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Building Quality Communities

I push my clients hard on the issue of active engagement and moderation as a way of setting tone – and elevating quality – in communities.

A great article today in Slate talks about what that looks like when it works:

Why is the Internet the place where civil discussion goes to die? It must be something in the tubes. Before there even was a mainstream Internet, in 1990, Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Mike Godwin coined Godwin’s Law: “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” If you put a group of slightly asocial, opinionated people behind usernames, the conversation descends into flame wars and miscellaneous insanity.

And everyone who had led communities knows what that’s like…but with a lot of effort, the community at Ask MetaFilter manages to be different.

To understand how AskMeFi encourages valuable typed conversation, I spoke with Jessamyn West, a noted rural librarian and one of the moderators at MetaFilter. From her home base in the center of Vermont, she spends a lot of time each day pruning and cultivating the threads at AskMeFi. Her ground rules are simple: “You have to answer the question. It doesn’t matter how funny your joke is, we’re going to remove it. Wisecracks don’t help solve problems.” She says that some members of the MeFi community feel that AskMeFi is too rigid, not playful enough, but West believes in keeping things goal-focused and civil: “It’s a living room, a clubhouse, please don’t come poop on our floor.”

Read the whole thing, as they say. One great point that I emphasize in practice as well:

When not watching the questions, West and her colleagues watch the responses. “It’s amazing how deleting an early, dumb, shitty comment about, say, how bad the U.S. health care system is can mean that the rest of the thread is normal and civil,” says West.

Setting the tone early – in small focused discussions during community launch, or at the beginning of threads in ongoing operations – makes all the difference in the world. If you walk into a bar and people are dancing on the tables and throwing glasses at the backbar – you’re going to norm your behavior and join right in. If you are met at the door by a waiter with a napkin over his arm and a tray of champagne flutes, you’ll norm your behavior quite another.

It’s the role of the community managers to meet newcomers at the door and help set the right tone. If yours don’t understand that, help them learn.