Some Community Tips for 2007

Seven tips on how to run a successful community.

Every year or so I write a long post or do a presentation at a conference on the subject of community. Each time I approach the subject, I take what I've already written and add to it with recent things I've learned or learned long before and only recently realized. To prepare for an upcoming presentation, I decided to write down stuff I've learned/realized in the last 12 months. I suspect I'll be revisiting this topic many times on this blog but I wanted to kick off this first foray into community with a list of stuff I've been thinking about recently, but haven't written much about yet. If you want a list of introductory tips, one of my first essays was this one from 2001. Consider this more of a list of advanced tips.

Before we get started, first I want to rant a bit. I hate the term User Generated Content. I never use the phrase when talking about this stuff and I'll never use it when writing about it. I consider it a pejorative that reveals a lot about the person saying it. It makes members of your site feel like dutiful robots, crapping content that you convert into cash. The proper (respectful) term is community, and running one is a real challenge. If you're building a community you have to love what you're doing and be the best member of it. It takes great care and patience to create a space others will share and you have to nurture it and reward your best contributors. It's a decidedly human endeavor with few, if any, technical shortcuts. Ok, back to the tips.

1. Take emotion out of decisions

It goes without saying that if you want to run a successful community, you have to be extremely patient with people and give them second chances and the benefit of the doubt. It's also vital to the health of the community that you don't make rash decisions or even rational decisions that can appear as if you were acting on impulse. For communities run by just one person, this can be a challenge. No matter how patient you are, inevitably someday you'll encounter a user trolling the site for laughs, or someone copying your RSS and/or design, or making false claims on your own site, and your impulse will be to lash out at the user causing problems, to ban their account, and delete stuff they've written.

For the first 3 or 4 years of MetaFilter, I succumbed to emotion from time to time, usually late at night after a long day or first thing in the morning before I had fully woken up. I'd read something (or misread, as often is the case with simple text that doesn't convey the way in which something was meant) and take it personally or take it the wrong way and tear someone a new one. The usual result was me looking like an ass and a bunch of members disagreeing with me and a little while later I'd realize I messed up and apologize.

Once I got other moderators on board, this became much, much easier to do. Whenever something on the site irritated me, I now had someone to bounce it off of. Other moderators often hadn't seen whatever got under my skin and could often give an impartial judgment on whether or not anything should be done about it. If you don't have other moderators, it's a good idea to instead sit on decisions you make when you're feeling reactive. After a few years of making occasional mistakes, I'd take to waiting until morning if I saw something late at night that I didn't like. If it was first thing in the morning, I'd purposely put off the decision until lunchtime. In almost every case, by the time I revisited something, other members had dealt with it or I would realize I read something the wrong way at first.

2. Talk like a human, not a robot

If you elect to take your own personal emotions out of major moderation decisions, you of course run the risk of going too far. No one wants to follow a community run by a passionless robot.

"Be human" is popular piece of advice I'm reading about and hearing at conferences this year and I'll write more about the subject later on, but it's important that members of your community know the leaders are humans themselves. This advice can manifest in many ways:

  • When making moderation decisions, don't quote Terms of Service verbatim or legal code. Be honest and phrase things exactly like you would if you were talking to someone standing in front of you. "Hey man, we appreciate your enthusiasm, but what you're doing is uncool because..." is a lot better than "As per the user agreement, you must cease harrassment of other members per Section 10.9.a..."
  • Capture errors on your site and make them friendly to users instead of the default language-specific cryptic messages. Put your own email (or a developer's if you didn't program it) on error messages so people can tell you when they spot a bug and help you fix it (of course, you could also automatically send an error dump email to developers on the server side when errors are encountered, but visitors should also have the option of direct contact).
  • Be the best member of your site. Lead by example by participating as much as you can in your own community. This is a good way to attract other well-intentioned members of your site and also reminds everyone a real person is behind it all and building the best community they can for everyone. Speak honestly and be supportive of other members. When I think of all the communities I'm a part of, the ones I love are the ones I see the creators using everyday.

3. Give people something they can be proud of

If I had to give a reason why most newspaper blogs are filled with cranky screeds posted anonymously, I'd have to say having a generic blank comment form is key. Most every community that I contribute to offers a comprehensive user profile/history page, letting members customize to their hearts content and allow their profile to reflect their personality. When I think of mainstream news, TV, and newspaper sites trying to solicit comments from readers, I've yet to find something close to even a basic community site. The New York Times requires me to register to read most stories, but their blog system gives me a blank generic comment form when I want to comment on a blog post.

I'd love to see a large paper like the NYT implement a real community system. Based on my existing NYT login, I'd love if I had a profile page on their site, tied to any comment I left on a blog or any article I wrote for the paper (I'm sure I'm in the minority here, but there are writers for the NYT that would also be active on the site). Let me list my blog URL and track any posts I make about NYT articles on my profile page (the NYT already has a "most blogged" feature on their site). Feel free to show me ads that would actually make sense (example: I don't live in NYC, but I see NYC ads on the site -- you might want to pitch me home delivery or general ads aimed at out-of-towners) based on my profile.

If you gave readers a real profile page on a real community system at a newspaper site, I suspect the quality of contributions would go way up. Of course, you'd still get trolls and griefers trying to game the system, but the remainder of readers would post more often and post better things. Heck, you could even let readers connect to their friends that also read the site and offer tools useful to members (like "your friends liked the following articles") as well as gain additional traffic from repeat member visits.

4. Bring users in during community decisions

If the Digg HD-DVD encryption key fiasco taught us anything, it's that you can't make rash top-down decisions and expect your community to be okay with it. For MetaFilter, I run an entire forum devoted to discussing the site itself. I float new ideas and new UI enhancements there and anyone else can start a thread about some aspect of the site. When I have to make a tough decision, I mention it in a new thread and get the members' reactions and often tailor the final result based on their feedback. Like the Satisfaction blog described, if Kevin Rose posted something saying "hey we're kind of between a rock and hard place — we've been threatened with legal action over a post and would like to remove it to comply with the request" there'd still be a bit of an outcry (and that's why stuff like Chilling Effects exists), but it would have been nowhere near the reaction they got.

Welcoming the opinions of users gives the community owner(s) valuable feedback and gives members another way to contribute positively to the community.

5. Moderation is a full-time job

Don't underestimate the amount of work it takes to maintain, moderate, and keep tabs on a community. Often a single person can create, develop, and launch a new community site in just a couple months, and spend the better part of most days fixing bugs and creating new features. Once a community becomes a bustling place filled with thousands of users — if a single person is still running the community — chances are they don't have any time for writing code anymore.

If you've got an existing site/service that you're planning to add a community or social component to, don't expect someone with a full workload to simply take it on and spend a few minutes here and there maintaining it. Your best bet would be devoting someone full-time to the effort.

6. Metrics spread the work out

While moderation is a full-time job, it helps to make the job as easy as possible because moderators never have enough time to police everything. No one can read every single thing posted in every single place on most community websites. If you've ever used craigslist, you've probably seen those innocuous "flag this post" links sprinkled around the edges of postings. I took a page from Craigslist and implemented a simple user flagging system last year on MetaFilter. It's a basic mechanism that gives the community a policing outlet, but beyond the simple act of empowering users to help you moderate a large site, if you build the right toolset you can save yourself loads of time and stress moderating content.

My flagging system records the id of the item being flagged, the person flagging it, and the person that wrote the item. With this data I can create several useful views of the data. The easiest is to simply do a stream of recently flagged items, and use that as a gauge for stuff as it happens. More useful than that is to start grouping things based on total flag votes, then sort by most flagged over a short period of time. This gives a snapshot of recent hotspots and has proved the most useful tool of all. With the item author data, you can also compile lists of all-time problem users as well as most problematic users over the last month. I've found when looking at the past 30 days data, you can easily see if someone made just one or two mistakes in the community (if everyone flagged the same items they wrote) or if they're more of a chronic problem on the site (if lots of people flag dozens of their contributions). All of these tools are available in an admin dashboard-style interface.

On the flipside, I also implemented a favorites system throughout the site and do similar things to help publicize the best bits on the site (favorites are all public, flagging is not). Metrics are tremendously helpful tools that are pretty easy to implement. About the hardest part is figuring out what to do with the data, and writing the necessary SQL queries to get what you need.

7. Guidelines not rules

While it may seem like simple semantics, I personally shy away from trying to run a community based on hard and fast rules, and instead try to steer members into following community norms in looser guideline form. This often works for the majority of members that want a nice, respectful community. Once you start down the path of absolutes and rules you'll quickly end up in two bad places. 1) you'll get the edgecase loving lawyer/engineer types that will argue and interpret rules ad infinitum and break them just to see what happens. These people will drive you crazy. 2) you will find yourself in a situation where you have to make a bad decision you know is unfair, but you have to because it was one of The Rules That Got Broken. Guidelines allow for nuance and though it's hard to scale nuance in a large community environment, it's another way you can run a site like a human and not a lawyerbot.

I've been at both ends of this issue, as a user and a community creator, both with rules and guidelines, and I prefer the loosey goosey guideline approach. Write up a page of things you'd consider "ways to be a worthwhile member of this community" and "things you probably shouldn't do" and explain the approach when needed, but don't bother trying to come up with a hundred bullet points of things you can and can't do because once you go down the path of even a few rules, you'll soon find yourself at the top of a heap of laws that constantly have to be added to in order to please your most argumentative members, while at the same time having those rules hold you back and force you to bring the hammer down on people that accidentally crossed a line.

May 15, 2007 at 04:49 #
Dale Cruse

Excellent list. Thank you!

May 15, 2007 at 05:14 #
John Ratcliffe-Lee

Wonderful advice and a great breakdown of what it takes to make things work.

I found it funny that, on the same day you wrote this, Derek Powazek tells his story about how he and Heather are no longer with JPG. As a member of JPG and a huge advocate of it in m daily life, it was an extremely sad read and now the wonderful ideals of the magazine and it's publishing company, 8020, seem sort of tainted.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this but I can't help agree with Derek's position about how 8020 made a rash decision by not embracing it's roots.

Just thought this was an odd coincidence.

May 15, 2007 at 05:17 #
Jim Grisanzio

Very nice list. I like #4 and #7 best. :)

May 15, 2007 at 06:08 #
Kyle Pike

I am currently working on a social website and appreciate the info. All your articles are really top notch.

May 15, 2007 at 08:43 #
mike arauz

great post. thanks.

May 15, 2007 at 08:57 #

Great to read your insights, Matt. We run almost the opposite way (as benign dictators with very strict rules and a firm hand) and that works very well for us. I'm not sure why. Perhaps because the warring community/factions existed before Whedonesque was made and we set out to be the one place devoid of 'shipping' wars.

May 15, 2007 at 11:04 #
Dexter Zaf

Great article. This helps a lot to those who run a forum.

May 15, 2007 at 11:23 #
Thomas K

Great list... I'd push a little further on #5, though. Moderation isn't just a full-time job. It's a 24/7/365 job.

If you're adding a community component to your site, recognize that while your traffic may be highest Monday to Friday approximating "business hours," the ebbs and flows of the community continue on at night, over the weekends, and yes, on holidays, too.

If you can enlist community management support from multiple time zones, all the better.

May 15, 2007 at 11:24 #

Hey, first of all I loved the article. It's just what I needed. I just launched a new political social network / forum this last week.

Over the past few months I've been totally focused on the development of the site, but now that it's up I'm having to totally switch my focus towards getting the word out and getting a community built... two things I have little experience in.

Do you have any tips for attracting some early adopters and getting a conversation started? How did you go about this for MetaFilter? Any other tips for a newbee?

Thanks for the blog!

May 15, 2007 at 12:02 #
Greg P.

Great post - numbers 2 and 3 are especially great tips.

I also like number 7. On Keystone Politics, our "participation policy" is only a few lines long:

"Keystone Politics works to be an informative and friendly community for all who want to participate. We encourage dissent and discussion, but also ask that you respect our hard work and dedication to this site.

If your behavior on Keystone Politics doesn’t meet this standard, at the discretion of the editors and publisher, we reserve the right to take actions to limit or terminate your participation on the site."

We could probably even make that a bit friendlier, but it seems to work for us rather than a long, complex ToS.

May 15, 2007 at 12:08 #

Interesting example today of your 'Rules not Guidelines' idea. In last night's NBA game between the Spurs and the Suns, Phoenix' Amare Stoudamire left the bench after a hard foul by San Antonio's Robert Horry. This is an automatic one game suspension under league rules. So even if Horry does get suspended, the Suns will be missing one of their star players who had nothing to do with the incident in question because the NBA left itself no wiggle room in creating their rules.

May 15, 2007 at 12:10 #
Kevan Gilbert

Very elegantly written. Your tips are condensed and smart, and I think they apply beyond the scope of online moderation: these are tips for living life as a leader and a participant, in any community, online and off.

I can see by the comments so far that some moderators will choose different tactics than yours, but I think your “be human” tip grants that flexibility: moderate within your own personality.

Also, along the lines of “be the best member,” a community grows to reflect the attitude of its leader, and I think you’ve done a great job setting the tone for Metafilter.

May 15, 2007 at 12:26 #

Thanks for this article. It reflects my own philosophy for building and maintaining communities- especially where the posting guidelines are concerned. Some of my moderators seem to think they're cast in concrete, and I have to gently dissuade them of this idea.

I've learned that I have a knack with creating successful communities- but the key is my personal participation. The ones that really thrive have a lot of 'pump-priming' on my part, and its always thrilling to see new members coming on board and adding to the conversation.

Communities are a lot like gardens in that they need thoughtful and thorough preparation, then feeding and weeding to keep them healthy.

May 15, 2007 at 12:53 #

I re-read "Building an Online Community: Just Add Water" at least once a year. And I ask all the moderators/administrators at the sites I run to read it regularly, too.

This is a nice update. Thanks!

May 15, 2007 at 14:59 #
Julio Preuss

Wonderful tips. You wrote down some things I usually tell my coleagues and brought up many new ones I'll start using from now on.

Would you mind if I translate them into portuguese, in order to share with Brazilian professionals who don't understand english that well?

May 15, 2007 at 15:17 #
Matt Haughey

Sure Julio, if you think the same lessons apply across languages, feel free to translate and post a link to it here as a new comment.

May 15, 2007 at 15:23 #

Great article. I run wellness community site and I always ask for user feedback and encourage participation, be it through polls, community bulletin board or simply asking them to review local listings.
I always look for new ideas and articles such as this help a great deal.

Thank you.

May 15, 2007 at 16:07 #

I really look forward to these posts -- thank you! While reading this I couldn't help but think of Stewart Butterfield and Heather Champ and several other flickr folk and how they approach problems in the Flickr forums. So cool headed and down to earth. I have to admit, sometimes I am in awe of how rational they are in the face of public outcry or paranoia.

I think I would love to be a community manager in some capacity -- for myself or for hire for companies that want to build a community but don't know where to start. Thanks for the tips.

p.s. I wish I could print these pages out.

May 15, 2007 at 16:15 #

Thank you for the tips, Matt, and I'm already distributing them in my office. (Also, it would be great if at some point you have a chance to add a printer-friendly template here.)

May 15, 2007 at 16:18 #

Nice article. I just couldn't read.

I was having supper an wanted to scroll to the next page by pressing the space bar, as I do about a thousand times a day on my Mac, but this site is the first I encounter that doesn't let me do that. It just eats my key-presses.
I then tried, with my dirty hands so now my mouse is full of mayonnaise, to click in the scrolling area so the text should scroll one page down. But alas, it scrolled more than a page, so I had to scroll back a few lines and totally lost Mr Haughey's train of thought.

So I think good interface design is also important if you want to built communities. That nice half-translucent bar at the bottom of this page might be pretty, but it seriously prevented me from reading the content. And that's too bad.

May 15, 2007 at 16:20 #
Matt Haughey

Huh, I didn't know this site couldn't be printed easily. I'll work up a simple CSS file for print then.

May 15, 2007 at 16:31 #

Fantastic article, and very relevant to me. I really appreciate your insightful posts!

May 15, 2007 at 16:35 #
Drew McManus

Great advice. I plan to put it into practice.

May 15, 2007 at 17:01 #

Very thoughtful. I admin a racer's ( i.e bunch of testosterone-poisoned hotheads ) forum, and watching the original leader of it taught me a lot. He made copious use of smilies, to the point of the ridiculous, " wheeeeeeeee! :) " and so forth. It took me while to understand that he had to bend over twice to make sure everybody understood his intent. Many members, even those with a lot of education, even I, fail to read the intent of posts correctly, as you comment in #1.

good job.

May 15, 2007 at 18:22 #

Wonderful advice. This is getting forwarded to my boss first thing tomorrow morning, with a great big 'Read this now. Then read it again' note attached...

May 15, 2007 at 19:19 #

Great stuff for such a young site so far.

My question is that, is the footer on the single article pages supposed to be different than the cool fading text blue line on the main page. Right now the Subscribe | Archive | About | Search is floating over the text which looks a bit strange to me...?

May 16, 2007 at 02:10 #

thanks for this
2 is my favourite, because in my time as an admin i always seem to refer to questionable user behaviour as uncool

May 16, 2007 at 07:13 #
Todd Zeigler

Great post. You should look at what the Washington Post and USA Today are doing - they are allowing the creation of profiles. Be interesting to see if that stops some of the trolls.

May 16, 2007 at 08:42 #
Waldo Jaquith

Thoroughly enjoyable. Thank you.

FWIW, I too find that I cannot scroll using my keyboard. I've never encountered such a thing. Mac OS X, Safari 2.0.4.

May 16, 2007 at 10:55 #

Thank you for your rant against "user generated content." That term always bothered me too but now I feel like I can explain my discomfort/objection to it better.

I also just wanted to say that I really appreciate your whole philosophy/approach to online communities. I'm a latecomer to all this. I haven't really participated much in social sites yet. So much of the interaction I came across was just catty or dumb or fake-feeling. Your posts (and other wonderful things I've come across recently) remind me to keep looking. It's nice to know there are others out there looking to really communicate and be authentic.

May 16, 2007 at 12:30 #

Matt, its a real learning curve isn't it building up good meaningful communities?

We've got a very good signal to noise ratio at A Swarm of Angels because it's based on a clear community/project outcome. But what you say about profiles etc really chimes.

It's not enough to give votes/participative elements in the community -- pushing that extra mile so your members can take ownership for areas and customize it (their profiles, adding content, etc), really moves it to a different level.

That's what we'll be concentrating on now we are moving to greater numbers. So thanks for the tips and thoughts -- your post has been very helpful for me in formulating next strategies, etc. (even if you never got back to me with my metafilter pw ;) )

May 16, 2007 at 14:36 #
Steven Kempton

Great post, I think your comment "If you're building a community you have to love what you're doing and be the best member of it", could be a mantra.

BTW, the comment on the Suns - Spurs fiasco is exactly right. It's an example where a business is run by lawyers and without even considering the community. And the NBA wonder why so many people have been turned off by their game. I think when it comes to online communities the NBA could be a poster boy for how NOT to treat your community (which in their case are the fans). When you are passionate about something you WILL forgive some mistakes but the NBA (and many other pro sports for that matter) consistently treat their fans like bums - you can't afford to do that online.

May 17, 2007 at 03:59 #
Pete White

Some great tips, I especially agree with the first one, quite often something has wound me up on my forum and i've had to spend some time thinking of an intelligent reply rather than just blasting off a rant.

I agree with the lose rules/guidelines point too, there is so much choice online community wise that spurting off rules at every small problem it will soon put people off.

I will have to look into a flagging system for my forum as it might take some of the work out of moderation.

May 17, 2007 at 09:55 #

this was awesome. A great read, and heck, I'm even using it for my Read O' the Week segment

May 17, 2007 at 10:19 #

Ahh, user-generated content. It is a bit clinical, isn't it? Also misleading, but unfortunately, in my field (advertising), it is what clients want to hear these days. They also want to know how they can "control" user-generated content (!). So many schmucks out there reading stuff in business mags and saying "I want this to impress my boss!" rather than, "This would be a good way of creating relationships with my customers."

May 18, 2007 at 04:39 #

I'm sharing this piece with folks both from my day job and folks at the community I help run.

About newspaper communities and profiles... are you aware of USAToday and the features it recently launched? I think they match your suggestions.

Sample USAToday user profile.

I'm in a discussion with some newspaper folks, local online community hosts, technologists, and I get the feeling that many are watching to see how it plays out - which I think is an ongoing mistake in thinking by some newspaper organizations.

May 18, 2007 at 12:24 #

Insightful. I've been kicking the idea of starting a community using Pligg (Digg clone) as a starting point. Your article pretty much talked me out of it, because I know I don't have the wherewithall for these facets I didn't really take into account. The way I see it, now I can focus on projects with a more sustainable future! Cheers!

May 18, 2007 at 15:04 #
Chris K

Matt, nice article and great site. Please keep it coming. We'll be launching a new community site in the next month or so and your site has dovetailed in nicely with my research and efforts.

My plan is start with the usual Comments at the end of articles, and then wait for participation and traction to open a forums section. I'd like to think we could launch with forums, but I suspect that isn't realistic. Any thoughts out there on transitioning from comments to forums in a later phase?

(BTW, my page up/down keys don't work on your site either.)

May 19, 2007 at 05:45 #

Thank you for these tips! I find it very useful reading and can definitely relate to the part regarding bouncing thoughts off other staff, as it helps alot.

May 19, 2007 at 10:43 #
Serge Lescouarnec


Discovered 'Fortuitous' today.
I especially like your 'byline' which is why I mentioned it on 'Serge the Concierge' today.
Sorry I did not have a chance to meet you at South by Southwest.

'The French Guy from New Jersey'

May 19, 2007 at 23:21 #
Bryan Zmijewski

Nice list Matthew.

Chris K- I think starting the web site with comments is a good idea. At LuckyOliver we started with a blog and allowed comments- waited to open up comments across the site- and then introduced a forum. This process took almost a year, but it allowed us to shape the community without creating a bunch of rules. Patience is key.

May 20, 2007 at 04:35 #
Community Building Blog

A very interesting article - I cover many of the points you mention in my community building blog.

I particularly agree with not having hard and fast rules, and brining in your members to help make decisions. This strengthens the community and makes members feel valued.

May 20, 2007 at 14:30 #
Big Fella

Very wise advice indeed, it has been making the rounds. Speaking as a moderator on very active forum something that I will keep and take to heart on those days when I am feeling particularly facist-like.

May 20, 2007 at 16:19 #
Pierre Fontenelle

This is some good advice. I've been running a community service 2 years now, and I've dealt with these kinds of issues.

I'd like to note however that I've had the problem of moderators not being impartial, so be smart about who you choose as moderators. Sometimes they will try to mold the community into what their own personal desires are.

June 1, 2007 at 17:50 #

This is a really great list coming from a lot of experience.


July 30, 2007 at 16:29 #

Thanks tremendously; this article was excellent.

I wanted to chime in with a few words from what I consider to be a successful social networking / discussion site. We've got somewhere in the ballpark of 80,000 members and our forums and blogs are quite vibrant, but I can count the number of members we've had to boot in the past year on one hand (well, maybe two). We've very high-touch with our users--if there's an altercation I (or one of the other mods) will generally step in with an open-minded curiosity to find out why the person is behaving so egregiously.

I'll tend to ask what he or she would do in my situation--if they were the community manager and they came across someone behaving as they were, what would their reaction be? Frequently I'll ask this of the objector, too; I'll get their input on what they think should be done. Granted, this requires a lot of 'work,' but the loyalty and appreciation it engenders in the community is well, well worth it. In short, there's nothing like putting the power back in the hands of the community and giving them opportunity to act as leader.

Thanks again for a wonderful piece!