It used to be that websites were strictly “static” documents, like an online brochure for your organization. Increasingly, however, if your website is going to attract and hold onto its visitors, it needs to be more “interactive.” There has to be some way for your visitors to participate in what’s happening on the site, whether that be through making a purchase, asking a question, or posting a comment or review.
Those questions, comments, and reviews get collectively referred to as “user-generated content.” User generated content on your website is a great way to form a community engaged in lively discussion about the awesome work your organization is doing. But it’s also a potential pitfall: we’ve all seen Facebook arguments that got out of hand, right?
So how do you manage the community that is developing around your website? How do you keep the lively discussion healthy? And at what point does your “management” cross over into censorship?
There’s a great article about this question from Danny Matteson over at Disqus, a blog commenting engine that is very popular (and, you’ll notice, is being used for the comments section on this website). In it, they come down on the side of more active management and curation, giving two key principles that I think are especially valuable for church and nonprofit leaders to keep in mind.
Websites Have Rules Just Like Real Places Do
When we go out in public, we understand that there are rules and norms for our behavior. If I got to a museum and they tell me I can’t take my drink inside, I understand that this is not some dictatorial overreach: it’s because they don’t want me spilling coffee (or, in my case, tea) on priceless artwork. And likewise, if I am escorted from the building upon touching the sculpture with a placard clearly saying “Do Not Touch” in front of it, I really shouldn’t be surprised or upset. The guards are just enforcing the rules.
This notion of expected behavior and rules also applies to just about anywhere else we might go. Going out to eat? There might be a dress code at the restaurant you’ve chosen that you’re expected to follow (at minimum, they probably expect you to have shoes and a shirt, for example). Going to visit your child at school? You’d better check in at the office and get a visitor’s sticker or you may find yourself leaving sooner than expected. We intuitively understand that these sorts of rules exist, and even if we sometimes disagree with them, we still understand that not following them has consequences.
So why shouldn’t that same principle apply to the virtual spaces we visit? Why shouldn’t the websites we go to have rules and expectations about our behavior?
What you’ll find is that they do. Big, popular sites like Facebook and Reddit often have “content guidelines” that permit their staff and volunteer moderators to delete posts that don’t follow the rules. Popular blogs often have a “comment policy” that says that if you are rude or off-topic, your comment may be deleted. So why shouldn’t your website have rules, too?
How to decide on those rules may vary from organization to organization. If you are a church or nonprofit leader, chances are there are some behavioral expectations that exist in your community already. Whether they be embedded in your safe church policy, written into a “behavioral covenant,” or informally accepted by custom, there are probably expectations that exist about how people treat one another in your community. You can cross-apply some of those same principles online: if the expectation is that everyone will be treated with respect, it’s fairly easy to say that personal attacks in comments have no place on your church website.
The suggestion from Danny Matteson at Disqus is that the rules should be clearly stated for everyone who is on you first offer the rules as a proposal, solicit feedback, and then clearly state the rules in a way that everyone on your site can see. This helps to guard against the idea that you have suddenly brought down a dictatorial hammer on your website participants. It also helps to make clear that these rules are not obscure fine print that can be wielded at your discretion to suppress ideas you don’t agree with. Instead, these are clearly defined and understood community expectations that everyone is required to follow.
Just Like In Real Life, Your Website’s Rules Are Only Real If You Enforce Them
The next principle Matteson offers in his Disqus article is this: “Don’t be afraid to curate.”
In other words, if you have rules, enforce them. If someone launches into a vitriolic personal attack that is wildly off topic, you not only can but should delete the comment. Matteson notes that this moderation activity is designed to force the commenter to make a decision:
“Do I rise to the occasion and meet the quality threshold of this community, or do I move on to another community that’s more likely to tolerate my shenanigans?”
For church and nonprofit communities, in which personal relationships in the non-virtual world are often in play, I think that a good additional step is to send the commenter a note explaining why their comment was removed. Be respectful, try to find and lift up what was good about their remarks, note why it violated your policy, and invite them to write a new comment which states the positive points they were making without the bits that were objectionable.
That sounds like a lot of work, you might think! And it might be at first. But I suspect that after a while your moderation efforts will pay off. People will learn that the rules are real and that if they want to be heard, they have to follow them.
If your church or nonprofit organization has a website, you should be using it to engage with visitors and extend your community into the virtual sphere. That has a lot of power, but equally it has risk. The most significant risk is to the relationships that form the backbone of your community. To keep your online discussions safe for everyone, you need to establish rules just like any institution would. And to make those rules work, you have to engage in the sometimes hard work of enforcing them. But the payoff is worth the effort: deeper community engagement, stronger relationships, and the opportunity to expand the reach of your organization to the ends of the earth!