Community Management, Cyberbullying, Toxicity and Fandom
January 8, 2019 at 8:38 am #27191
Hi, I’m Brin. I’m someone who has been part of online communities since before the Internet was commercially available. I’ve been a forum moderator, a community manager, an email discussion list manager, the owner of a chat server and even a guild leader in various video games. Apart from those endeavours, which were largely personal projects of mine, I’ve also worked for a software company with a community offering, where I had clients such as top-tier gaming companies, software companies and even banks, all of whom relied on me to help them formulate a plan for their community. I’ve also got a bachelor’s degree in sociology. And I’ve been watching Supergirl since the pilot aired. (“Ally McBeal, Lexie Grey and Marley Rose?” I said to myself. “Well, this should be interesting!”) Oh, and I’ve been a fan of Superman et al since the Christopher Reeve movies. Like, I remember Helen Slater as Supergirl. 🙂
I say all this so that anyone reading this can know right off the bat where I’m coming from. I have, personally and professionally, been part of online communities (including fandom-related ones) for more than twenty years and I come to this community through the Supergirl fandom. So when I saw Angelo’s tweet about cyberbullying and “toxic fandom”, I felt as though I had a lot of things to say. Here’s the tweet in question:
In my initial responses on Twitter, I acknowledged that cyberbullying and toxicity cannot be tolerated. I also said that blaming “fandom” isn’t the answer and I’d like to expound on that a bit, since I don’t have to split up my response into 280 character chunks.
Fandom isn’t some nebulous, evil thing where people are out to be their worst selves or are all trying to be a Big Name. Fandom ties us together. Fandom is talking to someone and making a joke from, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and having the other person laugh, because they *got* it. Fandom is talking to someone about Buffy and finding out they loved Star Trek, too, just like you. Fandom is about finding gorgeous pieces of art created FOR FREE by talented artists, writers, videographers, who have spent hours upon hours of their lives creating things because they are so passionate about something. Fandom is about how you love something and you get to know others who love it, too. Wil Wheaton perhaps says it best in this video from 2013. He’s talking about being a nerd, but really? He’s talking about fandom, too:
For me, fandom has been everything from a nice place to visit to where I’ve met long-term, romantic partners.
Just like in “real life”, though, not everyone in a community is going to be nice. Or even a good person. What adds to that problem is that so many people are anonymous and, as such, some of the less-nice folks they think that they can behave however they want to, without regard for other people’s feelings. These people exist in every arena of life. There’s that upstairs neighbour who you swear is actually stomping on your ceiling as they walk around their apartment. There’s that jerk in traffic who cut you off. There’s that person on the plane next to you who removes their shoes. They’re not even always malicious; mostly, the people to whom I’m referring are just ignorant about what they’re doing is upsetting you.
It’s somewhat rare, in person, to really have a thoroughly unpleasant encounter with someone, because most people have manners and there’s this whole social contract we’ve entered into where I’m nice to you, you’re nice to me and we all get along just famously. The people we tend to have unpleasant encounters with, in person, are those we’re closest to — partners, family members and the like — because these are the people we can be ourselves with, including our ugly sides.
But online… Ah, online. With anonymous trolls and the cool kids and popularity contests and the dragging and the stanning and the tea and all these other words I’m far too old to use without looking dumb. Online is where the stakes are low because you’re not going to get punched in the face for calling someone a jerk TO their face. There’s a distinct lack of consequences to things said online, even the most cruel, vile, harmful things you can think of. Just look at Twitter with its white supremacists and racists. Report one, nothing happens. If, by some chance, it gets removed, they come back with friends.
Cyberbullying and toxic fandom are different things, though they share some qualities. Cyberbullying is more about people taking advantage of that lack of consequences thing, and focusing in on specific individuals. Like the real-life bullies of yore, these are likely people who have their own insecurities that are so all-encompassing that they only way they can feel better about themselves is not through doing something great, but pushing others down.
Toxic fandom is an unfortunate reality, where people who also love the thing you love (or something closely related to the thing you love) end up being the equivalent of mean girls and, because they seem to not care about anything or anyone, they become “interesting” to others. They become “cool”. Because it’s “cool” not to care, right? See something you want to mock and you mock it without any care given to who might see the mocking? Everyone’s got a right to an opinion, but people who express that opinion without regard for the people who might be affected by it, well, that’s the tip of the iceberg. It gets more insidious, though, because these people aren’t just expressing their opinions. It may have started off that way, but soon enough, it becomes a popularity contest — who can get the most likes, retweets, followers, etc, by being the most outrageous?
It’s unfortunate that what can be this wonderful fandom experience can turn horrifyingly toxic so very easily. There are a lot of fandoms out there and the Supergirl fandom is not always, well, shall we say amazing. That doesn’t mean I haven’t made great friends in it, because I have. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t renewed friendships I’d made three fandoms ago while being part of it, because I’ve done that, too. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t shared moments with random people because of our fandom interests, because that happened to me all the time at ClexaCon last year. While sitting there during Chyler’s panel, I cheered a LOT about a variety of things and the woman sitting in front of me kept putting her hand back for me to high-five her. Just a random person I didn’t know, who appreciated my cheering and we shared those moments and smiled at each other as we filed out of the room. That’s the bond of fandom! When you and a perfect stranger can have that shared “YES!” moment.
Unfortunately, every fandom has some unlikeable folks in it and, while I don’t know that what Angelo said in his screenshot is exactly accurate, the end result is very similar — some of the more “popular” folks end up being pretty awful because they’re desperate for attention. That absolutely happens.
Having said that, one must be certain not to conflate toxic fandom members and cyberbullies with people who simply disagree.
Just like there are bullies and mean people out there, there are also people out there who just think you’re wrong. I always felt that Xena and Gabrielle belonged together, that they were romantic soulmates. Some people out there think Xena belonged with Ares and Gabrielle belonged with Joxer.
Now, no matter how much I disagree with those people (and boy, do I!), the key here for me is to be polite and disagree. “Mmm, you know, I can kind of see where you’re coming from with Ares, since he and Xena did have a bit of a history, but, you know, if you look back through the episodes Gabrielle never liked Joxer like that and I can make a pretty compelling case here.”
When someone starts moving beyond rational claims and arguments and starts to rely on their emotion (and love) surrounding their opinion, that’s when they’re liable to get in trouble. It’s unlikely they’ll change anyone’s mind on the Internet, so if their goal is not just discussion, it’s best to head it off at the pass and stop. The argument is just going to escalate and they won’t change anyone’s mind.
Now, the primary reason I’m here and posting all this is because I know how to navigate most of this stuff, both as a user and as a community manager, and I want to share some tips, tricks and advice surrounding community management, specifically as it pertains to Create Change. As with everything else, this is my opinion — take my advice or not, that’s fine. I’m not looking to change anyone’s minds, I’m merely trying to provide some guidance based on my experience. Please bear in mind that I’m not familiar with what’s been happening in this particular community. I saw Angelo’s Twitter post and decided to chime in.
Five Suggestions for Create Change’s Community Leaders:
1) Have a conversation where the conversation is happening. Don’t stifle the conversation, don’t try to transplant it elsewhere. If it’s happening on Twitter, have it there. If it’s happening on Facebook, do it there. If it’s happening on these forums, have it here.
2) Endeavour to have conversations on friendly territory.That means starting the conversations here and then using social media to drive traffic here. Again, though, finish the conversations you have elsewhere on those other platforms.
3) Unrestrict the forum for viewing. I’ve known about this forum since it launched and I paid absolutely no attention to it. Why? Because it wanted me to register to even look at the content here. This is also, I suspect, why there aren’t that many active people or topics. Let people read the public-facing content (bonus: Google loves forum posts!) and have them register to post. But everyone should be free to read. By letting others read the content you’re linking to on social media before you force them to register, they might actually follow through, register and then respond. It’s just too much friction to ask people to register to read something.
4) Reduce friction. While I don’t mind a new login for every website, for some people, it’s easier to have social media logins available. This site seems to be running bbPress and, as such, WordPress. There are tons of social login plugins available for WordPress that would allow easier registration for those who don’t want to have yet another separate login.
5) Considering bringing the “toxic fandom” narrative down a notch. I genuinely responded in good faith on Twitter to Angelo’s post because I don’t feel that the way he spoke about fandom was malicious, but rather misguided. The emphasis I’ve seen on this over the last couple of days is truly worrisome to me, which is why I’m here. I want to convey that fandom is a good thing, on the whole, and I think I’ve built up a compelling viewpoint for anyone here to read through.
So there you go, folks, my two cents on recent topics and some tips on how to best protect this community against some of them.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions or if you’d like to engage in some meaningful discussion. I’m always happy to help out.
(Oh, but yo, folks, Xena and Gabrielle belong together. You won’t change my mind on that. ;))
Brin 🙂January 8, 2019 at 9:28 am #27205
I’m a huge fan of Xena: Warrior Princess, too Brin! Callisto (Hudson Leick) and Eve (Adrienne Wilkinson) are among my favourite characters, and I also love the Xena/Gabrielle dynamic. Thanks for your amazing and insightful post about cyberbullying and its insidiousness and the need to make a safe online haven for fans of Supergirl and other properties.
Cheers, MikeyJanuary 8, 2019 at 1:58 pm #27206
I wish there were a way to upvote a post or leave kudos or something like that because this post is spot on and amazing. You put into words so many thoughts that definitely crossed my mind but I’d never have the eloquence to put together. Not to mention your years of experience in relevant fields and communities shows. My post here isn’t all that helpful but I wanted to say thank you and second all those lovely points you made.January 8, 2019 at 8:01 pm #27210
Mikey – always glad to find another Xenite! Right there with you on Callisto! Eve was certainly an interesting character, particularly with her transition from Livia, plus her apparently being Calliso reincarnated and such. It definitely got a wee bit convoluted, but Xena was never a simple show to follow. 😉
Regarding my post, thank you for your kind words! I think every part of every fandom should have safe havens that are moderated and managed and don’t tolerate the possible toxicity. It’s perfectly possible to have reasonable, rational, productive conversations with people one doesn’t agree with and it’s a shame that good conversations have gotten lost in the rush for likes and retweets/reblogs/etc.
Tara – thanks very much, that’s lovely to read. I wanted to convey my adoration of fandom (despite the occasional unpleasantness) and I’m so glad that you seem to think I’ve done a good job. I wrote from the heart!
And don’t think for an instant that your post isn’t helpful, please, please, please. 🙂 The wonderful part of online communities is sharing opinions and letting others know you agree (or disagree – nicely!) so that every viewpoint can be considered. Conversation is awesome and just because I wrote something from the heart doesn’t mean that you can’t chime in and say “hey, yeah, you know what? I agree with Brin!”. That’s just as important, IMHO. Everyone brings a little something different to the conversation, even when they agree.
Lovely to meet you both!
Brin 🙂February 1, 2019 at 10:25 pm #27318
Echoing Mikey and Tara’s sentiments! Fantastic post! Your knowledge and experience truly shines through and is so appreciated.
I was deeply entrenched in fandom culture which bordered on toxic over a decade ago. Fans of specific actors/characters would attack fans of other actors/characters who were ruining their “ship.” All of the emotion behind that just created a vortex of negativity even though it was being driven, if in a misguided way, from their shared but varied love of a series.
Thanks so much for sharing your insights on the matter!
PS – Am I banished for never having watched Xena? 😛
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