Conflict And Community: Are You Prepared?

street signLEADING THOUGHTS There are many types of communities: there are user forums and more permanent communities – some “walled” and some open. Blogs are absolutely living, breathing communities, where comment discussions are oftentimes more valuable than the content itself. There are also ad-hoc communities that result from people coming together to discuss something — picture a “tweetchat” that comes together to discuss something. These are all communities, and although they are different in formation process, duration, barriers to entry (signup, pay wall, professional qualifications), and other aspects — they are all built with a purpose of bringing people together who share an interest and passion. When passionate individuals get together and engage with each other, it’s like music to people like me. A shared passion inspires engagement, action, reaching goals, discussion, discourse… and conflict.

Yes, passion is essential to the growth and engagement of a community, but it can often derail action through conflict. I’ve seen it happen many times, I’ve had it happen to me, and if I do things right, it will keep happening. Here are some findings and recommendations I’ve learned along the way that I want to share. I’m writing this not only with the community manager / social media practitioner in mind, but also individuals and companies who engage in any online conversation, regardless of platform.

Here are just some of the reasons conflict arises:

  • Goal & culture misalignment: Sometimes people may join a conversation because they actually have a different, or even conflicting objective. For example, there may be a conversation about social media for PR professionals, and one person may be there to pitch his / her services. That’s clearly a goal that’s different from that of other attendees’, and a cultural norm that’s different from the rest of the community. This will cause conflict.
  • Method misalignment: Someone may propose a way of dealing with an issue that’s fundamentally different from what others are suggesting. For example, there may be a Facebook group dedicated to saving the Rainforest, and one person may propose to save the rainforest by eradicating a group of monkeys. This will cause conflict.
  • Group dynamics: In any group, there are dynamics, and dynamics differ for each group. Each private, moderated community has its star contributors, influencers, naysayers, and even trolls and spammers (who hopefully get kicked out on a regular basis). Each public community or social network (Meetup group, Facebook page, Twitter discussion) also has its participants, although the less structured (i.e. Twitter) have a more transient cast of characters. Group dynamics (and even egos at times) drive a lot of the communication structure. Is there a pecking order? Twitter communities are a lot more fluid, and there may not be a pecking order per-se, but it’s certainly an “attention economy” where the ones with most social capital get more traction.
  • Conversational norms: This is related to #3 above, but has more to do with how the platform is used.¬†What are the conversational norms? Unspoken (and spoken) rules of conduct? I’ve seen people get completely eviscerated for using the platform “the wrong way”, even though they may have had good intentions. If someone with a relatively high pecking order jumps on someone for violating the norms, he / she may mobilize the community (whether or not rightfully so), causing conflict and a power imbalance.
  • Troll-like motivations: Of course, some people are in it for notoriety and crave unproductive conflict. They post, tweet, comment with the sole purpose of riling up others and getting the best of them. Or they may just be spamming and incessantly linking to their homepage.

How to keep conflict at bay:

  • Examine possible sources of conflict: If you understand what’s causing conflict, this will be a relatively easy thing to pinpoint. If you are moderating a community, figure out who’s fighting, with whom and why. If the attack is on you (personally or your business), also figure out the cause and potential emotional motivations behind it. Is this person a chronic complainer? Is this person a competitor trying to poo-poo on your territory? Is this person a disgruntled customer?
  • Reach out privately: Once you figure out the who, what, and why, you need to try to neutralize. Just like in an offline situation, the best medicine is to reach out and try to talk to someone like a human being. Majority of conflict can be resolved this way. Especially if this is a customer service issue, simply reaching out and saying “Hey, I hear ya! You are totally right to feel this way, let me see how I can help you” can go a long way. If it’s someone just being an unsavory character attacking you for no reason, you are well justified to ask him to stop.
  • Turn it into productive discourse: Whether you are attacked or mediating between other people, and you’ve identified noble (if misguided) motivations, do try to steer it towards a productive discussion. Remember, productive is the one that offers solutions. Unproductive is the one that degenerates the conversation to finger-pointing.
  • Define what’s acceptable and not: Whether you are managing a community, blog or your own Twitter account, you need to decide what you think is appropriate. If it’s beyond your private account, make sure you consider the interests of your community — what do they find offensive? What will cause them to quit? If it’s a moderated group, publish TOSs (terms of service) and stick to them. Outline consequences for certain behaviors (spam warrants warning, threatening others warrants getting kicked off) and remember to enforce them. If it’s just your personal account on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, have guidelines also — figure out when you are willing to walk away.
  • Never make it about the person: Whatever the source of conflict is, and however the conflict plays out, make sure you never make it about the person — it’s always about the issue. Even if you are personally and unjustly attacked, don’t stoop to the level of fingerpointing. Never act on emotion, and don’t feel like you have to respond right away. It’s perfectly normal to walk away and reengage later.

These are just the tips I picked up by being an internet warrior. What are your tips? How have you handled conflict? The comments are yours!

Photo credit: zzathras777