engages in the aforementioned activities
- tries to stifle views different from himself or herself (again, be ready to cite specific examples of such, with quotes)
- threatens anyone
You may also have rules about advertising a business, but be careful; if a vendor answers a question like “Where can I find volunteer management software” with “Here’s our company’s product…”, that’s actually a helpful answer. Allow the posting of business information if it is truly on-topic for your group. You may also have rules about when it is appropriate or inappropriate to share information from an online event or an online community outside of that event or community.
Some organizations panic when an online community member that isn’t an employee starts engaging in leadership activities on a group or within an event – when the non-staff person answers questions before the official moderator gets to them, frequently shares events and resources that are on-topic to the community, and otherwise posts on-topic, but posts more than the moderators or facilitators. Don’t panic when you end up with a “super user” – celebrate it! When someone starts exhibiting leadership on your online community:
- write or call the person directly and thank him or her for the contributions
- ask the person where he or she heard of the community or the event
- ask the person why he or she feels so motivated to share
If the person responds to every post to a community, then do likewise: “Thanks, Mary, for that information. Does anyone else have something they would like to add or share?” That encourages others to share as well.
If you want to limit community members to a certain number of posts a day, per person, that’s fine, but that means your staff, including your moderator, has to abide by the same rule!
You may want to approach a super-user about becoming the official moderator, freeing up your staff time for other activities; however, make it clear, in writing, if, as moderator, the person would then be prohibited from sharing opinions. You may also want to invite the person to create and host a specific online event!
By all means, if the person posts inappropriately, per your written policies, tell the person. But don’t reprimand someone for being an active community member!
Also, don’t let one community member dictate what makes your online community or event a success; if one person complains that your community has too many messages, that doesn’t mean everyone feels that way. Survey your community at least once a year so you can get everyone’s opinion.
And a final note: no super-enthusiastic online contributor lasts; it may take a few months, but every super-sharer on an online community eventually slows down. It’s impossible to maintain that kind of unofficial enthusiasm on an online community.