Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Life Toxic

After my last series of posts, I had a reader ask me a very good question: how do you deal with a toxic community? A community so entrenched in its negativity that anything you say or do with them will be turned around, thrown in your face or used against you?

Do such places exist? Are there really people out there who devote a good deal of their time online to complaining, albeit passionately, about something? Yes, there are. I've seen several varieties of these kinds of communities in my time. Here are a few off the top of my head. I've kept things general and intentionally not linked to anything, and none of these examples represent any of my current clients:

  • A blog by an ex-employee of a company that claims insider information of wrongdoing, but offers no hard evidence. Any press release made by the company is dissected and twisted by the blogger, who claims to want "open discussion" - but blocks the company's IP addresses from viewing the blog, thus shutting out the institution they claim to want to change.
  • A forum devoted entirely to how biased and unfair the moderators on another, much larger forum are, populated largely by people kicked off the larger forum for breaking rules.
  • A blog devoted entirely to how biased one particular moderator on a forum is - with daily updates of the moderator's posts and moderating decisions, often deriding the moderator for his "stupidity" and bias.
  • A forum created by a "clan" or group of gamers who were annoyed enough at the game company's decisions to change their game that they created their own forum where they could openly criticize nearly every decision the company made.
  • A blog whose writers posts news neutrally, but then offer consistently negative commentary which is echoed by the community members, with comments often numbering in the dozens to the hundreds on each post.
Also, since I'm getting a lot of traffic from Fallout communities following my use of Fallout as an example, I need to clarify that none of those examples are a Fallout community.

So to my reader's question - how do you engage with a community like this? The short answer is, you don't. Period. Sometimes, there is no strategic advantage to engaging with a community so toxic and hostile that they have the time, effort and inclination to do nothing but be negative on the Internet, especially towards a company or a product. While it's true that there are companies out there that certainly deserve ire, consider the kind of person who would make a blog only to post about how awful a game company (rather than, say, a political figure) is and then update it constantly, regardless of whether anyone aside from a small number of like-minded individuals actually read it. That's the kind of mindset you're dealing with.

But rarely do communities get this bad, and a little research will typically be more than enough warning to avoid a truly toxic community. Note to fellow PR stooges: this is why you can't just do "parachute bloggerism" and expect results. You send your email to the wrong community, and they're really going to make you regret it. So step one is avoiding communities like this.

Step two is realizing that not all community members out there are this way. Nine times out of ten, there are other outlets for discussing a passion, be they blogs, Facebook groups, forums, Listserves or something else. Find those communities instead, and engage there. The toxic community members will either close themselves off further - in which case you lose nothing - or take an interest in engaging you outside of their comfort zone, on another site, where you have at least gained their attention. That's progress.

Step two and a half is what happens if there isn't another place to engage. This is not an either-or situation, and the image above comes from one of my favorite Star Trek references: the Kobayashi Maru, or the "unwinnable scenario." In Star Trek, a Starfleet cadet is introduced to a simulation where they are forced to choose between rescuing a ship in the Klingon Neutral Zone and destroying their own ship and killing their crew, or ignoring the ship's distress call and abandoning the people aboard to certain death. Kirk was the only cadet to ever pass the test (as of Star Trek II anyway) by coming up with a unique solution: he reprogrammed the simulator to let him win. The lesson of the Kobayashi Maru is that there's typically another solution to any seemingly dualistic problem - and in this instance, you have to fiddle with the community a bit to win.

I don't mean hacking into the toxic forums. Rather, create your own community. Not for the control over its members, but for the initial control over its content. This can be as simple as starting a blog where you have well-defined rules about low-content, hostile comments and delete such as necessary. Or it can be the creation of a forum where you start driving conversation, and let things evolve naturally on their own. Or - and I don't mean to bandwagon here - a Facebook or Gather discussion group was made for this sort of thing, and they're not that hard to create.

The best way to deal with a toxic community is to simply remove it from the equation. I don't mean ignore it, because often times a company's harshest critics can provide it with some of the best feedback. But there's also no reason to set yourself up for failure when engaging with a community that tends to be toxic. The fact of the matter is, it's just not worth it. Sure, there may be more of them than there are of your positive community when you first begin engaging - but that demographic will change over time. And the payoff is worth it.

Note: Thanks to Mike Reed's famous Flame Warriors for the picture above. Support his work, it's seriously awesome.

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