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👀 🙌 Behind the scenes: A peek into the work of online community stewards
Our team interviews moderators about their challenges and triumphs
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This week I have the pleasure of introducing a new newsletter mini-series exploring the work of New_ Public’s Community Lab.
Recently we’ve emphasized the idea of community stewardship — the leaders, facilitators, and moderators who both invest ongoing care into ensuring the health of a community and its norms, and also lead with a sense of civic duty.
We think that these people and their (often unacknowledged, uncompensated) labor are absolutely essential to flourishing online social spaces. Our Community Lab exists to build patterns, features, and tools to assist stewards.
But in setting out to be useful to stewards, the team realized they needed to learn more about them and their work. Below, Adit Dhanushkodi delves into Community Lab’s research on stewardship, which set them on their current path.
–Josh Kramer, Head of Editorial
Research into stewardship
I’m a UX designer here at New_ Public in the Community Lab: a team of designers (me, Adriana Rivas Ruffatti), researchers (Mary Beth Hunzaker), product thinkers (Min Li Chan) and engineers (Rob Ennals) focused on creating and field-testing patterns and features for healthy, public-spirited, digital conversational spaces.
Before we began our work designing prototypes, we knew that we had to start by talking to Community Stewards. We needed a foundational understanding of what goes into facilitating thriving community spaces online.
What are the stewards’ biggest challenges?
To start to get a better picture of what real stewardship actually looks like, we remotely interviewed eight community stewards who facilitate a diverse set of communities. They range from groups with fewer than 50 local members to those with more than a thousand members globally. Each brings together diverse collections of people with common interests, from LGBTQ identity, to arts and crafts, to conversations about race. Some of the stewards of these communities take on this work alone or with a partner, while others are part of a more structured team.
The stewards shared how they first became invested in their communities, some of their day-to-day experiences, their biggest challenges, and more. After the interviews, we looked for emerging patterns across all the stories we heard and identified themes that broadly answered our original question, “how do stewards actually spend their time?” We landed on three areas where our Community Lab team would focus our efforts:
A significant role that many stewards play within their communities is in resolving interpersonal issues and rule violations. They often approach conflict in a way that emphasizes openness, understanding, and community alignment. Often, stewards aren’t spending time moderating clear-cut rule violations, but rather on more ambiguous disagreements in the gray area that take more time to understand and interpret.
One steward of a large Discord server told us that “there might be 500 messages to catch up on a complicated argument between six people.” Despite how much work it takes, some stewards, like Matt Noyes with the social.coop Mastodon community, see moderating arguments as an opportunity:
It’s labor intensive, but the fact that we have this process is really crucial. It’s one of the few places where our community can be cultivated… [dealing with conflict reports] often ends up being conversations with people, and those conversations establish relationships. So, I can end up having relationships with people who reported something and I responded as the moderator and that goes on to become a relationship — that’s important.
But depending on the community and platform, there are limits to this approach. Regardless of the stewards’ best intentions, some members are just not interested in participating in conflict resolution. Even those who do take part in mediation can sometimes get frustrated with the process. When stewards ask clarifying questions to better understand a conflict, some members get offended because they feel as if the steward is not on their side.
Mediation work can be unsustainable for stewards, taking an emotional toll and contributing to burnout. Each steward we interviewed had a different approach to conflict, ranging from conversation strategies and mediation processes to transparency about rationale and opportunities to appeal decisions.
There are some tools available to stewards who do this work, such as removal notices. However, some platforms, including Reddit, disincentivize the use of removal notices through the design of the tool. The most convenient way to send removal notices on Reddit creates a public notice instead of a private one, putting stewards at risk of harassment. What tools, resources, and design patterns would better support stewards dealing with interpersonal issues and rule violations? How might we better center stewards’ experiences?
Facilitating connection and conversation
Rather than using typical engagement metrics like impressions or follower count, many of the stewards we talked to assess their success by the quality of the relationships in their communities. Stewards shared how they create opportunities for members to connect to one another by shaping the conversational culture of the space.
Some stewards practice modeling prosocial behaviors, such as posting discussion prompts, hosting online and offline events, individually introducing members to each other, and creating various rooms for different kinds of conversations.
A steward is often working against the norms of their community’s host platform. Luke Edwards, a United Methodist minister, and a moderator of the Dinner Church Workshop Facebook Group, observes:
If you come into your Facebook group from scrolling through your Facebook feed, where everybody's arguing, then you're a lot more likely to come in there and start arguing.
In this way, the conversational culture of the platform can make it difficult to facilitate a community space that has different conversational norms. Similarly, when users switch platforms, they bring previously learned conversational habits with them, causing friction in the new communities they join. Many Mastodon instances, for example, faced a challenge when new members brought unwanted conversational habits from Twitter.
Stories and experiences like these have provoked us to further explore how the design patterns within a platform could better support stewards in their work.
Norms are socially-enforced rules that help people understand what is and isn’t acceptable behavior within a community. Stewards take various approaches to co-create norms and rules alongside members. These strategies range from creating community agreements through very structured and facilitated processes of proposals and voting, to creating space for the community to form implicit rules and shape the vibes.
Facilitating the creation and modification of rules takes a significant amount of coordination, effort, and emotional labor, both for stewards and community members. Uneven participation can create friction: members who participate infrequently can feel like they don’t have input, while members who participate consistently can feel like their time and contributions are being unappreciated.
On the other hand, relying on assumed, implicit values, has other drawbacks. Stewards told us that relying on implicit values can result in friction when different members have diverging understandings of the community’s values.
Each community we heard about had a different approach to co-creating norms. Stewards often referenced the rules of other, like-minded groups when developing their own. One steward implemented digital suggestion boxes and another relies on governance tools like Loomio to create group agreements. No single approach could address every challenge we heard, but we see this as an opportunity to:
(1) Build tools that assist the continuous and collective process of defining how we hold space together in our digital communities and (2) Help communities establish support systems, like norms, that put into practice the agreements they collectively define.
This research effort set the initial foundation for our team’s work moving forward, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s still so much more for us to learn, both from community stewards and people building new platforms. As Josh and Sam mentioned in the last newsletter introducing the Digital Spaces Directory, we’re interested in learning from existing product features that lead to healthy, prosocial outcomes. We’re continuing to work with stewards through our Community Stewards Guild, and we’ve begun to work with builders through a pilot partnership we’ll be sharing more about in the future.
We’d love to hear if any of the stories I’ve shared resonate with you. What kinds of challenges has your communities faced? What kinds of stewardship practices does your community have? What platform features support those practices?
–Adit Dhanushkodi, Senior UX Designer
The Community Corkboard is back! It’s our place to help spread the word about all the exciting projects our larger community is working on.
✉️ Signing on to the Neely Center Design Code for Social Media: New_ Public has signed on to this Design Code from USC Marshall’s Neely Center for Ethical Leadership and Decision Making. Announced here, the Code attempts to put some of our shared values into action with specific steps for designing social products.
📗 New book by Nathan Schneider: Founder of the Media Economies Design Lab at University of Colorado Boulder, one-time New_ Public Magazine writer, and all-around friend of New_ Public, Schneider has a new book called Governable Spaces: Democratic Design for Online Life where he takes on the “implicit feudalism” of the internet.
🚀 ETHOS relaunch: This Gen-Z focused, cause-centric social platform with ambitions to create a healthier digital social space, just relaunched. They're playing with some cool features including fact-checking and convening around activism.
🔎 Read Tech Policy Press: Just a quick plug for our pals at Tech Policy Press, a non-profit, independent media organization actually getting into the weeds on issues related to the social internet. I really enjoyed this recent piece on search vs recommendation algorithms. They have a great newsletter and podcast too.
✨ Sparkable pivoting to newsletters: Sparkable, an early-stage, non-profit, open-source social project, is changing focus, experimenting with a new model for co-curated newsletters. It’s an interesting exploration of an alternative business model and social content beyond an algorithmic feed that we’ll definitely be keeping an eye on.
📌 Reminder: ETHOS, Sparkable and 225 others await you in our new Digital Spaces Directory.
Do you have an upcoming event or update you’d like us to list on the Corkboard?
Thinking it’s never a bad time to thank your moderators,