What Cities Can Learn about Policing from Online Community Management

Online communities may feel different than offline communities — they definitely don’t have the same immediacy and energy as those in the physical world — but the dynamics of how they form, mature, and change are similar. Offline those dynamics are obscured by the complexity of communities where engagement happens in so many different places that it is hard to see in aggregate. Online, however, we can aggregate the engagement of large and complex communities to see patterns. Over a decade of research and work allows us to zero in on some of the critical factors that make communities successful. There are some lessons for cities and towns across the country as they realize how traditional approaches to community safety have failed.

I believe that communities determine whether individuals thrive or struggle, whether they fly or fall. There is a persistent and devastating narrative in America that it’s the individual — not the community — that determines a person’s success. But people drive on roads. We don’t drive through fields and forests even if it is the most direct route. You can still drive recklessly, but good roads make good driving much more likely — shared infrastructure matters in creating cultural norms and constructive behavior.

Behaviors are a combination of three things; motivation, ease, and triggers — identified by B.J. Fogg’s Behavior Model. If behavior is easy, people need little motivation to do it. If it is hard, people need a lot of motivation — and a trigger to accomplish it. The infrastructure that we have access to shapes how quickly and how easily we can succeed — made up of a myriad of small and large elements across a lifetime. While you CAN overcome difficult infrastructure, it requires exceptional motivation.

To thrive as humans, the ‘infrastructure’ we need to thrive includes physical and emotional safety, access to healthy food, caring relationships, healthcare, and good education.

In the United States, however, we do not invest in much of this basic infrastructure for everyone. We leave it up to individuals to provide a lot of it for themselves. As children, if your parents provide this you thrive, and if they don’t or can’t, you struggle or fail. That might be all well and good if things were equitable to start, but we know that is simply not the case. People were enslaved from the earliest period of European settlements in America. When we abolished slavery, we did not provide any resources for those previously enslaved populations to build their own ‘infrastructure’ — and then we blamed them when they tried to survive in whatever ways they could, brutally ‘policing’ them. This short video is a great way to understand this, and the anger it rightly has generated over generations.

This fundamental denial of how critical basic prosperity and security is to success is the great stain of racism and it systemically denies black Americans the opportunity to thrive. The dehumanization required to enslave people also continued resulting in a casual acceptance of punitive approaches without an acknowledgment of why it was happening. We don’t invest in people and then we blame them for failing. It is abusive.

The stupid thing is that it is also an incredibly expensive and ineffective approach. No one wins. What we know from online communities is that if there is no investment in community management on the front end to create the infrastructure, governance, programs, and relationships that make it easy for individuals to thrive, much more will need to be spent moderating poor behavior on the backend. Facebook and Reddit have both witnessed crises as a result of poor investment in community management.

What we’ve found working with clients is that the need for moderation — the online community equivalent of policing — is significantly reduced and almost eliminated by good community management. Making positive behaviors easy, obvious, and rewarded norms the entire community around them. Negative behaviors often get discouraged by other members and early enough that they don’t escalate into more violent behaviors. This case study is an example of how we worked with a client to apply community management proactively, and it changed the culture of the community in ways that dramatically reduced the need for moderation.

In this year’s State of Community Management research, we looked at the financial investment required for community management so that executives could see its financial impact. What we found was consistent with what we have experienced with clients — that early investment in community management to shape the culture and behaviors of a community — not only pays off in terms of reduced cost later on in moderation but in reduced cost over time in community management as well.

Initially, cost per member is relatively high due to investments in initial infrastructure and community management. As a community grows and matures, community managers learn what is effective in establishing and maintaining constructive behaviors. Investment in infrastructure increases considerably to ensure those behaviors are scalable and even easier, which then dramatically reduces the cost of maintaining those behaviors over time even as communities continue to grow.

This research suggests that the recent growth of police budgets — and the incredible expense of military-grade weapons and resources — is the logical result of years of inadequate investment in food, housing, healthcare, and education — the infrastructure that allows humans to thrive. Racism and the subjugation of black Americans is costing us more and more with every year. It’s neither the right moral choice nor is it the right financial choice.

Best of all? Investing more on the frontend creates communities where everyone WINS.

Connector of ideas & people. Fascinated by social dynamics & false truths. Co-Founder of The Community Roundtable. Mother to The Puzzle Master.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store