Last week when I was at South by Southwest Interactive, one morning I had got up late and only just made it to the first session of the day, so I hadn't had any breakfast. I was waiting in a longish line at the coffee shop at the Hyatt for a proper coffee and a bran muffin, so I took the opportunity to check my work email on my work iPhone, and since it took a while to load because the tens and thousands of internet hipsters were all flogging the SXSW wireless so heavily, I checked my home email in the iPhone in my other hand.
"Two phones!" I heard from behind me. I gestured with my left hand, "work", and right hand "home", and muttered a promise to converge them one day, but actually I think the person behind me had just used the observation to start a conversation. Turns out he was a journalist, scheduled for a panel the next day on something about mobile, I didn't actually catch what it was and didn't end up going. But like any talented journalist, by the time I was at the end of the line and paying the cashier, he had asked me enough through-provoking questions that we were having a really interesting conversation about the industry.
He got to it by asking what I did, what that entailed, what I did every day, and I mentioned our new social media policy which had only just launched earlier that week. He asked about the type of posts that we had to include in our moderation guidelines, which got us onto the topic of trolls and haters.
He then asked a really interesting question I'd never thought about before: Of the people who cause trouble in online communities, what percentage of them will come around and rein in their behavior if the community starts to react to them, and what percentage don't respond and you just have to ban them?
I hadn't ever thought about before, but thought back to incidents on forums that I've managed and participated in over the years, and "Actually, more of them don't change, and you just have to ban them." He was surprised at this, but I followed up and had one of those experiences where you find yourself having an insight just fall out of your mouth while you're speaking: "It's just like troublemakers in class when I was teaching. If shame was going to work on them, it already would have."
Again like a good journalist, he expressed amazement at this insight and said that all community managers should spend some time as teachers. We were all paid up at this point so we went our separate ways, but I kept thinking about the exchange. Because one difference between teaching and online community management is that for the troublemakers in class, the best way to manage them was something I learned from Professor Emeritus Hazel Barnes, who was still teaching at U. of Colorado - Boulder when I went there. I remember a departmental gathering where she was holding forth, dressed in her signature one-piece purple jumpsuit with stitched-on metal belt detail (she was well into her 70's at this point and clearly hadn't bought any new clothes in 20 years, because maybe when you hit a certain age, you think, why bother?), and she was sharing wisdom gained over a lifetime of teaching mouthy and opinionated Philosophy students. The best defense, she said, was to invite disruptive students in to office hours and just let them talk, until they were done. It might take hours, but they always had things to say and wanted to get them out. And once they did, she found they didn't take up class time in the same way. I did use this same technique to good effect during my lecturing days.
So reflecting on it made me think, we really don't do this with haters in online communities. We just ban them. And the social media best practices literature is full of examples when banned people just go off and start their own blog, and sometimes the problem escalates into a PR crisis (I went to several sessions on just this topic later in the conference).
But what if that's the wrong approach? What if the better way to deal with online haters is to invite them to some virtual version of office hours, and let them blather on and say what they have to say? Would that actually contain problem conversations more effectively? Would that opportunity to speak and be listened to neutralize online community troublemakers, in a way that banning does not? Who will be the community manager to test this, and get back to us? Because I'd love it if it were true, that haters could actually be reformed through openness and listening and generosity. Some won't ever reform, it's true, and that's why you have Campus Security. But I wonder if this technique that works with university teachers would work online as well?