Make decisions to defuse online conflict

The internet is for beef.

You don’t have to fear it. Conflict is part of human existence, and online conflict is an inevitable fact of life for teams who rely on internet communities to accomplish work.

Don’t let this fact dissuade you from the power of building something that matters in an internet age. Instead, understand that conflict can be managed. Tensions are evidence of commitment and investment—they needn’t boil over into a flamewar.

These moments may also point you toward decisions you’ve been avoiding.

Decide the purpose of your community

A specific, well-defined purpose for your online space is going to save you so much trouble.

For example, most open source support communities exist so folks can improve the tools and help each other learn.

“This space exists to enhance this project, and our effectiveness with it” is a purpose. Know it, name it, shout it from the rooftops with your team and beyond. With purpose defined and socialized, it’s easy to intervene and redirect when folks are doing things which get in the way of that stated purpose.

Make agreement with that purpose an explicit condition of entry and participation.

Relatedly, you want community guidelines that flesh out how you expect this purpose to work in practice. Treat this as more than a box-checking exercise. This is your opportunity to establish goals, norms, and shared commitments.

These don’t have to be complex, but speaking to the positive ways you want folks to treat each other, outlining extreme behaviors which are not welcome, along with behaviors which are less extreme but still unwanted, will go a long way. Recurse Center provides a good example.

Make decisions and clearly communicate them

The ultimate measure of success with your extended constituency is the crisis that never happens at all. One of my favorite examples comes from a CEO I used to work with:

We could either change our platform’s pricing or run out of money.

Small business owners who relied on our service loved us, but were also deeply critical of our missteps because our decisions affected their livelihoods. We were dreading the new pricing roll out.

This CEO understood all of this. So he wrote a blog post announcing the new pricing, explaining details and rationales. Then sat down on a livestream with some of our most committed users and fielded questions for an hour. It’s not that everyone was happy, it’s that they knew we understood that we were making decisions that would affect them, and were open to dialogue.

The shitstorm we feared never came to pass.

Clear communications, even when the news is bad, prevents beef. When people know they’ve been considered, and are dealt with in a direct, honest way, they appreciate it.

Decide to gather information about beef

Before diving into the mess of a conflict, it’s crucial you gain some situational awareness. It can be natural to want to dive in with immediate intervention.

Depending on your temperament, it may be just as natural to want to avoid the situation altogether.

We’re aiming for something in between these extremes.

Identifying the source of the conflict should happen on the scale of minutes-to-hours, not hours-to-days. There’s a chance things have already been unspooling for a bit before you arrived, but that’s okay.

Gather up any trusted colleagues available on short notice, and together, figure out who the players are, their existing roles, and what it is they’re upset about.

We’re looking for a rough picture of who, what, and why.

Don’t act before gathering this context.

Decide on clear communication

People want to do a good job and have fun. Feedback on how to do that in your space can shift seemingly problematic participants into excellent contributors.

If someone has become a disruptive presence in your community, making it harder to achieve your shared purpose, don’t overreact, and don’t assume all is lost. A request in a private medium to change their tack can go a long way. Something like:

“Hey, I know you’re just having a good time but [behavior] is making it a little hard for folks to [meet the stated goals of the space]. Would you do me a solid and avoid [general category of behavior] in the future?”

I’ve seen relaxed, kind-but-direct approaches work best. This one practice is transformative. Most well-functioning communities depend on these otherwise invisible opportunities for light adjustment.

Don’t decide to be fair to unfair people

People who are acting in open opposition to your shared purpose are welcome to have fun elsewhere. Don’t be shy about showing them the door.

Decide how to regularly share the load

Too often the work of maintaining online spaces is to put on one specific member of your team, typically a community manager or support engineer, bearing the sole burden of learning from and interacting with your extended constituency.

They’re frequently siloed from the rest of the work the team is doing. Getting other team members with different specialties to occasionally show the flag is an important preventive measure. Your community members, invested in your project, will often take their cues from your team. Bi-directional visibility thus sets a higher standard of collaboration for the community, while letting more of your team learn from its everyday conversations.

When practiced early and consistently, it drives empathy and motivation between everyone involved with your community. This ensures that conflict, when it surfaces, is constructive.

Meanwhile, leaders would do well to have regular meetings with frontline team members. It’s the best want to surface hidden opportunities and prevent unwanted surprises.

Without real information, people will invent it

I once worked on a very high profile project which had raised large amounts of money from the general public. Like plenty of software projects, we were struggling to ship. In the absence of regular, transparent updates, suspicion and resentment grew. Relations between company and extended constituency began to sour.

When you’re doing something ambitious that’s never been done before, not everything will go as planned. You’ll run into issues you never knew could exist in the first place. This is a scary moment: it’s natural to want to hole up and stay quiet until you can give people what you think they want.

It’s the wrong move, though.

If you don’t get ahead of things, if you don’t own the narrative and invite your community in, they’ll fill in the gaps themselves with ever-taller tales about what’s really going on. Had we found ways to adopt greater transparency, this team’s life would have changed for the better.

When you have to disappoint people, own it

An engaged extended constituency means people out there care about and trust your org, even if you’ve never met them. One of the most important ways to manage your social capital, and prevent beef, is owning it when you disappoint people.

One time I worked for a startup beloved by the open source community. One time, we double charged our customers. Facing anger and criticism out on social media, our top leader doubled down. It was a game of trying to make our users stand down by being willfully unrepentant.

Our reputation never recovered.

People want to know their work counts for something

When people love you enough to donate free labor to your cause, they need to know their work matters.

Stack Exchange had an extremely sophisticated process for users to propose new Q&A sites in the network, complete with a finely tuned commitment curve. We made people work for it, and work they did. We also operated with the assumption that sites would either grow big and successful, or stay small and fall into disrepair. Instead, we found that many sites stayed small, but were very useful to a dedicated community of users.

Our team quietly and implicitly adopted a practice of keeping these small sites online, but never updated the community to let them know their hard-won Q&A site wasn’t in mortal danger. Eventually, I spearheaded a project updating our public criteria for when a site was considered “graduated.”

When people are giving you hours of their life of their own volition, don’t leave them in suspense on outcomes.

Don’t set people up to fail with impossible demands

Consensus takes time. So does making clear what we expect from one another.

I once witnessed a major policy change for a very large, active online platform. A load-bearing, long-time contributor wanted to make sure they were interpreting changes correctly, so they could be sure they were doing as asked. When they asked clarifying questions, it was interpreted by leadership who had limited experience with this person as an attempt to derail.

This contributor’s system access was unceremoniously removed, and a permanent rift formed between org and community.

People want to do good work, and to know how to do good work. Allocate the time to discuss changes with affected parties, and build a shared understanding of what good looks like. Be open to refining your own approach based on this feedback.

Mattering to people doesn’t have to be scary

I think you get the point now:

Decisions deferred can cultivate future drama. Not making a call is also a decision—not to act. Those who depend on you will notice.

It defies prevailing wisdom, but letting your constituents in on your journey, including the stickier parts of it, can earn loyalty from those who depend on you. A consistent approach to productive transparency helps you be a more effective decision maker, because it will help you catch all the things you’re leaving in limbo.

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