Editor's note: Today is the first day of what U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has named Connected Educator Month. The U.S. Department of Education’s Connected Educators initiative seeks to celebrate and encourage educators at all levels to collaborate and participate in online learning resources and communities. This piece was written to support this initiative.
Social media sites such as Facebook, Google +, Twitter, and blogs are terrific venues for the exchange of ideas, opinions and viewpoints. I’m deeply invested in this means of group dialog myself; I participate in online interaction daily on such platforms. I also moderate discussions in groups that number in the thousands. These platforms provide an invaluable tool to discover new ideas and share my own, give and get opinions and find different viewpoints.
When unruly online participants rear their heads, nothing would be easier than to censor, ban, and block them. Indeed, when they knowingly violate group guidelines, I do so...reluctantly. However, while censoring or banning are what Eric Sheninger likes to refer to as being, “The easy way out,” there are a number of reasons this is not a best practice when encountering a member who makes things uncomfortable.
Here are the six reasons not to censor, block, or ban
1) Trust the group
Sometimes someone in a group has a different perspective than the majority. That's okay. Trust the group to make an effort to share their ideas. This can get messy and as moderator, there is a desire to keep things clean and neat, but in a successful group, life online mirrors f2f life as much as possible. In real life conversations also get messy and a moderator also does his/her best to moderate without having to silence. This could mean the interjection of some thoughts or having a one-to-one side conversation with the person who is having an issue in the group.
2) Respect the lurkers.
You might find a comment or link to be off-topic or irrelevant, but it might not be true for all of the “silent majority.) Often, a large percentage of a group is there to read, not speak. Just like in f2f interactions, the most vocal will rule the show, but it is not unusual that what was shared has value to someone too shy or uncomfortable to speak up. Let the group works its magic. Comments of no value will fade away but it is quite possible a little comment made a big difference that the moderator may never have realized.
(This does not pertain to information violates group guidelines or is not related to the group purpose.)
3) There is a learning curve when communicating online and in a new group
If someone new to the group has a questionable contribution, let them know. They just may be unaware. If it is something simple, like not following a guideline a public reminder is fine and reminds others. If it is more sensitive, message them directly.
If you remind someone publicly of a guideline and they fail to respond, it may be they are just promoting their cause, posting everywhere, and not keeping track. However, it is best to start out giving folks the benefit of the doubt before censoring them.
4) Empower members to censor themselves or leave
When questionable content comes up .i.e disrespectful, offensive, and/or not aligned to the guidelines of the space, it is time for the moderator to step in and redirect. Your guidelines must be clear when it comes to group norms and expectations. If you can't point to why the participation is unacceptable, then guidelines need updating and the group notified.
5) Value everyone's right to share their thoughts
A constant criticism of social media is that it becomes the echo chamber. While the echo chamber feels good and certainly has some value, limiting the members and feedback to only that of what the moderators allow, is not only dangerous and cult-like, but it limits learning.
6) Create a warm and welcoming environment
Great online communities feel like a gathering of friends who care a lot about something. No one wants to feel too intimidated to share. Sure, interacting in accordance with guidelines is expected, but beyond that we want members to feel comfortable in their online home.
At the same time, keep the interest high! A group in constant agreement with itself may become boring. Encouraging those with different perspectives to participate may result in argument -- but argument is not necessarily counter to your goal. Attack the idea, not the person. Add that simple rule to your guidelines and your online space can have that edge that goes beyond “warm and fuzzy” and becomes a healthy, engaging community.
What do you think? Have you been or seen comments that were censored unjustly? Do you think that moderators should have the right to play god and skew a conversation to the side they want to convince others to believe or follow? Should the guidelines drive who is censored and/or banned, or should it be the whim of a person who invested the few minutes required to start a group?