little green footballs

If Your Website's Full of Assholes, It's Your Fault

Mon, Sep 26, 2011 at 12:14:44 pm

This is an excellent post by Anil Dash, on what site owners need to do if they don't want to end up with a website full of assholes.

He's actually enumerating many of the principles that have helped LGF become a place for valuable discussion. I used to believe in a laissez faire approach to comments (although outright racial slurs were never allowed or welcomed); for years I believed the best way to prevent offensive behavior was to trust the community to police itself.

I still believe this to some extent; a good online community does police itself, but the key is that self-policing fails if the truly obsessed and deranged anonymous haters are not kept out. The reason is simple: the Internet troll personality is more compulsive and more persistent than normal personalities, and who wants to have a "discussion" with people who spew racial slurs and post all-caps rants by the hundreds?

Implementing some of these measures is not easy, and not without cost -- both monetary and personal -- but if you don't, I've learned the hard way that the crazies will inevitably take over and drive away decent people with important things to say.

You should have real humans dedicated to monitoring and responding to your community. One of the easiest ways to ensure valuable contributions on your site is to make people responsible by having dedicated, engaged, involved community moderators who have the power to delete comments and ban users (in the worst case) but also to answer questions and guide conversations for people who are unsure of appropriate behavior (in the best cases). Sites that do this, like MetaFilter and Stack Exchange sites (disclosure, I'm a proud board member of Stack Exchange) get good results. Those that don't, don't. If you can't afford to invest the time or money in grooming and rewarding good community moderators? Then maybe don't have comments. And keep in mind: You need lots of these moderators. The sites with the best communities have a really low ratio of community members to moderators.

You should have community policies about what is and isn't acceptable behavior. Your community policy should be short, written in plain language, easily accessible, and phrased in flexible terms so people aren't trying to nitpick the details of the rules when they break them. And then back them up with significant consequences when people break them: Either temporary or permanent bans on participation.

Your site should have accountable identities. No, people don't have to use their real names, or log in with Google or Facebook or Twitter unless you want them to. But truly anonymous commenting often makes it really easy to have a pile of shit on your website, especially if you don't have dedicated community moderators. When do newspapers publish anonymous sources? When the journalists know the actual identity and credibility of the person, and decide it is a public good to protect their identity. You may wish to follow the same principles, or you can embrace one of my favorite methods of identity: Persistent pseudonyms. Let users pick a handle that is attached to all of their contributions in a consistent way where other people can see what they've done on the site. Don't make reputation a number or a score, make it an actual representation of the person's behavior. And of course, if appropriate, don't be afraid to attach people's real names to their comments and contributions. But you'll find "real" identities are no cure for assholes showing up in your comments if you aren't following the rest of the principles described here.

You should have the technology to easily identify and stop bad behaviors. If you have a community that's of decent size, it can be hard for even a sufficient number of moderators to read every single conversation thread. So a way for people to flag behavior that violates guidelines, and a simple set of tools for allowing moderators to respond quickly and appropriately, are a must-have so that people don't get overwhelmed.

You should make a budget that supports having a good community, or you should find another line of work. Every single person who's going to object to these ideas is going to talk about how they can't afford to hire a community manager, or how it's so expensive to develop good tools for managing comments. Okay, then save money by turning off your web server. Or enjoy your city where you presumably don't want to pay for police because they're so expensive.

Read the whole thing...