What is community? A group of individuals who share a mutual concern for each other’s welfare. – Charles H. Vogel, The Art of Community
This is a difficult time for everyone. Even those who are healthy are likely to feel bored, anxious, and afraid.
As a result, online community managers are seeing an increase in emotional intensity. This article will provide advice on how to manage, support, and respond to your community at this time, in three sections:
- What people need
- How to respond
- Essential policies
What people need
In a crisis, there are two types of people: people who need help, and people who want to help.
These are the same people at different moments in time, based on their current situation.
Members of your community have core needs right now. These include:
- People want information
- People want to feel less alone
- People want to feel useful
- People want to process, to feel and to be witnessed feeling
- People want material help
1. People want information
This is a time of uncertainty and fast-moving change. People are seeking reliable information and advice from each other and from you. Find expert voices, and give them a platform. Make sure that anything you share is up to date and verified – where possible, share links to your sources.
Make sure that your community can easily see the time and date that information is shared. If you’re concerned that Google might index your advice, and your advice is time-sensitive, consider adding a clear note for readers each time they visit regarding the timeliness of the information, and link to frequently updated sources.
2. People want to feel less alone
Community is about connection, and this pandemic is isolating everyone from each other. See how you can provide ways to connect the more isolated members of your community, and model ways to make them feel welcome and engaged.
Routine can be helpful in establishing normalcy; see if there are ways that your community can come together on a regular basis around a prompt or activity, for example a weekly topic for discussion.
3. People want to feel useful
Find ways for people to support and help each other. This could mean creating and managing systems for people to help others, such as a Google form, or inviting community members to take on supportive roles in your community, such as “greeter of new members” or “person who runs activities for others.”
If you are facilitating a support system, be aware that this will require managing resources. You do not want to create a situation where someone is depending on a volunteer from your community for an essential service which, for all their good intentions, that person may be unable to provide safely.
Wherever possible, connect people with existing, managed resources in their area, instead of trying to replicate those services with ad hoc versions of your own. If you do decide to fill a need gap within your community, try to partner with an existing nonprofit or service, which can help ensure that you are well placed to support people effectively.
4. People want to process, to feel and be witnessed feeling
Right now, everyone is processing a new kind of emotional intensity. One of the ways that we process emotions is to frame it in language. In this piece from the Harvard Business Review, David Kessler talks about how what we’re feeling right now is a form of grief:
“The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air… We’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain… With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety.”
This moment is terrifying for many and feels unfair. Members of your community may be dealing with economic distress, loss of freedom, increased stress from being trapped inside with their partners and children, and the illness or death of a close friend or family member. Many will want to share that with others, including in your community. Your role here is to bear witness, acknowledge, offer compassion, and make each person feel heard.
5. People want material help
See the discussion above around creating infrastructure to help people support each other.
You should have a policy in place for when people start to share funding appeals to support themselves and their businesses.
There is no right answer here – to forbid them will help people avoid any potential scams, but it also may lead to core members of your community being unable to reach others who want to support them in a time of need. If you do choose to allow funding appeals, you should identify one place where they belong, and post a clear warning to everyone to beware of scam URLs (such as ones that look like PayPal links but are in fact phishing schemes) and those that may be disingenuous.
How to respond
We are seeing many people sharing misinformation about the disease and its spread. These are usually not shared with an intention to cause harm but rather to help – most people are not experts in differentiating good information from bad, and may trust sources that you find unreliable.
We recommend removing comments that contain misinformation, and if you see patterns in misinformation that are shared, writing a piece of your own to correct misconceptions. First Draft News has a fantastic series of resources to help you with this. The checklist at the bottom of this article, starting “Here are some things to keep in mind when we cover manipulated content” is particularly useful, as is their guide “Responsible Reporting in an Age of Information Disorder.”
An overwhelming volume of questions
For journalism organizations, KPCC has created an excellent engagement flow document based on their use of the tool Hearken, to answer community questions. They’ve identified different categories of query, with a clear internal flow for how to respond for each one. You may find it helpful to take these categories and figure out how and where your community can respond to each one.
Repeated questions and requests
Just because you’ve answered a question once, you can’t expect everyone to have seen your answer, or even to remember it if they did. And in this time of confusion and uncertainty, you may also see an overwhelming number of questions and concerns. Make sure it is clear and easy to find relevant answers, and whether the information provided remains up to date.
Stressed and angry community members
This is a time where your patience and firm kindness are more needed than ever. You may need to bend the rules, to allow people to be more upset than usual – but don’t throw away all your guidelines. Everyone in your community needs to feel safe and protected by you in your space.
You need to stay calm, be supportive, and be compassionate. If your tone is usually upbeat and happy, you may want to modulate a little – assume that everyone is anxious and stressed. Don’t tell people that everything will be OK, because it may not be. Compassion and asking questions, instead of assuming someone’s situation, will go a long way.
As Jessamyn West, former director of ops at MetaFilter, wrote in one of our community guides, “One of the tools we use the most is emailing a user to say ‘Hey, is everything OK?’” You might need to check in on people more than you did in the past. If you can, they will appreciate it.
Also, remember that you are not a therapist, and it isn’t your job to take the place of one. It’s OK to say, “This sounds really hard, I’m sorry,” and not try to fix things. That may be enough for them to feel if not better, then at least seen and heard.
Be human, but not too human. While your community will usually appreciate your identifying yourself as a real person instead of “Moderator-7,” if you are feeling stressed and upset, do not bring this into the community that you are managing. This will increase stress and anxiety in others, and they may feel uncomfortable asking you for support or resources, which could damage the stability of your community. Find other places of support which aren’t in communities that you manage.
Remain focused on your core mission from before the pandemic, and keep your focus on how that mission connects to your community needs in this moment. Be ready to link to other places if you can’t / shouldn’t provide a service or support structure.
Do not rely on one person for anything. Any one of us could either fall sick or need to take care of a sick family member without warning. Make sure someone you trust has access to the passwords, email inbox, and other systems you use. If a personal email address is currently used in your community for complaints or problems, consider shifting it to a generic shared email address.
Be aware of secondary trauma. Running a community right now can be emotionally draining work, especially if you’re dealing with discussions of death and economic distress. Be aware of these signals of secondary trauma, and ask those around you to watch out for them as well.
Never, ever go into your community if you are tired, hungry, drunk, high, angry, upset, or otherwise emotionally vulnerable. You will not be able to support others and might cause lasting damage with your actions.
Be kind. Stay calm. Drink water. Take regular breaks.
This is difficult and important work. Thank you for being there for your community when they need you the most.
We’re testing a new tool for publishers to run live Q&As with experts during this moment of crisis. If you’re interested in trying it, please reach out.