Community formation and social media: Moderating conflict in an online community

Posted Jul 08, 2014 | New Media Project


By David Hayward, guest blogger

This is the sixth in a twelve-part series on Community formation and social media.

David HaywardOne of the most important aspects of community is strong leadership, or moderation. This is also true of an online community. If you are not involved with the leadership of the community, make sure someone is. Don't assume that it will run itself. With my online community, The Lasting Supper, I am not the only one involved. We have what I call “scouts” who care about the community’s health, keep a lookout for its health and safety, and inform me when something's amiss.

I believe the most exciting, healthiest, and functional communities allow for diversity. With an online community, I claim diversity must be at or near the top of the list of values. In my opinion, this reflects how people really are, not as we wish them to be. But with such a diversity of people, there is going to be conflict. This has to be moderated and mediated or else it will careen out of control in no time.

Another interesting value that exists in my online community is that it is very democratic. I would even say there is a slight distrust of strong, charismatic leadership. But, when conflict arises, strong leadership has to be exercised in order to protect the community from harm or even destruction. Whether this is from the moderator or other recognized leaders doesn't matter. But someone has to intervene to manage the conflict. Usually things float along without any visible signs of leadership. But when conflict arises, someone has to mediate.

One of the values of our online community is that we are clear about our values. What we keep front and center is that we listen before we speak, and we respect the journeys of others without judging them or trying to correct them. Because this is out front, I suspect that this has helped to keep our community relatively free of conflict. Conflict does happen, but it is very easy to moderate, and these often turn into fruitful times for the community.

However, one unfortunate dynamic that will present itself in online communities from time to time is bullying. At The Lasting Supper, we allow all kinds of disagreements, questions, challenges, swearing, and even anger. But we never abide bullying. We have zero tolerance for it because it will suddenly make the site unsafe, members afraid, and the community volatile. When someone displays bullying, they are immediately removed. If they are willing, I try to dialog with them because I don’t want them to feel condemned or dehumanized. I really would like them to seek help and maybe even return. But the priority is the safety of the community because without the safety of the community you don't have the safety of the individual. Even with over 300 members, an online bully can decimate the morale of the site and its members with one sentence. So moderation is key.

I've had to deal with online bullies. It's very traumatic. I don't like it. I wish it never happened, and I wish when it did someone else would step in. But when people are being hurt by others, I've always felt myself being pulled in to protect the victim. I've done it in real life enough to know that the chances are great that the perpetrator is going to turn on me. But the safety of our members is too important to let bullies get away with harming others. The community is always in a state of shock when this happens. So it's important that someone—a moderator—exercise their leadership and remedy the situation as soon as possible. I always act swiftly, and those who are victimized are always grateful. So when a bully bullies, I've found swift response is the best policy. It teaches the community that you can't get away with it and that their safety is ultimate.

I wrote a letter to our community following a bullying incident. The bully, as is not unusual, was very active and popular. Then suddenly he was gone. Some knew why, but others didn't. Because confusion ensued, I had to provide clarity. Here's the letter:

“As many of you already know, I had to ask one of our members to leave yesterday. There have only been a couple who’ve been asked to part ways since the inception of our community, and I think that’s a pretty good record. In all these cases it came down to one behavior that we cannot tolerate on The Lasting Supper, and that's bullying.

We can ask questions. We can disagree. We can swear. We can talk about anything. We can get depressed. We can get faithless. We can get angry. We can even say something that is unintentionally hurtful to another. As long as we can be informed, challenged, corrected, educated, and open for change. In a community context, trying our best to live together is crucial.

But bullying is the intentional harming of another. We have zero tolerance for that. Even if the person is angry for understandable reasons, they have no right and it is not necessary for them to inflict harm on another person.

My advice to them is always the same: We had to remove you from the room because you were hurting people. I strongly and kindly encourage you to get some help, and when you feel you are better and can function in a healthy way in a community without harming others, then please come back and we will try this again.”

The challenges to running an online community, for me, are easily outweighed by the pleasures it brings. But the pleasures can only be enjoyed if the challenges are moderated. If you exercise your leadership and moderate the community through times of crisis, the community recognizes how it makes the community healthier, stronger, and safer.

Here are some questions to think about:

1. Have you ever encountered a bully in your adult years?

2. How did you deal with it, or how was it dealt with?

3. Did you learn any lessons that you can carry into your next encounter with one?

4. Do you feel you would be able to manage a bullying crisis if you had to?

David Hayward is a cartoonist, artist, writer, and speaker. He runs his blog at He also moderates the online community, The Lasting, where over 300 people exercise their spiritual independence.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact


  1. 1 Shary Hauber 09 Jul
    It is not fun being the moderator when you have to ask someone to stop. As moderator for a couple of small FB sites I have had to face this job. No bullying, often it comes across as spiritual advice with no other option. But as you say the pleasure of open discussions out weigh the bad.
  2. 2 David Hayward 09 Jul
    Thanks Shary. Yes, I agree that most of the time it comes across as spiritual advice from above. We've only experienced bullying a couple of times. I appreciate your comment. And all the best on your sites!



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