What we can learn from Communities Gone Wild

Communities aren’t something that should be taken lightly — while yes, communities can be glorious, happy places to be, if not treated with care, can be echo chambers of disinformation, hate, and your own worst enemy.

Through studying where communities have gone wrong — we can work towards building a better web for everyone! By keeping a few key principles in mind, namely trust, moderation transparency, and honesty — you too can keep your community from going wild.

I joke that I sort of stumbled into community building. I came up through a product lens, using community-relations and user interviews to inform my product decisions… and ended up enjoying nerding out with the community a bit too much.

Pair this with being a bit of a chronic early adopter on internet things for far too long, and well, I’ve seen both communities gone right, communities gone wrong, communities that are a bit cringey and last, but certainly not least — communities that have gone wild.

What is a community gone wild?

You know that feeling when you’re running downhill, and your legs just can’t quite keep up, and you’re headed downhill, and picking up speed, but you’re so not in control. That’s what a community gone wild feels like. It can start with the smallest action but build up some traction, and the next thing you know — your community has been swept out of control.

In terms of the internet — this isn’t always a bad thing. In fact — one of my favorite articles and case studies of online communities on the internet is a tale of communities gone wild.

A community gone wild refers to a community that has developed its own course of action from what its original creators or moderators originally intended.

So this happens once in a blue moon, right?

You’d be surprised how often this happens. Online communities require care, nurturing, love, and attention — when you don’t give these the appropriate time and energy, they can run wild Most of the time, communities left unchecked will just hit a point and cease to exist, but every so often, one will burst into flames enough to grab some unwanted attention.

It happens with small niche interest groups, and with large “name brand” organizations. In fact, the tweet that inspired this article — came from a community mishap with the New York Times.

Having a community is a privilege: we need to act as such

Currently, in the trend that is all things community right now — it's easy to overlook where community can go wrong. Seems easy enough, post a few tweets, talk to a few people, most of the time, we don’t think twice when engaging online — we’re just being human. However this is sometimes far from the case — being involved in a community means that you need to well, be involved.

Community leaders must take an active role in not only making sure that the community stays focused towards its original purpose, but also must ensure that the original purpose is in alignment with what the members of the community actually want.

This can be a bit more difficult when looking at product-led communities, but still something to consider. If you’re building a community around tips for your latest SaaS product, then refusing to listen to what that SaaS product actually does – than your community might be a little out of touch.

It doesn’t just all of a sudden implode

Communities don’t just wake up in the morning one day and go wild — but rather, it’s often a slippery slope. It’s one small action, that opens up a door for another small action, that opens up a door to another small action — the sum of all these small actions end up adding up and welp, there goes your community! (Hint!: this is why so many community managers are nervous about Clubhouse!)

Moderation is key here — through holding your community accountable and having clear, enforced guidelines and moderation, you can make sure that your community stays on the right path towards success.

Take for example this classic tale in community management — or one of my favorite tales of communities gone wild (in a totally good way)

First and foremost — let me take a break here and say Rosieland HQ has zero-tolerance for hate, discrimination, and harassment of any kind — that’s not our jam. Below you’ll see material referenced that refers to some very dark undertones of the internet.  

Years ago, I stumbled upon the viral Vice article, “How I Infiltrated a White Pride Facebook Group and Turned It into 'LGBT Southerners for Michelle Obama,” and for those of you who haven’t read the article — first and foremost, start there.
The now-dated article goes into how the author, Virgil Texas, through an assist by a few friend requests and accusatory statements, successfully pitted group members against each other, flipping the entire content of the Facebook group around.

In this case, fortunately, there were no community managers to be had (although, I'm not quite sure we should even have communities of hate in the first place…), but the community went wild and pivoted to a cause it well, never originally intended to be.

The permanent impermanence of the internet as it relates to community moderation

I’m reminded of a quote, quoted in one of my favorite newsletters, Garbage Day by Ryan Broderick, the internet never forgets.

“The excellent comedian Jesse McLaren told me once, “The internet is non-linear.” He said that movies, TV shows, radio, and books can only be consumed in one direction, start to finish. But when you create content on the internet, you have to imagine it being consumed in four dimensions, front to back, but also out of order, and also without whatever greater context it was created in. Something you posted 10 years ago is just as alive on the internet as something you post today.” the internet never forgets, Ryan Broderick

This makes the riskiness of communities gone wild even riskier — words may be immortalized in this online sector for some time to come! One-off posts, dunks, snide comments, and a whole bunch of ick have some sort of permanent impermanence, existing quite so relevant at one point in time, and yet seeming so distant in another.

Any tale of a group gone wrong Moms In Tech Shuttered with Allegations of Racism, Next Door’s Karen problem, Bumbles’ well-intentioned female-first approach is littered with stories of unwanted content, or any dating app for that matter — has some sort of downfall because of content moderation.

Moderation, specifically proactive moderation is essential to having a healthy community — and helps stop these communities gone wild in their tracks. Even the most well-intentioned community manager can find themselves between a rock and a hard place without their trusty toolbelt of community guidelines and content moderation.

The rise of alt-tech platforms and what the heck community managers need to know

In the past year, we’ve seen a rise in what some refer to as Alt Tech Platforms, for the sake of this article, we’ll be referencing it by the Knight First Amendment’s Institute at Columbia University’s definition: platforms that offer a promise of uncensored speech, which exist specifically to give a space for far-right, nationalist, racist, or extremist points of view, and which harbor a broad sense of grievance that speech has been “censored” for failure to be “politically correct.”

These platforms give me increased concern as a community manager — not because I’m going to be expected to meet on them (to be frank, I would not accept a client whose values aligned with the alt-tech platforms), but rather because we’re seeing wiggle room for folks to get away with such horrid behavior.

I can practically hear my mother’s voice in my head,  ”someone needs to be told, no, that’s not okay.” We’re back to the aforementioned slippery slope problem online, by failing to take a stance for behavior that is clearly wrong, we set ourselves up for a harder battle, and a battle that doesn’t favor anyone’s free speech, but rather favors trolls, and keyboard warriors.

Where platforms come into play

At times, platforms have had to step in and shut down certain elements when communities are getting too wild. We’re currently seeing it now with Substack, but previously — this has been a point of contention with Reddit for over a decade now.

Communities can run so wild that they cause platforms to run for the hills, or toss the towel. I recently had a conversation with someone else in the community space on the whole /Creepshots v. Gawker v. Violentacrez debacle in which Reddit took sides with someone distributing child pornography instead of just you know, admitting that well — maybe not all content should be allowed on Reddit. (tbh, this was not a good week to be working at Reddit.)

(please note: Reddit has since made leaps and strides since Violentacrez, yet content moderation on the forum-based site does open up a few cans of worms to discuss in terms of content)

Anywhoo —I’m not here to debate on the nuance or ethics of Section 230 (although EFF has a great briefing on it), but in my humble opinion as a community builder, there is some onus on community builders for us to build a better future.

The media ethics nerd in me wants to scream at the top of her lungs — freedom of speech does not mean that you have freedom of consequences — you can still be held accountable for what you say and do online! And being a sexist/racist/homophobic/etc asshat just isn’t a good look for anyone online, nor should anyone stand for it!

So, what the heck can you do about it?

First and foremost — write your community guidelines, and code of conduct before you even think you’ll have to! It’s saved my ass more than once as a community manager. Know what book your community is playing by, and why it’s so important for them to do so!

Then showcase the type of content and behavior that you want to see — building a positive corner on the internet starts by being a positive light on the internet.
That doesn’t mean to say that you’ll stand down to hate — it's important for community builders to stand up for what they believe in, and stand their ground. Determine what your community has zero-tolerance policy for and consider implementing it for anything that would directly impact the sanctity of your community.

Last but definitely not least — remember that there’s a human behind that screen. And while it’s often easier to just fire off a tweet or share a post, remember that words have intentions, meanings, and impact. As very online humans, let's take a moment to remember the impact that our words may have on one another as fellow members of this universe.

This is another good time to mention that Rosieland publicly takes a progressive stance that we believe in science, that Black Lives Matter, stand in support of the AAPI community, we’re pro LGTBQIA+ rights, and any hate towards the aforementioned groups will not be tolerated within our community.

How can we build better communities?

We are on a quest to learn and explore what makes great communities.


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