Community management & moderation is a complex and nebulous subject with very few rock-solid principles to match the shape and size of every community. The constant battle that many community software developers face (and lose) is where to draw the line on feature development for community moderation & administration. I believe that many of the features that exist in most popular community software packages are actually detrimental to the health of a community, and can cause community uproar as data that has emotional attachments within the community is altered or removed.
At Vanilla, we understand this predicament and are constantly working to build soft features that effectively steer a community in the right direction, while giving moderators and administrators the power they need. A prime example of this methodology is a little-known but incredibly powerful feature we created called sinking.
When potentially explosive issues arise on a community, one of the common side effects is that a particular discussion thread will grow rapidly, filling with heated comments as angry community members spit venom at each other. Without the ability to deal with this type of issue quickly, it can often end in temporary or even permanent banning of members who were key in the instigation of the problem.
Most community software packages provide a “close discussion” option, which prevents members from adding new comments to the discussion. The problem that we found with this type of functionality was that it often made the key contributors to the heated debate even more angry, but instead of being angry at each other, they would turn on the moderators who had closed the thread. At this point the debate always went from whatever was angering them to a “freedom of speech” argument. The problem with a freedom of speech argument is that everyone in the world has an opinion on freedom of speech: they are all for it.
So, now the entire community is angry at the moderators for effectively gagging the debaters. The moderators start to feel the pressure, complain to administrators, administrators complain to the site owner, and now all of upper management is involved in a problem that could have just gone away if the software had the proper tools in place.
That tool is Vanilla’s Sink Discussion. One of the communities that I managed in the past had more of these heated discussions than I care to reveal. The subject matter of that particular community was one that simply often led to heated debate, and I found that I was constantly being pulled out of my work duties to deal with these arguments on this community. I realized that one of the side effects of the way community software is designed is that heated arguments always sit at the top of the discussion list because the comments are being added to it so quickly that it essentially stays “sticky”.
This means that every single member and every single guest visitor is going to read that discussion, and a large portion of those folks are going to want to get involved – which simply fuels the fire. My answer was to force the discussion to sink down the list naturally by changing that particular discussion to no longer update it’s “Date of Last Comment” field as new comments are added. So, from the point that you “sink” a discussion, it essentially allows comments in other discussion threads to bump their discussions above the one that has been sunk.
New comments can still be freely added to the sunk discussion, but it no longer bumps up to the top of the discussion list with each new comment. This means that there is no more extra fuel being added to the fire, and the other discussions in the forum begin to douse the flames by taking first-order precedence in the discussion list. Without new people sharing their 2 cents on one side or the other of the heated debate, it always degrades into the core instigators shouting back and forth at each other, and eventually when one or the other side inevitably goes to bed, the argument is over and the rest of the community is non-the-wiser.
I know what you’re thinking: “Don’t the people involved in the debate notice that the discussion has been sunk? Don’t they get mad at the moderators?”
No. In our experience, we found that the people inside the sunk discussion never notice that a discussion has been sunk. Never.
With discussion sinking implemented on my community back in 2001, arguments were quickly and effectively diffused. Administrators were no longer pulled in to handle touchy situations, and upper management never even heard about the problems – because there weren’t any.
I was so surprised and pleased by the effectiveness of discussion sinking that I made it a core feature of Vanilla when it was released in 2005, and it is still a core feature of Vanilla today.