Although I ceased contributing to Building magazine’s forums last month after being trolled (see post), I retained an RSS feed and saw that the problems were, if anything, getting worse. This was confirmed earlier today in a post, Forums – not fun, by Phil Clark, who has banned a couple of users and is now even considering shutting the forums down.
Reading the comments responding to his earlier post on the topic, there are some good suggestions about how to moderate forum content and manage would-be trolls. I liked Renee’s ideas of making personal attacks completely off limits and moderating everyone’s first post, and MikeC’s view that people don’t realise the currency of online identities (expanded in his own blog: Don’t trash your online identity).
Over the past few months, I have watched discussions unfold on a number of forums run on LinkedIn and Ning – including Be2camp – and the contributions have almost without exception been on-topic and courteous, perhaps because most contributors are not anonymous and participate as interested professionals.
If you must play, go and find a playground
Alex Lankester, who commented on Phil’s blog, argues we should think about online communities as an extension of our workplace not a playground:
Individuals should treat professional networking forum discussions in the same way they would behave at a meeting or conference. Of course openness and honesty of opinion should be encouraged but if people can’t behave in a sensible manner and communicate with their peers with the respect everyone deserves, quite frankly they should stick to Facebook and other such sites.
Some of the problems seem to have arisen from allowing anonymous IDs. Some of the Building forum contributors have used their real names or online identities that immediately link to personal blogs or company websites – you can be pretty confident that such individuals value their online presence. While anonymous online identities can be used responsibly (some may not want their employers to know they are posting, for example), others hide like silly schoolboys behind anonymous user names – eg: Yelkcub69, Rackman – and subject other users to juvenile and sometimes quite poisonous posts, presumably thinking that none of their work colleagues, fellow project team members, clients (existing and potential) or suppliers will realise who they are. Part of me wishes Phil could name and shame them!
I am sure you can block users from particular IP addresses from accessing the forums. This is fine if only one user comes from that address, but more difficult if that IP address is shared by lots of people (but knowing that they could cause a blanket ban on their colleagues might discourage potential forum abusers).
Rate the rants
Alternatively, why not adopt a ratings system by which users themselves can play a role in moderating the quality of posts? As well as being able to report objectionable posts, users could rate each other; excellent posts get applauded with, say, five thumbs-up, while abusive rants get booed off with five thumbs-down. Instead of users trying to get the last word or to be the most prolific (or vitriolic), users might then aspire to be the most positively rated. Such a self-regulation system would also help forum moderators apply the ‘wisdom of the forum crowd’ in identifying and taking action against forum abusers; it could also help identify respected individuals who could be recruited as additional moderators or administrators – useful if a community becomes extensive and busy.