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How to deal with negativity and toxicity in your community

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The term "flame-wars" was coined way back in the 1970s when computer scientists talking in the first electronic discussion boards noticed that here was "an escalation of critical comments and an increase in the frequency with which people would respond with short negative messages."

For anyone that has ventured into the comment section of Youtube, read Twitter for more than a few minutes or frequented active forums will know that our behaviour hasn't improved.

Sherry Turkle, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor at MIT, conducted hundreds of interviews over 15 years and found that "we allow ourselves behaviours online we never would in person." These interactions aren't just restricted to strangers on social media as Turkle notes that "we do things online that hurt and damage real relationships".

Why is this?

Tom Sander, executive director of the Saguaro Seminar project on civic engagement at the Harvard Kennedy School, explains that having the ability to be anonymous "can be a real attraction if no one knows you have a drinking problem or depression.

The Internet can be useful in allowing people to anonymously 'come out' about their problems and get support. But it is also an Achilles heel. If people don't know who you are, you are much more likely to say things in a nasty or snarky tone.

In general, we invest less in our reputation in online groups because it is easier to exit them and join other groups. In real space, if you don't get along with your neighbour, you're less likely to say something really nasty, because moving out of town is costly."

A lot of toxicity is from those who just like hearing themselves talk, or feel better when they put others down. Some people think they are clever and witty by using sarcasm and pointing out the flaws in another's argument.

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Here's a few ways to manage negativity in your community.

Model your ideal behaviour
The simplest and most effective way to manage negativity in your community is to be the behaviour you seek.

Ensure your replies and friendly and polite. Be fun where appropriate and learn about your regular members. Make sure your team is visible and post regularly so the community feels well run and someone is on hand to deal with issues when they arise.

Your community will follow suit and replicate your behaviour. When your community is positive and helpful, toxicity and negativity find it very hard to get a foothold. Your members will weed it out and correct those members for you.

Have clear guidelines
Socious's Senior Director of Community Management, Katie Bapple advises moderators not to be impulsive when dealing with toxic members.

"Controversial community members should not be dealt with compulsively; have reasonable guidelines and policies in place that draw a clear line, so you know when it's been crossed."

A clear and well-written community guidelines document won't stop trouble from occurring, but it will provide your team with clear boundaries and protocols to follow.

Have a light touch with moderation tools
It's easy to reach for the moderation tools when you see toxic or very harmful posts in a topic. It only takes a few clicks, and you can remove it from view and pretend it didn't happen.

However, much like a child trying to get his parent's attention, the more you try and silence them, the louder and more insistent they will be to get heard. They'll very likely return more inflamed and vitriolic than before.

Unless the content crosses the boundaries you have set for your community; it is often more productive to post a polite reply gently guiding the discussion back on track and thank contributors for their input so far.

If this doesn't de-escalate the situation, then:

Make it private
Open a dialogue with the offender to try and calm the situation. Often this act alone makes the member feel valued and transforms them into a happy and productive member of the community.

Just remind them of the boundaries set out in your community guidelines.

At least you will stop the member from continuing to post in public areas and derailing topics.

Use the appropriate moderation tool
Invision Community is packed with tools to help manage toxicity and negativity. However, reaching right for the ban button may not be the best course of action.

Consider a warning, which the member must acknowledge before posting again. Keep it friendly and polite and to the point. If the behaviour continues, then consider a short term block. Often an enforced 48 hours away from the community is enough to regain some perspective.

Don't assume it'll go away
The truth is people love drama, and most people are drawn towards negativity. We can't help but look when we come across a vehicle accident, and sadly, it's largely the same in a community.

It might be tempting to keep on scrolling and hope that it all sorts itself out. Likely, it won't, and intervention will be required. That might be a polite, friendly reminder to get the topic back on track, or contacting the member in private.

Either way, the best approach is to nip it in the bud with a light touch before it spins out of control, and more forceful action is required.

You can't please everyone
It should be a last resort, but your community may not be a good fit for everyone. If that is the case, then you can consider a permanent ban, or demoting the member into a read-only member group.

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Ultimately though negativity and toxicity are pretty rare in an upbeat and productive community. Most quarrels are fixed quickly, and it's rare to find a troll determined to corrupt your community.

Identify your boundaries and educate your community on what is not acceptable and be proactive when issues arise, and you'll keep sentiment positive.

If you run your own community, I'd love to know what tips you can share on dealing with negativity and toxicity. Let me know below.

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