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

(in our updated code of conduct I actually spelled it out, if you're not having fun then for god's sake leave)

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.

You might also trust that people who have an innate distrust of the mods will leave the site, but they won't. See the point of this whole thread, some people will stay around on your website just to hurt themselves and as many other people as they can and you HAVE to ban them.

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.

Another thing about community management, which came up in this very thread: I really wanna re-emphasize the whole "Let people delete their past selves" thing.

Everyone, without exception, says stupid things online. Everyone, with very few exceptions, reflects on the stupid things they said once upon a time, and cringes. The only people who don't are people who don't grow, change, and learn.

Now if you have a culture on your site of people going through each others' post histories trying to find stupid things they said years ago, things that they wouldn't say today because they know better, then you've got a problem that goes even beyond the toxic purity tests that you'd find in places like Tumblr or LiveJournal. Places in which people can't let go of their pasts are places in which people can't change.

(obviously I'm not talking here about letting abusers off the hook, or letting creeps escape bad reputations - those accounts should be banned and records kept by the admin. I'm talking here about letting people change their minds about things. People change their minds online more often than you think - a change of heart is often disguised by a change of handle.)

In real life, people change their minds about things all the time. Online, and this is worse for places where your real-life identity is tied to your online identity, all the stupid things you said years ago that you no longer agree with can follow you around like Jacob Marley's chains.

If your site has a culture where people have long chains, and it's the norm for people to rummage around in those chains and go "Ah-HA! You said these words five years ago, now defend them or apologise!" then there really isn't a way out of that cycle, it's just gonna go round and round like that until everyone's exhausted.

This is how big, cultural, systemic change happens - people learn new things, change their minds, and look back on their past selves as strangers. Let it happen. Let your members' online identities evolve like their real life identities do. Provide ways for people to erase their accounts and make new ones that better reflect their current, hopefully improved selves.

Back to banning folks for a second, folks who lie about the mods or folks who don't want to be on the site but won't leave - banning folks feels bad.

It feels bad because you think about how you'd feel if you got banned, or it feels bad because you might feel like you've failed to change someone's mind, or it feels bad because sometimes this person can be charming or funny (abusers always are), or it feels bad because you feel like you're betraying some principle of freedom or whatever.

Being a community admin isn't easy. You'll feel bad sometimes. It feels much easier, at least in the short term, to let trolls and arseholes and people who are making themselves miserable just kinda stick around, and hope they'll leave.

You've pretty much got to deal with occasionally feeling awful. If it helps, remember this: although to you, handing down a ban can feel like giving a death sentence, to the person you're banning, it just means they'll have to look at a different website.

(and here in the year 2021 there are, currently, over three hundred websites)

Back to talking about the growth phase of online community development, the Excitement Phase where you're watching your numbers suddenly go up.

This is where you find out that the things that you didn't bother writing down because Everybody Knows are not actually the things that Everybody Knows.


@ifixcoinops Not sure if you're familiar with Eternal September from the dawn of the internet, but this feels relevant here also.

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