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Battling toxicity in communities with kindness and vulnerability

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Promote kindness and foster interpersonal relationships through the power of vulnerability to outshine toxicity in your online community. 

Before my time as a Community Advocate with Invision Community, I focused all my attention on my own online community, BreatheHeavy. Pop music and Britney Spears news are the bread and butter of BreatheHeavy. As you can imagine, fans of pop stars are energized, vocal and unapologetic. There’s real potential for conversations to slip into negativity.

16 years ago when I launched BreatheHeavy, I hadn’t realized I took the first steps towards becoming a community leader. It never occurred to me such a role existed. My mission evolved from forum administrator to community leader, and during that process, I discovered a love of community building. Along the way, I’ve learnt invaluable lessons about toxic community culture (shade a pop star then let me know how that goes for you). 

What is online community building?

It’s the act of cultivating culture and creating connections on the Internet. It’s an essential aspect most businesses don’t focus on enough because it’s hard to quantify its value A.K.A. the bottom line.

I spent the majority of my career writing news articles. My resources went into content creation on my company’s blog section while my community members, completely segregated from my news posts, ran rampant. I recall thinking, “negative comments are better than no comments!” 

That thought eventually led to the demise of my community. The trolls had infiltrated and won. 


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Credit: Unsplash

 

A mob of toxic commentators had free reign, thus scaring away quality members. Freedom of speech is imperative, but it also has limitations (screaming “fire!” in a crowded theater is not applicable to free speech).

To better understand how we can combat negativity in our communities, let’s first define what makes a community toxic?

When a member or group of members devalue the community. 

Their negativity permeates throughout the community in such a profound way that it repels others from contributing, engaging and worst of all: not returning. 

As much as I hate to admit it, toxic members are powerful. They can influence your community, albeit in the opposite direction of what community owners want. Their role deteriorates the community they call home. The compounding effect of flippant responses, snide remarks, indifference, arguments and attacks ultimately creates chaos. 

The sad thing is... they’re usually unaware their behavior is adversely affecting the community. If they’re oblivious, there’s no opportunity to turn things around. 

In an effort to better understand their motivation (and avoid smashing the ban hammer), I personally reach out to these members in a private message. Call me a sap, but I’m a firm believer that people can change if you communicate with them. 

This is a great opportunity to send them a private message.
 


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People just want to be heard.

When someone exhibits toxic behavior... ask yourself why, and more importantly... can you help them? 

Typically, a troll’s demeanor stems from what’s transpired in their real life, and it manifests onto your community (lucky you!). Know there’s a motive behind the negativity; a harsh reality they may not want to face.

You’re not necessarily required to reach out, and a suspension is a lot easier, but taking this upon yourself as a community leader to uncover what’s really going on is an unrequited and selfless act that’ll set your community apart.

In other words: it’s a very kind thing to do. 


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Credit: Unsplash

Kindness in communities

The most profound way to fight toxicity in an online community is by not fighting at all. It’s by offering kindness to those who need it the most. That’s done through outreach and personal displays of vulnerability. 
 


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Members on the other end want to know they’re talking with another person. A person who also encounters struggles in life, but found ways to not only overcome those hurdles, but lean into them as they forge mental fortitude - an important component for successful community leaders. 

Your past challenges can inspire change in peoples’ futures.

A powerful way to do this is through being vulnerable.

Dr. Brené Brown, who’s extensively researched what it means to be vulnerable, said it best: “The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.”

It’s easy to expect others (in our case toxic members) to share with you some real life hurdles they’ve encountered. It’s much more difficult for us (the community leader) to shine a light back on ourselves and share that vulnerability back. However, it’s the secret ingredient to creating a perfectly baked community cake.

The act of opening up to an anonymous person in need not only can inspire them to change, but it opens a door towards further self-discovery. 

Being vulnerable with your members empowers them and you.

So the next time you notice a toxic member’s pattern regarding how they post, take a pause. Remember there’s more behind the curtain, that hurt people hurt people, then take the opportunity to be kind, practice being vulnerable and watch your community garden blossom. 

How do YOU battle toxicity in your Invision communities? Sound off in the comments below.
Hero Image Credit: Unsplash 

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That’s done through outreach and personal displays of vulnerability. 

There is one hole in this line of thought, not that I totally disagree with it, but vulnerability can lead to exploitation, so you would need to measure this with some other form of displaying firmness.  How you would do that will depend on the individual.  Some people don't like to portray vulnerability, because of the issue of potential exploitation. I would replace the word and the meaning with "understanding" and finding out what leads to the toxicity.  It's extremely easy to ignore the root of an issue and react rather than discover.

Some people are just generally nasty, that's in their nature and these kinds of people will swarm on displays of vulnerability and exploit them to the full, which will raise the toxicity levels higher. So, show some understanding, discover why and then decide on how to deal with the issue.  It may be that some people will be toxic to get attention, their rational posts may be ignored whilst their toxic ones attract attention.

I don't believe there is a one-stop-shop-solution to people's behaviour and every case needs to be measured with the right kind of response. Of course, this means that Admins and Moderators need to be more understanding of people's foibles and ways and get to the root of an issue and then sort it from there.  Many Admins and Moderators may not see this as the right approach and deal with issues differently, it's about finding out what works best for them and whether their methodology actually works in turning toxic into enjoyable.

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Your advice is great Jordan, unfortunately, a very small percentage of individuals lending toxicity to a site are having a bad moment or moments.  They are simply jerks, they know they are jerks and nothing you or I or anyone reading this blog post is likely to change them for the better via “kindness and vulnerability”.  Not that I’m not advocating you not give your suggestions the ole college try.  As the saying goes, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”.

It really comes down to the value of your individual forums and the topics and subsequent comments posted by your members.  In other words, what is the “real” value of the interactions taking place on your site in the grand scheme of things… The higher the “perceived” value the more likely a culture of “caring” (that kindness and vulnerability thing you mentioned) will spring up among your members.

Elevating the conversations to ever higher levels will get people to slow down and think a moment before responding to posts or creating new ones. This is where moderation can be handy.  If you have moderators or willing members help steer conversations that veer off into tangents back on topic or pose thought provoking comments to get others to “really” engage their brains (and never, ever feed the trolls) the jerks will quickly see this isn’t the place for them and they will move on.

Edited by Chris Anderson
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This is a great opportunity to send them a private message.

While good in theory, this doesn't work at scale, isn't transparent, and doesn't promote accountability. IPS has much room for improvement here in surfacing the built in support request functionality for use between members and moderators/staff. We've done this through customization on our community and I think focusing on the places in IPS where members have touchpoints with staff would reveal a number of opportunities to improve that engagement.

Think about reporting content (one way communication), the warning system (one way communication), and what's available to converse with members from a team standpoint that offers two-way back and forth.

A notable gap, that we could speak to in depth about.

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4 hours ago, Davyc said:

There is one hole in this line of thought, not that I totally disagree with it, but vulnerability can lead to exploitation, so you would need to measure this with some other form of displaying firmness.  How you would do that will depend on the individual.  Some people don't like to portray vulnerability, because of the issue of potential exploitation. I would replace the word and the meaning with "understanding" and finding out what leads to the toxicity.  It's extremely easy to ignore the root of an issue and react rather than discover.

Some people are just generally nasty, that's in their nature and these kinds of people will swarm on displays of vulnerability and exploit them to the full, which will raise the toxicity levels higher. So, show some understanding, discover why and then decide on how to deal with the issue.  It may be that some people will be toxic to get attention, their rational posts may be ignored whilst their toxic ones attract attention.

I don't believe there is a one-stop-shop-solution to people's behaviour and every case needs to be measured with the right kind of response. Of course, this means that Admins and Moderators need to be more understanding of people's foibles and ways and get to the root of an issue and then sort it from there.  Many Admins and Moderators may not see this as the right approach and deal with issues differently, it's about finding out what works best for them and whether their methodology actually works in turning toxic into enjoyable.

Hey @Davyc appreciate the comment! I do agree that being too vulnerable could potentially lead to exploitation. That is one of the beauties of this emotion though - is that there is some inherent risk involved. 

I do like this idea of understanding, yes! But being vulnerable demands more from a community leader, which is why I think it's super powerful 😇 

However I do love what you mentioned about understanding. There's a lot to unpack! Thanks for taking the time to write this. 🙏 

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8 hours ago, Chris Anderson said:

Your advice is great Jordan, unfortunately, a very small percentage of individuals lending toxicity to a site are having a bad moment or moments.  They are simply jerks, they know they are jerks and nothing you or I or anyone reading this blog post is likely to change them for the better via “kindness and vulnerability”.  Not that I’m not advocating you not give your suggestions the ole college try.  As the saying goes, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”.

It really comes down to the value of your individual forums and the topics and subsequent comments posted by your members.  In other words, what is the “real” value of the interactions taking place on your site in the grand scheme of things… The higher the “perceived” value the more likely a culture of “caring” (that kindness and vulnerability thing you mentioned) will spring up among your members.

Elevating the conversations to ever higher levels will get people to slow down and think a moment before responding to posts or creating new ones. This is where moderation can be handy.  If you have moderators or willing members help steer conversations that veer off into tangents back on topic or pose thought provoking comments to get others to “really” engage their brains (and never, ever feed the trolls) the jerks will quickly see this isn’t the place for them and they will move on.

Thanks for taking the time to write this response! I especially like this: "Elevating the conversations to ever higher levels will get people to slow down and think a moment before responding to posts or creating new ones."

I totally agree. 🙏 

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8 hours ago, Paul E. said:

While good in theory, this doesn't work at scale, isn't transparent, and doesn't promote accountability. IPS has much room for improvement here in surfacing the built in support request functionality for use between members and moderators/staff. We've done this through customization on our community and I think focusing on the places in IPS where members have touchpoints with staff would reveal a number of opportunities to improve that engagement.

Think about reporting content (one way communication), the warning system (one way communication), and what's available to converse with members from a team standpoint that offers two-way back and forth.

A notable gap, that we could speak to in depth about.

I definitely agree with you in that it's not very scalable. But ideally, this method is utilized for the outliers of a community. If there are so many instances of toxic members / negative comments, than this article probably won't suffice 😆 

I do think this opens the door for a larger discussion / blog post / series about moderation though! 

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One of the things that I have noticed a lot in people (this is a general observation and not limited to online experiences) is that they tend to react rather than pausing and think through an appropriate and considered response.  That is, instead of taking a step back and taking a longer look at a situation, comment, post, topic (you get the picture) there is the infallibility of people to instantly react.  It's obviously a people issue and one that has become more noticeable over a period of time.  Whether it's the pressures of modern living or something more sociologically ingrained is something that would require a far deeper exploration than a blog topic.  I've seen this 'reaction' from people who bite at the least little thing and literally go over the top without stopping to think.

This is why I'm a great advocate of understanding, compassion, empathy, and education. If we all just reacted rather than employing a little more of those traits, I mentioned, then chaos would rule.  This applies to everyone, everywhere, regardless of who you are, what you do or what you think.  All of those traits I mentioned should be the beating heart of every community, whether online or in the real world and if we all took the time to exercise a little restraint and 'think' rather than 'react' then communities would be the richer for it.

I'm not implying that we search for a utopia or nirvana community - that is a fantasy wish, but it is something we can work towards and something that is worthwhile considering. The alternative is to accept toxicity in people and believe it to be the new norm when it doesn't have to be that way, but it will be that way if we accept it and continue to react.

This article spells it out in a much more erudite way: https://zenhabits.net/respond/

 

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Hi Jordan & thank you for your post.

I am by profession, a psychotherapist, so I understand where you are coming from. I have seen many forums collapse, including a forum for clinical psychologists. John Suler points to something called, "the Disinhibition Effect", where anonymous users hide behind this anonymity & behave in ways they would never behave "in real life".

I don't want to turn this posts into an analysis of behaviours, but sometimes approaching someone can help. I am the Director of a support forum for people with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus & I had one very angry person write a very angry post to something I said. It's often hard to read something unpleasant, but I made contact privately and I offered validation for her feelings. The response was favourable. I did not validate the behaviour but could understand, in her context, why she felt what she did. She responded by saying this was the first time someone had taken the time to try to understand.

There are people, however, who are enraged & want to destroy anything good, including a community. Not everyone is a therapist or wants to engage with very unpleasant people. It's also a matter of time, money & competency. Contacting someone may even make the situation worse & the end result may be that the Moderator will be left with difficult and unwanted feelings.

@Davycreferred to vulnerability & often this is a hidden component which we don't see or understand. The ferocity and rage is a cover for that vulnerability, which often has nothing to do with the current situation, but from the past, which gets triggered in the present. While I have a great deal of time for Mindfulness, when this rage and vulnerability is engrained, it is not possible for that person to stop, think & not react. Compulsion control is difficult for this type of person who has been damaged, usually from a very young age & this leads to an inability to monitor one's feelings. The world is split in good and bad, an either or without a middle way.

Nevertheless, there is merit in thinking about what to do in these situations. Thank you for a thoughtful post.

 

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On 2/13/2021 at 2:34 AM, Davyc said:

One of the things that I have noticed a lot in people (this is a general observation and not limited to online experiences) is that they tend to react rather than pausing and think through an appropriate and considered response.  That is, instead of taking a step back and taking a longer look at a situation, comment, post, topic (you get the picture) there is the infallibility of people to instantly react.  It's obviously a people issue and one that has become more noticeable over a period of time.  Whether it's the pressures of modern living or something more sociologically ingrained is something that would require a far deeper exploration than a blog topic.  I've seen this 'reaction' from people who bite at the least little thing and literally go over the top without stopping to think.

This is why I'm a great advocate of understanding, compassion, empathy, and education. If we all just reacted rather than employing a little more of those traits, I mentioned, then chaos would rule.  This applies to everyone, everywhere, regardless of who you are, what you do or what you think.  All of those traits I mentioned should be the beating heart of every community, whether online or in the real world and if we all took the time to exercise a little restraint and 'think' rather than 'react' then communities would be the richer for it.

I'm not implying that we search for a utopia or nirvana community - that is a fantasy wish, but it is something we can work towards and something that is worthwhile considering. The alternative is to accept toxicity in people and believe it to be the new norm when it doesn't have to be that way, but it will be that way if we accept it and continue to react.

This article spells it out in a much more erudite way: https://zenhabits.net/respond/

 

Thanks for the article. I'll check it out! I love what you said about pausing. I mentioned that in my story too because I find the art of "pausing" to be super powerful. Appreciate your comment. 🙏 

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On 2/13/2021 at 9:43 AM, infotech said:

Hi Jordan & thank you for your post.

I am by profession, a psychotherapist, so I understand where you are coming from. I have seen many forums collapse, including a forum for clinical psychologists. John Suler points to something called, "the Disinhibition Effect", where anonymous users hide behind this anonymity & behave in ways they would never behave "in real life".

I don't want to turn this posts into an analysis of behaviours, but sometimes approaching someone can help. I am the Director of a support forum for people with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus & I had one very angry person write a very angry post to something I said. It's often hard to read something unpleasant, but I made contact privately and I offered validation for her feelings. The response was favourable. I did not validate the behaviour but could understand, in her context, why she felt what she did. She responded by saying this was the first time someone had taken the time to try to understand.

There are people, however, who are enraged & want to destroy anything good, including a community. Not everyone is a therapist or wants to engage with very unpleasant people. It's also a matter of time, money & competency. Contacting someone may even make the situation worse & the end result may be that the Moderator will be left with difficult and unwanted feelings.

@Davycreferred to vulnerability & often this is a hidden component which we don't see or understand. The ferocity and rage is a cover for that vulnerability, which often has nothing to do with the current situation, but from the past, which gets triggered in the present. While I have a great deal of time for Mindfulness, when this rage and vulnerability is engrained, it is not possible for that person to stop, think & not react. Compulsion control is difficult for this type of person who has been damaged, usually from a very young age & this leads to an inability to monitor one's feelings. The world is split in good and bad, an either or without a middle way.

Nevertheless, there is merit in thinking about what to do in these situations. Thank you for a thoughtful post.

 

Hey @infotech. Your comment blew me away. Didn't expect to have insight about my post from a psychotherapist. Very grateful to hear your feedback as well as everyone else in the comments of course. 

The Disinhibiton Effect is something very prevalent in online communities of course. It's hard to navigate how to respond. I appreciate you see the value in reaching out to people individually. I do understand there are bandwidth issues with that, but it doesn't take away from the fact that it's a still very human and profound thing to do. 

Thank you for the insight. Very well said. 🙏 

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Some people just want to see the world burn. Either as a whole right away and if not, then at the very least, one person at a time. Some people sustain themselves and define themselves on coinage and the decimation of others. For those "special people," that is what the ban button is for. It is not the cure-all for all your woes you may face running a community, and for the most determined, it may only act as a temporary relief.  That said, I do not believe there is a "magic bullet" (metaphorically speaking) of a universal nature to address all toxicity unilaterally. The best anyone one person can do is manage each person and situation on a case-by-case basis and hope for the best.  

But I do like your overall belief regarding reaching out to someone personally and trying to make a connection. The only difference I would make is beyond just sending someone a personal message (privately). I would also try to incorporate a fundamental initial olive branch publicly as a means to establish that you're making an effort within your community.  It will not only help define you as a community leader but as a respected peacemaker too.

Edited by Linux-Is-Best
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20 hours ago, Linux-Is-Best said:

But I do like your overall belief regarding reaching out to someone personally and trying to make a connection. The only difference I would make is beyond just sending someone a personal message (privately). I would also try to incorporate a fundamental initial olive branch publicly as a means to establish that you're making an effort within your community.  It will not only help define you as a community leader but as a respected peacemaker too.

I like this a lot! I do think visibility is important as well. We are going to work on a blog series about moderation eventually, and I think this would be great to explore further. Moderating behind-the-curtain and moderating on stage (so to speak). 

Thanks for the comment @Linux-Is-Best

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