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Creating Healthy, Happy Online Communities That Thrive

smiling woman in cafe with laptop on her laptop
smiling woman in cafe with laptop on her laptop

Online communities are a central feature of our lives. They are important gathering spaces where we share our problems, successes, sorrow and laughter. They are the fires around which we gather to tell our stories and, in so doing, hope to connect with one another. For people who are isolated by their circumstances, they are often a lifeline.

Participating in these online communities brings a whole new set of communication challenges. When we are deprived of body language and facial expressions, all we have are words. Thus we have become all too familiar with how fraught these spaces can be given the increased likelihood of misunderstanding and emotional distance.

The question that many community founders wrestle with (or, more concerningly, forget to ask themselves) is, "How do we make this a safe, engaging space for everyone?"

How can we build communities that recognize and celebrate the creativity, collaboration and generosity of all of their members?

How do we bring together this diverse set of skills, experiences, cultures and opinions to create a positive experience and something of value?

These are the questions at the heart of facilitation. As a community founder or moderator (a person who moderates an Internet forum or online discussion), we are accountable for setting the tone and making sure that participation is widespread and positive. We are, in fact, facilitators.

A key value at play here is transparency. It needs to be clear to all members of a group what the norms are for interacting. Additionally, they should feel a genuine sense of inclusion in shaping / refining those norms. Such codes of conduct (often called 'working agreements' in a professional setting) create the platform upon which productive and engaging discussion can happen. They liberate individual minds by allowing them to spend less time thinking about how to act in a given discussion and more time thinking about the topic at hand.

Groups that don't establish these norms, inevitably find that the value of their community is diminished when conflict arises over mismatched behavioral expectations. Imagine that you're traveling by car and that every other road user treats signals, signs, lane markings and even the side of the road they should drive on as entirely up for grabs. The mayhem of that situation is born from a failure of the custodians of those roads to ensure that everyone understands and sticks to a sensible working agreement. It can look a bit like this...

lots of cars on a busy street colliding
lots of cars on a busy street colliding

Furthermore, any group of people has implicit norms. We could even say that, when joining any community, we are implicitly agreeing to those norms and are hopeful that we can help to improve them if we find them lacking. Thus a key part of a facilitation mindset is to take implicit culture and make it explicit so that community members can on-board more quickly and can have something solid to work from if they seek change.

In my own professional life, I've supported hundreds of groups through the process of designing their working agreements. I tend to recommend that facilitators don't use the word 'rules' because it has too many draconian associations and it particularly conjures up a sense of policies that must be obeyed and aren't subject to being challenged.

From facilitating the design of working agreements, I've observed that many of the same ideas are articulated irrespective of the nature of the group or the subject matter. That said, the process of having the group co-design their working agreement is still valuable in itself and occasionally a group will surprise me with something unique to its situation or members.

Because I've seen so many of the same excellent ideas time and again, I thought I'd share a compilation of 'best hits' with you as applied to online communities in particular. In doing so, I must give credit to the many wonderful people and teams that I've had the pleasure of supporting.

Online Community Code of Conduct - A Starting Point

  1. Be kind, considerate, constructive and helpful.
  2. Avoid demeaning, discriminatory, harassing, hateful or threatening behavior. Discussions, posts, actions, or comments that promote hatred of any kind - including, but not limited to, racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and ageism - are not acceptable in the community space and may result in you being removed.
  3. If something is ambiguous, ask questions first. Don't make assumptions.
  4. If it feels like conflict, remind yourself that everyone involved has feelings and the most important thing is diffusing conflict and building trust. Only then can healthy debate ensue.
  5. Trust that everyone in this group has each other's best interests at heart; but if someone says something incorrect or hurtful, don't retaliate. Instead, name what impact it had.
  6. Respect privacy. Online communities are not public places - though some might feel that way.
  7. We encourage on-topic posts. We discourage off-topic posts. (Think about event listings, product posts, adverts, job adverts, solicitation for help, researchers, surveys etc). We work hard to uphold this standard collectively.
  8. Apologize if you make a mistake. It's easily done. Nobody is perfect and even well-intentioned people make mistakes. What matters is how you handle them and that you learn from the experience and avoid repeating the same mistake again where possible.
  9. Speak up and have your voice heard, but also be aware of how much space you're occupying and take a step back when needed. Let other people share their stories and experiences. We have a lot to learn from each other.
  10. Your addition goes here 😀

international facilitation week 2019 banner
international facilitation week 2019 banner

To celebrate International Facilitation Week, we've added a new tool to our site to support your meeting planning. It's a great poster for a meeting room, to keep the framework top of mind. Download our free tools.

You might enjoy our virtual facilitation training where we'll help you bring people together for worthwhile, meaningful conversations.