When we create a Facebook group, or a subreddit on Reddit, or a channel on Discord, or whatever, we are creating an online community.
Once we have an online community, we must curate it, by which I mean we need to maintain it and keep it healthy and welcoming. We need to make sure it stays active enough that it does not die out, and for that we need to make sure that people remain willing to participate and engage with it.
This article offers some of my current thoughts on curating an online space.
Of course, it is incredibly difficult to curate and maintain a community aimed at “everyone”, because “everyone” is a huge and diverse group of people, and it is almost impossible to keep the majority of such a community interested enough in the discussion and interaction for a long period of time.
Instead, most healthy online communities tend to be a bit smaller, with a more focused topic, with more specific rules about what behaviour is or is not permitted in that space. This allows the people who enjoy that kind of interaction on that subject within those parameters to continue enjoying their participation in the group, and so the community remains healthy and engaged.
If people don’t enjoy that kind of interaction on that subject within those parameters, then they can join or create a different online community to approach the subject in a different way. Then there can be two (or more!) healthy communities engaged with a subject in slightly different ways, and more opportunity for newcomers to find a version of the community that fits their needs and preferences.
It is no bad thing to decide that you want to run a community to serve a particular group of people with specific interests; after all, when we look for communities to join, we look for the kind of group that serves our particular interests. Businesses run successfully by noticing a “gap in the market”, where there is no business already serving a certain audience of customers, and then providing services tailored to that group of people. Online communities can do exactly the same thing.
But what’s the harm?
One of the reasons that people stop creating thoughtful pieces for a given group or community is because they feel that the signal-to-noise ratio is just too painful, with too much noise (perhaps in the form of memes, or low-effort contributions, or stuff that is off-topic and irrelevant), and just not enough engagement with the thoughtful pieces to justify taking the time to create them.
This then leads to fewer people taking that time to make thoughtful submissions, and so we see a negative spiral towards a situation where people only make low-effort and low-quality posts, because that’s all that the community seems bothered to engage with. The people who were previously willing to post thoughtful pieces go elsewhere or just stop contributing entirely.
If part of the community tries to push back against these low-quality, low-effort interactions, they often meet resistance in the form of the question “but what’s the harm in posting [jokes / memes / silly videos / off-topic stuff]?”, because for some people this is the ideal way to engage with the community and they don’t see a problem if other people stop posting or drop out of the interactions.
Unfortunately, the phrase “what’s the harm?” is one of the most destructive points of view when trying to curate an interesting and useful community, and it can easily drive away the people who would otherwise make thoughtful and valuable contributions. It is a justification of the low-effort contributors and leads to alienation of high-effort, high-quality contributors.
But it’s just a little fun!
It might be “just a little fun” to drop by an online space and post some joke or another, but if a majority of people do this for “a little fun” then it means the majority of participation is not serious. This causes a lot of noise in terms of the signal-to-noise ratio, drowning out the signal of more serious and valuable interaction.
Jokes and good humour are good things, don’t get me wrong, but if a majority of people make low-effort, low-quality engagements with the online community, then the majority of what fills the space will be low-effort and low-quality. Most people won’t make the effort to do better if there doesn’t seem to be any appreciation or desire for anything better.
Furthermore, if some people are having “just a little fun”, then they might be having it at the expense of other people, who might not be having any fun at all. For example, in an online community for Antarctic creatures, the leopard seals might be having “just a little fun” by referring to penguins as “lunch”, but the penguins will not have much fun whenever they hear that sort of thing. Eventually the penguins will feel inclined to leave the group because they feel pushed out by the bad-taste jokes of the leopard seals. The other creatures will then wonder why the penguins never post in the group anymore, and the answer is because the leopard seals made them feel sufficiently uncomfortable that the group became a toxic place for them.
When thinking about curating an online space, is this the sort of community you want to have? If low-effort is indeed your goal, then great, go ahead!
Otherwise, think about what the majority of engagements are like and whether or not this is the sort of thing you would hope to have. If you are not seeing as much of the kind of participation you would ideally want to see, then are you just not attracting the right people, or might it be that some of the participants are pushing out the people and engagements that you do actually want to see?
Who made you the fun police?
I received this position from the Fun Emperor, obviously. My commission and rod of office were delivered by clowns. (I often find that a silly answer is a perfectly good response to a silly question. While I was growing up, this often frustrated people, but then they stopped asking me so many silly questions. Success.)
When I am moderating an online community, my goal is not to stop people having fun. My goal is to keep things on-topic and within the rules and parameters of the group. There are plenty of groups and communities for joking around and making low-effort quips, where off-topic digressions are welcomed – and there’s nothing wrong with this, it can be a fun thing to do, especially in the pub with friends over a few drinks.
However, if an online community has a scope and topic, then it is part of the social contract for participants to stay within those boundaries where possible. The moderating team therefore has a duty to step in and keep things on-topic. Ideally, this should be by way of a gentle challenge (“can you make this relevant to the group’s topic?”) rather than just shutting things down, but sometimes it is impossible to make some discussions relevant and so it can be best just to ask people to stop. It does not have to carry any judgement about the people involved, it’s merely about staying on-topic in a focused group.
Having fun is good, but it’s important to know when to stop. We tend to moderate ourselves in real-world environments, perhaps especially while at work, so it is clearly possible to understand when somethings are appropriate and when they are not. As participants in online communities, we should apply that same set of judgements. As moderators of online communities, it is important to make sure that people realise that participation in your community requires that same set of judgements.
The choice between allowing everything or prioritising certain things
This can be quite a difficult balance to strike. Do you want to allow everything and be as accessible as possible to everyone with every interest? Or do you want to try to focus a little more, and prioritise certain things over others?
There is a good reason why many niche online subcommunities are created, even within a relatively niche community: because if you try and keep a group open to everything, you get everything, and most of that isn’t relevant to any one person’s interests. Having a group open to everything means that low-effort, low-quality participation is seen as just as valid (and just as valuable) as participation that requires a lot more knowledge, skill, experience, or even just more time and effort to put together.
Therefore, a group that allows everything equally without priority will often end up encouraging low-effort, low-quality engagements, because there’s no reason for anyone to put in any more effort than that. It drives out people who want better engagement because of the poor ratio of signal-to-noise.
Niche subcommunities, built around a more focused topic or with a more select audience, naturally prioritise certain topics or types of participation more than others. This means that for such discussion and participation to flourish, the moderating team has to try to keep the group on-topic and must sometimes tell people that some forms of engagement are not relevant or welcome. This can make the group (and perhaps the moderators) seem very stuffy to people who just want to have “just a little fun”, but it makes the group so much better for people who are interested in the subject that the group prioritises.
When you plant a garden, you get some lovely flowers, but you then need to maintain and tend to the garden so that it remains pleasant and is not overgrown by weeds.
Similarly, when you make a friendship, you have to maintain that friendship over the years by putting in some effort, otherwise the relationship is likely to lapse.
And when we make an online community, we have to curate it and maintain it, so that it is not overgrown with weeds and so that the various interpersonal relationships do not suffer. The simplest way to achieve this is by having a vision of what the community is for or about, and what the intended audience should be. If the moderating team are all on the same page about this, and are active in maintaining their online space, then the community can be a healthy and productive space.
Being a moderator for an online community is often a thankless task. Being a founder might seem like fun, but the real work that deserves greater recognition is in maintaining the space and keeping it alive and healthy.
But you don’t have to be a moderator to maintain your group. As a member of an online community, don’t be afraid to ask for better moderation. Show the moderating teams that there is a desire for these online spaces to be more than just meme repositories – unless the group is supposed to be for memes and joking around, in which case, fire away! Engage with people who post the kind of things you want to see more of and thank them for taking the time or for making the effort. If even just some people in any given online space do more of this, then the results will be obvious.
A question for you: can you think of any online community that you are part of, that you wish would have slightly better or more interesting participation? Is there anything you can do to improve that group, or to signal (to the people who matter) that you would like the group to be maintained better?
Here are a few other articles that I think are quite relevant to the subject:
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.