How to deal with intellectual bullies in online communities.

If you’ve ever had to deal with an intellectual bully in an online community, or social media, you know that it’s one of the most unpleasant aspects of the internet. An intellectual bully may be adding value, but is mostly condescending, rude and aggressive.

During my first official job as a “community manager”, I was put in charge of moderating and helping run a online forum for our brand. This forum was there for people to get support, ask questions and connect with other users. The majority of our users were beginners. We had about 10,000 forum members and 20 super users.

One of my super users was an intellectual bully. This person G (to respect his privacy) is an advanced user of our product and has been an active community member since our companies infancy. He is an expert and does post great responses to question but is very abrasive, and rude. To make matters worse, many, many users complain about him and even left the forum because of him. Our forum started to develop a a “reputation”. We got tweets from people complaining about how we could allow a user like this on our forums, and saying they would never visit our forum as long as he was there. I also received messages and woke up to tons of community “flags”. Sometimes he would jump down a users throat around incorrect grammar and ignore the original question.

“He has appointed himself Forums Etiquette King, and is trolling around squashing posters if they do not ask questions with his perceived correctness of style, punctuation, grammar, etc.”

Was he just a misunderstood intellectual? Or was he something worse, an intellectual bully? When is enough, enough…? When is it that his helpful posts do not outweigh the negative ones?

“ …Your historic response to anyone that challenges you is to go off on a tirade. You are a disgrace to any open forum. I have seen time and again when your intelligence level was challenged that you resort to name calling and abuse. If anything happens to be outside your comfort zone, you rule it to be trivial.”

This kept me up at night. I did’t want to loose his knowledge and great contributions, but I couldn’t allow his intellectual bullying to spoil the rest. My job as a community manager and forum moderator is to facilitate and foster a civilized place for public discussion.

I ask forum members to treat the forum with the same respect they would a public park, as a shared community resource and a place to share skills, knowledge and interests through ongoing conversation.

As community manager, I am the chief executive officer of cultivating better interactions and better discourse, through thoughtful architecture, active moderation and community management. Circumstances never warrant speaking harshly to people on a software forum, in my opinion. This is sometimes a hard rule to live by but it’s important to criticize ideas, not people.

So, I confronted him. I tried to be very careful of his ego and not make him feel like he was being “attacked”. I tried to defend and acknowledge him when he was helpful. I really wanted to see him grow in positive way because I knew he could become a stellar super user, a great resource and really help people with all the knowledge he had. After I confronted him in a private message, he responded:

“But never mind. I have allowed myself to speak frankly, and if circumstances warrant, harshly to others on the forum, not because I think you might let me get away with it but because I have no reason not to. There was a time when I was a paid troubleshooter, helper-outer, and hand-holder, although I like to think I never got saccharine about it. It would have been unprofessional and career-limiting for me to speak candidly to people every time I felt like it. Now, I’m an unpaid volunteer. There’s nobody I need to ingratiate myself to, and no one’s really got anything on me. It’s most liberating. So your concept of positivity in thought and deed doesn’t do much for me. Imagine how disturbed I am at the thought that I might turn someone off. I like the way I’m doing it.

Wow. I wasn’t getting through, he’s not going to change, why did I think he would? He was deciding that he will abuse people until they leave or conform to his rules, not the forum’s rules. In ten years, we’ve most likely lost at least a few people that could have replaced this troublemaker’s expertise and not had to use our forum as an outlet for his frustrations and pent-up rage. This moment helped me define who I was as a community manager and reach deep inside myself to find the confidence to stand up and make the forum an online community everyone will feel safe and happy to be a part of. So I weighed up the value he offers vs the damage he is doing to the reputation of the community. At this point, it was damage control. He was not going to change. He’s on a crusade. Warning him had no affect.

Jeff Atwood co-founder of Discourse, and one of my community hero’s, summed it up perfectly:

Asking nicely has its limits, eventually you must take action.

Sometimes you just need to force the hand, and when you are in the position of moderation, that card is played out by a temporary ban. Which I did. I made sure that when I made this decision I did so calmly, logically and consciously. I slept on it because I knew temporarily banning a user who has been with us for over 10 years may cause him to never come back.

What he was displaying was pure aggression. Aggression is an emotion tied to similar reactions such as anger and frustration and is a by-product of motivation. This aggression is from a combination of “these people don’t get it” and (like in the above video) “MOOOOOOVE”. He did have a desire to help or he wouldn’t have been a member of our forum for over 10 years! I also consistently saw great examples of when he was helpful. When he was publicly recognized as being skillful and experienced, it only justified his self perception of being elevated above others.

I wanted to help him so his behavior and reputation on the forum matched the amazing quality of his content.

But, the community doesn’t revolve around him. If he truly wants to help others then he has to do it because he cares about the our community and helping members. Not because he thinks he’s the best thing to happen to our forum.

I monitored my tone to make sure my replies sounded like I wanted to help (for his sake and my own!) and crossed my fingers that he would cooperate. Moderation is an art form. I was trying hard to help him recognize his value enough to want to tone it down a bit. But it’s not sustainable. I couldn’t hold his hand, because it is a time and energy suck. I could only state things as clearly and gently as I could, and the rest was up to him.

The Community is More Important Than You. That goes for any single member of a forum as well. If a forum member, no matter their status or privilege, is damaging the community, they need to go.

Some forums have permeant ban options and allow you to even block an email or IP address. These are reserved for the worst spammers and abusers. He wasn’t one of them, the punishment must fit the crime. I phrased it as a “cool off period”. A ban is more permanent and has major negative connotations, so it must be used as a last resort. I still wanted to try and help “reform” him.

This is what I said:

“I have had multiple people consistently reach out to me on the forums (and even offline), as well as leave and express that they will be leaving the forum because of you.
Due to circumstances, I am going to give you a “Cool Off” period that will last until (date). You have great information to share, but the way you sometimes share it is causing people to leave. I would rather not, and I think the community/forum would rather not loose you, but I hope you take this time and think about how you would like to be seen on the forum.
I am going straight to the “Cool Off” stage because the earlier gentle “warning conversation” we had was not embraced by you.
Often times you are not in the wrong, and have valid points, but I want to stress that tone and positive, constructive feedback goes SO much further. I just hate to see people get “turned off” by you because of a few ill-placed words or remarks, because you have a lot of great things to say. I look forward to having you back soon as a great member of the Community!”

Once the temporary ban was lifted, I was scared that it was only a matter of time. Well guess what? He came back, not immediately, but eventually. I saw him post a few, short answers. I watched him very, very closely and when I got the sense he was being passive aggressive or negative in any way, I would flag his comment (only visible by him and me, or send him a gentle private message). I also reinforced his positive behavior. I made sure he knew that I like/appreciate his positive and constructive contributions by “liking” posts that are appropriate and helpful. He was being polite, even complimenting people and noobs who asked a question with the correct “structure”. I was shocked. As he put it, he: “Returned with his tail between his legs.” Now today, he is still a positive part of the community and we are all better for it.

I was able to be successful because I stood on giants. There are such amazing folks doing incredible things for online communities now-a-days that I learned from, and got advice from. This experience was a blessing in disguise that has helped define who I am as a community manager, moderator and general internet user. I have moved on from being a moderator for that forum to a new one, now with over 500,000 users and still use what I learned from this situation everyday, online and offline. Because, as your community scales, so does the positive and negative users. It’s something that will never go away.

Don’t be too quick to judge — meaning, if they slip up and make a mistake — don’t freak out! Sometimes complete change doesn’t happen over night, it may take a few times, or a few days, and that’s normal. Be supportive, but continue to moderate and monitor. If you need to, have another warning system in place. Take smaller disciplinary actions to begin with, such as a few hour or day ban, or perhaps just flagging posts and sending follow up Private Messages are enough. You have to make sure that this person is accountable for their actions.

You have to be committed to helping this person as much as they are committed to changing for the sake of the community. Extend olive branches and go the extra mile. As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Treat them like a friend, but also like an adult. Be open, honest and listen to them! If you are approachable, level headed and understanding (when you meet them half way) they will most likely respond and lower their guard. Of course, this can only go so far. If the respect is not matched, that’s your sign that escalation is needed and this person most likely needs to leave for an extended period of time.

Don’t gossip or allow gossiping. As a moderator, it’s ok to acknowledge and listen to concerns but don’t let it grow into a hack session behind someones back. Remember that intense people may be victimized as much as a noob. Sometimes that intensity, passion and drive can be seen as hostility. Be sensitive and see both sides. Most of the time, the bully is just a really passionate person and how they output it sometimes gets lost in translation.

Moderating and growing a healthy community is only as only as good as the tools and the platform. That’s why I love Discourse, it’s features and the philosophy they had behind communities when developing it. They help foster everything an online community should be. Discourse makes my life as a moderator easier and encourages civilized discourse. There are many great forums and community platforms out there. There is no “one sized fits all” approach. You need to do the research to see what is best for your community. What type of interaction style do your members want? Features? What do you need to be successful?

Don’t let your toxic users define your community. Do you want a “death star” or “rock star” community member?

Reputation brings you new contributors. It’s the type of reputation that determines the quality and characteristics of the contributors you get.

Don’t let toxic people contaminate your online community. Even after you get rid of them, people may still think that your community has issues. There is a real impact. How do you identify a toxic community member?

After talking to them, does the target feel:

  • Oppressed
  • Humiliated
  • De-energized
  • Belittled

Do you feel bad after you’ve engaged with this person? Everyone has a bad day, or sometimes you are extra tender or emotional. But, look for patterns. Are you getting multiple complaints from multiple people?

Guess how many positive interactions your user must go through to balance out a negative one (actually guess, think of a number in your head)…

It takes 5 good interactions to balance out 1 bad one.

Assholes are Ruining Your Project. Donnie Berkholz

It’s always important to learn the art of communication, feedback and dealing with difficult conversations. That is why I think it is worth mentioning some tactics of conversation. As Arthur Martine put it:

Let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.

Best-known for originating the famous tit-for-tat strategy of game theory, Anatol Rapoport formulated a list of rules, or “best antidote [for the] tendency to caricature one’s opponent… and compose a successful critical commentary”:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If only the same code of conduct could be applied to critical commentary online amongst an inferno of comments.

It’s a sound psychological strategy that accomplishes one key thing: It transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion.

My experience, and resources cited here, have helped guide my interactions and moderation in online communities. Don’t let negative people define your communities, or you. Be the example and exemplify the type of community member you wish to attract.

May your community grow in happiness, health and good conversations! :)

We started a follow up conversation on the FeverBee forums, for those wishing to join.

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