On Thanksgiving, television producer Elan Gale live-tweeted his side of a contentious exchange with another passenger, on board a flight. If you haven’t heard the story, you should read this Storify post. Be sure to click “Read next page” at the bottom of the embedded tweets and photos, as there are a couple of pages.

There is a lot of speculation about this story and you can do a Google search for that. I don’t know that I believe the story (edit: looks like my suspicions were correct). But for the sake of this article, let’s assume that the story is true and that it is precisely as Mr. Gale described, from his notes, to Diane and her personality.

My family has spent a lot of time working in the service industry, but I don’t think much of Mr. Gale’s actions. It’s hard to take a high ground, as he attempts to do on his blog, when your actions are no better (and, in my opinion, worse) than the target of your criticism.

But that’s not really the focus of this article. As I was reading about this story, I couldn’t help but find the dynamic of Mr. Gale interacting with a fellow passenger to be similar to how members of an online community sometimes interact. That’s what I want to talk about.

Mr. Gale Made it Worse for the Flight Attendant

It’s very easy to put this in the context of an online community. One member observes another member being a jerk to a moderator or to a random nice, polite member. They decide to take matters into their own hands and go after the member, much like Mr. Gale went after Diane.

You don’t want members who will do what Mr. Gale did. You don’t want members who will defend you, your staff or other members from rude people at any cost. Members like that are destructive to your community and, even though they are defending you, they hinder the work that you are doing.

A simple way to illustrate this is to understand that Mr. Gale’s actions were an effort to defend a flight attendant from a rude, entitled passenger. He didn’t like how that passenger was treating the attendant and this was his attempt to tell that person off. From his blog post, if you look at his actions in the best possible light, you can gather he was doing it to help the flight attendant – to make their job better and to express support for them.

Here’s the gigantic problem: he made the attendant’s life worse.

Make it About the Community, Not About You

Smart people in the service industry know how to manage people – and they know how to manage difficult people. This is especially true for flight attendants who have authority over their domain – the small cabin inside of an aircraft. They are trained in how to work with difficult customers. Mr. Gale hindered the flight attendants ability to manage the situation because what Mr. Gale did was antagonize the difficult customer and agitate her further. Who has to deal with the fall out of that? The flight attendant and the airline. Mr. Gale made that person’s life harder – not better.

Those who do what Mr. Gale did operate under the guise of a common good but, in reality, it is about their individual battle with this person and how they can best them. How they can outsmart them, make fun of them or verbally assail them in a more impressive way. You have to increase that “virality” for the internet, after all. They don’t understand the greater context and impact of their actions because they have tunnel vision.

It’s like when a veteran member of your community starts treating others rudely. They don’t understand that other members will see that and do as they do – especially newer ones. They don’t understand the wider context of their actions and the influence they have.

Report, Don’t Respond

People talk about the idea of a community that self-moderates. While involving the community in (some levels of) moderation can be useful, this is an example of self-moderation at work. For better or worse.

On my communities, if a member sees any behavior that violates our guidelines, I always encourage them to report it to the staff, rather than responding to it. Responding to it just makes it worse, in every way.

  1. It bumps the thread – and the bad post – back up to the top of the community, bringing more eyeballs to it.
  2. A member can’t remove content, so they don’t have the authority to moderate. All that is left is a downward spiral.
  3. Hostility only breeds more hostility. If we have a fool on our community, don’t argue with the fool. As Jay Z once said, “people from a distance can’t tell who is who.”

On the other hand, reporting it instead of responding helps in every way possible.

  1. The conversation is not bumped back up, so less people see the inappropriate post.
  2. People who can remove it (moderators and myself) will now see it faster, thanks to the report. Otherwise, we might miss it in a community with many contributions.
  3. The person doesn’t get a response, so they aren’t encouraged to act that way.

Entitlement is Entitlement is Entitlement is Bad

“Most people are great,” Mr. Gale writes in his blog post. “And then there are a bunch of Diane’s in the world. And it’s OUR job to tell every Diane to shut up. It’s OUR duty to put the Diane’s of the world in their place. We need to REMIND them about the way of things.”

But this is, in itself, a form of the entitlement he rails against. It was not his job. It was not his duty. In overreaching, he made it harder for those whose job and duty it actually was – the flight attendant. He created an environment that was more hostile, more stressful and required more effort to manage.

Having a Positive Impact

If he really wanted defend the flight attendant and support him or her, there are plenty of things he could have done, such as:

  1. He could have written the flight attendant a note, expressing compassion and appreciation for what they do and then slipped it to the attendant discreetly. The attendant would have appreciated it and, at the same time, not had to deal with two difficult passengers, instead of one.
  2. He could have noted the attendant’s name and, after the flight, called the airline and complemented the attendant’s performance. Maybe it gets back to them, maybe it doesn’t, but things like that do contribute to an improved career for that person.
  3. He even could have written a note to Diane with a different spin, apologizing for her difficult day and offering to buy her a tea or a coffee or anything. Though I believe it is better that he not interact with Diane at all, at least that would have had a chance at diffusing the situation and actually helping the attendant. People have bad days and maybe this was Diane’s. That doesn’t make her actions OK, but it does give him the opportunity to make her day better and, as such, make the attendant’s day better. And at least it wouldn’t be destructive.

Any of those things would have been fine and would have accomplished his goal of honoring service industry workers. Instead, he made it about him, his confrontation and the attention he received online. All of which took him farther away from that goal.

In an online community, a member who sees this type of behavior can also have a positive impact. Here are some ideas:

  1. If you report the post, instead of responding to it, that has a positive impact. Moderators usually appreciate that you filed the report, rather than creating more work for them.
  2. You could send the moderator a private message thanking them for what they do.
  3. You could find a member who has just made a great contribution and publicly thank them for it, bumping that contribution higher than the one featuring the inappropriate behavior.

Don’t Lose Perspective

In closing, the main thing here is just to not lose perspective. As a community manager, you want to encourage members to understand the bigger picture and to help you to continue to create a great online community that offers value to them. As a community member, you should never lose sight of the fact that your conversation is bigger than just you and the person you are speaking to.