Community Relaunch and Top Contributors are just ANGRY tips?

Hello Community Members,

We all know that when you go through a community update/upgrade/migration people get anxious and need to vent. We have been really open and requesting feedback ideas etc. Our community was not actively monitored until the last 4 months. Members and top contributors were allowed to pretty much do what ever they wanted. There were situations we had to halt immediately where top contributors were very snarky and attacking newer members.

Now all hell is breaking loose. We are being patient, working through updates etc. But every single comment, update and the team is just being harassed by our top contributors.

Typically I don’t want to be big brother- we have an open and honest dialogue and then try to get people to vent offline if they need to. We are working to schedule a meeting to talk with them but in the past they didn’t want to attend- just complain online. I sent the biggest violators a pm asking them try to be a little more patient and letting them know they can email - heck even call me if they feel like they need to complain and scream. - UGHHHH-

At this point I could really use some tips for how to deal with this- we don’t want to lose our top contributors but they are creating a horrible sentiment in the community. Anyone have any tips for dealing with over the top aggressive members? I don’t want to go through the formal moderation warning process but at this point we may need to…

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These people sound toxic. In my opinion if you keep giving them the leeway they’ve enjoyed they will drive away all of your new members and that will be bad for your community.

What is best for you?

(disclaimer: I am not a community manager at all, but I do deal with children)

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One thing to keep in mind is that any change will always trigger conflict and resentment. No matter how much better a new platform is, for some it will be worse and they will be vocal.

Historically, I have found the first 2 weeks in a new platform are the toughest adjustment period.

Major business readjustment is pretty high in the list. Even higher than moving homes.

My recommendation would be:

  • Listen: just being there will help your community trust you, you are working on this together. It is not us against them.
  • Teach: In some cases there are discourse features that solve existing issues they are raising… Getting too many PMs, any user can disable them, at least temporarily while the community adjusts.
  • Adjust: Some comments though harsh may be guiding you at simple adjustments that are easy to make. A more readable font, a selectable theme for people that need a dark mode. Etc.
  • Set clear boundaries: do not tolerate toxicity it is infectious
  • Take time: Don’t rush to make radical changes
  • Communicate: let the community know your plans and timelines
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Quick caveat – Discourse isn’t a new platform for Sara’s community. They have just done a redesign.

Sara, I agree with Michael. This is an old topic but it is probably still very relevant: How To Deal With A Negative Member? - Managing Communities - FeverBee Experts

Also see Dealing with a toxic user on our Discourse forum

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There are some boundaries that can be set. Resistance to change is tolerable, but openly bullying newer members is malicious. If that happens again, make an example out of them. It will send a message to your other top contributors.

If you haven’t read it, “The No Asshole Rule” is a good book. The tl;dr is that a person’s value isn’t exclusively their own contributions. We also need to recognize that assholes make life miserable for others and decrease other group members’ contributions. It sounds like your most active top contributors are aggressive. Is that because you have no constructive top contributors, or because the aggressive contributors have made the environment too uncomfortable for reasonable contributors to participate? Especially if you haven’t been engaging with the community until recently, they may have felt like it was a lost cause and given up on trying to improve the community. And what of the new members they attack? Will that drive your would-be customers to competitors instead?

I’m speaking from personal experience. We dealt with a community member in our community that was actively organizing others to be hostile to the staff. Attempts to appease the ringleader never worked, and when we offered them an inch, they’d take a mile. They thought they were above everyone else and saw no need to cooperate. When we finally removed them from the community, it was astonishing how quickly the community improved with that one change. We found that there were a lot of community members that were not participating because of the environment the ringleader fostered. It took years for the ringleader to gradually move the line in the sand, but only several months for it to recover, despite how cultish the clique he developed was. That’s not to say that the clique improved. They just became silent after the example was set, and were later drowned out and became unwelcome when the community defined its new standard. Like Sam mentioned, genuine toxicity like this is infectious, and the sooner it’s dealt with, the better.

It’s important to not fall into the trap of assuming every vocal user is the same as your worst though. Some users are negative just because they’re passionate about the product and have been raised in a bad environment. The reason our community recovered so quickly is because after setting an example with the ringleader, we not only established the proper way to surface feedback, but made it much more effective than being nonconstructive about it. Naturally, genuine community members tend towards the more successful mechanisms for providing feedback. If we had been overly aggressive in our example or ignored community feedback afterwards, it probably would have stoked flames instead. Pick out the people you’re sure are acting in bad faith, make an example out of them, and then immediately get to work on addressing feedback from anyone who provides it constructively. It may be helpful to elicit feedback from non-top-contributors if the top contributors are too reluctant to provide feedback just to set an example that people who provide constructive feedback get listened to.

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How to manage a group well is always a current topic.

  • Listen: (as Sam’s list says) and…
  • Acknowledge: …to help the complainer(s) know they’ve been heard.

This is often a case of A Complaint is a Gift (Amazon book link) and this probability should always be investigated early on, if not immediately. Sam can probably write a book about the times he has been criticized harshly and it turned into a huge step forward. The viewpoint is not making lemonade out of lemons (dilute and add sweetness). The viewpoint is “thar’s gold in them thar hills.” Find that gold.

Carping complaints come from:

  • Not feeling heard (and feeling not heard, especially).
  • Feeling misunderstood.
  • Feeling powerless.

Users can feel excessively jerked around if changes are made that cause them discomfort or disrupt their routine and they haven’t been consulted or given a chance to digest the value of the change. (How much time have we all invested in learning Discourse in its current implementation?)

SIDE NOTE (click to unfold):

I’ve come to realize that we have a “tyranny of software” at the moment. We regularly depend on software that doesn’t seem to care about how it affects us. This is what makes systems like Discourse stand out: you can tell it was designed and made for users and admins and the group/community. Too many developers take shortcuts and then they (and administrators) shrug and say things like “so it’s two extra mouse clicks, what’s the big deal?” and you want to pull your hair out and shout “I do those two extra mouse clicks 50 times a day and so do thousands of other people! You, on the other hand, saved maybe an hour of coding!!”  So unexpected or unwanted changes to a system tend to easily invoke that tyranny that we all deal with regularly–and wish we didn’t have to.

I once read about a study of the dynamics of international diplomacy where one nation holds the upper hand in a significant imbalance of power. For example: The United States and Cuba trying to cooperate. The main dynamic is that the party holding less power and influence easily feels neglected and dismissed. This, understandably, leads to upset from the idea that the other party doesn’t care and just does what it wants, regardless of anyone else’s needs and wants. Sam’s point immediately below and the one above address this feeling of powerlessness. Your members might be screaming “Stop this roller coaster! I want to get off!!” :fearful: :scream: :face_vomiting:

Some folks love roller coasters Others HATE(!) them. The safest approach is to drive a bus instead, gently and smoothly. Better yet, drive a train; they speed up and slow down gradually, they don’t make sudden turns, and they carry many more people.

I would add that a system administrator should take time to roll out all changes, and take longer on the more major ones. Have a sensible migration plan and give advanced notice. Use the advanced notice to find out ahead of time if anyone is bracing for a major disruption before they even know whether there will be one. In other words: are they primed to hate it? Phase the migration plan so that you can let the dust settle before plunging over the next waterfall. These settling points–the calm, soothing lake after the waterfall–are a great time to ask for feedback and make sure everyone feels involved and heard.

I also read about another study where a researcher hired an actor to participate in work groups and stir up negativity. All groups failed, as might be expected, except for one. It turned out that this one group had a member whose Father was a diplomat and she/he had learned how to fully acknowledge people and make them feel heard. This prevented any upset from developing, even when it was intentionally being created.

The only safe approach is to address these constructive factors first, while pointing to established (and preferably accepted by all) policy designed to keep the negativity off the lines. After that, it may be necessary to put a head on a pike and display it at the city walls. If you arrive at that point, do it without hesitation, but make sure you’ve arrived step by step, gradually.

While doing the above, you can also remind everyone of the purpose of the community and the long-term goals. That tends to make immediate, transient discomforts less significant. (This is a sideshow, though, to the main actions above. It’s a mitigating action, not the actual solution that should be getting the most attention and energy.) It’s a good practice anyway to always and regularly promote the mission, goals, and purpose(s) of the group or activity. This helps people focus on the right “game”. As a leader, you must give the group a worthwhile game to play and a goal to have and pursue or the game will become getting you.

NOTE: The attacks on new members is curious. Are the new members trying to support the changes and invoking the veterans’ ire by doing so?

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Wow! That’s very interesting. What did they do? Can the old theme be made available or did they change the categories?

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To echo everyone else, your “top contributors” are not contributing to what you want to build. They may provide volume, but they’re not fostering a healthy community. You’re far better off without them.

In my opinion, it’s a tactical mistake to try to take things offline. They already feel empowered and entitled. Pulling them aside to say “please be nice in public” is only going to feed that sense of power, leverage and entitlement.

The rules are the same for everyone: Be nice. Be respectful. Be constructive. There’s nothing about that that needs to be kept private. In fact, it needs to be a public reminder when people aren’t doing that. The folks who’ve been bullied need to see that a change is being enforced.

And at the same time, you should read these complaints very carefully to see if there’s anything you can agree with. Why? Because it’s incredibly effective to say - along with the “Be nice…” message - “I understand that you’re frustrated about X and your point about X[1] is very fair.” Then follow that with a response to X[1] that carefully ignores the petty, shitty parts of the complaint.


@Drew_Warwick I’m really interested to hear how you set the example.

Did you just remove the user so they silently disappeared? Was there a public announcement that “We’ve removed BadGuy”? Was the removal declared in a particularly noxious thread? Something else…?

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There was no public post / announcement about it. In general, our forum staff try not to publicly disparage individuals. The user themselves had to explain to their cult followers why he no longer had access to the forum, which got the message across. Similarly, there was another user in the past that was inventing outlandish conspiracy theories out of thin air that people started to believe because he repeated them often enough. He was also removed without a public post / announcement, and everything recovered not because he told anyone about it, but because he was no longer around to spread conspiracy theories.

I was hesitant to suggest anything specific though because it depends on the user. If we combined the two users above: outlandish conspiracy theories and cult leader, silently removing them may have not been sufficient. This hypothetical user could have told their clique that the forum staff were out to get them and fear-mongered that everyone else was next. In this case, a public post may have been warranted so as to not allow one-sided baseless fearmongering to spread. But even that has its downsides, especially for OP’s forum which is based around a professional product. Publicly disparaging a user on a random cooking community might be fine, but if you disparage customers as a business entity it can lead to lawsuits/etc. So I’m going to refrain from suggesting anything specific on how to set an example in lack of an understanding on the exact situation.

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I’ve seen a forum where the Admin pinned a banner (to appear on every page) that no one could unpin. It was posted for 30 days explaining the negativity and reminding everyone of the Terms & Conditions of the forum… and that should anyone continue with the negative and disparaging comments about others, that user will be suspended. Suspension can be for a week, 2 weeks or a months (Admin’s discretion). Future violations of the T&C and the user will be permanently banned. It seemed to work out just fine. The atmosphere and discourse got back on track without the user having to be suspended or banned.

I think by keeping that banner pinned for 30 days also served as a reminder to everyone else. Even after the banner was unpinned, there were no more problems. Maybe they were lucky?

Conspiracy theorists are probably the hardest to handle as they are firm in their believe of the conspiracies, whether it relates to politics, health or other topics.

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This is very true.

Although from our forum’s perspective (Drowned in Sound) we do get changes rolled out by Discourse automatically that upset/anger our community. I guess they are discussed and gone over here but none of our community have time to look over this.

Ones that come to mind are when the ability to reply to a post but stay in your current position in a topic was removed and the recent ‘sticky avatar’ setting as you scroll through long posts, which is a good example of an idea that is distracting in practice even if it seems good in principle.

Anyway @sleslie99 it’s hard to easily advise here without knowing the nature of the changes or your community I think. I’ve done a lot of stints moderating DiS and made a lot of mistakes along the way too so my thoughts are:

This line:

sounds significant.

Are your changes mostly UI/structural on the forums?
Or are they about community standards and imposing some kind of order?

These are very different things.

In the case of UI/structural changes you absolutely will get huge blowback if you just drop a new system on people without consulting them. You use the term ‘venting’ and I’d urge you to step back and make sure you are prepared to rollback any/all of those changes if the community isn’t into them. If not then maybe you’re seeing ‘venting’ when people are telling you these aren’t good. On our forum we tend to raise any possible change with the community via polls and options so that when they come in even if people aren’t as happy they know and can see it’s a majority decision.

In the case of new standards etc you have to decide what the morally correct choice is and stick to it. When you start imposing standards on a forum that has had a ‘wild west’ sort of thing then you will get abuse and yes, a bunch of your ‘top contributors’ are going to be part of that. They’ll probably bang on about ‘free speech’ or ‘fascism’ or (depending on your policies) ‘wokeness’. But you can’t be distracted by this really. If you have decided your forum is a better place with more rules then actually it will be, but you will have to accept you’ll get a change of user as a result.
And in fact those new users who are getting abused are vital and you need to step on the abusers immediately and strongly. If you’ve changed things and new people are arriving because you’ve said, “No more ableism,” or whatever then you can’t let that slide.

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Absolutely. Not disparaging members publicly is a best practice since public shaming tends to inflame the situation rather than settle it down. The most one might venture is a simple and non-permanent “This member has been suspended indefinitely” attached to their posts with no mention of the username. The next gradient would be to replace their posts with this message. If you want to get fine-grained about this, the gradient is (1) notice appended to post body (2) notice pre-pended above post body (3) notice replaces post body.

The banner suggestion by @JimPas would be a fourth gradient but as @Drew_Warwick aptly pointed out, the banner should refer to the situation, not the people. This principle comes straight out of Parliamentary Procedure where assembly members speak to the Chairperson about the situation at hand or the questions under discussion, not directly to each other.

This is also why you’ll hear the Chairman refer to “the Member” or “the speaker” or “the Congressman”, etc. rather than by name. It’s more neutral and less likely to sound accusative. Mostly, though, one wants to speak of the situation rather than "the situator" to focus attention on finding a true solution and avoiding what is rightfully disdained as “ad-hominem” (at or toward the person) argumentation.

This is an excellent practice and is a fundamental of the parliamentary process. Give everyone a chance to understand and then have the group decide as a group. Once this is done, then the group members tend to operate as group members and not discontented individuals or factions.

Historical note: Henry Robert, founder of Robert’s Rules of Order, was asked to chair a church meeting. It was such a mess that he came away swearing that he would never again chair another meeting. Nevertheless, he was moved and inspired by the experience and collected many best practices that he found during his career as an Army Engineer. These rules of procedure and best practices allowed him to once again chair meetings and it has been said that he became so skilled at conducting them that unanimous vote outcomes were a regular occurrence. Robert’s Rules is a pretty amazing system.

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We had a similar situation occurring in our community. There was a group of people who were easily roused. As a group they would create an unwanted environment. We tried conciliation without success. We identified one person who was the most inflammatory and banned them. Since then, we haven’t had problems. The other members of the group are participating happily.

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