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.

The history of the flag is beyond the scope of this article. Depending on the circles you run in, you may just see a lot of people agreeing with one another. However, this is a really divisive topic. If you want to see it in action, take a look at the “posts to page” section of the Facebook page for any of the retailers who have pledged to stop selling items with the confederate flag.

Arguing about the Confederate flag isn’t the point of this article (or the comments below). Instead, I’d like to take a look at how we might view this issue, and issues like it, as community professionals.

Motivations

Online communities are different from government buildings and retailers. Governments are expected to be a representation of the people they serve. The tide has shifted in a way where many representatives, urged by constituents, feel that the flying of this flag no longer represents their constituency overall. Some may be taking principled stands of their own (one way or another), but most are seeking to represent the people who will keep them in office.

From a retailer perspective, it is unseemly to profit from an object that a substantial amount of your customers view as symbolically racist. You could, of course, keep selling it, but it’s probably smarter business to stop. This will lead to people saying, “I’m offended by X, why are you selling it?” But that’s not the point. The point isn’t to stop selling every item that offends someone, it’s to not sell things that are generally viewed by many as offensive in the current societal landscape.

Online communities are similar to those circumstances, but different. When managing the community, we have a desire to represent the community, but we also work proactively to shape that community and guide it. Many communities work to be inclusive, which often manifests through standards of respect and civility. This commonly leads to offensive symbols being banned outright.

However, some communities are not as strict and choose to be more flexible in what they allow. This could very well be reflective of their community, the people within it and how they feel about the issue. Perhaps they might view it as a “free speech” issue, which really means that they are choosing to allow that speech.

Discussion vs. Promotion and Self-Identification

For our sake, it’s important to separate discussion of the flag vs. promotion of it. Communities will discuss things. Visual aides (like a picture of a flag) might be used in such a discussion (for example, someone who is explaining the numerous flags of the Confederate states). But that doesn’t mean you need to allow people to use the flag as an avatar. Granted, this can be a hard line to enforce, but it’s possible.

Just because you may not allow them to use an offensive symbol in their profile or identity on your community, that does not also mean that discussion, of whatever the symbol might evoke, cannot occur.

Questions to Ask

When you are thinking about how to handle issues like this, there are a series of questions that you can ask that may lead you to clarity.

1. How does your community feel about it?

You exist to serve your community, so it goes without saying that their feelings should be considered. For plenty of online communities, this is a non-issue – like the ones I manage, for example. As far as I know, we don’t have a single member who has the Confederate flag as an avatar. I can’t recall a member discussing it or mentioning it, in any context. In our world, it simply doesn’t exist.

This is aided by the fact that we don’t allow general political discussions. This entire discussion, of the Confederate flag being taken down, is not something we would even host. There is no shortage of places where people can discuss those topics online. They visit the communities I manage to talk about the martial arts, Photoshop or something else.

For that reason, and others, disallowing usage of the Confederate flag on our community is simply an extension of our existing policies regarding political and inappropriate content.¬†Even in the best light, the flag is associated with intolerance in a way that is inconsistent with the ideals of our community. That’s why your community guidelines should be somewhat specific, but also flexible. Your guidelines should allow you the room to work.

However, if you’ve built your community by letting people do pretty much whatever they wanted (see: reddit), then you are in a very different place. Your community could also be in a niche – such as being focused on the Civil War, in any way – where disallowing the use of the flag may prove to be problematic with your audience.

2. How will it reflect on your company?

If your community is owned by a company, regardless of how your members feel, you should think about how such a stance will reflect on the company. Given the current climate on this issue, what makes sense, in the context of being a good corporate citizen? How will your decision impact the way that your customers, employees and the public perceives your company? People vote with their time and their dollars. This is what Walmart, Amazon, eBay, Etsy, CafePress and others thought about.

3. How do you feel about it?

If there isn’t a good-sized, public-facing company that owns your community – if it’s just you – then you should apply the last question to yourself, instead. Consider how you feel about it and how it reflects on you personally. This is my situation. I manage my communities in a way that allows me to be proud of my work and to sleep at night. What does that mean for you?

4. What side of history do you want to be on?

Finally, I think that there is a larger question here, for communities and the companies and individuals responsible for them. When you look back on your decision, 10 years from now, how do you want to be viewed?

This post isn’t about the Confederate flag specifically, it’s about changing tides and attitudes and how our communities can adapt. When considering an issue like this, if you aren’t sure how to proceed, it can be helpful to talk to your community, your staff and professionals you trust. Consider the questions above, and you’ll find your answer.