Community Conflict: Causes and Cures
“No! Your chocolate is in my peanut butter!”

When you’re in charge of making sure that a group of people — any people — get along, it’s easy to wonder if a community conflict is inevitable. And it doesn’t matter if that group of people is an online forum, a classroom, a Facebook group, a scout troop, an IRC chat room, a book club, a YouTube channel, the comments section of a blog, or a family, the answer is easy enough: yes. I know from personal experience (and maybe you do, too) that even otherwise close siblings will lock horns from time to time; the reasons may vary, but the symptoms are usually pretty easy to spot.

If you’re the moderator who’s expected to step in and resolve a community conflict, it’s wise to know how to identify problem areas ahead of time so that you’re prepared for dealing with them before they erupt and spin out of control.

Here are a few points of community conflict that I’ve seen in my time at the helm of LockerGnome and a few other places along the way.

Community Conflict: Different Perspectives

“Can we all get along?” — Rodney King, 1993

Is your community diverse? Congratulations! That’s to be commended. If you can attract people from different backgrounds and walks of life to interact with one another in a civil manner about something they have in common, then you’ve really accomplished something. (I like to think that our Gnomies group fits into this category.) Sometimes, though, the differences in perspective between your community’s members may become all too apparent. You’ve probably heard that politics and religion are topics that should be avoided in polite company if it’s to remain polite, and there’s good reason for this!

If flare-ups between your conservative and liberal members arise, or the atheists and churchgoers in the mix start flinging hurtful comments at one another, try and remain cool; remind them that no one’s going to convert anyone to their way of thinking, especially if the interaction degenerates into kindergarten-level name calling between supposedly grown-up human beings.

Try and refocus such conversations toward what brought everyone into the community in the first place — whether it’s technology, recipe trading, or 19th century Prussian literature. Remind them that living in a time and place where agreeing to disagree doesn’t carry a death penalty or exile to the wilderness is a freedom that we can — and should — enjoy together.

Community Conflict: Unclear Messages

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” — The Captain, Cool Hand Luke, 1967

Have you ever said something that you thought was pretty innocent and straightforward, only to have it misinterpreted by someone who took offense and blasted you back with an angry response that escalated into a full-on war of words as you defended yourself for saying something that you, ultimately, didn’t actually say?

Guy #1: I don’t care for goat cheese. There ought to be a law against it.
Guy #2: Oh? Well, the founding fathers were pretty clear about how they felt about that. Are you some kind of un-American jerkface?
Guy #1: What? What’s your problem? You’re the jerkface, jerkface!
Guy #2: No! You! Jerkface! This country was founded with the dedicated service of boat fleets! You hate freedoms!
Guy #1: Boat fleets? I said goat cheese, jerkface!
Guy #2: $%*# you! Maybe you’d have loved the USSR, comrade America hater! You wouldn’t have even been allowed to have boat fleets in the landlocked Siberian wilderness!
Guy #1: NO! $%*# YOU!

Chances are, you’ve misinterpreted what someone’s said to you, too. When it’s obvious that an unclear message is the cause of a community conflict, it’s important to clarify the original intention of a message, try and get the conflicting parties to shake hands publicly (even if it’s virtually) over the misunderstanding, and move on. Unfortunately, such division can lead to factional bickering within the thread of conversation, so everyone’s going to probably wind up swallowing some degree of pride if your community is going to carry on.

Try and recruit the ringleaders to work together — again, publicly — toward this aim. Eventually, everyone will look back on this community conflict and laugh.

Community Conflict: Lack of Audiovisual Cues

“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” — Peter Steiner, The New Yorker, 1993

Internet communities that interact purely through text, unlike real-life communities, don’t allow people to convey messages with the nuances of body language or tone of voice. Not everyone is adept at communicating through the written word (and even so-called professionals get it wrong, sometimes).

Now that broadband Internet is a pretty common fixture in more households than ever before — and video streaming and conferencing has caught on in a big way — you’d think that this wouldn’t be an issue anymore. But it is. When lack of physical cues is responsible for this kind of community conflict, you can pretty easily trace the thread, point out where the misunderstanding took place, and resolve it in the same way that you resolved unclear messages, above: get the ringleaders to virtually shake hands and talk down their misguided supporters into a state of truce.

Then, again, you can all look back and laugh about it later.

Community Conflict: Lack of Response

Jimmy: Hey, fellas, where’s Cartman?
Stan: Cartman isn’t our friend anymore.
Kyle: We’re ignoring him.
Token: Ignoring him? How come?
Kyle: Because he’s a fat, racist, self-centered, intolerant, manipulating sociopath.
Token: Oh, yeah. — The Death of Eric Cartman, South Park, 2005

Nobody likes the silent treatment. Have you ever said something to someone in a way that was loud, clear, and concise from your end of things only to receive nothing but the imagined sound of crickets as a response?

How rude, right? But keep in mind that it’s not always — I’d wager it’s not even often — on purpose. When Diana and I did our live vlog yesterday, we used a Google+ Hangout. We interacted and asked questions of one another, but sometimes my mic would cut out. Luckily, we also had the visual connection, so she could tell when my lips were moving but no sound was coming out that I was trying to say something, and she would ask me to repeat it.

But if we couldn’t see each other (say, if our conversation were taking place on that archaic convenience, the telephone), the occasional silence could have been misinterpreted by either of us as awkward disinterest on the part of the other person. Online, this happens, too. In the private LockerGnome content group where our writers communicate with one another online, the occasional project pitch slips through the cracks and it’s usually pretty easy to see where or why this happens.

Lack of response doesn’t always denote lack of interest. Clear your throat (or crack your fingers) and ask (or type) the question again.

Community Conflict: Inappropriate Behavior

Trolls are bad, mmkay? If you have community members who are intentionally disrespectful of others on a consistent basis and don’t respond to warnings, you may have to enforce a temporary time out for the offending parties until they can agree to mend their ways. Remind them that a temporary time out can easily become permanent; the choice is 100% theirs. This source of community conflict is probably the easiest to identify and deal with, but it can generate a lot of negative feedback if an offended ex-member of your community chooses to keep generating ugliness from elsewhere. Be careful!

Community Conflict: Lack of Community Guidelines or Principles

Make it clear from day one just what you hope to achieve with the gathering of personalities in your community. A simple mission statement (“we are here to talk about bird watching in an intellectually open, but safe environment of mutual respect”) might be a good place to start. Actual rules dictating policy may develop in a more organic fashion as community conflicts inevitably arise and get handled by you, the vigilant monitor!

So these are just a few causes and, I hope, cures for commuity conflict. Do you have any to add to the list? Please leave a comment below and let’s talk!