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.

The reaction from the community was swift, loud and predictable (for veteran community professionals, anyway). Extreme disapproval. For examples, read this, this and the CMG CEO’s apology (more on that in a moment).

Deceptive Activities

A CMG employee identified as Steve apologized and took responsibility for what happened. In his announcement, he explained that posts made on Homesteading Today had been taken automatically, using RSS feeds, and posted on two other forums owned by CMG. Not only that, but they had also posted canned responses from these accounts, to make it appear as though these were real people posting on these other online communities.

Steve said that he acted alone and that no one else at Homesteading Today or CMG was aware of these activities. He apologized, admitted that he was wrong and that it was unethical. Steve said that he would be resigning any day-to-day authority over Homesteading Today, effective immediately.

While Steve’s message was a pretty straightforward admission of guilt and acceptance of responsibility, there is a lot wrong with what transpired.

Community Posts Are Personal – Not Just Content in a Database

You can’t just buy a forum, take the posts made by members and put them wherever you want, attributing them to random usernames. We’ll get into the legality of this mess later, but at the very least, it is highly unethical and misleading.

To take someone’s posts – where they often share parts of themselves and their lives – and republish them elsewhere without permission, removing their name from their words, is wrong. To be clear, even if you used their name, it would still be a bad practice. But attributing it to someone else makes it much worse. Their posts represent their experiences as a human. That can be very personal. It’s jarring and disheartening to see your words taken and used by someone else.

What About the Members of the Other Forums?

A lot of the focus on this story will understandably me on the members of Homesteading Today. But let’s talk about the members of Cattle Forum and the other forum where content was republished.

Let’s imagine that you visit an online community and you find a person who is posting cool stuff. You interact with those posts. You like them and feel like you know them a bit. And then you find out they don’t exist, that the owners of the forum have created a fake account. Your emotions – the way you felt toward that member – were just a game meant to generate more forum activity.

I feel strongly this is evil, and I have spoken out about this practice persistently. Creating fake accounts is lying, and you should not lie to your members. It isn’t hard to ethically seed an online community. Lazy people who lack ethics rely on deception to grow their online community. It is not an admirable practice. It is not a legitimate practice. Period.

Once You Lose the Trust of Your Community, You May Never Get it Back

When people catch you in a genuine lie one time, you have breached their trust. It is so hard to get that trust back. The cost of lying is so great, that it should scare anyone from lying to their community. I am pretty upfront with the members of my community for this reason. You may not like me, you may not agree with me, but I will tell you what is going on. You can leave, you can stay, but I don’t lie to you.

Without trust, it is very difficult to build community. This is the type of situation that can do irreparable harm to a community.

Legal Issues and the Terms of Service

Note: this post represents a general discussion of legal topics, not legal advice.

Part of the discussion, from members of the community, has centered on the terms of service (TOS) and what Homesteading Today is legally entitled to do with their posts. There is some conflicting information on Homesteading Today and in the terms of service agreements that exist. In order to get a full picture of the agreements in place, I went through the registration process for joining the community.

When I registered, I was prompted with a link to the CMG TOS agreement. I had to check a box indicating that “I have read, and agree to abide by the Carbon Media Terms & Conditions.” This effectively binds me to this agreement from this day forward. The agreement includes this passage:

By posting content on the Websites, you also grant, and warrant that you have the authority to grant, the Company a perpetual, royalty-free, non-exclusive worldwide right and license to display, reproduce, adapt, modify, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, play, make available to the public, use, and exercise all copyright and publicity rights with respect to any and all content that you post on the Websites. If you do not wish to grant Carbon Media Group these rights, do not submit content to the Website.

The part about having a perpetual, royalty-free, non-exclusive worldwide license is fine. It’s common and necessary. Online communities must have this, in order to properly function. You can’t allow a person to join your community, make a few thousand posts and then demand you delete all of them. It’s harmful to the community as a whole (more on that shortly). The key here is “non-exclusive.” This clause may be a bit overzealous (“exercise all copyright and publicity rights”), but it’s not too bad.

However, a big problem is that is unclear how long these terms have been in place. Since CMG bought the site in July, they could not have been in place prior to that. A bigger problem: unless CMG specifically asked members to agree to those terms when they updated them, the only members who they apply to are people who registered for the community after they added the link in the registration form, with the check box.

It doesn’t matter that the CMG agreement says this: “If you visit, use, post on, or otherwise interact with our Websites, you accept these conditions, so please read them carefully.” This is considered “browsewrap.” If you link to your user agreement somewhere on your website, but never actually make people agree to it by clicking a button, that’s a browsewrap agreement. As we learned when Zappos’ TOS was invalidated in court, a browsewrap agreement is not an agreement at all.

Instead, you should make people have to click a button to agree to your TOS. This is called “clickwrap.” For example, include it as part of the posting process. Each time a person submits a post, include language next to the submit button that says that by submitting this post, they agree to your terms of service. This constitutes an actual action, rather than an assumption.

Conflicting Agreements

However, there is more going on here. The FAQ, linked at the top of the page, includes a “terms and conditions of use.” That document includes this passage:

Any communication which you post to the Site or transmit to or to the Site by e-mail, private message (PM), public post and/or other medium can be used by on a royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive license with the right to reproduce, modify, publish, edit, translate, distribute, perform, and display the communication alone or as part of other works in any form, media, or technology whether now known or hereafter developed, and to sublicense such rights through multiple tiers of sublicenses. …

It’s fairly similar to the other clause, but there are some differences. That said, directly above the agreement, there is an FAQ entry for “Who owns the content of this site?” Here’s the answer:

When someone posts original content on this site, the content enters the public domain. As such, the moderators of this site are free to censor, edit, ban, publish or delete any information voluntarily posted to the site, with the possible exception of previously copyrighted work that does not belong to the poster. In that case, the work shall retain whatever copyright terms and conditions that it had previous to being posted here and should be shown to be so copyrighted.

Emphasis mine. This is separate from the terms of service, you could argue. But it is in direct conflict to it. If a work enters the public domain, you don’t need licenses and sublicenses. You can give it to whoever you want. So can I. So can anyone. So to suggest that a license exists, but then say that posted content is in the public domain, is a contradiction. It can be one or the other. It cannot be both.

Are They Legally Right?

As I said, I believe they are ethically wrong. But are they legally right? That depends.

It depends on whether or not the members they took content from actually agreed to a terms of service permitting them the right to use the content however they want. If that happened, then they may very well have the legal right to use that content. Even if they have that right, the members who made the posts still own their words – Homesteading Today just has the ability to use them in this manner.

If anyone were to suggest that these posts are in the public domain because of the FAQ text, I would say one thing: good luck. No legal advice here, but my expectation is that any judge would laugh at that idea. You’d need more than an FAQ page entry for a relinquishment of rights like that. Edit: plus, as copyright consultant Jonathan Bailey pointed out in the comments, it is practically impossible to voluntarily release a work into the public domain in the U.S.

If they cannot show that members agreed to a terms of service permitting this use, then most likely we revert back to square one, rights-wise. This would mean that each individual member would own the the rights to all original posts they submitted. When they chose to submit their posts to Homesteading Today, members had a desire for their words to be displayed on the website. Due to that, it would be reasonable to at least infer that they had granted Homesteading Today a non-exclusive license to display those posts on the Homesteading Today forums.

However, for the reasons described above, even if they can show they have the legal right, they would have to be insane to actually exercise that right in this way. That right should be used to share a public post on television or in a blog post – properly attributed. It should not be used to take someone’s words, post them on a totally different website, and say someone else said them. That is madness.

Finally, let’s not forget that being legally right doesn’t always mean you are doing right by the community.

The CEO’s Response

No doubt aware of the massive firestorm on the community, Hyatt Chaudhary, the CEO of CMG, posted a long apology message on Tuesday. Unfortunately, it became clear that Chaudhary was not particularly well versed on how to interact with the members of the community his company owns. As such, he took a bad situation and made it worse. There are things he said that were OK, even good. There were many things, however, that only made matters worse.

When you treat people like this, when you make such a big mistake, they only want to hear very specific things. They want to hear that you know you were wrong, they want to hear you apologize, and they want to hear you say what you are doing to make it right. That’s all. Here are things they don’t want to hear:

  • That your company is not full of “suits.”
  • That your company is full of young families who rely on you for a living.
  • The implication that, by being angry, they are trying to put young families on the street.
  • That you are one of them because you garden.
  • That your company is not evil.
  • The implication that some of the people who disagree with your actions are just bitter/out to get you.
  • That you have great upgrades planned for the future.
  • That you can’t control all of your employees.
  • That you will be available for one week to answer questions. (Why are you saying you only have a week for the members of your community?)

Some of these things are obvious. But, for all of them, people generally do not care. Not unless they ask about those things specifically. There are definitely some people on the community that are grinding an axe. But you shouldn’t say that. It does no good. This is all seen as an attempt to talk around the problem, to obfuscate. Get to the point and be contrite.

Though some members responded to it positively, most did not. Most took him up on his offer to answer questions, but his answering of them was decidedly unsatisfactory. His responses were short, curt, defensive. As an example, this was his first reply on the thread he started (after some specific questions had been asked):

I have listened to replies and complaints. I have reprimanded Steve and I promise you he will never be a part of this forum. What else do you want me to do? You tell me and I will make it happen, but Angie and the other mods honestly had nothing at all to do with this. Blame me, blame Steve, but please do bring the others into this. Steve did this and I’m the CEO and employ Steve and will take the blame, but no one else honestly knew about this, including myself. We are honest people just trying to do our best and we are spending SO much time trying to get you guys a better forum. Villaininize me as much as you want, but i have nothing to hide – I’m honestly here for you guys, period. Go ahead and beat me up, but I’m you’re biggest advocate.

No specific answers. Just pushing hostility back onto members of the community. As you can see if you read the thread, it only grew worse from there.

He apparently violated community norms by using profanity – multiple members called him out for it – which should never have happened. In fact, the guidelines (as vague and unhelpful as they are) for the community seem to have been suspended during these threads, creating a challenging environment for productive discussion. If you are going to say that the community must be civil, then that should also apply to discussions like this. Instead, plenty of people (including the CEO) are being allowed to objectively violate that policy.

A moderator, wr, rightfully called Chaudhary out on his attempts to show he was one of the community. “If you’re so very involved in living the life, why wait until now to join us and how often do you plan on visiting after the big scandal?,” he wrote. It’s hard to argue that. The moment they bought this forum, the CEO should have been on it. By participating casually, he would have built trust and credibility he could now use. People would know him and be more likely to trust him. Fair or not, all he looks like now is a greedy businessman exploiting the community.

To his credit, I think Chaudhary’s responses have improved since he started that thread initially. As such, the community has responded more positively.

Bad Decisions Are Being Made to Placate the Community

Now that Chaudhary and co. have dug this hole, they are in a mode where they are agreeing to ideas suggested by members, in an effort to win them back, that may be harmful in the long term. They have lost the ability to lead.

For example, Chaudhary first agreed to delete the posts of any member who requested that he do so. This is a terrible idea. If CMG had anyone at the company who knew community, that person would tell Chaudhary this. Mass deletions harm the community. If you remove 10,000 posts from a forum, 100,000 posts and 10,000 members might be affected in a negative way.

To elaborate on this, when you have a discussion, each reply builds on what came before it, even speaking directly to a point that was raised or the member who raised it. If you delete large groups of posts, it devalues the contributions of the other members and gives the appearance that they don’t make sense. You can’t allow someone to harm your members that way. It’s not fair.

Later, Chaudhary backed off that statement and said he would only delete accounts. Removing accounts/identifying characteristics is a more reasonable solution. But the fact that he had to back off the initial statement can’t have helped his credibility.

Another example is when one member suggested that moderators and administrators be appointed “by popular vote.” This is almost always a bad idea. It turns moderation into political campaigning. The best moderators and administrators are often unpopular with at least a portion of members. Moderation is not a game and the best moderators are normally not the people who the average member would vote for. A moderation team needs to have a strong leader that carefully selects moderators to ensure they represent the best of the community, know the tools and can work in a team environment.

Elections mostly lead to a collection of individuals, not a cohesive team. Too many private moderator forums are just a collection of randomly assembled people arguing about what to do. It’s not productive.

Just because someone has 5,000 posts on a forum doesn’t mean they know anything about managing a community. Just because they have moderated a forum before doesn’t mean they know how to do it well. It’s one of those things that a lot of people think they understand, but few do.

Unfortunately, since CMG has now lost the trust and ability to lead, they may very well concede on these issues as a means of saving their investment. Again, this reeks of a company who bought big communities without strong internal community voices at the company.

This doesn’t mean that this is not a good time to get feedback from the community. But maybe the person who decides what feedback to act on should not be the CEO.

What Should Have Happened

Before I say anything, I have only been watching this from the outside. I have spent hours upon hours reading posts on Homesteading Today, but it is fair to say there is a limit to my knowledge. With that in mind, here are some suggestions on where this should have gone.

Before this happened, people from the company should have been active participants in the community in order to demonstrate that the company was there to support the community, not simply exploit it. Obviously, they should have never republished those posts. But that ship has sailed.

Once they were caught, they should have deleted all republished posts (which I believe they did). This should have been followed by a better apology. One without all of the extra stuff. Simple, to the point, contrite. Answer people, don’t be defensive. Allow a substantial period of time for it to be addressed before moving on. Then, spend every day from that point forward earning back the trust of the community by never doing anything like that again.

You have lost the trust of many members. Some of them will never trust you again. But if you are going to earn the trust of some, you have to demonstrate that you care about the community, not just say it. That’s going to take a long time and won’t be solved in a day, week or month.

What Should Happen Now

The hole is so deep now, that there is a lot to work through. While the impact is notable, it might be exaggerated a bit if you are not reading other threads on the community. Other sections on the site continue. Possibly less active, but they gave moved forward nonetheless. This doesn’t matter to every member. Many of Homesteading Today’s visitors are unaware of this issue (and some others probably don’t care). Of course, a ton of active members care and that is more than enough.

To begin, I’d make 100% sure that this was fully cleaned up. Make sure none of those copied posts remain anywhere. Then, I’d try to reboot the CEO’s apology to be more in line with what I described above. Start over once more. He said he would answer questions, so he should do so. Not with short answers. Not by writing “ABOVE” to every question he thinks he’s already answered. But by taking the time to answer.

Next, ideally, I would hire a professional community manager – someone who understands how community spaces work, how to treat members and how to deal with challenges like this. Hire a good person, pay them well to clean up your mess and get the heck out of their way. A fresh face could do a lot of good. Someone who is free from the baggage and not personally involved could lend a much needed, independent perspective. That could begin the healing with a fresh start. Unfortunately, they may not be willing or able to make that sort of financial commitment. In which case, maybe they can hire someone part time, possibly even hire a consultant.

They need someone who knows what they are doing to instill some professionalism into this operation.

Outside of that, they could try to identify someone within the company or community. However, if it is someone already at CMG, that might lead to the community doubting their intentions.

While picking someone from the community might seem like a good idea, it could lead to some issues. It will be a challenge to find someone who isn’t so connected with the baggage and has to worry about their loyalties. There is a simple reality here: CMG owns Homesteading Today and whoever leads the community will need to have a good working relationship with them. So while you could hand the keys to a community member, there still needs to be solid cooperation. Otherwise, you’ll just be dealing with drama down the line. You can’t put a community member in charge and say you’ll leave them alone/ignore them.

The role of administrator is not a volunteer role and shouldn’t be looked at as such. A community as big as Homesteading Today requires someone full time. Volunteer moderators are wonderful, and I have had  approximately 150-200 of them over the years. But it is unfair to expect volunteers to shoulder the load. In addition, they need management and leadership to be as successful as they can be. They need to be a tight unit working toward a common goal, not a collection of individuals. There needs to be one person who, at the end of the day, provides definitive answers and the leadership necessary to move forward.

There is a lot to be learned from this situation. I wish everyone involved the best of luck.

Thank you to Jonathan Bailey for making me aware of this story.