Imagine this situation: you are contacted by the wife of a member of your community. The member registered six years ago and has made hundreds of comments. She tells you that this veteran member of your community is dead. He has committed suicide. For any community manager, this is a moment of sadness.
But, you are still the community manager and you probably know that people fake this stuff. So, you do what little research you can, without doing the unthinkable and asking the wife if she is making it all up.
You may not find enough details to be completely satisfied, but you also can’t find anything that makes you think, with absolute conviction, that the wife’s story is anything but true. And you can’t afford to be wrong with that sort of accusation because it is simply too cruel.
So, you set the wife up with an account and allow her to post about the passing of this person that other members of your community had known. You and your members share genuine feelings of grief and compassion for the widow. You are, after all, a community.
Unfortunately, though, something happens. You discover details that indicate that the member is alive. You ask the wife or, at this stage, the “wife” about them. He or she, you don’t know which, comes clean. And your heart sinks a bit because you know that you and your community have been tricked in one of the most awful ways, in a situation where you shared of yourselves – you shared your emotions and shared in the pain. You now know that the outpouring was for someone who was playing with those emotions, carelessly.
This isn’t some fictional story; this stuff actually happens. More than you’d think, probably.
It is exactly what happened on long running community MetaFilter last week, when the “wife” of member holdkris99 made a long post announcing that her husband had committed suicide. You can read the post and the comments and feel the emotion. Within a week, however, the staff at MetaFilter discovered that it was a hoax. If you were in their shoes, what would you do?
The team over there, including Matt Haughey, Jessamyn West and Josh Millard, deserve high praise for their great leadership in a difficult situation. Once they were able to confirm the details, they acted decisively to inform the community and protect it from further abuse from this individual.
Their announcement is a great example of the type of direct, honest dialogue that a community manager needs to offer when this sort of thing happens. You must have the courage to share the bad news. They talked about their outrage and their sadness. It wasn’t just regular members who were hurt by this – it was staff, as well, who had felt this loss. They shared the details of the situation and the action they took. They closed on a responsible note, urging the community not to take any retaliatory action against the member.
In short, this is how it is done. The MetaFilter team is a group of veterans and it is no doubt that strong experience that leads to such honest, balanced handling of a very sensitive, unfortunate situation.
When this sort of thing happens, as a person, it can drive you to get a little colder, to care a little less, to trust a little less. It’s easy to become jaded. But, you can’t lose your humanity. As community managers, we generally have limited means of tactfully confirming something like a suicide. You can only do what you can and then assume good faith because if it was you, if you were in the position to tell someone that a loved one had committed suicide, that is the treatment you would want. Will you be fooled sometimes? Perhaps. What’s the alternative? Interrogating any person who tells you they just lost a chunk of their world?
When someone pulls a hoax like this, you don’t look bad because you believed them, you cared and you were human. They look bad because they abused your compassion.