The Best Little Community on the Internet

 In Online Safety, Social Networks

 

Don’t believe the hype. Not every online community is crawling with harassment, abuse, and hate speech.

There are plenty of good places online. You just have to know where to look.

This is a story about one of those good places.

Art-inspired writing

Storybird is a global community of writers, readers, and artists of all ages. Users select from a variety of original artwork, then create picture books (short stories, heavy on visuals), longform stories (narrative-driven books), and poetry (you get the idea). Since launching in 2009, over 7 million Storybird members have created over 25 million stories. Not only that, 600,000 educators use Storybird in over 200,000 schools to help facilitate creative writing.

The stories are original and often strikingly effective, in particular, the poetry. The artwork is gorgeous. Lovingly curated, the images are as beautiful as anything you’ll see online.

A selection of artwork on Storybird. Users select an image and build their story from there.

Users can “heart” content, share it on social media, and leave comments. Positivity is encouraged, especially since most users are teens and pre-teens. Cruelty, profanity, hate speech, and bullying are not tolerated. As the first layer of defense against dangerous content, Storybird uses a chat filter and automated moderation software.

Behind the curtain

But Storybird doesn’t just rely on automation to manage disruptive users and bad behavior. Their secret weapon? Moderator, mom, and community builder extraordinaire Suz Holden (“skybluepurple” in the Storybird community).

A no-nonsense dynamo with purple hair and six (!) kids at home, Suz is a veteran of the moderation scene. She once worked for AOL as a volunteer moderator, responsible for the “working moms vs stay at home moms” board — aka, the toughest message board on AOL.

Eventually, AOL switched to an outsourced moderation service called LiveWorld. They hired all of the volunteers who had previously moderated for free, including Suz. In 2012, she joined Storybird as a moderator.

A different kind of moderation

Suz is heavily involved in the Storybird community. While some companies keep their moderators and moderation practices largely anonymous and often use stealth bans (in which user’s comments are blocked without notification), Storybird makes moderation a key ingredient in community interactions.

Suz and “Storyspotter” (Storybird-ese for volunteer moderator) Figment68 are active members of the community, posting comments, leaving hearts, and generally encouraging users to keep it positive.

“We are co-moms,” Suz says. “[We] offer support, advice, and all of the other ‘cool’ mom type comments.”

“We have the coolest community,” says Suz. It’s not hard to see why.

When users break community guidelines, they know — there are no stealth bans here.

Empowered by Storybird’s executive team to engage closely with the community, Suz will reach out to users directly to let them know when they’ve broken the rules.

“We don’t allow ugly,” she says. “We just don’t. We’re big on encouragement. We’re real big on positive reinforcement.

Most of the time, when given an explanation for why their book or comment was removed, users will change their behavior. There is always the chance for redemption.

Suz explains. “We’ll say, ‘Okay, look. You think about this, figure out what you did wrong. And holler back at me in a week and let me know what you’re going to do to fix this. And then we’ll let you back. We’re gonna watch you like a hawk — but we’re gonna let you back. And you know what, those become some of my best kids.”

And some of those kids go on to change the community in ways no one could expect.

Time for a story.

A not-so pointless task

Once upon a time, there was a user named cookie54lover. A self-proclaimed misfit, cookie54lover, was, according to Suz “One of our earliest, most… um… interesting (read: ornery!) Storybirders. She enjoyed making waves, and she would tell you that. Cookie and I went nose to nose a lot, for awhile.”

Despite this, cookie54lover was a smart kid, and she genuinely loved Storybird. She was a good writer; she wrote popular books. But she was constantly in trouble due to, as Suz calls it, her “sassy” comments.

At one point, cookie54lover published a book that she called A pointless task!

Under this book,” she wrote, “I was thinking about the most comments ever on a book on Storybird. This is a totally pointless task, but still it will be fun to see what you guys come out with. 🙂

Simply put — she wanted to see how many comments she could get on one book.

Cover of the original A pointless task! Since then, 57 books have been written, some with over 50,000 comments.

“We had been talking about chat rooms or message boards where the kids could have general conversations,” says Suz. Of course, they could always comment on books, but it was encouraged that comments be related to the book. The idea was put on hold as other priorities took precedence, and in truth, Storybird “[was] actually… a reading and writing website, not a chatting website.”

But the kids starting commenting on A pointless task! And commenting. And sharing. And as the community rallied together the book quickly amassed 15,000 comments, then 20,000.

And the number kept going up.

Let’s make a deal

The Storybird team watched as A pointless task! (soon abbreviated to APT) accumulated more and more comments — and more interest from the kids. Finally, when there were so many comments that the pages took three and a half minutes to load, Suz had an idea. She left a comment for cookie54lover.

“Let’s you and me make a deal, hon,” she wrote. “How about every 10,000 comments we just make a new book?”

Cookie said yes. She created A pointless task 2. And kids being kids, the race was on — how quickly could the community reach 10,000 comments? It didn’t take long, as the community rallied together again.

What kind of comments did they leave? “You can talk about anything,” Suz says, “but you have to keep it ‘Storybird’ safe, meaning appropriate for even our younger members. There is endless talk about singers and YouTubers and all the normal kid ridiculousness. It’s an anything-goes kind of place.”

The kids also used APT to chat about heavier topics.

“We’re real big on ‘We’re here for you, we listen to you.’ Which means a lot to kids,” says Suz. Our kids are writers, which means they’re often on the outside looking in. Misfits, outcasts, rebels, and upstarts. Many post that they don’t have strong offline connections. It’s almost like a peer counseling session, especially APT.”

Eventually, cookie54lover created a new APT every two weeks. And the community rallied, and the race to hit 10,000 comments continued.

Inevitably, as kids are wont to do, she grew up. She went to high school; she joined the Drama Club.

As is the way with all things, it was time for cookie54lover to move on.

cookie54lover created the first A pointless task! She still visits the community sometimes.

Suz met with Storybird co-founders Mark Ury and Kaye Puhlmann and proposed a solution: She would create all APTs going forward, as long as it was okay with cookie. She was, as Suz says, “More than happy to hand it off to me. She still checks in from time to time.”

Suz is currently at work on APT 58. “If you think about that, each book has a minimum of 10,000 comments. And some have 50,000 comments. Take a moment to wrap your brain around that.”

She’s especially proud of APT 50. As a community milestone and a genuinely touching tribute to kids by a company that clearly cares, it’s worth a read.

APT 50 — a labor of love celebrating the community.

Storybird co-founders Mark Ury, Kaye Puhlmann, and Adam Endicott all contributed to APT 50, as well as Suz’s moderator “co-mom” Figment68.

Digital citizens of the future

When asked how she shapes Storybird and the APT community, Suz is frank about her process — or lack thereof.

“I do what I think is right in the moment. More often than not, if something crosses a line, I’ll delete it. I might reach out to a kid on a private book and let them know that I pulled it down. Other times, if things are getting out of hand, I’ll just say ‘Knock it off.’ And I’ll tell them that — ‘I’m putting my mean mom voice on, y’all need to chill.’ And they do. Because they know that I will shut them down if they don’t. It’s how I run my house, it’s how I run my job.”

In fact, the kids take as much responsibility for the community’s health as Suz and her mods. “More often than not,” she says, “the kids monitor themselves really well. Because we’ve created this little circle of kids who want to be good kids. They want to be community leaders. Whatever the highest level is, these kids aspire to that.”

For many, Storybird — and APT in particular — is home.

Storybirders don’t just keep their own community positive and welcoming. They’re also inspired to bring that healthy dynamic to other communities.

“We send our little darlings out into the world, and they’ll tell people ‘This isn’t how we do it,’” says Suz, laughing. “As [co-founder] Kaye said the other day, ‘We’re creating good internet citizens.’”

Our poem inspired by the Storybird community : )

***

Visit the Storybird site and start creating.

Storybird uses Two Hat Security’s chat filter and automated moderation software Community Sift as a first layer of defense against high-risk content and behavior.

Want to learn how Two Hat Security can help protect your community? Get in touch today!

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