Toxic communities

Published on Thursday, January 5, 2012 By Brad Wardell In Internet


All this has happened before. All this will happen again.


I first started moderating “online communities”back in the mid 80s. Back then, they were called BBSes and the title “Sub-Op”.  Without moderation, Internet communities ultimately die off for the same reason: They become toxic. 

What causes them to become toxic is predictable and preventable. Identify and remove people who are toxic before toxic cliques form. It’s easier said than done because every time I’ve seen it happen, the people causing the harm have no idea that they are the problem. That’s because, in the beginning, they weren’t.

In the beginning of a successful online community, you have a core group of prolific, high quality contributors to the forum. Their contributions help the community grow and thrive.  In time, a certain percentage of these users will believe that they are entitled to judge others and abuse them if they are found wanting.

Eventually, the entitled group will cross some line that the owners of the site object to. This confrontation leads to the debate on what rights the site owner has over the community. And this leads to the following flow chart:



I’ve seen all three paths over the years.

The end result is the same, it’s just a matter of how long it takes to get to the end point. Of course, the other option is for the site owner to get fed up and shut down the site.

WinCustomize Example

I took the hands off approach for at one point as some users may recall. I subscribed to the view that the community had evolved beyond the site owners and could police itself. That merely led to many of the “old guard” bullying those they disagreed with.

Many of the problem people were friends and I would message them to lay off with the response being “That guy deserved it”.  That is usually how you can tell you’re going to have problems with someone because nobody deserves to be griefed.  (Anyone remember the “Community” er “The Council” and the first GUI Olympics? That still stands out as the most blatant example of entitled).

Neowin Example took the path of making their Entitled group into moderators. And for awhile, it was good. But pretty soon, the same problem came up except now the Entitled group had the power to ban users. The site owner had to step in and it was doubly painful because the moderators had built a considerable following who departed with them. That one I watched from the sidelines.

JoeUser Example took the third path a few years ago as some reading this may recall.  In a blogging community it is particularly tough to lose people whose posts are the primary source of traffic. I won’t mention the names but anyone who’s been on here for awhile know the people I speak of.

In every case, the newly banned go to or create some splinter site. I’ve never seen one thrive (they often stay around in a kind of near death for years to come).

I wish I could say I knew what specifically causes people who start out being outstanding contributors to a community to becoming toxic users. They are usually very intelligent people. The only thing I’ve seen them have in common is the belief that some people deserve to be griefed and that they are entitled to make the determination on who deserves the griefing.