Hi everyone, we’ve written a guide to help people create and run comment communities. We’d like your feedback before we publish it more formally. Have a read, and let us know what you think.
Is there any advice we’re missing?
Is there anything that you’d phrase differently?
How can we make this even better?
We plan to publish the first version later this week.
Thank you so much, as always,
Sydette and Andrew
When you engage with a community online in a constructive way, it can be one of the most meaningful experiences of your life.
It doesn't have to be polite, or neat and tidy, or full of everyone agreeing with each other. It just has to not be hateful and destructive… Take accountability for this medium so we can save it from the vilification that it still faces in our culture.
-- Anil Dash, “If Your Website’s Full of Assholes, It’s Your Fault”
Great communities aren’t built on technology alone. This guide will help you create the structures for a constructive community experience, as well as plan for what to do if things go wrong. It’s based on several months of research, as well as years of experience from skilled community managers who contributed time and expertise.
- Write a Community Mission Statement
- Create a Code of Conduct
- How to Moderate Effectively
- Take Care of your Moderation Team
- Model Your Threats
- Practical Tips
A community is a gathering of people around a common identity and purpose, and comment sections are a place where people gather to interact with you and each other, based on your journalism. Your first task: decide what kind of community you’d like to foster.
The main differences between interactions on your site and on social media are
1) users can interact with your reporters and your readers without giving up a lot of personal data
2) users can share their thoughts in the same place as the story — and usually after they’ve just read that story
3) you can manage the space, allowing you to direct the conversation and ensure it matches your community’s goals.
So what are those goals?
Declaring Your Community’s Purpose
The first step is to create a community mission statement. This is the Who, What, and Why of each space that you control. It might be one sitewide statement, or an amended statement for each topic/section.
Write yours by answering these questions:
1. What is your site’s mission, and what is your community’s role in fulfilling that mission?Example 1: We are a local newspaper that serves the community of West Covina, IA, through quality cultural reporting and investigative journalism. The community’s role is to share experiences and to give us ideas and feedback so that we can improve our reporting and enable dialogue about local issues on our site.
Example 2: We are a national investigative news organization. We are publishing a series about changes in a local school system, and the community’s role here is to share information and anecdotes that can help our reporting.
2. Who do you want in your community? How do they contribute, and why are they coming to your site to do so?Example 1: Our ideal audience on our news reporting are people who want to talk with each other about topics that affect our town. They come here because we manage the space carefully, highlight the best comments, and make sure that the conversation stays respectful and on topic.
Example 2: Our ideal community on our music pages are music fans who live in our town. They will share their thoughts about local bands and venues in order to comment on upcoming events and connect with our reporter, who has a singular voice.
Example 3: Our ideal community on our travel pages is a broad cross-section of frequent travelers both in our community and outside, with different life experiences and ages. The reporter has built a solid following and the community will use the comment space to exchange tips and places to visit with each other, as well as interacting with the writer about the topic of their latest piece.
3. What are the interactions you want? How will you model this behavior?
Example: We want robust, informed, and positive discussion. We want the community to share ideas and experiences, and ideally to create close bonds. We will feature useful comments, profile prominent commenters, and will create opportunities for meet ups.
4. What is not acceptable in your community? How will you respond to this behavior?
Example: This is a place for sharing information in a positive way, not for gratuitous insults or offensive comments. We will remove mean comments, guide rule breakers to improve their behavior, and redirect off-topic discussion to other locations, either on our site or elsewhere. If people continue to break the rules, they will be banned.
Ask a colleague to write their own answers as well. Compare your responses, and create a single document. It is important to have a vision that your newsroom can understand and support, getting feedback will help you build a more solid statement.
We are a local newspaper that serves the community of West Covina, IA, through quality cultural reporting and investigative journalism. The community’s role is to share experiences and to give us ideas and feedback so that we can improve our reporting and enable dialogue about local issues on our site.
Our ideal audience on our news reporting are people who want to talk with each other about topics that affect our town. They come here because we manage the space carefully, highlight the best comments, and make sure that the conversation stays respectful and on topic. Our ideal community on our music pages are music fans who live in our town. They will share their thoughts about local bands and venues in order to comment on upcoming events and connect with our reporter, who has a singular voice. Our ideal community on our travel pages is a broad cross-section of frequent travelers both in our community and outside, with different life experiences and ages. The reporter has built a solid following and the community will use the comment space to exchange tips and places to visit with each other, as well as interacting with the writer about the topic of their latest piece.
We want robust, informed, and positive discussion. We want the community to share ideas and experiences, and ideally to create close bonds. We will feature useful comments, profile prominent commenters, and will create opportunities for meet ups. This is a place for sharing information in a positive way, not for gratuitous insults or offensive comments. We will remove mean comments, guide rule breakers to improve their behavior, and redirect off-topic discussion to other locations, either on our site or elsewhere. If people continue to break the rules, they will be banned.
This should clearly describe your desired community, why you want it, and how its members benefit from being part of it. In the next stage, you’ll create specific guidelines to make this possible.
**Create a Code of Conduct**
Clear rules define and protect participants in community spaces. Online spaces can face many issues with racism, misogyny and harassment. Codes of conduct define your mission, help you keep your space welcoming, and clearly define acceptable boundaries of behavior.
How to write a good code of conduct
This exercise will help you create a code of conduct by
- Sharing existing codes as examples to get you started
- Asking questions so you can define the kind of conduct you want
- Helping you write your code and also a TL;DR version for all participants
Good codes come in a variety of formats, lengths and tone. Structurally they contain the same basic elements:
- They clearly share the purpose of the community
- They explain how the code helps create that community
- They clearly state what can be expected in behavior from its members, and in community management from you
Here are four examples of good codes of conducts with varying styles and aimed at very different audiences, which we will reference for this exercise:
BookRiot is a website about books and reading. Its community code is short. It explains the goals of the community, as well as expected behavior, reasons why its requirements are important, and its moderation process.
SB Nation is a collection of sites about sports. Their sitewide community guidelines provide a history of the network, and introduces members to its structure and terminology. It lets members know that each site within the network may have different, possibly stricter rules.
Tech Solidarity is a grassroots organization that aims to connect tech workers with the communities where they live. Its Slack Code of Conduct is detailed and cites its influences. It includes guidelines for discussion, definitions, examples, and citations. It defines unacceptable behavior and includes a shortened version for extra emphasis. It is also created as a Google Doc so that others can suggest changes and improvements.
At The Coral Project, we created a single code of conduct for everything we do, detailing what acceptable and unacceptable behavior look like, and then used it to craft community guidelines. These focus on positive actions (‘criticize ideas, not people.’)
2. Key questions
The next step is to define the behavior you want as specifically as possible. Write your answers as clearly and completely as you can. While all of the answers may not go into your code, it is important you think through all of your goals and limitations.
- What are the boundaries of the space? How are they protected?
- What behavior, topics, stances or language are absolutely not permitted? eg personal attacks, promotion of a business, curse words, Holocaust denial.
- Are there limits on how often, what times or in what formats people can post?
- How are security and privacy handled on the site? Who will have access to users’ personal information?
- What material is acceptable to post?
- Do you allow links? If so, are there any kinds of sites you specifically forbid people linking to?
- Does your space use trigger or spoiler warnings? If so, how do you want them structured?
- How will you handle people posting copyrighted or promotional material?
- How will you respond if people are not who they claim to be in your space?
- How will you deal with falsehoods or unsubstantiated claims?
- How will you deal with someone posting the same comment over and over again?
- How will rule-breaking behavior be handled?
- How do people report rule-breaking behavior?
- What happens when a comment or account is removed? Does the community member receive any notification?
- Do you suspend people for a fixed period of time? What are the rules around that?
- Can moderation decisions be appealed? If so, how?
- Are rules different for some topics/parts of the site? If so, how are these differences communicated?
- What does good community interaction look like?
- What is the environment you want to encourage? Are there any results you would expect to see if you succeed?
- What can good participants in the community do to help the management of the community? How do they know?
- How should users behave to each other?
- Welcome note. Start by telling readers why you have a code of conduct. “The Tech Solidarity community is dedicated to providing a harassment-free experience for everyone, regardless of gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion.”
- Explanation of the community’s purpose. Tell them what you want this community to be. “Welcome to SB Nation! Since 2005, we have been a network of team-specific sports communities where fans gather to discuss the ins-and-outs of their favorite teams.”
Detail about the rules and consequences for breaking them. The questions you answered in section two have defined a list of behaviors you find acceptable and unacceptable, as well as your responses. Tell your users what they are and what the consequences are.
“To support these goals, the following rules will be enforced. Users can be banned on the first offense for any of the following behaviors:” - Book Riot
Make sure that any action that could lead to a person losing rights or content in the community is described here, so that there are no surprises.
How to contact you. Community members will need to reach out to you in order to report code breaking, to appeal against moderation decisions, or to provide information. Contact information should be in your code. We recommend an email address or online form whose responses can be checked by more than one team member, such as email@example.com
- The date it was written. Codes of Conduct are not fixed documents, and as you learn more about your community, you may want to change or adapt your code. Adding a date makes clear if the code has recently been updated. Make sure to keep archived copies of all of the versions of your code, in case of disputes.
The next stage is to structure your responses into a Code of Conduct.
3. How to write your code
Section one defined the important structural elements that good codes share, and looked at four different examples. In section two, we asked you to answer a series of questions to define your community. In section three, we’ll help you write the code itself. Here are the pieces that a good code contains.
Write a tl;dr (too long;didn’t read) version
If your code is longer than 400 words, your community will benefit from posting a short summary, with a link to the full version, anywhere that your community lives. Studies suggest that community behavior improves when you provide constant reminders of how people are expected to behave. This shortened version can describe your community's goals, the behaviors that are most encouraged and avoided, and/or what you find most important. It could be as short as “Please keep the conversation productive and on topic” or as detailed as what we use in The Coral Project’s online community:
Welcome to The Coral Project community!
This is where we talk about online communities, comment sections, and journalism.
We aim to create a safe and sustainable environment for discussion. That means:
Be supportive of each other
Criticize ideas, not people
Flag bad behavior
Follow the rules
The best contributions will be featured on the site and in our newsletter.
Click here to read our community guidelines and harassment policy.
How To Moderate Effectively
Community management is about putting your statement of community and code of conduct into practice. It’s a lot more than just policing. At its best, moderation is about being present and available to help community members achieve both their and your goals.
In a post on our blog, Jessamyn Ward describes three categories for user behavior:
- Encouraged – Users get positive feedback for this type of behavior from community and/or moderators.
- Discouraged – This type of behavior is allowed to happen, but discouraged through community norms or responses from moderators. This type of behavior may also be allowed to happen once or twice, but if it becomes a pattern, it becomes Against The Rules.
- Actionable – Users exhibiting this kind of behavior will find some sort of sanctions coming their way directly from the moderators, not just from the community.
Encouraged behaviors are currently the most neglected by people who manage comment spaces – contributions are either bad or ok, but rarely actively ‘good.’ But we are social animals – we look to others for how to act, and the first comments that people see can set the tone of the conversation. So if you want the tone to be a positive one, you should commit to keeping the space civil, to welcoming new members, to thanking first-time or seldom commenters who positively add to the discussion, and to rewarding and highlighting useful contributions. Everyone will be watching to see how to act.
Discouraged behaviors are hardest to manage, and require the most people skills. While not explicitly against the code of conduct, they can sour your space, especially if they happen repeatedly. It is best to discourage such behavior as soon as you see it, ideally first privately to the community member, and if that has no effect, then publicly. When doing so, concentrate on the rules of your site and the behavior you would like to see – avoid anything that sounds like a judgement on the personality involved. Ward’s piece offers three excellent examples of how to do this:
- “We’re not the thought police and you can think what you like but on the site you need to treat other members with respect.”
- “There is a difference between being angry and responding angrily to something.”
- “Your behavior seems like you’re trolling. If you are not trolling, could you please change your behavior?”
The book Building Successful Online Communities: Evidence-Based Social Design by Robert E. Kraut and Paul Resnick suggests allowing community members to save face through careful messaging, as a way to reduce the likelihood that they will become defensive. It suggests, “You may not have been aware of this guideline, but we have a stated policy of [fill in here]. Please see [link to policy]. Please stick to this in the future.”
Actionable behavior comes from your code of conduct. It might require manual action on your part or, as with Talk’s Banned Word Lists, be automatic. Once you intervene due to Discouraged or Actionable behavior, make sure your interventions are explained clearly, and have consequences. If the problem keeps occurring or is serious enough, you might want to close the comment stream, move it to pre-moderation, and/or suspend or ban a community member. Bad behavior or bad events can happen, but you can avoid your community becoming defined by them if you act clearly and quickly.
If Actionable behavior happens frequently around certain topics, you may want to create a more restrictive community strategy for those areas. See the section below on threat modeling for more information.
Take Care of Your Moderation Team
Just as you care for your community, you need to look after your moderation team. Moderating can involve a lot of stress and emotional labor, while confronting sensitive and potentially damaging material. To support those who manage your communities:
- Encourage debriefing and documentation. Check in regularly with moderators about what is happening and how it is affecting them. Are there any tips and tricks they can share with you or each other?
- Rotate moderators across sections where the conversations can be especially difficult. Do not give one person the constant task of dealing with the worst material.
- If you have to deal with offensive content, have someone outside the moderation team be available to check in with about the effects of their work. People who moderate can experience severe desensitization over time. Having someone who can advocate on their behalf can be vital to maintaining a healthy workplace.
- Make sure your team is aware of signs of PTSD in themselves and others. Keep resources ready and available. Make sure there is a process for people to step away at any time.
Model Your Threats
“To become more secure, you must determine what you need to protect, and whom you need to protect it from.” - Electronic Freedom Foundation
You have a community strategy, a code of conduct, and a moderation plan. Now is the time to assess your community for threats.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation recommends security assessment using these questions:
- What do you want to protect?
- Who do you want to protect it from?
- How likely is it that you will need to protect it?
- How bad are the consequences if you fail?
- How much trouble are you willing to go through in order to try to prevent those?
An Example Assessment:
We want to protect our small community of commenters discussing gender-wage disparity from vitriolic misogynistic trolling. The series has been gaining unpleasant responses on social media. We think it’s pretty likely our on-site community will be targeted. If it is attacked successfully, we would lose the trust people placed in us, dissuade community members from ever returning, and receive bad press. We don’t have a lot of resources to make available, but we want to protect the current level and tone of discussion.
From a community’s perspective, you want to protect your members from being attacked and feeling vulnerable. Among the events that could happen: a brigade of racists make a coordinated attack on the conversation; spammers try to overwhelm the space; bad actors decide to doxx other community members or your journalists – and of course a flame war might break out between two or more community members. Only you know your community well enough to assess how likely any of these and other events are.
Once you have made your initial assessment, there are important questions you need to answer:
- How quickly will you know if any of these things occur in your community? How will you find out about them? What if they occur late at night or over a weekend?
- Do your norms and practices feel sufficient to meet these threats? If not, what can you change?
- What are you most unsure about? Who could you talk to about them? (We have a community available for these kinds of discussions.)
- Have you made sure that there are alternate methods for someone in your organization to get in contact with you if the ones you share with your community (eg a community email address) are compromised?
- Do you have any resources outside of the moderation team who you could reach out to if you needed emergency back up?
- Where did you imagine these problems are most likely to happen? Which topics/authors? Are your resources allocated accordingly? If you see these behaviors recur, how will you handle that? What measures could you take to make conversation more controlled within spaces that are more likely to turn sour?
Preparing for the worst will set you up for success.
Practical Tips for using our Talk platform
We’ve built our Talk platform with all of these principles and more in mind. Here are some of the current features you can use to reinforce positive community behavior:
- Talk’s Comment Stream Description allows you to put text and links above the comment box. Use that space to focus users on the behavior you would like to encourage.
- Add prohibited words and phrases to the Banned Words/Phrases list, and those that might indicate bad behavior (such as “like you”) to the Suspect Words/Phrases list
- You can add a question to the top of each story’s comments to guide interaction around the story.
- Flamewars often happen at night, and at times when moderation fails to remove comments quickly. If you can’t have someone available to read comments for several hours, consider putting them into pre-moderation, and alert your community in the description or the question box that their comments will be approved when a moderator becomes available.
Good luck, and reach out to us if you need help thinking through any of these steps. We have an open Slack channel you can join via our website, or you can email us directly. We’re here to help you succeed.
The Coral Project
Acknowledgements We would like thank the Engaging News Project for their research partnership. Individual thanks to Teddy Amenabar, and Lilah Raptoppulos for their expertise. A very special thanks to Jessamyn Ward for her work on our blog that is included in these guides. The Coral Project is a collaboration between Mozilla, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, funded by the Knight Foundation.