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The AP’s Anick Jesdanun writes today on the topic of online communities and how they enforce their guidelines/terms of service. She talks about different issues, including how these matters are handled, documented and resolved. I read the article with interest, as someone who manages online communities and someone who is a big believer in having goals in your community and actively aspiring to them, in everything that you do.

The article is aimed squarely at community managers and is just a bit too slanted against us. It’s very, very easy to talk about “censorship” or the “big guy picking on the little guy” and get a reaction from a majority of people who view it, against the person doing the “censoring” or against the perceived “big guy,” who could just be an individual community manager running his site as a hobby or small business. Anyone can do that. Too many people are predisposed against these things. However, that doesn’t mean that the community manager or managers have done anything wrong. A good chunk of this article amounts to: “corporation decides fate of individual behind closed doors.” That’s a great, dark picture, sure to attract some outrage. Of course, it’s not that simple.

The moment that anyone – namely, the government – tells me that I have to allow people to say whatever they want on my communities, or that I have to allow people to say whatever the government says they can say, that’s the moment I stop managing online forums and communities. You can throw my book away (that may be a little dramatic – it still has value, fear not! :)). I’ll go get a “normal” job or do something else because that won’t be a livable situation. The minute I am forced by law to allow lunatics to run roughshod on my communities, is the minute I stop doing this.

But, the good news is, I don’t see that happening. I mean, it could happen, in a doomsday scenario, but realistically, I see it as unlikely. So, this is all hypothetical.

Online communities are, almost all of the time, privately owned. It is for the people who own the website to say what happens on that site, within the scope of the law. If you want to allow people to say the F word, you’re choice. But, if you want to allow people to infringe on the rights of others, that’s not your choice. This is, in general, a good thing. Could be better, will never be perfect, but could be much, much worse.

One concern the article raises is that when a community enforces it’s guidelines and a member disputes it, those disputes are handled behind closed doors. This is said like it’s a bad thing. It’s not. It’s professionalism. This isn’t the court system, this is a privately owned community. People forget that people in “authority” (from the major corporation to the small community administrator) are held to higher standards than your average Joe.

Example: if average Joe says, “Company X is evil,” no one cares. But, if Company X says “Joe is evil,” then they are out of line. “Did they have to say that?” “It’s unprofessional.” “No one likes to see people air their dirty laundry.” People who make decisions are held to different standards. Airing dirty laundry is usually a bad idea; it usually creates more trouble and it is, above all else, not the most professional way of going about your business.

The article speaks of Flickr enforcing an “unwritten ban.” The bottom line is that you to have guidelines or terms of service written out, as comprehensive and clearly as you can. But, vagueness has it’s place and is necessary to ensure accurate wording and proper coverage. You want to be specific, but the danger of being too specific is in the people who want to read what you have as your policies and then think that, if your guidelines don’t cover it, it must be OK. People searching for loopholes, in other words. Again, this is holding corporations and managers to a much higher standard than everyone else. Why must we think of every single bad thing that someone could do on our communities? That’s not fair.

“You can never make a serious documentary if you always have to think about what Flickr will delete,” says Maarten Dors, a Dutch photographer whose picture of a child smoking a cigarette was pulled, multiple times, by Flickr, before eventually being allowed. You should never show a serious documentary where it’s not appropriate to be shown. How do you decide that? You ask the people who are in charge of the area you want to show it or you refer to their policies.

You don’t take a shot in the dark, hope it will be alright, and then be surprised when it isn’t. “Serious documentaries” can include nudity and grotesque violence. You wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) be allowed to show this on the random city street, so why should you be allowed to show it on any website that you, yourself, deem appropriate? It’s not for you to say what you can throw in front of other people in an area that isn’t yours to monitor.

“There may be legitimate reasons to take action, such as to stop spam, security threats, copyright infringement and child pornography, but many cases aren’t clear-cut, and balancing competing needs can get thorny,” writes Jesdanun. Who would you have to be to tell me, or any community owner or manager, what “legitimate reasons” are for our organization, our community? I think that vulgarity is a legitimate reason on my sites. And, yet, you may not view it as one. Does that mean I’m wrong? No, it doesn’t. It means that I understand what my community is all about, what the principles of the community are, what goals that we have – and I am committed to those being realized.

The article takes an unfortunate tone in, more or less, saying that just because one can cite a half a dozen instances of something not working, that means it’s broken. You can find plenty of instances of any process not working. That doesn’t mean the process is broken or not the best possible one. Again, this is an example of those, who have the tough job of making these decisions, being held to super high, unreasonable standards. I can never make a mistake? Ever? A community manager can’t make a mistake? If we do, all of our guidelines and our system of moderation is a mistake? That’s like saying that just because someone runs one red light, they should never drive again.

From reading the article, it looks like Yahoo!/Flickr made an unintentional “mistake”, if you want to call it that. They fixed it and apologized. But, do you have any idea of how much volume they have on their site in terms of content? It’s crazy. I’m not saying that that makes mistakes acceptable, it’s way too easy to sit back and pick apart individual moves in that sort of situation. Until you are at the helm, you usually have little idea and, sometimes, this can lead to one seeing themselves as the victim of some evil plot, that doesn’t exist, because they had some content removed.

Further, Jesnanun says that “users can find content removed or accounts terminated without a hearing. Appeals are solely at the service provider’s discretion.” Without a hearing? It is unreasonable and, I feel, awfully entitled to feel that communities have to hold a “hearing” to remove content or people from their servers. Do you know what sort of backlog I would have to create if I held a “hearing” (how would that even work?!) for every spammer I’ve had to ban? In parts, this article reads as though it is from the perspective of someone who doesn’t fully understand or appreciate the challenges that we, as community managers, must face on a daily basis, to ensure that our site’s maintain the level of appropriateness that our audience expects and that we require.

As far as appeals, they should be “solely at the service provider’s discretion.” Similar to what I said earlier, the moment that anyone tells me that I have to allow some random slimeball on my site because of some third party “appeals” process, I’m done. That would create chaos.

I don’t want to say that the whole article is “against” community managers. There are some good things in it and some practices that we should already be doing. You should make your guidelines as clear as possible while also leaving room for them to actually be workable. You also want to make the “mechanisms for appeal” clear, too. This can be as simple as telling people that if they have any questions regarding administrative actions, that they should contact you.

You should do whatever you can to ensure consistent enforcement of them, through staff guidelines, through training, reviewable documentation and good examples of suspicious activities. Documentation is crucial, as well, in mistake correction, when mistakes are made. When they are, fix the situation, apologize and move forward.

There are people who abuse the system to get content removed because they don’t like it. This is especially true with the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act). But, again, that doesn’t mean the entire system is bad. On my communities, nothing is ever removed because someone “doesn’t like it” – that isn’t a reason, all and of itself. Good management minimizes these sorts of instances and, while it can be a problem, more so with very, very large sites, I don’t think it’s as big a deal as some might suggest.

“Few service providers actively review content before it gets posted and usually take action only in response to complaints,” Jesnanun offers. But, what is left out is the fact that this is, in itself, a problem. I see plenty of community managers who don’t act until they receive a report. As a copyright holder, it frustrates me when people are happy to use my work until I call them on it. I have written before about the need to be proactive in these matters. What I see as a problem in this day and age, as much or more so than overzealous management, is inactive management where people just keep the site online and are happy to infringe upon the rights of content creators – until they receive a DMCA notice, that is. This is a two way street and there is a happy medium between the two that many, many community managers find.

In response to YouTube’s policy of not showing videos that depict anyone “getting hurt, attacked or humiliated”, the author suggests that “showing the video is legal and may provoke useful discussions on brutality.” That’s a dangerous position to take, I feel, that could be used to justify anything. Just because something may provoke useful discussions, that doesn’t mean that it should be acceptable. Nudity can provoke useful discussions, clips of someone being savagely beaten can provoke useful discussions, vulgar arguments can provoke useful discussions… but, does that mean that you want them on your website? You might or you might not, but you shouldn’t be forced to allow it. There are websites where anything goes. But, the entire internet should not and does not need to be like that.

Toward the end of the article, in reference to eBay’s approach to dealing with it’s community, Jesdanun says that “[t]he site took the unusual step of soliciting community feedback…” The unusual step? I know a lot of community managers and a lot of webmasters. That’s not an unusual step. That’s really quite normal. I welcome feedback with links on every page of my site. Any good administrator or manager is open to feedback and most forums have some sort of set up that allows people to send it. It’s not unusual at all.

And then we have this part, which is really quite telling: “… but as Internet companies continue to consolidate and Internet users spend more time using vendor-controlled platforms such as mobile devices or social-networking sites, the community’s power to demand free speech and other rights diminishes.

Wow. “Demand free speech” and other “rights”? This is a problem where someone points to a few instances, drums up hot button words that are sure to get random people angry and then makes claims that cater to those people. Articles like this will pop up from time to time.

But, it needs to be broken down like this. A website is like a piece of land that you own. What you do with that land is up to you, within the law. If you want to leave it undeveloped, you can. If you want to put up a pretty picture and put a fence up around it (no social interaction, only viewing), you can. If you want to make it inviting and invite people on to your land, asking them to abide by a set of guidelines, you can. When people start making “demands” about their “rights” on the piece of land, that’s when they may have crossed a line, either not realizing the situation, poorly phrasing their words or maybe becoming a bit too self important.

Before I close this out, let me say that, obviously, the people in the community are of great, great importance to the community itself. The people in the community are a big part of what make the community. Without people, you have no community. I love all of the members that visit, benefit from and fervently support my communities. I’m here for them, I do what I can for them. I want to hear their feedback, I want to know what they think and, if I can help it, I want them to be happy. This will not come at the cost of having a sense of order or having our guidelines properly and comprehensively enforced, but I do whatever I can for my members and I’m always here to listen or talk with them. They are of the utmost importance to me.

With that said, if a member contacts me and issues me demands or ultamatums, I will usually make it clear to them not to do that again. I want their feedback and I am very, very happy and interested to hear respectfully offered feedback. But, I’m not here for people to make demands of me, extort me or give me ultimatums. That’s not how it works. “Power to the people” is great, but respect of the people is just as important. Let’s not forget that “the people” are the ones that own these websites, in the first place and those people deserve the “power” to make decisions about that which they are responsible for. No one else.