Running an internet community

Lately, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how I would run a web community like Stack Overflow or everything2, or… I can’t really think of a third example. I’ll share some of my thoughts, and maybe this will spark an interesting discussion. If not, at least maybe it’ll give you some things to think about for your next project.

First, a community is not necessarily a democracy. Jeff Atwood did a great post on this recently. One thing in particular stuck out to me:

> You should immediately triage the feedback and feature requests you get into two broad buckets:

> We need power windows in this car!

> or

> We need a truck bed in this car!

The point being that power windows are a perfectly valid feature for a car, while a truck bed is not. Your community is worth listening to: they are in the trenches, working the day to day with the tools that you have given them. They know what’s missing to make their lives even better. But if you give them everything they ask for, your community will quickly descend into anarchy, and your service’s value will get lost in a low signal, high noise environment.

Next, outsource community moderation. You have a finite number of staff, and a potentially infinite number of users in your community. Your staff should be focused on adding value to the community, which means that you should let your users, to the extent possible, do the policing. The staff should arbitrate cases where community moderation is not enough to completely solve a problem, and let their users do the rest. This process builds ownership in the community: if you helped paint a fence, you are far less likely to stand by while someone marks it with graffiti.

This doesn’t mean that you should give every member of your community the ability to interfere with another user’s interactions (for example, temporarily removing a user’s content by flagging it as inappropriate). That ability is a privilege that must be earned, and numbers should count for something in the process: if one person flags content as inappropriate, it might just be that one user has some grudge or quarrel against another. If five or ten people flag content as inappropriate, the content is much more likely to actually be inappropriate.

That being said, when you give users power to moderate in your community, you should respect their right to exercise that power. Let the community speak for itself, and step in only when there is a need to course-correct, or to prevent larger problems (like flame wars or combative behavior between users).

You might have an idea of what you want your community to be, and you can take appropriate action to keep it in line with that perception. But if, in the course of letting your community speak for itself, it takes you in a direction that you did not originally foresee, you might consider analyzing the new direction to find potential benefits that you may not have seen before. A brief example: when I am moderating and editing questions on Stack Overflow, I tend to adjust question titles to remove tags and be more conversational: a question entitled “PHP – function run time” might become “How can I determine the run time of a method in PHP?”

As far as I’m aware, there’s nothing that says “a question title cannot start with tags” in the Stack Overflow FAQ (correct me if I’m wrong on this). But, I think that a question title actually posed as a question is more valuable to the community. If, over time, enough people agree with me, then this will start to become the norm on Stack Overflow, and the old behavior (which was not inherently wrong) will cease.

Of course, there are actions that can be detrimental to the community that must be curtailed by staff intervention if necessary. If for some reason it starts to become popular, for instance, to post questions in all caps or without proper punctuation, this would be harmful to the community if it became the norm: questions would be harder to read and comprehend, for one thing. When allowing the community to express its will, changes that are made should always be positive improvements. Negative changes are not building a community’s value, they are giving in to entropy and sliding toward the chaos that will cause serious, valuable users to depart and a terminal spike in noise-to-signal ratio that signals the death of your community.

Just some thoughts that have been on my mind; I’ll come back through with updates as I ponder on the problem some more. As always, comments and questions are welcome.

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