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I am the administrator and leader of an online community designed for peaceful discussion of Christianity and other faiths, and any relevant events or topics. The community is a single thread, a wall which members post on. Certain topics, whenever they are brought up, anger and/or distress the members of this community.

However, some members will willingly instigate a discussion, usually without realizing the consequences. When an argument happens, everyone gets caught up in it until the topic is changed. We have one specific topic which is identified in the group rules as a problem topic and not to be approached, but many members do not see that rule as legitimate. I figure I have two options:

  • Discipline members who bring up problem topics so that they are discouraged from bringing it up again. If they repeatedly start conversations on this topic, consider removing them from the community. If this course of action were to be taken, it would be made clear that the topic is considered a problem topic and why. As of now I can only think of three, so this would be fairly easy to maintain.

  • Encourage other discussion when a problem topic comes up without taking other action.

What should I do to retain harmony in the community? Any suggestions other than those I've listed are welcome.

It may be worth noting that the community is almost entirely composed of children and teenagers, without the level of self-control to be expected of adults. The answers provided on the related question are helpful, but don't really solve our problem. I'm looking for a way to avoid discussion of these topics rather than make it civil.

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    Is your community single-threaded (like a chat room or an in-person discussion) or multi-threaded (like multiple posts with their own conversation threads)? That is, when an argument happens, does it derail the whole community, one small piece of it (one of dozens or hundreds of posts), or something in between? Also, how well can you characterize the topics that are going to cause problems -- does somebody know when he starts that he's wading into problem territory? (If you're going to discipline people, you probably want to factor in intent.) You can edit to add details.Thanks & welcome. – Monica Cellio Jan 7 '16 at 21:46
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  • Do you have a voting mechanism (on questions)? Is the community size/topic volume small enough to handle this all 'by hand'? – Jan Doggen Jan 14 '16 at 9:22
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If you are seeking to actively dissuade users from discussing certain things, I think a combination of your two options would be best. First, it's important to realize that most people - regardless of age - don't like to be told what to talk about. You will get push back. How you deal with that is going to show your community that you are firm in following the rules, yet willing to tolerate discussions that disagree with your point of view.

You mentioned that there are a few topics that have been forbidden. Write these down in your community rules. Don't surprise users with new, off topic topics. Make it clear what is off topic and potential consequences of breaking the rules. It's important to be open about what is off topic.

When a topic that has been forbidden comes up, the first step should be a warning that users are entering dangerous territory. Point them to a written rule that says this topic is off topic and encourage them to drop the subject. Sometimes, all that is needed is the gentle reminder of the rules. If the topic changes, no harm done.

If the topic doesn't change, then the consequences need to begin. It sounds like you are already planning to have escalating consequences. This is a good way to do it. Start will short period of time where the users involved can't participate in the chat - 1 minute, 5 minutes, 30 minutes, what ever is an appropriate time frame for your community. Present the user with a message on why they can't participate for that period of time, but they are welcome to return provided they can follow the rules.

When they come back, if the subject is dropped, no harm. If it comes up again, extend the punishment. Repeat until you reach some threshold that's appropriate for your community and then remove the user. This should be mentioned in the rules that it's a possible consequence.

Last, I recommend you find a way to 'reward' users doing the 'correct' things. This may be as simple as thanking a group of users for having a mature conversation about a difficult subject. It could be giving an in-community reward (more rep, a fancy profile, colorful username, name on 'user of the month' page, etc) for dissuading a forbidden topic from continuing. Using just discipline isn't going to work in an online community. If the community comes off as overbearing, users will leave.

  • Thanks for the answer! I'm going to have to take some time to consider how we might implement some of this, as our platform is very limited as to the control that administrators have. – Zenon Jan 13 '16 at 18:19
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I think there may need to be an outlet for discussing the difficult topics. In my university's comment board system (moodle), I am able to have multiple "chat rooms". If someone starts a topic inappropriate (say asks an intimidatingly hard question in what is meant to be a beginner's forum), I (and any other administrator) can just switch it to the appropriate forum. Anyone can in theory look at any forum, but most people only look at the main one, but some good conversationalists look at all of them, so this works pretty well.

  • Thanks for the answer, but our community is locked into a single-threaded environment, where we can't segregate discussion on different topics. – Zenon Jan 13 '16 at 18:17

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