As a blogger, you are more than just an author and content creator, you are also a community administrator, managing and encouraging interaction between your readers and visitors.
Though much of this community interaction you can’t control, namely all of the conversation that happens off your site (Twitter, Facebook, email, etc.), a lot of it does take place directly under your purview, including comments on your site, conversation on your Facebook page and so forth.
To be a successful blogger, you need a good community to survive and thrive. However, running a community also comes with a series of responsibilities, both ethical and legal, that you need to be aware of.
Simply put, being a community admin is far more than having a comment box open on your site and letting others post. There’s actually a great deal more to it, especially if you want to have a community that is both productive and on the right side of the law.
1. Have Good Policies
One of the key foundations of any community is the rules that govern it. This means your site needs to have good policies, including policies that both govern member behavior as well as your behavior.
Having these policies will help you and your site in many different ways. First, it puts your members at ease over their information. Second, it sets rules for their behavior, rules that you can enforce without worrying about claims of favoritism or bias. Finally, in the event your community ever does find itself in a legal dispute, you can show good faith in keeping order and what the users agreed to before posting.
In short, good policies go a long way to making your community stronger and safer.
2. Resolve Conflicts
If you get enough people in one place, even if that place is virtual, conflicts are going to happen. However, as a community admin, you need to keep this to a minimum.
While lively discussion and disagreement can be a good thing, when things begin to get personal, a good community admin knows when and how to step in, often times by approaching the sides and mediating a solution.
Though, legally, you can’t be held liable for defamation committed by your users, disputes can still create legal headaches as you can still be sued or involved in a legal dispute between the two parties involved.
This makes it crucial you implement those aforementioned policies well and keep conflicts to an absolute minimum.
3. Remove Infringing Material
Though it might seem crazy that someone would post infringing material in your comments, it can and does happen from time to time. This is more common on sites where you encourage commenters to post original works or provide links to other sources.
Bear in mind that you can not do anything to encourage the infringement, but if someone posts infringing material to your site without your knowledge, copyright law provides you a “safe harbor” to ensure that you are not held liable for that infringement.
However, part of that safe harbor is that you have to remove said material when you are properly notified or otherwise have cause to know that it is infringing.
The best policy here is to make yourself readily available to receive any complaints but also keep an eye out and try to be proactive if possible. Earning a reputation for hosting infringing material doesn’t do you any good, so it’s best to keep it off your site if at all possible.
4. Root Out the Fakes
This might be a shock to some, but not everyone on line is who they claim to be. Some will pretend to be a celebrity, a representative of a company or something else altogether. While this might seem like harmless trolling, it not only causes grief in the community but, in extreme situations, if you act on information and claim to have a relationship with a company or person that you don’t have, can create some legal headaches.
Always be wary and try to verify claims of who a person is. Look at the email addresses provided and ask for proof if needed. Most people who are legitimate will understand the need.
Fake people create problems in a community and create a sense of distrust among your readers. That’s something that needs to be dealt with as a part of building a strong community is at least some sense of trust and acceptance.
5. Being a Benevolent Dictator
To paraphrase my friend Patrick O’Keefe, free speech is for the government not for your community.
The First Amendment clearly states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….
The optimal word in the amendment is “Congress”. It doesn’t enjoin site owners and community admins from shutting down disruptive speech on their site. In short, it applies to rules made by the government, not to rules made individuals or companies.
Being a community admin means understanding that and, when things go too far, being quick to shut down problems. This includes spammers, trolls and anyone else who is violating your aforementioned rules.
If you allow your community to become a free for all, not only will it become a wasteland, but it can lead to legal trouble, especially if it is seen as you encouraging the behavior.
In short, sometimes you have to be the bad guy and put your foot down.
Being a community admin isn’t easy. It can feel as if you’re herding cats at times and more like you’re a mediator and a judge than an actual leader. But while all of that is true, it’s important to be aware of all the hats a community admin has to wear because, not only are they crucial to your site’s growth, but to your legal security.
The main thing, however, is to just try to run your site in good faith. If you don’t try to create a site that becomes a haven for petty quabbles, copyright infringement, defamation and trolls you probably won’t. Still, it will require work and upkeep to make it happen, including sometimes putting your foot down, but it can be done, as thousands of good communities show.
All in all, if you’re smart and kind to your community, it will return the favor. More often than not, a community is a reflection on the person at its helm and that’s something to remember as you move forward.
Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private (However, please mention that it is a suggestion for The Blog Herald. This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.
I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.