Using Kindness to Grow Healthy Online Communities

For every 28 articles published on bullying, only one is published on kindness. Does this strike you as odd?

It gets weirder. Let’s operate on the assumption that kindness is the antithesis of bullying. Studies have found that friendly teachers and welcoming learning environments result in less bullying.

Makes sense. And yet, when it comes to changing bad behavior, the bulk of our efforts continue to focus on the problem instead of the solution. Are we going about this all wrong?

A lot of very smart people have been asking themselves that very question. Allow me to introduce you to a little-known, up-and-coming field of psychology called — you guessed it…

Positive psychology

Positive psychology studies the strengths that enable human beings to thrive. Psychology has traditionally focused on human suffering while treating mental illness. Positive psychology sets itself apart by studying what makes life worth living. Instead of focusing solely on healing psychological damage, it strives to cultivate the conditions that enable us to live fulfilling and meaningful lives.

Consider healthy food. Eating well is a proactive approach to looking after one’s health. In the same way, when we foster positivity we take a proactive approach to making the world a better place.

An interesting shift is occurring in schools right now. Instead of “What is wrong that needs fixing?” educators are asking themselves “How can we nurture the strengths and attributes of students?” This shift is in response to the success that positive psychology has had in reducing negative affect, increasing life satisfaction, and fostering creative thinking. If kindness becomes the standard, all anyone has to do is continue the trend. Those who are shown kindness are more likely to be kind to others. It’s an old concept — pay it forward — and it works.

You can see why it’s important that we study not only the phenomenon of bullying but also its counterpart, kindness… perhaps with the 28:1 ratio reversed. When we focus on the positive, we shift the conversation from the negative.

Imagine putting this into practice in your community. What would it look like?

Saving the world with kindness

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.” — Mahatma Gandhi

If you watch closely, you might notice you or a friend subtly imitating a conversation partner. In psychology, this is called “mirroring,” the subconscious tendency for one person to imitate the body language, speech pattern, or attitude of another. Copying another person’s nonverbal signals creates connection and builds rapport.

The Golden Rule encourages us to treat others as we would like to be treated. If we treat others with kindness and respect, is it fair to expect that they respond in kind (see what I did there)?

For most people, the answer is yes. It’s in our nature to imitate. Imitation allows for the transfer of cultural artifacts like customs, behaviors, and traditions, and plays a huge role in the creation of culture.

Kindness has the potential to catch fire in our culture and shape our communities for the better, but it has to start somewhere. Why not with you? And why not your community?

Polarization

The words “be kind” are a lot more effective than “do not bully others.” The “do not” is often lost in translation, and the message becomes “bully others.” Psychologists call this reactance theory. When someone feels that their freedom to choose is under threat, they can become motivated to do the opposite, no matter how irrational the choice might seem. Again, if we switch the message from the negative to the positive, people are far more likely to listen and respond. What if, as community managers, we rewarded our most positive users instead of only punishing our most negative users?

Of course, if ordering people to be kind always succeeded, we’d all be singing kumbaya around a campfire, and there would be no need for anyone to write a blog post about it.

To understand this better, let’s look at complementary and non-complementary behavior.

Breaking the cycle

“The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.” — John Dewey, philosopher, psychologist, and educational theorist

Complementary behavior refers to our tendency to treat others as they treat us — the old Golden Rule. Sometimes, though, we are presented with situations that require unexpected reactions – what psychologists call non-complementary behavior. Non-complementary behavior doesn’t happen often because, simply put, it’s hard.

It’s instinct too: When someone makes you feel bad, are you ever inclined to make them feel good?

Well, that’s what makes non-complementary behavior so powerful and revolutionary. An episode of NPR’s podcast “Invisibilia” tells the story of a group of friends who were confronted by an armed robber in their backyard. No one at the party had cash. The robber now had to choose between leaving empty-handed or making good on his threat of violence. Tension grew until one of the women did something unexpected: she offered him a glass of wine.

It worked. The robber pocketed his gun and took the glass. The tension broke, and the situation was transformed. The end result? A highly improbable group hug.

Could you offer a glass of wine to the person holding a gun to your head? How committed are you to shaping a community that values kindness above all else?

Kindness is hard work. But as we’ve seen in study after study, and example after example, it’s worth it. Your community will be stronger for it.

How to contribute to a culture of kindness

“To achieve greatness, start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” — Arthur Ashe, tennis champion

The next time you are on the receiving end of somebody’s kindness, consider doing more than simply thanking them — instead, pay it forward. Give back a little kindness of your own to the community at large. Try implementing it in your online community. Reward your good users for positive behavior with an extra item. Encourage them to pay it forward.

Most of us strive to live in harmony with our community. The movement to perform random acts of kindness, while exemplary, isn’t necessarily the fastest way to build habits around kindness. It could be argued that acts of kindness are not random at all but in fact completely natural and inherent to the human spirit. Instead, it is the intentional act of following those impulses that require conscious cultivation — and some hard work.

Ask yourself the question — what does kindness in the community mean to me? How does it benefit the community as a whole, and how can I cultivate it?

As we’ve learned, when you focus on the solution instead of the problem, the results are extraordinary.

From Brexit to Bulbasaur – On the Evolution of Language

There is something magical at the heart of language, isn’t there? At the intersection of noun, verb, and clause exists endless creativity and invention. Language encourages the artist in all of us.

We are more connected now than ever before, and we as individuals are shaping language to fit our needs, whether we’re busy texters, meme creators, or blog commenters. If we’re online, we are using language in unique ways. We reconstruct language every day.

The Great Vowel Shift

Language has always been in a state of transformation. Words come into and go out of style, and phrases expand and contract (what linguist Guy Deutscher calls “expressiveness” and “erosion”). Witness the Great Vowel Shift that happened in England between the 14th and 17th centuries, in which long stressed vowel sounds changed so completely that spoken Middle English is almost a different language.

You would have a very hard time understanding Chaucer if you talked to him today, although his great collection The Canterbury Tales is still famous – not to mention gloriously readable in written Middle English – today. The Great Vowel Shift led to the first attempts to standardize spelling and punctuation in the 1600s, a process that continues to this day.

The Two Hat Security Language & Culture team is responsible for building and maintaining the dictionary that classifies words and phrases based on their risk, subject, and context. Like the proto-linguists of the 17th century, they are inveterate listeners and watchers, students of pop culture with a passion for language in all its complexities and quirks.

Had the Language & Culture team existed in Elizabethan England, imagine the hours of overtime it would take to keep up with Shakespeare, inventor of roughly 1700 words, and the premier language builder of his time! 

Since the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1991 and the first user-friendly browser a year after that, language has undergone another Great Shift – not of pronunciation like the Great Vowel Shift, but of invention, like Shakespeare.

A new kind of language

We live in an age of memes that spread, evolve, and disappear within days, if not hours. New apps and social media platforms spring up overnight and with them, new terms and new ways of using familiar words. Friend is now a verb. Birds aren’t the only ones who tweet. It’s more imperative than ever that we – at Two Hat Security, in the Language & Culture and Client Success Teams, and anyone who manages an online community – recognize that language is a living, breathing, ever-shifting work of art.

Consider the last six months, and the words that have entered, and in many cases re-entered the cultural lexicon!

From Brexit to the Bataclan and Nice; from woke to #blacklivesmatter; from af to bae; not to mention the ten new terms that emerged in the time it took to write this blog – we have to stay on top of the trends. The ultimate goal in any community – and our mission statement here at Two Hat Security – is to maximize expressivity and minimize toxicity, and we can only do that if we speak the language of the now.

We haven’t even mentioned emoticons yet – the newest and most dynamic language trend. Also, so cute! ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ

From Brexit to Bulbasaur

In the last month alone Language & Culture has added an entire set of Pokémon Go words – gotta add ‘em all! – to the dictionary, including those delightfully whimsical names Bulbasaur, Charmander, Butterfree, and more. The Republican and Democratic conventions unearthed terms like bully pulpit, bellwether, and gerrymander, and added new words like Servergate. There is no doubt the Rio Olympics and the US election will prove just as linguistically rich in the coming months!

Language is alive, and change is a constant in life. Creative, unruly, and entirely human, it follows the ebb and flow of culture, politics, and technology. Two Hat Security and the Language & Culture team are both spectators and participants in the great language experiment.

Language & Culture does the hard work, but we encourage you as a community manager, a moderator, an app designer, or simply part of the community to do the rest. As humans, we are all part of this grand experiment called language – let’s build it together. Let’s make it magical.

About Two Hat Security

At Two Hat Security, we empower social and gaming platforms to build healthy, engaged online communities, all while protecting their brand and their users from high-risk content.

Want to increase user retentionreduce moderation, and protect your brandGet in touch today to see how our chat filter and moderation software Community Sift can help you build a community that stays on top of language trends.

 

Bulbasaur image: By Criszoe (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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