I've run a big text adventure for thirteen years (at one point briefly it was the biggest text adventure!) and if there's one thing I've about managing a big online community in that time that I'd choose to pass on as a warning to others, it's this: remove the people who don't like being there.
Some folks just don't like the place, or they liked it once and they don't anymore, and that's fine.
You'd think they'd just go somewhere else, and most do, but some don't, and those folks are AWFUL.
Some folks can come in, have fun for a month or so then stop having fun but keep coming back for YEARS. They're always negative enough that nobody likes them, and they'll complain about being so unliked on this awful website that used to be great for two weeks in 2009, and everyone wants them to leave and they hate it here but they JUST. WON'T. LEAVE.
Ban them! It sounds straightforward but it's really shockingly easy to roll your eyes and move on and not ban them, but you've gotta ban them!
Bucause if you DON'T ban them, then they find each other! They set up gross unhealthy little quicksand cliques of misery, and they try to suck others in too!
I don't have any of these players on Improbable Island right now, they've all migrated to a Discord server devoted to being unhealthily obsessed with the game that they don't like, but I was just reminded of this weird mestastisized social failure state by /r/watchredditdie, which is probably the most miserable place I've ever seen
The worst part of this horrible dynamic is you have people using your site to immiserate themselves. And you probably made the site with the intention of helping people have fun and make new friends.
Seeing people use your creations to hurt others is a thing that devs have to be on guard against because lots of people are awful and we all know about that already - but watching someone use your creation to hurt *themselves* is a novel sort of heartbreak.
It really hurts, watching someone torture themselves with your creation, and the kind thing to do for yourself and for them and for everyone around them is to just bloody stop it.
Banning someone for your own mental health is fine and healthy and frees up your emotional resources to care for the community.
Moar thoughts on online community management: every online community goes through a cycle of inception, establishment, maturity and decline, and this is natural and fine.
There are a finite number of people in the world. Of those finite number of people, a finite number are interested in your site's topic. Of those finite number of people, some will die, some will get distracted and go look at something else, whatever, nobody stays on one website 5eva.
(we've only had websites for like three decades - for most people, more like two. Websites haven't been around long enough for us to see how the long-term ones work in relation to human lifetimes - I believe some websites can be rediscovered and start the cycle anew, if they handle the decline phase properly)
Anyway during the inception phase folks are curious and poke around and there's that New Website Smell and they break stuff and stuff gets fixed and features change and it's like breaking in a new pair of shoes, stuff that made sense in development changes to fit what actual humans do with the site. Emotionally you can think of this as the curiosity phase.
At this point some trolls will show up and say the site was better in the olden days, ban them.
Then there's the Excitement Phase, when you get linked from some big site and get a flood of traffic all at once and there's a bunch of people coming in who don't know the community norms, and this is a perilous time because the newbies can outnumber and overwhelm the established culture. Have a FAQ and CoC that codifies the current culture and expectations, and maybe a wiki page or something that explains in-jokes and references to help newbies figure things out.
Then there's the Nesting Phase, which other guides call Maturity. This is where the community asks itself questions about what it wants to be, figures out what's healthy for it, and tidies up its house.
OR, it can be the Cliquey Fragmentation Phase, or the Mod Paranoia phase, or the Some People Have Been Here Too Long phase.
Remember: people aren't supposed to stay on one website their whole lives. People aren't designed for that, and websites aren't designed for that.
Ideally you don't want the same people sticking around forever, especially if your site doesn't delete posts. People grow and change and having their old posts around to remind them of their younger, stupider selves - or worse, having other people check out your post history - either stunts their growth or makes them want to leave. Make it easy for people to make new accounts and erase old ones.
The "decline" phase can be the tragic Heartbreak Phase, with a bunch of people arguing about The Future Of The Site and about why people left (an irresolvable question that can suck in a community until it collapses on itself like a black hole) and frantically trying to renew and change itself until even the old guard are scared off, or it can be the Cosiness Phase.
In Cosy Mode, everyone who wasn't right for the site has moved on, and the folks left are the ones who love it.
During Cosy Mode, you scale back advertising until you're no longer trying to grow the site, but just keep it in general maintenance. You fix long-standing UI annoyances and make small quality-of-life improvements. Avoid making big interface changes.
After a few years, say for a big anniversary, you might send out an email to the old guard saying hey here's what's changed, but be careful as a lot of the old guard might have moved on because they no longer fit the culture of the site.
Cosy Mode is the longest phase, and it's pretty lovely. There are no more existential crises and the community has pretty much met its equilibrium.
Heartbreak Mode can also drag on for years, becoming more and more tragic every day as members run around with their hair on fire trying to answer why people left (for 99% of former members, they left because it's a website - but one or two will come back to say This Is Why I Left and they'll be taken as representative samples).
The big difference between Cosy Mode and Heartbreak Mode is that the people in Cosy Mode like being in Cosy Mode, and the people in Heartbreak Mode hate being in Heartbreak Mode but do it anyway.
People go into Heartbreak Mode because they think that a website has to grow forever, and this is madness. If a website carried on growing forever, then eventually everyone on the planet would be on that website all the time.
A thing that constantly grows until there's nothing outside of it isn't a community, it's a cancer.
Anyway whether you're in Cosy Mode or Heartbreak Mode pretty much comes down to how well you've handled the phases beforehand, and I'll reiterate: REMOVE THE PEOPLE ON YOUR WEBSITE WHO DON'T WANT TO BE ON YOUR WEBSITE BUT CANNOT HELP THEMSELVES. They will put you into Heartbreak Mode every damn time.
Heartbreak Mode is also characterized by paranoia about moderator interactions, which is why it's seriously important to ban people who lie about the mods, permanently, without warning.
I know, I know, it looks authoritarian and tyranty and all those bad things, and it can be tempting to let people run around saying "So-and-so was banned because the mods don't like them!" when they were actually banned for being a pedo and just kinda trust that the truth will out, but it won't.
Letting people tell lies about the mods creates an atmosphere where people won't come forward to report abusers, and you'll be up to your knees in creeps and weirdos and wondering why nobody reported them - it's because lots of the people who created that atmosphere are those same abusers, and you let them tell lies because you didn't want to look like a heavy-handed authoritarian. You can't do that. You have to ban people who lie about the mods.
Wait this just popped up as a favourited one and I actually wanna clarify this last bit:
Someone came to Improbable Island on the 21st of January, 2008, and started mouthing off about how the site was dead and how it was so much better in the olden days, WE HAD LITERALLY BEEN LIVE FOR LESS THAN SIX HOURS.
@ifixcoinops Fully agree. Unfortunately, the only fully effective moderation method is a warning first and hard bans on the second offense.
A very long time ago I was a moderator on an international Fido echo (remember those?) and Fido moderators had godlike powers in the network. We banned unreasonable people quickly and kept a free-wheeling international conversation with a 5-day response lag(!) clean and fun.
@ifixcoinops fwiw, as someone who has totally clung to an online community as I made myself miserable with it, I think I would have long term been better off if someone had said "yeah, you clearly don't want to be here, go away" and banned me for some period.
I can't even really explain it either, it's like I had some strange idea that if I just yelled loud enough everyone would see reason, when I just didn't like the community.
@cowwan It's really hard.
It's really hard to ban someone who isn't, like, stalking or harassing or being abusive or creepy or posting illegal stuff or whatever, who's only being a jerk because they're unhappy. Especially if the person they're most unhappy with is the admin, because then you're banning someone who you don't like even though they've not technically broken any rules, and that can set off "Am I a tyrant" alarm bells in your head.
I deal with that by just openly being a tyrant. :P
@ifixcoinops tbh, even if it makes you feel like a tyrant, it's kinda what I have to do to myself. I've deleted a few accounts because I just couldn't stop looking at the things that were making me angry.It's like I wanted to be upset.
@cowwan @ifixcoinops And I'll say, having stuck around a community I didn't like for the sake of convenient access to some friends who were there? Left me miserable and corroded the friendships to the point that they all died anyway. I'd have been better off had they kicked me out honestly after they realized they did not want me there.
@Austin_Dern @cowwan See this here's the problem, you're good at running a community because you've been hurt in specific ways by specific dynamics that you know to watch out for, whereas the techbros running the big socials are all twentysomethings who don't remember newsgroups and they won't listen to those who do, and when the same crap happens that has always happened online since acoustic-coupler modems they pull a surprised pikachu face
@ifixcoinops You have something there. I've been through the alt.fan.furry flame wars, the shout channels on FurryMuck, the October seasonal mailing-list explosions, the LiveJournal drama, birdsite and its drama, and any given week of Mastodon Discourse. Plus some good books about the thinking that went in to the Bay of Pigs fiasco. I can find a warning sign in anything now.
@ifixcoinops I've seen this happen with old-fashioned application software. Only complication there is that as author, you don't really get a chance to remove users (though you can at least discourage them from visiting any of the relevant communities).
My own unhealthy Heartbreak Mode relationship these past years has been mostly with Firefox. On the one hand, it's the one of the few remaining browser engines, but on the other I hate basically all their recent changes. Been time to move on.
…of course, what do you do if you’re in Heartbreak Mode with literally every option in a field, it’s a necessity, and tearing it down and making new is not feasible? (Basically, when you’re in a least-bad situation, instead of an actually good situation.)
Back on topic, that actually reminds me of a whole dynamic I see, as well, with splinter communities: it’ll happen that someone will disagree with the admins, or get banned from a community, and decide to start their own community, with blackjack, and hookers!
…and usually I see this go two ways: either nobody joins the new community and it withers on the vine, or all the toxic people join the new community, and they didn’t get any of the actually knowledgeable people, so it fades away as they realize they don’t have anything to talk about, and they all reappear back on the doorstep of the original community, where all of the knowledge is based.
Sometimes the new community does stick, though.
I’ve definitely seen where a community splinters off of a forum, and starts a subreddit, Facebook group, or Discord guild, and that has more mainstream appeal than the original community. (When this happens, the splinter community often ends up as “the blind leading the blind” due to the knowledgeable users being elsewhere, plus whatever baseline toxicity the splintering brought with it. For that matter, even when a subreddit/FB group/Discord guild is an official offshoot of a community, the whole “blind leading the blind” dynamic often ends up happening, and it ends up being a separate community. (And, in the case of offshoots, they often end up being sideshows to the main community, and not given moderation attention.) In any case, this causes some toxic dynamics where the forum’s original users see themselves as an elite looking down on the “plebs” using the absurdly toxic splinter/offshoot community.)
I’ve also seen where the splinter community covers a subset of the original community’s scope, or takes a tangent off of the original community’s scope, and makes its own niche. (Sometimes this is along regional or linguistic lines, sometimes it’s because people want to have a space to dive deeper into a subject than a broad community allows (and therefore want something cozier than what they have now), sometimes it’s taking an off-topic subject that a subset commonly discuss and wanting a better space to discuss it.)
And, finally, sometimes the toxicity is actually coming from the administration of the original community, and enough of a userbase moves to the splinter community that it sticks. Or, the administration of the original community loses interest/ability to run the community, so a splinter community forms as a continuation of the community.
@devinprater See, that's the reaction I want to provoke in people. Like, I want people to say of my game in another years, "Yikes, that's STILL going?!"
Server run by the main developers of the project It is not focused on any particular niche interest - everyone is welcome as long as you follow our code of conduct!