70

Sometimes the owners or overseers of a community need to remove someone popular -- suspend a top user, boot a popular moderator, or fire a key employee. As we've seen, sometimes this causes an immediate, vehement, and very public reaction, and you have a public-relations fiasco on your hands. Not only are you losing community members (and the benefits they bring, like ad dollars), but perhaps more importantly, your reputation is taking a huge beating on the Internet.

If my community needs to sanction someone and we think it's going to be unpopular, what steps can we take to reduce the effects of the backlash? Usually there are confidentiality concerns, so we can't share everything (or sometimes much of anything). What should we say up front, and should we respond to the complaints that immediately show up on social media or stay far away from that? (Probably it depends -- but on what?)

This is not a problem I currently have; it's a problem I hope I never have. But if I do, I won't have the time then to come to Community Building and ask for an answer.

  • 38
    Cool! Visitors from Reddit, welcome! Please note that Stack Exchange sites are Q&A sites, not discussion forums; while the Reddit revolt is the prompt for this question, this question isn't specifically about that. Please check out our short tour and all our other questions, including some about reddit. We'd love to have your participation here, within our scope guidelines. – Monica Cellio Jul 3 '15 at 23:34
  • 8
    This actually happened to a small degree on Server Fault about a year ago. For many months, moderators and high-rep users felt that there was a flood of poor questions and that the SE staff cared more about the google traffic they drove than the quality of the content. Then some moderators stepped down, and the highly-active chat emptied out in favor of a chatroom on Slack which has around 25-50 active users at a time who used to be heavily involved in SF. These are folks with thousands of answered questions each that almost never go to SF anymore. – MDMarra Jul 4 '15 at 0:40
  • 2
    And what was the outcome? Pretty much nothing. The world keeps turning. Sure, some questions probably have lower quality answers than they would have, but the site didn't come crashing to a halt. New users replace old users and it doesn't really matter. Given that Stack Exchange is so diverse and containerized, I really think any type of damage something like this can cause here would be isolated and almost unnoticed in the long-run (which is also what I think will happen with Reddit). – MDMarra Jul 4 '15 at 0:42
  • 14
    That incident was not solely a reaction to the firing of that person. It was built up frustration from the past several months of administrative actions, precipitated by the firing. – immibis Jul 4 '15 at 10:17
  • 6
    The comments here probably aren't a good place to discuss what happened on reddit. – Aza Jul 4 '15 at 18:59
41

The first step here is one that I can't help you with: know your rights, responsibilities, and expectations. If you're running a site, or if you're part of a team, know what's expected of you, and what you're legally bound to do. The actions you can take are limited by this, full-stop. Beyond that, any verbal/written agreements and expectations you've set up need to be respected.

The general steps to dealing with a significant change like this are as follows:

  • Determine the information you're allowed to share. Don't necessarily stick to what's written down; ask people if they're okay with certain information being released. For instance, if you're dropping a moderator, make an attempt to work with them to determine what they'd be okay with making public. Document this discussion thoroughly.

    Any information can be made public with the consent of the involved parties, so if you'd like to talk about something with your userbase, just ask if it's okay to make public. Chances are, you'll be able to provide more information this way.

    Lastly, remember that information about what you can't say is just as valuable as information about what you can. If you tell people, "we asked, and it's not something we can make public," they'll at least know you're trying to keep them in touch and informed.

  • Organize notes on which groups are allowed to know what. It will be much better in the long run if the information you deliver is both as consistent and accurate as possible to each group.

  • Prioritize your lines of communication. If you've been running things smoothly, chances are you already have one or more lines of communication open to various groups within your community. Prioritize in your head which groups need information first.

    If you don't currently have solid lines of communication open, there's no time like the present. Do so immediately, because failing to do so means tensions will build with no outlet.

  • Do what you can to notify people in advance, in order of communication priority. The more warning people have, the less likely a change will come as a shock. Recognize that this communication is two-way - others are going to have concerns about what's happening, and thoughts on what needs to happen. This isn't just you telling people what's going on; other people are affected, and are looking to you to lessen the impact.

    Sometimes, though, sudden changes are unavoidable, which means...:

  • If you think it's going to be a while before you can talk, tell people just that. As an example, in the reddit case, much of the tension could have been alleviated by saying "Yes, there are changes, but we're not ready to talk about them publicly yet."

  • Recognize that, no matter what you change, someone is going to walk away dissatisfied. This is key: every change is met with some resistance. You, as a neutral moderator, need to recognize not only what the resistance is, but who it's coming from, and why they might be resisting. As things evolve, it's important to identify information that might alleviate concerns.

    If you spot a hole in information that might alleviate tensions, go back to step 1. Organize information you can share, then share it with the relevant groups in order of priority.

I won't claim that this is complete, and I'm fully open to suggestions on steps which should be included. However, the core of the philosophy is: keep people as informed as possible, but recognize that you won't be able to keep everyone informed continuously, so prioritize groups and keep them as informed as possible.

Generally, humans (in a stable community) are very understanding; you just need to give them something to understand.

  • 4
    There's a lot of good advice here, but there's one I can't condone: “know your rights”. That's good advice in some circumstances, but here, it's utterly irrelevant. This is a problem of communication; if it gets into rights, it's already gone wrong. – Gilles Jul 4 '15 at 10:06
  • 4
    @Gilles I'm not talking about free speech, I'm talking about employment and contract law. – Aza Jul 4 '15 at 10:08
  • Irrelevant when we're talking about unpaid moderators. – Gilles Jul 4 '15 at 10:10
  • We're not just talking about unpaid moderators, though; we're also talking about employees. Besides, there's likely to be a moderator agreement anyway, like there is here. – Aza Jul 4 '15 at 10:12
  • 4
    @Emrakul For the record, in the particular case of reddit, moderators are not bound by any agreement beyond that which binds regular users (the terms of service, I guess). Anybody can become a moderator, and the process requires no administrative oversight. – senshin Jul 4 '15 at 22:24
19

I've been a user of reddit and various Stack Exchange sites for a while now, and I've been following the reddit "Amageddon"(sic) thing with interest, and I did wonder whether Stack Exchange could have a similar incident.

Keep in mind that the firing was a huge straw (straw bale?) that broke the camel's back; it brought a number of long-standing issues users and moderators on reddit have with reddit admins to a head. A couple of those issues I don't see Stack Exchange as having:

  • reddit has very poor moderator support, including outdated and inadequate moderator tools, while Stack Exchange provides powerful tools that are continually improved (as far as I can tell, since I'm not at moderator level on any Stack Exchange sites).
  • reddit admins have promised communication, improved tools, etc. for literally years and failed to make good on those promises, while promises made here on Stack Exchange have always been met in reasonable periods of time (as far as I know).

What can you do to prevent a fiasco like what we're currently seeing on reddit? Set up a plan now for when this happens, and assume it will be needed. A few steps I think are wise to take:

  • Learn what you can and cannot say about why someone was fired ahead of time.
  • Have someone in place to take over before the firing is done. This means that nobody should be a "single point of failure" in your organization.
  • Figure out how you will handle a community backlash before it happens, so you're not panicking and responding unwisely while you're under pressure.
  • If you don't already have a formal community liaison, get one (or more than one--remember, no single point of failure). Always keep communication lines open, and listen if long-term users are starting to complain about lack of communication. (This most recent event on reddit should not have come as a shock to the admins that run the site, and it's telling that it surprised them.)
  • Consistency, including keeping your promises (which you seem to be doing fairly well at already, but it's still worth stressing).
  • The AMAgeddon was not a spelling mistake but a pun related to the firing of the Reddit AMA (ask me anything) manager. – TemplateRex Jul 6 '15 at 7:17
  • I know, but someone tried to fix it in an edit, so I decided to mark it. – Heptite Jul 6 '15 at 7:19
  • 3
    note on having someone in place to take over looks very well taken. Ignoring matters of bus factor always carries the risk of getting your back against the wall – gnat Aug 4 '15 at 14:30
7

As an Encyclopedia Dramatica SysOP and forum moderator my advice would be:

  • Always be sincere to your userbase
  • Don't treat them like children
  • If appropriate, do a full disclosure

Honesty is really the best policy.

Additionally, reddit / 4chan, etc. are really unique communities, since they have been built from the ground up by young people and are now trying to monetize their userbase.

Stack Exchange websites are basically a "niche" community. Reddit's userbase is extremely varied.

  • 2
    Just curious, why do you say they are unique because they were built by younger people trying to monitize? Several other sites were built by the younger generation (Facebook comes to mind as the largest) – Andy Jul 4 '15 at 1:13
  • 2
    Even though Zuckerberg "created" Facebook, he started bringing people and expanding early. Went from "startup" to company phase very fast. 4chan was m00t only, he tried monetizing 4chan since the beginning. Redit was several people, and was in "startup" phase for a very long time. Difference between reddit / 4chan and facebook - Zuckerberg didn't let the fame go to his head. Both m00t and alexis started viewing themselves as "venture capitalists" – Sibin Grasic Jul 4 '15 at 1:15
  • 1
    And both reddit and 4chan made the same mistake that Digg did years ago. They attempted to censor free speech on platforms designed to encourage it! – Sibin Grasic Jul 4 '15 at 1:19
  • 6
    @SibinGrasic: Did you seriously just claim that Mark Zuckerberg hasn't let fame go to his head?!? – Mason Wheeler Jul 4 '15 at 1:33
  • 5
    Allow me to correct myself - Fame getting to his head didn't cause any problems on Facebook itself :) – Sibin Grasic Jul 4 '15 at 1:54
0

Let's take the example of Stack Exchange: I think there is no risk of a "Reddit-like" crisis on Stack Exchange. The reason is that Reddit is rather unessential, whereas Stack Exchange has become an everyday work tool for many. In absence of viable alternatives, people will always come and play by the rules, whether they agree on how the site is run or not, because they need. If your community provides value, I think you can simply run it just the way you please.

So my piece of advice is "keep on providing value". I believe big omni-aggregators will always rise and fall, those who produce tangible value are more likely to stay around and have definitely more power over the multitude of the users, even the 'key' ones for that matter.

  • 4
    People do not generally need to post answers on Stack Exchange sites, and Stack Exchange sites are only "an everyday work tool for many" because of the excellent answers here. So if the SE admins decided to sabotage the network by managing the sites poorly, they could certainly bring about a destructive exodus. – ruakh Jul 5 '15 at 9:01
  • 1
    @ruakh : I have more than a gut feeling that sometimes, especially on Stack Overflow (which is a case of study per se), the user posting the answer is way more in need of doing so that the one who made the question in the first place! As for managing the sites poorly, I am not trying to make a point here but, if you think for one minute, the welcome pack for the "noobs" is incredibly bitter. It's not unusual people are treated like shite on Stack Overflow, and there is a hidden pleasure in doing so. Plus, there are nonsensical rules we abide because there's no choice. – gd1 Jul 5 '15 at 9:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.