5 Tips for Moderating Online Communities

Help for the community manager’s balancing act!

Jenn Patel
Aug 24, 2015 · 6 min read

Online communities are everywhere: from gaming communities to fitness groups on Facebook to gigantic Instagram accounts. So, why do some flourish while others wilt? Maintaining a community’s engagement while keeping the environment a safe place to be is a tough balancing act — but a crucial one if you want community members to keep coming back and feel good about being part of the community. (The latter, by the way, is our #1 priority here at Health Union.) So, what’s a caring, coffee-filled Community Manager to do?

Take a coffee break, enjoy some tips, and add your thoughts in the notes!

To answer that question, here are 5 tips for moderation that help us keep the atmosphere both lively and nonviolent at some of the fastest-growing, condition-specific websites out there today, like Migraine.com, MultipleSclerosis.net, RheumatoidArthritis.net, HepatitisC.net, and more. Before getting into any tips, however, I must emphasize that it’s an entire team of truly incredible moderators and contributors who make all of this possible.

  1. Create good rules and enforce them consistently. It’s the foundation for safe moderation — and communities! Similar to the parenting concept that children need rules and boundaries in order to feel safe and flourish, so do we as community members and moderators! For example, if you tolerate members being mean to each other, it only makes sense that you will have a much harder time converting lurkers to active participants (not to mention a harder time getting to sleep at night). To my own ethical-high-horse-having surprise, I’ve found this one challenging at times because there are heart-wrenching fundraising efforts that people post on our Facebook timelines at Health Union… but if they’re asking for money, I have to enforce our policy of no soliciting. (All rules are stated on our websites, which helps as well.) In cases like these, enforcing a rule can be rough. I try to remember an old saying borrowed from 12-step programs about it being crucial to “put principles before personalities” though, and thereby provide a safe and consistently moderated community for all our members.
Example of our Community Rules from Migraine.com

2. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Much like the corporate adage, “Assume positive intent”, this is certainly not the easiest thing to do — especially when someone ferociously rips apart your latest piece (or worse, one of your contributor’s!). It is, however, absolutely effective, and can yield positive returns ranging from surprised delight to utter loyalty — the kind that can’t necessarily be achieved in any other way! Handling negativity with patience rather than frustration can work wonders. For example: here at Health Union, while we take no sides on controversial issues, we do allow people to express their views — including potentially incendiary comments — thereby allowing for community members to feel heard. (This is, of course, unless comments are hurtful to someone else — see #1.) So, say someone angrily denounces our website’s entire existence, we will likely respond with something like, “Thank you for sharing your views, and for being part of the community!” — and we genuinely mean it, as an outburst can turn into helpful information. If appropriate, we try to ascertain what it is they may dislike about the site, which can result in phenomenal learnings. If we get it right, typically the person responds with a disproportionate amount of gratitude, and often goes so far as to apologize and explain that they were simply having the “worst day ever” and didn’t mean to be harsh. In order to get there, it helps to…

3. Remember that people are going through their own thing. Now you may be saying — “Well, that’s easy for you to say, Jenn at Health Union” because we build communities around chronic, excruciating health conditions. I would argue that this is a generally true-to-life principle no matter what kind of community you’re dealing with, and worth extrapolating to the rest of our lives. I like to think of that meme that (possibly erroneously) references a Plato quote: “Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle you know nothing about.” Whoa — touche, amiright? The follow-up question then becomes: “Okay, I get the concept — but how to actually put it into practice?” Check out #4!

One of my favorite quotes ever — and super helpful for community management!

4. Borrow from the world of mental health counseling and use its concept of “unconditional positive regard.” I learned this one in my former life working with college athletes as an academic advisor. It basically means exactly what it breaks down to: regard every person you’re dealing with in an unconditionally positive way. Meaning, even if someone upsets or disappoints you, you still respond with the belief that there is a lot of good inside them and you are going to find it. It sounds super basic but its impact can be monumental. To use an example: one of my students had been making great progress battling his way back from a low GPA. He had been doing everything he was supposed to and genuinely putting in tons of effort for a good while, until one day when he completely bombed an important exam. I asked him what happened and he said “I just… didn’t study. I partied instead.” Of course that’s not what I expected to hear. But harking back to my newfound knowledge of “UPR”, rather than saying, “What?! Why not?! You were doing so well, what happened?!” (super negative and not supportive), instead I said, “Okay, how can we plan for you to make a better decision next time?” and we went on to discuss it in depth. Come to find out, he purposely avoided studying because he didn’t think of himself as a good student and was getting freaked out by all the recent praise from professors and coaches, and felt like he needed to go back to his “old self”. This was some mega identity-crisis type stuff! We worked through that, which likely wouldn’t have happened without the use of UPR. It played a key role in helping unlock the rest of an extremely successful semester. I find that with community members it works just as well. It also happens to be one of the best ways to…

5. Meet people where they’re at. This is another technique I utilized in higher ed, this time as a dean whose role was to train tutors. I would teach new tutors that it is crucial to know where the tutee is coming from, what their goals for the session are, what they are passionate about or fearful of, and even how this particular day is going for them. It sounds like a lot, but it takes less than 5 minutes out of an hour-long session. A tutor can’t really make progress on something if the tutee is preoccupied. So it’s usually only after knowing where a person’s head is at that you can navigate the situation, and respond to it appropriately. To me, it’s the same with communities. Meeting people where they’re at also relates to the expression “people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” For example: showing you care by doing a Google search on something your community member is asking about, rather than half-a**ing it (which I’m sure no one reading this ever does anyway), yields way better results for all parties involved. You want to connect with the person first — whether it’s via actual conversation/comments, or in your head by trying to ascertain where they’re coming from, or by showing you care with the research you put in. It may result in taking a few more minutes to do it, but it can result in seeing your content and community from a totally fresher, and wider, point of view.

Here’s to happy moderating!

A lot of it comes down to empathy, effort, and patience — and learning from others as you go. I’m thrilled I get to work with and learn from a whole team of moderators on the Health Union sites.

I would love to hear your thoughts on these ideas! Have you used any of these types of tips before? Do you have anything to add? Please share your response! And, happy moderating!

Jenn Patel

Written by

Learning Specialist. Obsessed with nail art, Freirean pedagogy & CRT. My master’s thesis was on hip hop-as-revolution if that gives you an idea. www.jennpa.tel

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