Saturday 24 February 2018

Friday Five: Community Management and Digital Vandalism

Why It Matters by Phil Gomes

The tale is, by now, a familiar one. An organization perceived to be (or actually) behaving in a way that a group finds abhorrent gets its Facebook page filled up with all manner of outrage, much of it amounting to digital vandalism. While many of these comments rise to thoughtful, most of them merely consist of “slacktivist” drive-bys. Among those comments, a few are (for any number of reasons) deleted by the company’s community manager.

This act results in the author of that comment screaming about the company muzzling his or her free speech. Various Web 2.0 echo-chambers (more eager to attain click-throughs than context) wag their finger and reflexively tut-tut with the usual “This Company Doesn’t ‘Get It’” line. A mainstream press that often eagerly relies on such echo chambers for leads amplifies the message. Next thing you know, the company is the next “case study” for all the wrong reasons.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding as to why this happens. So, here are five reasons why your Facebook* comment was probably deleted. As a bonus, I’ve included two reasons why the typical counter-arguments arising from those deletions are, themselves, worth protesting.

1. You Used Foul Language or Imagery

This one is pretty obvious, so I’ll get it out of the way first. It surprises me how shocked (SHOCKED!) people are when they find that their profanity-laden diatribe “goes 404,” that is, gets deleted. Too many drive-by commenters appear to confirm in the 21st century what Captain Kirk observed of 20th-century language in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: “Nobody pays attention to you unless you swear every other word.” Anger, though often persuasive, is not an argument.

2. You Spammed

That acrid smell wafting from Prineville, Oregon comes from the servers melting down at Facebook’s data center after you, a group of you, or a bot cut-and-pasted the same angry shot-off-the-bow over and over again. The community and the community manager got your point the first 174 times. Thanks.

3. The Audience is There for Different Reasons Than You Are

The members of the Facebook page for Gretsch Family Farms Rhubarb Co. are probably just there to talk about rhubarb, share recipes and maybe even snag a coupon or two. Granted, some community managers take the overly heavy-handed approach of deleting any such post that isn’t “on-brand” or responding angrily or sarcastically–an approach that certainly deserves some amount of ridicule. The best community managers, however, recognize a responsibility to the audience. They balance the ideal of maintaining an open forum with providing an experience commensurate with the expectations of the community members. At a certain point, the community will expect that the community manager will start to bring things back to “business as usual.”

4. You Violated Clearly, Narrowly Drawn Rules

For reasons ranging from regulatory matters to the lack of hours in a day, many community managers will post a series of guidelines that describe what will trigger a deletion, suspension or outright ban. Their page, their rules. Such rules might include prohibiting comments that violate the privacy of a non-public individual. For a health-related company, it could include any discussion of the off-label use of a drug or medical device, or even mentions of speculative science way outside of the mainstream. For a technology hardware company, it may be the description of activities that could cause physical harm or violate warranty terms.

5. You Violated Facebook’s Terms-of-Service

Superseding the company’s rules for its Facebook page are, of course, Facebook’s own terms-of-service. These terms have plenty of language around “Safety” and “Protecting Other People’s Rights.”

Finally, here are two reasons typical arguments for digital vandalism that tend to fall flat.

1. “Deleting My Comment Violates My Freedom of Speech”

This one is far too common and is even insulting to anyone who considers such a freedom to be a fundamental right. Freedom of speech is a (sort-of) guarantee of (some) governments, but not (most) companies. In the U.S., there are a number of reasons why the notion of freedom of speech is the First Amendment in our Constitution, especially since a lot of activities are protected as “speech.” However, enforcing the naive view of “freedom of speech” that one often observes would actually require a draconian level of coercion (e.g., “Make this company let me say what I want to say!”). Such coercion, if implemented, would also probably work both ways. So, no, I don’t see the Supreme Court taking up TauntaunWrangler666 v. Gretsch Family Farms Rhubarb Co. any time soon.

2. “The People on The Page ‘Deserve to Know’”

Perhaps. In fairness, I can actually understand and empathize with this point of view, even though I’m often tasked with helping to make the company’s own case. That said, the chances are fairly good that a significant number of the members of that Facebook page already know your point of view. Spamming them and otherwise vandalizing the Facebook page isn’t convincing, only annoying and counter-persuasive.

Like many topics, this is one where reasonable people might disagree. What are your thoughts?

* Obviously, these apply to any platform (such as a blog) in which the community manager has a significant level of control. Also, corporate behavior on Facebook tends to get a lot of the attention these days.

Image credit: interaura

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