One of the aspects of effective Community Management is user content moderation, ensuring that a clear code of conduct is adhered to to ensure the health of the group developing in your community. Of course, this means removing content which at times is skirting the edges of your guidelines, and this can result in unhappy participants claiming their right to free speech has been impinged upon.
Regardless of laws governing different countries, should we as Community Managers work on the principle that free speech is an absolute right within an online community? Or should we always endeavour to enforce a code of conduct?
The bottom line is this: As a human being, the participant has a basic right to express whatever they wish. However, this right is always framed within laws of acceptable behaviour when exerted in public, and rules imposed by the owner of the space when expresses privately. An online community space is very rarely public (unless run by a government agency), which means that it cannot be compared to a nation-state and its participants to citizens.
To use an analogy, the communities I look after for a company I represent are an extension of our offices. We put on a little daily party, everyone is invited, but we set the basic rules. If we ask you to take your shoes off on the way in, you would as you wouldn’t get in otherwise. If we ask you to restrain from using certain types of language or discussing some topics, we can expect adherence to this rule as well if you want to stay at our party. The concept of “free speech” is null and void in the context of a private space.
Online or offline, same rules
If one of your participants suggests they have an unalienable right to express themselves online, you can agree with them and point them to free hosting and WordPress. They can be express themselves till they are blue in the face online, just not in your “house”. Those accusing you of censorship are a bit like those friends of friends who appear in your house, smoke in the kitchen, turn the music up a little bit too loud and suggest you should chill out when you challenge them. By allowing your boundaries to be tested and not reacting firmly, you run the risk of your community participants losing their respect in your code of conduct.
The participant is a guest in the host’s community; this invitation is extended subject to the host’s discretion at all times.
Similarly, walking into a cinema or bar automatically results in you giving up some of your freedom of expression. Any behaviour which the owner or manager deems socially unacceptable (beyond legal obligations) such as talking too loudly, using profanities or aggressive behaviour will result in a warning and/or being ejected from the venue. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to spend time in such an environment, either by accepting to behave in line with the code of behaviour in place, or petitioning for a change in them. Otherwise, you’ll watch a film at home or throw a house party.
Protect your community at all cost
As a Community Manager, your role usually veers between anarchy and tyranny, usually settling on benevolent dictatorship most of the time as it’s virtually unheard of to manage to please everyone. Once you have put your code of conduct in place and publicised it, you can allow your community to get on with it, but must ensure you intervene when necessary to enforce your rules, fairly or course but firmly to maintain the direction you wish your community to take. Your Terms & Conditions will most like have a section like this:
We reserve the right delete any material posted by users in the community, or to restrict or terminate your access to all or any part of the site at any time in our sole discretion and without notice.
If you witness behaviour on the part of one or more participants which you feel is harming the health of your community, you have a duty to protect those who accept and post within your terms. Unless your rules are in fact overly restrictive and need reassessing, you must act swiftly and decisively in dealing with damaging behaviour. Above all, be fair, consistent and impartial in your actions.
It is common to be accused of being a Nazi dictator or likened to African despots when enforcing your community rules. This should not be taken as a sign of failure; in fact, it is a sign that you are ensuring your community maintains a standard of behaviour congruent with the type of user you want to attract.
Have you been accused of trampling all over someone’s right to free speech? How did you handle it? Or do you think the community should have full ownership of the code of conduct?
[photo by wfyurasko]