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“Free speech” and “freedom of speech.” These are terms you should never use to describe your community. It’s a common mistake made by people who mean well, but are brand new to community management.

What they generally mean: you can say whatever you want, as long as you follow these guidelines.

But that’s not free speech. Free speech doesn’t discriminate. Free speech isn’t just what you want, it’s what you don’t. There are some exclusions to free speech that exist in the law, but they don’t relate to most of the issues that you’ll face when working with a community.

What people will think you mean: I can say whatever I want!

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reddit Alienreddit is currently the talk of the online community world. For me, it’s a lot of old lessons coming back to the surface, yet again. Which is why I haven’t written much about it. But I saw a great comment on reddit by Slickdeals chief product officer Bryant Quan. I’m a long term user of Slickdeals, and I found his executive-level perspective to be quite compelling. His thoughts are re-published here, with permission.

I was one of the original founders, former CEO and now the Chief Product Officer, and as such I’ve had the opportunity to put a lot of processes in place, as well as help ask the right questions whenever we do things. Naturally all communities have their nuances and differences, but in the end, it boils down to respect. Respect the community: honor your users and content contributors for the work and effort they do.

Often this results in us taking a tradeoff in what we call “technical debt vs. community debt,” where instead of creating friction for our users, we take on a technical burden instead. For instance, we launched a redesign recently, and instead of forcing everyone over, we maintained a classic version of the website. We told ourselves that we would maintain two versions of the site for the foreseeable future and do our best to improve the redesigned version to the point that it compels people to switch (“lets make it so much better that they willingly switch”).

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European Court of Human Rights Credit: James Russell (CC BY-SA 2.0)

European Court of Human Rights
Credit: James Russell (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Earlier this month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Delfi, a leading Estonian news organization, could be held liable for comments posted on its website by readers.

That, in itself, is a scary prospect for community professionals. But the judgment is even worse when you consider that Delfi’s comments weren’t a total free-for-all. They may not have had the greatest moderation strategy in the world – far from it – but they did have comment guidelines, a report comment function and a notice-and-takedown system in place. The day the aggrieved party reported the comments to them, they removed them.

However, the party wanted more than removal of the comments: they wanted financial compensation. When Delfi balked, a lawsuit was filed and, 9 years later, we arrive at this judgment. The Court not only placed the liability on Delfi, but was critical of the simple existence of anonymous comments and provided confusing guidance on how Delfi could have avoided liability; outside of not having comments at all.

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Credit: eyeliam (CC BY 2.0)

Credit: eyeliam (CC BY 2.0)

In the wake of last week’s tragic shooting in Charleston, long-standing criticism of the Confederate flag has reached a high-point. This is largely due to the fact that the flag flies above the capitol building in South Carolina, the state where these 9 people were murdered, due to the color of their skin.

In response, many current and former government officials have said that it’s time for the flag to come down, out of respect for the victims. In other states, there are similar efforts underway to remove the flag from government buildings, state-issued license plates and more.

A bevy of retailers have pledged not to sell products featuring the Confederate flag, including Walmart, Amazon and eBay. For those of us who deal with community-generated content, it is worth noting that both Etsy and CafePress are among those banning the flag.

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I’ve never really liked temporary bans. When I ban someone, it means something. It’s not easy to be banned. My philosophy is that, as long as someone appears to be trying to follow our guidelines, we shouldn’t ban them.

That’s why I don’t like infraction systems and have never used them. Though I understand they are an invention of scale, if at all possible, access to a community shouldn’t be decided by an accumulation of points.

When it comes to being banned or not, it’s the member that really makes the choice. We just push a button.

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Ban All the ThingsFunny things happen when I write about the ability to ban people from an online community, as I did a month ago. I think it makes people uneasy, like it’s not something I should be talking about.

Some feel compelled to tell me how they don’t like to ban people, as if writing about it suggests that I do. Others tell me they prefer to take a softer approach, like I am a ban-crazy maniac. I prefer a lot of things – it doesn’t mean that all scenarios actually end up where I prefer. When I write about banning, the meme image to the right is how some see me, I’m sure.

And then there are the rare occasions where someone says they have never banned anyone.

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When it comes to banning and the purpose of banning, people often get it twisted. Even people who work in community management.

The purpose of banning isn’t to remove access as much as it is to curb behavior. Anyone who has been in this field for a little while knows that people can evade a ban and register another account. That’s not the primary point to banning.

The primary point is to provide a consequence for excessive and continual bad behavior. That consequence is the loss of reputation. While there is a group who won’t care, that’s a big deal for a lot of people. The desire to maintain their reputation is a powerful motivator for participating in line with the community guidelines and norms.

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Just over two years ago, I wrote about a restraining order issued in the state of Georgia, which was harmful to online communities. The order was requested by author Linda Ellis and targeted at Matthew Chan. Chan is the creator of ExtortionLetterInfo, an online resource and community that discusses (and criticizes) settlement demand letters issued by copyright holders.

Ellis authored a poem, “The Dash,” and has a reputation for aggressively pursuing those who share it online. According to Chan’s interview with Ars Technica in 2013, he was contacted by someone that Ellis had threatened. Instead of paying Ellis, they opted to pay Chan to publicize the incident. He used his website to criticize Ellis.

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Brian Walker is a patrol deputy in Kansas, who has been working in law enforcement since 2006. Alex Embry is a sergeant in Illinois and a member of his department’s SWAT team, having been involved with law enforcement since 2004.

Both Alex and Brian also happen to be longtime moderators for me on KarateForums.com.

I found the connection very interesting and so we sat down to discuss their work, on the community that I manage, and off of it. In part one of the conversation, we discussed the similarities between both positions, being seen as more than just an enforcer, and judgement calls and officer discretion. For part two, we touched on the dark side of authority: abuse of power and corruption.

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Homesteading TodayHomesteading Today is a very large online community dedicated to the practice of homesteading. The forum was acquired by Carbon Media Group (CMG) in July of 2014, as part of a large package of sites they bought from Group Builder.

Beginning late last year (according to this apology), the company started taking posts from certain sections of Homesteading Today and republishing them on other forums owned by CMG. The practice went unnoticed until a few days ago, when a member found that posts they had made on Homesteading Today were showing up on Cattle Forum, another CMG community.

The member, willow_girl, posted a thread talking about how she discovered that posts she made on Homesteading Today were showing up at Cattle Forum under the name “Alice.” She hadn’t made them and had no idea who Alice was. One of the posts shared a pretty personal story about saving a cow, which this Alice was now taking credit for.

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