Quora: How can you reinforce and reward positive behavior in an online community?

Online communities have unlimited potential to be forces for positive change.

Too often we focus on the negative aspects of online communities. How many articles have been written about online toxicity and rampant trolling? It’s an important topic — and one we should never shy away from discussing — but for all the toxicity in the online world, there are many acts of kindness and generosity that go unlooked.

There are a few steps that Community Managers can take to reinforce and reward positive behavior in their communities:

Promote and reinforce community guidelines. Before you can begin to champion positive behavior, ensure that it’s clearly outlined in your code of conduct. It’s not enough to say that you don’t allow harassment; if you want to prevent abuse, you have to provide a clear definition of what abuse actually entails.

A study was conducted to measure the effects of boundaries on children’s play. In one playground, students were provided with a vast play area, but no fences. They remained clustered around their teacher, unsure how far they could roam, uncertain of appropriate behavior. In another playground, children were given the same amount of space to play in, but with one key difference—a fence was placed around the perimeter. In the fenced playground, the children confidently spread out to the edges of the space, free to play and explore within the allotted space.

The conclusion? We need boundaries. Limitations provide us with a sense of security. If we know how far we can roam, we’ll stride right up to that fence.

Online communities are the playgrounds of the 21st century—even adult communities. Place fences around your playground, and watch your community thrive.

The flipside of providing boundaries/building fences is that some people will not only stride right up to the fence, they’ll kick it until it falls over. (Something tells us this metaphor is getting out of our control… ) When community members choose not to follow community guidelines and engage in dangerous behavior like harassment, abuse, and threats, it’s imperative that you take action. Taking action doesn’t have to be Draconian. There are innovative techniques that go beyond just banning users.

Some communities have experimented with displaying warning messages to users who are about to post harmful content. Riot Games has conducted fascinating research on this topic. They found that positive in-game messaging reduced offensive language by 62%.

For users who repeatedly publish dangerous content, an escalated ban system can be useful. On their first offence, send them a warning message. On their second, mute them. On their third, temporarily ban their account, and so on.

Every community has to design a moderation flow that works best for them.

Harness the power of user reputation and behavior-based triggers. These techniques use features that are unique to Community Sift, but they’re still valuable tools.

Toxic users tend to leave signatures behind. They may have their good days, but most days are bad—and they’re pretty consistently bad. On the whole, thee users tend to use the same language and indulge in the same antisocial behavior from one session to the next.

The same goes for positive users. They might have a bad day now and then; maybe they drop the stray F-bomb. But all in all, most sessions are positive, healthy, and in line with your community guidelines.

What if you could easily identify your most negative and most positive users in real time? And what if you could measure their behavior over time, instead of a single play session? With Community Sift, all players start out neutral, since we haven’t identified their consistent behavior yet. Over time, the more they post low-risk content, the more “trusted” they become. Trusted users are subject to a less restrictive content filter, allowing them more expressivity and freedom. Untrusted users are given a more restrictive content filter, limiting their ability to manipulate the system.

You can choose to let users know if their chat permissions have been opened up or restricted, thereby letting your most positive users know that their behavior will be rewarded.

Publicly celebrate positive users. Community managers and moderators should go out of their way to call out users who exhibit positive behavior. For a forum or comments section, that could mean upvoting posts or commenting on posts. In a chat game, that could look like publicly thanking positive users, or even providing in-game rewards like items or currency for players who follow guidelines.

We believe that everyone should be free to share without fear of harassment or abuse. We think that most people tend to agree. But there’s more to stopping online threats than just identifying the most dangerous content and taking action on the most negative users. We have to recognize and reward positive users as well.

Originally published on Quora 

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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?


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.