The importance of free speech on your forum and not coming off as a PR drone.

By Brad, Feb 3, 2016 | Updated: Feb 3, 2016 | |
  1. Brad
    I've wanted to write this article for some time now since I see a lot of stuff posted around TAZ that I feel may be harmful to you as an admin in the long run. If you're not familiar with my background I was formally an admin at vBulletin.org and posted a lot of PR type posts back then. I no longer agree with posting like that and if I could go back I wouldn't have done it. I have helped run a lot of other big boards and smaller forums in the past as well and have always tried to take a support/community facing role in them. I feel I am qualified to give advice about this but I never claim to always be right. So if you disagree with some of the things in this article that's fine by me....maybe they aren't for your particular community. :)

    On freedom of speech

    On TAZ you'll often see people posting this bit of advice: "On forums freedom of speech doesn't apply".

    This is certainly true since your forum is like running a small business and you're free to kick anyone out of it for any reason. However, you need to understand that most users nowadays are looking for places where they can post without fear of being banned/having their post deleted because of minor things. Places like reddit, facebook, and many other large sites have users leaving in droves because they've gotten very restrictive on what can and can not be said. Having the wrong opinion about politics in certain places on reddit for example is enough to get you banned from a subreddit (or from the entire site).

    Traditionally imageboards have been the haven for free speech on the internet (well since 2000 or so at least) where all sorts of things fly. On such boards racial slurs are tossed around like they're nothing and people tend to be a little more open about their true feelings on issues. On the one hand this is bad because obviously racism isn't something you want on your forum but on the other hand it's good because you'll often see information posted on such boards before they show up anywhere else just because people are allowed to post just about anything. Also, since there is an attitude that anything goes users are more eager to post and when they do post they often make good ones. Of course, with the imageboards trolls are everywhere...

    So, that leaves you right in the middle of these two extremes and that means you can take advantage of the situation and hopefully gain users from both camps mentioned above.

    What I suggest doing is something like the following:

    - Use minimal word filters, racial slurs and curse words should be just about it.
    - When it comes to the actual content of posts only disallow stuff like porn/gore/racial slurs/insulting other members.
    - As long as users are staying on topic and not doing any of the above leave them be.
    - Don't over moderate, sometimes threads drift off topic and that's okay.
    - Debates are good for the community as long as they don't become flame wars. Encourage debate whenever possible.

    In short, allow all the freedom of speech that you can while avoiding the bad stuff that comes with allowing everything. Just get rid of the obvious trolls, don't allow your users to insult each other or engage in flame wars, and only force threads to stay on topic in certain areas of your forum. By not over moderating your users you'll be less inclined to piss them off and will avoid people leaving/mass exidous situations and maybe even having your former users set up a forum to compete with your own. You'll also gain a reputation as a forum where people can post things without begin afraid the they'll be deleted. For example, if you own a gaming forum you might eventually have someone stop in an leak some details about an upcoming game on your forum first. All it takes is one thread like that to see a massive spike in traffic and registrations. It could be the difference in remaining small or becoming a big board.

    On being a public relations drone

    When you post news updates or interact with users in your feedback forum always make sure to have open discourse with them. By that I mean talk to them as you would a friend and not as someone concerned about PR. You don't need to make long winded posts that come off like the owner of a company speaking to people he'll never personally interact with. Just be yourself, keep your posts short and simple whenever you can, and answer any questions your users ask you honestly. They might not like the answers you give but at least they will know that you'll always be honest and they will respect you for this.

    I used to make a lot of PR type posts on the big boards I ran. They usually just frustrated the users and often led to flame wars among people that would take sides over the issue being discussed. I think if I would have stuck to the things I've mentioned above we could have avoided a lot of unneeded drama. In the end those long winded PR posts never really accomplished much and my time could have been spent better elsewhere (like solving the issues we were going through). Don't fall into the trap of constantly trying to please the users with these PR posts. Just be upfront with what you're doing and get it done on time. :)

    On reddit you see a lot of this PR type posting and it really pisses the users off in the subreddits where it's done. Same deal with the overly politically correct subreddits...people are getting fed up and moving on to other places. Wouldn't you like that to be your forum? :)

    I hope this article was helpful. I planned on it being longer and may post a follow up to it at some point in the future.

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