How to sour a community, in one easy lesson

Simple. Tell them that they’re not one.

It won’t destroy it, of course. Wherever a group of people collaborate for a common endeavor, there we find community.

But communities come in different flavors. My favorite kind includes a substantial amount of trust among the community members, and between them and their leaders/moderators. They are often powerfully goal-oriented, whether the goal is to build something or simply to have good conversation. These ones are electrifying to be a member of. Shared endeavors and a sense of shared ownership seem to actually create energy.

Other communities, however, just depress everyone. A group of rules lawyers, whose shared energy is absorbed in the feeling that bad behavior is punished but good actions go unrewarded, is still a community. It’s just not a very pleasant one. One doesn’t go out and evangelize for such a community or for what it does. One doesn’t hope that others will come join it.

(There is a third kind of community to be mindful of, of course. A mob, like a depressive community, is a common failure mode of an energized community.)

The breakdown of trust is of course the most common reason that the first kind of community turns into the second. It’s easy, particularly as a leader or moderator, to feel betrayed by everyone when the crowd goes in a direction that you don’t want it to. And the fear of the mob is a powerful motivator. The temptation is to lock everything down, pretend that there is no community ethos but the one you provide.

But people don’t work that way. Clamp down on a community, and it turns sour; the community spirit becomes one of grumbling and nit-picking conformance to the stated rules. Spontaneous action for the common good, being unrewarded, goes away.

I’ve seen online communities go completely sour at this point, as the members in their turn feel betrayed by the moderators. Subsequent events just confirm the mutual hostility. Eventually many of these things break up completely.

This isn’t universal; sometimes the shared endeavor of the community is motivating enough to overcome the mutual mistrust. Gradually, a new balance is found; member behavior builds moderator trust and moderator trust reduces member resentment.

Communities may recover in time, but it’s not a pleasant process.

This rather discouraged rant has been brought to you by the letter M and the number 2.

8 thoughts on “How to sour a community, in one easy lesson”

  1. Thank you. Reading this helped crystalize something for me about a community to which I once belonged.

  2. Checking here: you’re describing those events that happen when the community perceives itself as a community, and acts like one, but the site owner or moderator refuses to accept the sense of the community on some issue, and pulls rank?

    That’s rough. How rough, is affected by circumstances: Whether the community sees the misapplication of authority as deliberate, rather than inept or mistaken. Whether it’s a known variety of error, or something new and weird. How deep the misunderstanding goes: surface application, or founding assumptions? How much damage it does to the community’s pursuit of its goals. Whether everyone in the community knows the same version of the story in the same degree of detail. The community’s sense of how likely this is to happen again.

    If the community has leaders intermediate between
    the general population and the authority, the leaders’ behavior can help compensate. Band of Brothers (the miniseries) is practically a handbook on this subject. Open revolt won’t work. Esprit de corps helps a lot. If you’re one of those leaders, one of your secret mottos becomes “Unity through Well-Behaved Subversion.” You acknowledge your collective problem, collectively borne. You do what you can to mediate its effects, and try to educate or at least forestall those above you. You guide individuals past potential conflicts with authority, and console their disappointments.

    The most important thing you do is replace the absent esteem you should be getting from the authority with the community’s own esteem for the good things the community does. That can make a huge difference. It preserves their all-important sense of “we’re working together to do something good” by redefining “we” as “this community, in spite of whatever the overall organization does to us.”

    If you let mistreatment from on high break your community, its initial sense of “We’re working together to make something good” will turn into “I can’t afford to care about an organization that doesn’t care about us,” which then turns into “If I don’t care, then I’m not part of an us; I’m just me.”

    (I wish, just once, I could see some work on management theory that understood how much genuine sorrow is bound up in that descending series of worldviews. Humans *want* to feel good about what they’re doing, and the people they’re doing it with.)

  3. The really destructive cycles I’ve seen along these lines have involved moderation/censorship debates. The pattern was:

    a. Some posts come up which upset the moderator but not the community (or all the community).

    b. They’re deleted, the posters are banned, etc.

    c. Many members of the community start complaining on the list/blog/whatever that the deletions/bannings/etc. were unfair, or didn’t make any sense, or whatever.

    d. This begins to become an angry, hostile thread of discussion.

    e. The moderator starts deleting or banning those discussions.

    f. We now have a bunch of participants coming back to a discussion, in which stuff they remember has disappeared, posters they respect have been banned, and the whole discussion is chewed up to incomprehensibility.

    g. Many or most of those participants are now upset. Some complain (and are deleted or banned), some leave.

    The thing that’s so destructive about this cycle, I think, is that it can rip apart the spirit of community in some forum very quickly. IMO, it’s one of the really good points of disemvowelment over deletion of offensive posts, and also a strong reason why moderators generally need to be calmer and more tolerant than the community. (Much the same is true of cops; you want the cops to be the *calm* ones on the scene, and when the cops are the most upset/worked up/scared people on the scene, ugliness is almost sure to follow.)

  4. “…communities come in different flavors…”

    And there are communities that you assumed were communities, except that they never were, or they changed and you didn’t notice because you were too busy doing what a team’s member is supposed to do.

    I hope that your situation improves.

  5. Don’t forget the exclusive community…the kind whose members march in lockstep and ostracize or send to Coventry anyone who doesn’t fit in. Not necessarily “rules lawyers”, at least not tacitly. Very strong and solid type of community. Not very attractive, though.

  6. Booda,

    I don’t “forget” exclusive communities; they’re another failure mode of a close community.

    They’re less common on the internet than is often claimed, however. Very often people who “don’t fit in” haven’t tried using their company manners. I’ve found one can say the most astonishingly contrary things, even to moderators, and not be sent to Coventry, simply by being polite and respecting them as people. Like in the real world, it’s so often a matter of tone.

    However, this isn’t one of the failure modes I was talking about in this particular instance. Perhaps I’ll delve into them another time.

  7. Yikes, the decidedly un-soured Making Light seems to be down — “could not connect”.

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