Thursday, September 30, 2010

Some advice for internet communities

There's been a big brouhaha over at Mormon Matters. Basically what happened is that the mostly absentee owner (whom I don't know, but whose work I admire) got into a kerfluffle with some of the admins (several of whom I know and admire), who had the temerity to question his decisions and think that they had the right to set community norms. So he revoked their admin privileges. (I'm sure that story sounds sadly familiar to some of my longest-time internet friends.) Very not cool.

I could write a lot more, but a) I'm not an insider and b) I've already made several comments on a couple of other blogs so I'm pretty much written out on the subject. All I meant to do was give a quick thumbs down at Main Street Plaza and delete Mormon Matters from my blogroll (so MM will lose the five hits a month it gets from here -- that'll show 'im), but I've gotten caught up in the conversation.

Anyway, you can read an ex-admin's side here, the owner's side here, and some back and forth about the story (including several longish comments by me) here. And you can look around the bloggernacle for more.

What I really wanted to do with this post is offer some advice to internet communities.

To begin with, don't assume that just because you and your friends do all the admin work and most of the posting on the site that it means that you "own" that site. If there's anyone (be it a person or a corporation) that has higher admin privileges than you and your friends, that's who owns the site.

That owner has the power of life and death over your community. They can quite literally pull the plug anytime they want. They can remove your admin privileges, they can delete everything you've ever posted, they can ban you from the site, they can delete the entire site. Just like the Mormon Matters bloggers, this is something I found out from personal experience.

Do you trust your site's owner with that power? Should you? Here are a few suggestions for how you might be able to tell.

First, is the owner a part of the community? Does s/he actively participate in its day-to-day running? Has s/he helped develop the community's rules and norms? Do they understand what the community is about? Does s/he know you? Is s/he your friend? Those are all positive signs. They greatly diminish the chances of having the plug pulled on your community.

On the other hand, is your site's owner an "absentee landlord"? Does s/he never participate in the community? That's a warning sign. It means s/he has no investment in the community and no incentive to preserve it for its own sake. Your community is in some danger.

Even worse, does your site's owner come by once in awhile and meddle? Does s/he show no understanding of the community's norms? Does s/he expect to be deferred to, even though you've done all the work of creating rules and values for your community? Does s/he expect not to have to follow the community's rules, or try to change them arbitrarily?

Those are serious warning signs. If you answer yes to them, it means that your community is in grave danger. It means that the owner a) doesn't care about your community, but b) feels like an owner. Which means that s/he feels free to come in and make changes at any time. And, because s/he doesn't understand or care about the community, those changes are quite likely to disrupt or even destroy it. It may not happen right away -- it may take years before it happens -- but it will.

So, what to do? If you can, decentralize power. There are ways to make sure no one person has the power to destroy the community. Here's an interesting solution I stumbled across in the course of following the Mormon Matters story:
Although I started PostMo, we set it up so it's legally run by a five member board of trustees. I'm one of the trustees but in my role of PostMo "Manager" I work for the Board and I can be fired by the Board should I screw up too badly. We also made sure in our bylaws that the Manager and the Board Chair can never be the same person. We set it up this way to make sure no one person has control of PostMo.
That may be a little too formal for many communities, but you can still do something in the same spirit. Decentralization and power sharing can help protect the community that you've built. No one person should have the power to do things to the community against its will. Owners, if you're part of your community, you are the key to this. Giving up some control may be the best thing you can do to ensure that your community will survive over the long term.

But decentralization is simply impossible in some cases. Maybe there's just no way to get power away from the owner and into the hands of the community. What can you do then? Emigrate. Move to another site. Your community probably grew up spontaneously and organically, but that doesn't mean that you can't turn it into a more planned one. Remember that you, not the site, are the community. You can take it elsewhere if it's in danger. But the important thing is to move before its too late. Once the owner tries to take control, it's much harder. You could be locked out of a lot of resources that you could have used to build your community somewhere else.

At least, you can start building a backup site for your community. Find a second place to gather. That's the one thing that saved my community when it was broken up by the site owner: we already had another place to go. It wasn't quite the same, and it didn't take away the pain and frustration of what happened, but at least we had a place to regroup.

Follow me on Twitter
Friend me on Facebook
Ask me a question

No comments:

Post a Comment

What do you think?