How to Hack Harassment: The Internet is for everyone.

I’m just a community manager, standing in front of the internet, asking it to love her. Now, I don’t have all the answers, but as someone who has experienced harassment and managed communities, I’m passionate about creating inclusive spaces. This is what I’ve learned.

Trolls are ruining the internet. Doing nothing about online harassment harms free speech, communities and relationships.

The internet has changed almost all aspects of human life whether through education, entertainment, relationships or communities. One of the most affected aspects are communities and communication among people. Friendships and relationships in the modern era are shaped and formed through digital devices, and most interaction takes place behind the screen.

This is truly the emergence of a digitalized society through virtual environments. These virtual environments are online platforms that facilitate the initiation, growth and maintenance of interpersonal connections and relationships. Many different standards and customs for online interaction have emerged.

The internet is a shared, public resource that should be treated the same as other public resources we share IRL, (In Real Life), such as a public park.

We need to ask all internet users to treat online discourse with the same respect they would a public park, as a shared community resource, a place to share skills, knowledge, conversation and interest.

Online harassment is a real issue. If you’ve ever had to deal with an intellectual bully in an online community, or social media, you know that it’s one of the most unpleasant aspects of the internet. An intellectual bully may be adding value, but is mostly condescending, rude and aggressive.

40 percent of Internet-using adults have experienced online harassment

An online bully, or cyberbully, can be defined in many ways. Here are a few that have resonated with me:

An aggressive, intentional act carried out by a group or individual, repeatedly or over time against a victim.

An intentional act that is conducted through digital technology to hurt someone.

A person who intentionally uses obscenity, threat or aggression to impose domination or cause fear and distress in others.

Online harassment and abuse is not only a personal problem, it’s a community and business problem. People are starting to compare online communities and social networks to cities that aren’t safe to walk around in anymore.

#WOCinTech™ stock images

Online harassment disproportionately affects women, people of color, and LGBT people. The thing is that oppression didn’t start with the Internet. Racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia have been around for a long time and the activist movements have created structural changes. These movements forced changes to communities so that it was not acceptable to, for example, say racist slurs in front of people. Although the movements helped tackle a lot of oppression, it doesn’t stop people from being racist, it made people behave differently. We can’t change individual people’s behaviors and minds, but we can make it so they can’t oppress and go after folks as easily. There’s still a strong narrative that “online is not real life.”

Prosecutors argue that to convict someone, the language used has to be regarded as a threat by a reasonable person and there has to be proof that the writer actually intended the words to be a threat to warrant criminal charges. But, where is the line between a “true threat” and “protected speech” under the First Amendment? There are hard questions we must ask and solve, together.

Ignoring behavior is not the answer.

A quarter of women ages 18 to 24 report being sexually harassed online, and 26 percent report being stalked.

So, what’s harassment?

  1. Name-calling and embarrassment
  2. Target of physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, stalking, sexual harassment
  3. Making the target feel: Oppressed, Humiliated, De-energized, Belittled

Ask yourself: Do you feel bad after you’ve engaged with this person? Everyone has a bad day, or sometimes you are extra tender or emotional. But, look for patterns. Are you getting multiple complaints from multiple people?

There are two general categories of harassers:

  1. Those who pursue their victim for pleasure
  2. Anger or malice towards a victim

The Internet is becoming increasingly central to the human experience. Everyone deserves to live, learn and work freely online. I’ve highlighted intention a few times already because I think it’s a main differentiator: what is the intention?

When the intent is to silence the victim, that itself is an attack on free speech. Free speech laws in the United States, for better or worse, are among the broadest in the world and the First Amendment protects even hateful speech. We have to determine the difference between thought and solicitation, as well as spearhead efforts to enforce laws prohibiting online threats.

The Internet is for everyone.

Fighting abuse and harassment is a vital part of empowering people to protect their freedom of expression and keep the Internet for everyone. Technology is best when it connects everyone and when everyone is represented, included and participating.

Who’s responsibility is this? Is it the platforms responsibility to protect its’ users? The community and users themselves? The moderators? The community manager? The government?

In order to solve this issue, it’s going to take all of us. We need to bridge the gap between social science approaches and technical solutions in this battle against the societal problems of the virtual age. Bullying is an old social phenomenon that is rooted in human nature, it’s nothing new. Cyberbullying is just using digital infrastructure.

What are some of the issues?

  1. It’s sometimes hard to get a suitable dataset of how extensive this is. Some communities are closed or have private features and environments which make it hard to access. Such a private messages and chat logs.
  2. The high volume of entries makes it hard for moderators and community managers to keep up with everything without automation and help.
  3. There are language and culture dynamics that make it hard to determine intent and harassment in some conditions.
  4. People are trying to stop harassment in silos and usually only taking one approach.
  5. Lawyers and communities disagree on languages and defining harassment and what to do about it. Harassment vs. Bullying.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

What are some solutions?

  1. Develop algorithms and tools which can automatically detect and remove harassment or trigger flows or actions for an administrator.
  2. Cyberbullying needs to be recognized and treated as a social problem and not just as some random mischief conducted by individuals with the use of technology. As well as create methods for handling consequences that are more realistic, effective and comprehensive.
  3. We need to get out of the Tech silo through the incorporation of findings from other fields of research, such as social, psychological and behavioral studies.
  4. Create pre-bullying elements that can be influential in detecting bullying incidents before they happen and monitor and help users who are developing misbehaviors. Create prevention strategies, go beyond just reacting.
  5. Stiffen penalties of those who commit abuse. Such as prosecuting those who participate in doxing, swatting, stalking, and threatening online.

The Art of Experience: Designing for all

There are many things we can learn from cities, urban design and “In Real Life” Communities that can be applied online, and vise versa. We live in exciting times were the virtual and physical world are being linked now more than ever, and it’s only growing.

As our environment is shaped by us and shapes us, why not the digital world too? When building an online community, it’s important that your members and users help to shape, customize and impact the experience and design. Just as in an urban design project, you make sure all stakeholders are present and have a say in the design process. When building online communities, it is important that the relationship between individuals and their environment are shaped by them. The physical and digital architecture and ordering of space impacts experience, interaction, and outcome. Make sure that you are very mindful and inclusive when designing for people, interaction and experiences. Experience design is an art. Just as evaluation, decision making, emotions, interaction, and movement all play a part in the art of experience physically through architecture, it can be applied digitally.

Design for genius loci, or the spirit of a place. Yes, I think a online community can have a spirit about it. It’s the atmosphere and experience of a place. When you design for online collaboration, learning and community, keep in mind the spirit of the community. Make sure a new user gets an immediate sense of community, what your community is about and the type of people and resources in it for them.

All too often, designs rely more heavily on just one primary sense — the visual one. The other senses are frequently neglected. This is unfortunate since it is through the senses that design and community can have profound effect.

When we revisit a space, we not only remember the design of it, but also the feelings associated. Remember that you want to encourage positive feelings and emotions from the beginning. Having a negative experience in an online community, either through being bullied, poor design or frustration can lead to poor memories being carried through the user experience. Those people will be less willing to help others, stay involved and engaged. Your memory and your sense of place are closely linked. Design for positive experiences.

The Social Ordering of Space

Our environment can be structured to encourage or discourage social interactions. A simple example of this is that hallways tend to discourage social interaction, while circular rooms tend to encourage social interaction. What is a circular room vs. a hallway equivalent in a online community? How do you create safe and inclusive spaces for all?

You can also develop stronger communities by creating more interaction between members. You can design online spaces for a mixture of activities to bring a potentially diverse community together. This may be though an introduce yourself thread, or an off topic thread. Common “water cooler” areas can facilitate social interaction, on and offline.

Personal Space & Inclusivity

Do people know who the moderators, staff and super users are easily and quickly? Do they feel at the bottom of the totem pole as a new member? Do they feel empowered as a noob, or super user? A good community has good design and aesthetics. A healthy community model is one that is well organized, well designed, easy to use and has carefully patrolled spaces. You can’t allow bullying or harassment and must maintain inclusivity. How does your community meet the privacy needs of your users? Is it an anonymous community? Or do you require “real” personas? Do you allow for private conversations through Private Messaging, or restrict private member interaction? Do you have geo-location, or encourage about me’s? Making sure your community allows for appropriate public and private spaces, changing conversations and needs. This concept can help with the minority and favoritism platform by equalizing people.

Sometimes online communities can have a gendered nature that can reinforce and reproduce social classifications through the same designs and principles commonly observed. Make sure you use inclusive language, respect peoples privacy and perhaps don’t require certain personal information that makes people align with a gender or belief.

Community Manager morning stretches.

Community Manager Perspective

Ways to tackle this issue as a manager or admin of communities.

Here’s a reminder: As a community person, you are the Chief Executive Officer of cultivating better interactions and discourse through thoughtful architecture, active moderation and community management. This means that every community needs a Code of Conduct and Harassment policy — circumstances never warrant harassment.

Fighting against harassment and building inclusivity ensures community longevity and health. Tools built for good purpose can be misused. Let’s continue to break down cultural, mental, design barriers and perceptions in communities.

(Troll) Bounty Programs

Similar to how Bug Bounty Programs work, let’s incentivize hackers to find and squash trolls as well as develop potential solutions for platforms and communities. This keeps talented developers helping the cause, rather than contributing to it, as well as incentivizes better security and community.

Code of Conduct

Every community and platform needs a Code of Conduct. It’s imperative to have rules and make sure everyone adheres to them. You can’t keep everyone happy, but you can keep the majority safe, secure and happy in the community. As the community manager, you your CoC is a set of early choices about building social dynamics, and setting expectations about what’s not going to be tolerated. This is sometimes a hard rule to live by but it’s important to criticize ideas, not people.

Encourage members to help contribute, improve and evolve the CoC and standards as your community grows. The CoC can’t be entirely “top down”. Part of creating a respectful space and flourishing community is empowering people to help contribute and shape it. A CoC goes beyond just words and a set of rules, it’s a plan to frame and grow the type of discussions and discourse you want to see, as well as ensuring there are non-biased checks and balances if things start go wrong.

One of my favorite contributors in this space is the Coral Project. Here are some of the features of a productive online community they’ve outlined:

  • respectful interactions among a diverse range of voices
  • clear guidelines for conversation
  • a communal acknowledgement and enforcement of what happens if rules are broken
  • a consent model centered around the ability to set your own preferences for the sharing of your words and images
  • highly visible participation by, and availability of, staff members
  • a collective attempt to improve knowledge and understanding through respectful engagement
  • information is easy to access and easy to share

When you allow for harassment, it doesn’t just affect the victim. It also effects the community of people who are “lurking” or watching and it also pulls in potentially other disrespectful members. It causes people not to join a community and brings the community down. When communities are overrun with trolls, it drowns out the voices of ethnic and religious minorities, young people and others who may feel vulnerable.

If you don’t have a CoC or enforce it, you are letting those toxic “members” define your community.

Reputation brings you new contributors. It’s the type of reputation that determines the quality and characteristics of the contributors you get.

Even if you were to get rid of them, people may still think that your community has issues. There is a real impact. It takes 5 positive interactions to balance out 1 bad one. It’s known as the magic 5:1 ratio.

Sometimes you just need to cut your losses. The Community is More Important Than You. This goes for any single member. If a member, no matter their status or privilege, is damaging the community, they need to go.

Don’t let the trolls run your community.

Managing your Community

If you see someone starting to behave in a negative way watch them very closely and when you get the sense they are engaging in a negative way, flag them or send him a gentle private message. Also, make sure to reinforced their positive behavior so they know that we appreciate constructive contributions that are appropriate and helpful.

Don’t be too quick to judge — meaning, if someone slips up and makes a mistake — don’t freak out! Be supportive, but continue to moderate and monitor. If you need to, have another warning system in place. Take smaller disciplinary actions to begin with, such as a few hour or day ban, or perhaps just flagging posts and sending follow up Private Messages are enough. You have to make sure that this person is accountable for their actions.

You have to be committed to helping your members as much as you can as long as they are committed to changing for the sake of the community. Extend olive branches and go the extra mile. Treat them like a friend, but also like an adult. Be open, honest and listen to them! If you are approachable, level headed and understanding (when you meet them half way) they will most likely respond and lower their guard. Of course, this can only go so far. If the respect is not matched, that’s your sign that escalation is needed and this person most likely needs to leave for an extended period of time.

Jeff Atwood co-founder of Discourse, and one of my community hero’s, summed it up perfectly:

Asking nicely has its limits, eventually you must take action.

Monitor your tone to make sure your replies/conversation sounds like you want to help. Moderation is an art form. Sometimes, the super users or most active members end up being the bullies. They are often the most passionate and dedicated, but asa community manager you have to facilitate and foster a civilized place for public discussion. You want to help them recognize their value enough to want to tone it down a bit. Help your members so their behavior and reputation matches the quality of their content.

But it’s not sustainable. You can’t hold everyone’s hand, because it is a time and energy suck. You can only state things as clearly and gently as you can, and the rest is up to them.

Don’t gossip or allow gossiping. As a moderator, it’s ok to acknowledge and listen to concerns but don’t let it grow into a hack session behind someones back. Remember that intense people may be victimized as much as a noob. Sometimes that intensity, passion and drive can be seen as hostility. Be sensitive and see both sides. Most of the time, the bully is just a really passionate person and how they output it sometimes gets lost in translation.

Don’t let negative people define your communities, or you. Be the example and exemplify the type of community member you wish to attract.

May your community grow in happiness, health and good conversations! :)

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Program Manager @ Google. I write stories around: Design, Community, Product, Sustainability, Philosophy, Work, Career.

Program Manager @ Google. I write stories around: Design, Community, Product, Sustainability, Philosophy, Work, Career.