Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Your Community Site is Not a Government

In my community consulting work, I’ve often had to remind clients that their products, while important, are not governments.

I can almost understand the confusion. Community systems create a kind of governance. There are rules for what members can do and procedures for when those rules are broken. Sometimes there are even appeals processes. If you squint, the whole thing can take on the shape of a rudimentary justice system.

The government-thinking has a secondary appeal to executive teams. If their site is a country, that makes them the ruling class. It makes the CEO the president (or dictator). And again, squinting, it can kind of feel that way. Running a company, like managing a community, is literally a power trip. You can do things your members can’t, including punishing those members. Power, even tiny power, can be addictive.

But it’s not true. None of it. Your product is not a country. You are not a government. Your CEO is not a president. And, worse, thinking that way is damaging to the community, disastrous for the company, and may just be ruining the world.

Governments Aren’t Optional

I am a citizen of the United States. I became that by simply being born here (unlike my dad, but that’s another story). I did not have a choice in the matter.

But I can choose whether I’m a member of Facebook or not. I can decide to delete my Twitter account. (Every day I get a little closer.) No matter how important these sites become, they’re still optional. Nobody has to participate in them.

When the leaders of these sites fall into the trap of thinking of themselves as governments, they forget their people can simply up and leave if they get angry. They become callous to member complaints and arrogant enough to think they can mistreat their communities without repercussions.

But these sites come and go (just ask Tom from Myspace). Mark and Jack could use a little humility, and part of that is remembering that you’re not a sovereign ruler, you’re just another temporary caretaker of a precious commons.

Governments Give Rights

If you work in community management, there are two words that probably make you twitch: “free speech.” Because every time you’ve had to remove content for some reason, someone somewhere used those words in an angry response.

But here’s the thing: “free speech” is guaranteed by governments. (And not even all governments! We’ve got our First Amendment here, and Canada has something similar, but after that it gets a lot sketchy.) Free speech means you have the right to speak. In your life. In general. It does not mean you can say whatever you want, wherever you want.

You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. You can’t post the phrase “I’m going to,” followed by a word that rhymes with “thrill,” followed by “the president,” pretty much anywhere. (No joke, I was once subpoenaed by the Secret Service because I was the admin of a community site where someone posted something they interpreted as a threat.) You can’t post photos of federal facilities online. You can’t post illegal content (child porn) or copyrighted content.

Point is, speech has limits, online and off. So limiting speech online, in a community run by a private company, is not a violation of the First Amendment, no matter how important the site is.

A government can censor you, a private company cannot. So it matters which one you are. If the CEO of a huge community company is under the delusion that they’re the president of a country, they may think they have to allow hate speech because that’s what countries do. But that’s wrong. And it leads to inaction when the community is being attacked by bad actors.

Countries guarantee free speech. Your site is not a country. There is no guarantee of free speech on your site or any site, unless a government made it, which, again, is not you.

Governments Have Responsibilities

Finally, I try to remind executive teams that, even though it can be kind of thrilling to imagine yourselves as the ruling council of a great country, you really do not want that. Because governments have responsibilities.

Transparency is good when you’re a government. It’s even required in a lot of cases. Every vote tallied, every memo recorded. As CEO, you want all your emails to be public property? You want to be subject to elections every four years? (Maybe some of us would like that, but I know the CEOs wouldn’t.)

But transparency is not required for companies. And while many people think they should be more transparent, and maybe sometimes they should, there are some really good reasons not to be. Spelling out exactly what actions are taken for what rule-breaking gives the rule-breakers the tools they need to get away with it better. Think of all Google has to do to stay ahead of the people trying to game their search algorithm. That opaqueness keeps their results good for us. Opaqueness is valuable sometimes.

Governments are slow moving on purpose. You want to have your hands tied up in red tape? You want to have to do a long term study before rolling out a new feature? (Again, maybe we should.)

But, no, CEOs and executive teams prize their independence, privacy, and fleet footedness. So if you don’t want to subject yourself to the rules and responsibilities of governments, don’t pretend you are one.

Thinking of your site as a country, and yourself as a government, is seductive. It feels good. But it leads companies to make bad decisions for the wrong reasons, and we all suffer as a result.

Mark was so busy running Facebook like an empire, he didn’t notice when Russians used it to disrupt the 2016 US election. And in his confused effort to rationalize his community management inaction, he defended Holocaust denial, which is hate speech.

Twitter is now working so hard to protect the “free speech” of Alex Jones that it’s allowing him to use the platform to promote hate, libel innocent people, and poison the entire community. In his effort to appear presidential, Jack has condoned bigotry on the platform, which opens the door to a legion of smaller bigots to come in and harass everyone else with the blessing of the CEO.

It’s time for these guys to stop playing pretend politics and admit that they’re not presidents, their sites are not countries, and we are not their citizens. They are caretakers of communities and they’d better start acting like it or they won’t have anyone to rule anymore.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.