Challenges around building a religious community

(Joseph Bayly) #1

Hi there. I’m new and here to evaluate the idea of creating an online community. The problems I face seem complex to me. This would be a community connected to a religious site that often discusses controversial topics. In the past the site allowed comments, and a sort of community had developed. However…

  1. The content under consideration tends to bring in trolls.
  2. The comments were prominently featured and often detracted from the post content in a bad way.
  3. Certain regular commenters ended up setting a weird tone for the whole site.

Regarding #'s 1 & 2 above, I’ve hoped that setting up Discourse and pushing the comments off the page and behind a registration would help. I’m still concerned that #3 would scuttle the whole idea. I’m not sure how to foster the type of community we want.

I’m also concerned that it might not get off the ground without a seamless login/comment on the page system. Further confusing things, the types of questions/comments that generate a lot of great discussion are often difficult to distinguish from trolls at the outset.

That’s why I’m here. :slight_smile:

First time here? Welcome!
(Nick Emmett) #2

Hey @joseph_bayly - welcome, it’s great to have you here.

It sounds like you have the foundations of a great community - do you have an idea of who your advocates are from your current commenters?
Logging in may help with reducing your trolls - there’s been a few conversations here about the subject over the years that would be worth you checking out - here’s a search result list.

For me, being clear in yourself about your Community’s why - it’s reason for being - will help you recognise where the valuable posts are - and I’m guessing the same can be said for your members.
Controversial talking points do often generate a lot of discussion - clear guidelines about etiquette/behaviour may help here also.

I’m very interested to here where you head with all of this - what have you tried so far within the comments that you currently have?

(Piper_Wilson) #3

Hi there and welcome. I’m glad you found us!

(Joseph Bayly) #4

Thanks for the suggested reading. I don’t know what an “advocate” would actually be, so it’s hard to say. Can you point me to some definition that would help?

To answer your last question, we had some published “house rules” about comments. We generally kept a light touch but warned people and then banned them if we saw they were being dishonest in their comments, which really destroys communication, let alone community. (Often dishonesty took the form of consistently being inaccurate in descriptions or summaries of somebody else’s position, to the detriment of either the conversation or to the detriment of the reputation of the person whose position was being wrongly described.) We also required that people use their real first and last name if their criticism began to be personal rather than general, especially if the person they were criticizing was not anonymous.

It may seem odd that we allowed personal criticism at all, but in the realm of morality and motives, we need to recognize a real correspondence between the idea and the person in a way that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) happen with the iPhone vs Android wars, for example. This was never allowed to devolve to name calling or similar. Criticism had to be constructive, polite, on topic, etc. regardless.

It just took a lot of effort to keep it clean and for the author to respond to criticisms or questions, and often didn’t seem like it was worth the work. Combined with the fact that commenters could change the feel of a post by what they put under it, we decided to just turn off comments.

However, we’ve had a number of people say they miss the comments, even though they almost never commented. I think the reason is that they learned from the discussions. I suspect that if people had the opportunity to create their own discussions and ask questions unrelated to a particular post, while still allowing for discussion of the actual posts, that it could be a really awesome environment. People were often posting or emailing links or topics, along with their own thoughts, directly to the authors. Why not let them simply post that in the community, get community discussion going, etc. In fact, I suspect that we would surface some occasional community-contributed posts and even some new authors.

I guess I can’t (yet) explain the exact reason for the existence of the community. I’ll have to think on that.

(Sarah Hawk) #5

In this context an advocate would be a more active or vocal member that supports your cause/brand in a positive way. Someone that you can rely on to model the right kind of behaviour.

Regarding your #3 – were those people not actually violating rules, just behaving strangely?

It sounds to me like you already have an organically forming community, which implies that there is a need.

I’d love to hear from @irreverance, @remah and @JoeBuhlig on this.

(Mark Williams) #6


One thing that rarely gets mentioned in the context of community but I personally think can be valuable is curation. I use the idea of the letter to the editor. My dad wrote weekly to his local paper but only occasionally would something get posted. It helps with the trolls and can help with the ‘voice’ or ‘tone’ of community.

However, in this case I recommend against algorithmic curation and instead use humans - specifically someone with an eye toward editorial voice. This can also help with your third concern because you can turn their voices down (but not off).

Warning: this is a whole lot of regular work, but it may be worth it in your case.

Also, a thought on registration and troll prevention. Charge a small one time fee to become a commenting member. Maybe donate all the fees to a non-profit that the community would support. You do have to be careful with your expectations, but I suspect most true trolls would not donate - and if they do they’ve done some good in the world before they become a pain in your tush. :slight_smile:

(remah) #7

I don’t know what you are trying to achieve but just so you know a bit about me, here’s a short introduction. I’m currently planning a couple of Discourse sites to support two communities of Christians who are predominantly volunteers in church groups. One of the sites is intended to support an international organisation working with many churches. The other willl support a software application that is under development.

I have a very basic approach for planning religious activities. There are two key steps to planning.

The first challenge is to define everything because the more clarity we have then the easier it is to deal with these challenges. It is as basic as asking: who is the community; what do they do; why do they do it; how do they do it; where do they do it; and when do they do it?

You should be able to easily respond to points like these because you’ve already thought about your community and have a clear picture of who you are:

The second challenge is to be able to frame everything in mundane terms that are not religious, spiritual, philosophical, sacred, holy or whatever is esoteric or language that is peculiar to your community. I consider that I should be able to remove the word “religion/religious”, and even the defining word “Christian”, from the definition of how each community is expected to work. The benefit of this is that anyone can see what we are trying to do and can relate it to other spheres of community activity such as sports clubs and product support forums.

This approach would not be a favourite for many spiritual/religious types who don’t like being down to earth. But the challenges you face are almost always very down to earth and common to almost any community forum.

I’ve kept this short (ha ha) but I could talk all day on this with many examples.

P.S. I reread your original post and see that this is a site attached to a religious site. So is it really “a religious community” you are talking about?

(Bo McGuffee) #8

Thanks @HAWK for the ping. I have plenty to say here. I’ll try to keep it short, since I don’t want to hog the whole internet. :stuck_out_tongue:

Without knowing anything specific about the community you are working with, @joseph_bayly, I’ll identify where I would generally recommend going with a religious community like the one you describe.

1. Build up a self-differentiated core: If I were you, one of my main goal would be to build up a core of leaders (the term often used in religous circles for “advocates”) who are able to maintain an emotional balance amidst chaos. If you are familiar with “systems theory”, then you will be familiar with the term “self-differentiation”. If not, that is where a person is able to be in a conversation with one emotional foot in and the other outside of the conversation. They can feel connected to the person in front of them, but remain emotionally distant enough to not get caught up in their own emotions and react to statements being made. By being able to step out of their emotions, they are able to maintain a rational perspective that keeps them focused on the issues.

A good sign of someone who is self-differentiating would be someone who stays calm and uses “I” messages. For people who are learning, it’s great to teach them to “fake it until you make it”. By practicing “I” statements, issue-oriented conversation, and perspective taking, people can grow into that state. For this reason, you will want to have strong rules regarding language. I would suggest that you never allow personal criticism. All criticism must be targetted toward an issue or a person’s behavior. Consider the emotional effect on a system (a bunch of readers) who see “Ignore what Jack says because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about” vs “I have difficulty believing what Jack says here because he is not forthcoming with further explanation of his statements after being asked for it several times”.

According to my understanding, when you have a healthy core who is able to self-differentiate, that tone tends to draw the attention of the community. Your leaders start setting the emotional tone for the rest of the community. Their behavior becomes even more authoritative if they prove that they are able to disagree passionately, while maintaining behavior that respects (a great value to promote) those with whom they disagree.

Meanwhile, the less healthy (more reactive) members of the community are naturally going to start pushing back (be prepared for this). This leads us to…

2. Establish and maintain strong behavioral boundaries: I would establish strong guidelines regarding issue- and behavior-oriented language. I would make it clear that you might edit posts that have worthy content but an inappropriate tone, or you might remove such posts and ask for rewrites (which is actually better). Overall, it will seem like you are trying to get everyone to play nice, which is a good perception to have. In reality, you are setting a trap for trolls. By focusing on behavioral expectations that you can point to and say “that crosses the line”, you can say that they have chosen to effectively ban themselves since they knew the consequences before they acted.

I would use a demerit system. Give it three colors (green, yellow, red). If someone crosses the line and is in the green zone, well it can happen to the best of us. It’s a gentle teaching moment and an opportunity to send a PM, which in itself is a great opportunity to build a relationship. Coach them so they can learn to communicate respectfully (which arguably is something a religious community should be doing anyway). At the yellow level, your language changes. Now you say things such as, “I’m concerned about a pattern of behavior that I see developing in your posts. [This behavior] is counter-productive to community building, and I need it to stop.” If it escalates to the red level, it becomes a “this is your last chance” conversation, at which point any push back ends up in a ban.

Banning is good. You want to ban people (believe it or not). If trolls remain in your community, they can unravel it. Boundaries are a non-aggressive way to deal with them. They know which behaviors will end up in a ban before they engage in them. In effect, they ban themselves. (Note: there is an article floating around here somewhere that talks about how problematic members can be identified quickly based on their initial behavior.)

3. Work both openly and behind the scenes: I recommend leveraging both public posts and private messages. When you see behavior that is out of line, make a public note of it. Post a moderator note that says “We are trying to maintain an atmosphere in which people who disagree can do so respectfully. Please remember that name-calling is counter-productive to our goal. In the future, make sure to use respectful language.”…or something like that. If you do not make public statements about inappropriate behavior, it will appear that you are turning a blind eye, which will encourage it to continue and flourish. Meanwhile, discuss the issues with the offending member through PMs.

4. Have a policy for alts: One member gets one account, and you must be signed in to post. All additional accounts will be banned, and the original may be banned as well. (Watch those IPs.) I would allow anonymity in the community, and I would allow them to change names (just a personal preference, and people can look up histories to see who people are anyway). Whenever you have a policy like this, make sure you tie it to the vision of the community and its health. You might say, “in the interests of making sure people remain responsible for their own words, which is important in a healthy community, we allow members to only have a single account.”

5. Visioncasting: (Hmmm, probably should be #1) I was told once by a wise executive presbyter that as a pastor I needed to cast the vision whenever I got the chance. And when I feel like I can’t do it one more time without throwing up, then that’s when I needed to redouble my efforts. It’s important to constantly remind people of their corporate voyage. You’re all in that particular boat together for a reason. Identify it (yep, need an answer to the “reason for being” question asap). Tell the story. Meaning is a narrative construct. The more people hear of the great things they can accomplish by by working together amidst the chaotic waves that would tear everything they’ve worked so hard to build apart, the more likely they are to work to protect it. Leaders draw people into a meaningful story. Leaders of leaders master the art of storytelling so they can write a meaningful story, re-write it, and make space so that others can thrive in it.

I hope that helps. Let me know if you need me to break anything out.

(Joseph Bayly) #9

Hey all, Thanks for your help. I’m super busy at the moment, so I don’t have time to answer questions, but I’m skimming and thinking as you all respond.

Some great stuff here helping me with planning.