Crowd Wise 6: Threats to e-communities

He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; 
and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march 
from his home; and if he would not really have rather stayed there in peace.
J.R.R. Tolkein

Every community has its darker side and the virtual world contains its seedier side too.  Sometimes they can become even more emotionally challenging, due to the anonymity of parties involved.   These are just a handful of the things that may crop up when you run or participate in an e-community - knowing about them helps you to deal with them so I've listed a few below:

The Door-to-Door Salesman
Sole purpose for joining an e-community is to advertise pharmaceutical products, commercial services and generally talk about what they have on offer and only what they have on offer.

Will directly spam your members and generally make a real pest of themselves.

The Troll
Primary purpose for joining an e-community is in order to spread their self-hate on to others.  Will start fights.  Highly difficult to recognize - not all argumentors throw flames and most debators are not trolls.

It's also important to note that conflicting opinions within communities often help members bind better together!

The Cold-Shoulder
Moderators who don't understand the psychology behind the actions of those who are brave enough to add to a discussion, for the first time,  ignore ego-boo which in turn stops other members who were not brave enough to yet, from adding anything further: collaboration dies.

The Pirate
Sole purpose for joining an e-community is to steal content and ideas for their own commercial ventures.  Will trawl through your archives until they find what they want, copy/steal it and obviously not attribute this work appropriately.

The Kidnapper
Sole purpose for joining an e-community is in order to find new members for their own e-community.  Will spend time getting to know your members and then spam the core with invitation links:  often convincing them to take on moderator positions etc within the other community.  

The Predator
Sole purpose for joining an e-community is for sexual purposes.  Will seek out your young, principally female members, and spam them with invitations to connect outside the virtual world.  Sometimes only mildly irritating -at other times highly dangerous, especially if you're working online with young children.

The Drop-Out Leader
Gives up on his or her community before allowing it to reach critical mass.

The Lost Leader
Primary purpose of starting an e-community was out of self-love.  Tires of the work involved and abandons his or her tribe leaving members unsure of future direction and lost.

If you run or participate in an educational community, have you had any experience with the above?   How did you deal?

Have I missed any other threats?


This posting is part of a series, Crowd Wise, and is, in part, preparation for the swap-shop on web based communities at the IATEFL conference in Harrogate, April 8th, 2010.  Your answers, as brief or as in-depth as you'd like to be, is very much appreciated!  To subscribe to all the posts within this specific series, copy and paste this url:  into your reader.  

Note: if you would like to participate in this conversation anonymously, please do feel free to do so.  Alternatively, if you would like to specifically mention an online educational community when making reference to your experiences, adding your group's name and/or its URL, you are most welcome to!

20 Responses to “Crowd Wise 6: Threats to e-communities”

  • Unknown says:
    March 23, 2010

    It's been awhile since I've commented here, but I'm always lurking around! I was attracted to this post obviously for its list-like qualities. But I have also had experience with some of these. Especially the troll. I think you make a good point that sometimes these people help bind a community together, even if it's just everybody vs the troll. It may also prompt the quieter ones to speak out in defense. However, while these are good side effects I wonder is it worth it for the suffering the troll creates?
    Door to door salesmen? They are pretty easy to spot. Problem is when they up the ante and become kidnappers or pirates.
    As for predators, that is scary. And I know it's happening. David Crystal on his blog recently talked about a software programme called Chatsafe which could detect these kinds of people.
    Thanks again for a good post Karenne, look forward to reading other's experience of this.

    March 23, 2010

    Hi ya Lindsay, welcome back :)

    I know you'd be along due to the list quality of this post :) I did think about dealing with these, one by one (like I've done with some of the other issues related to community life) but in the end, ran out of time with releasing this post (there are 2 left before the 8th!) and also thought better just to hit people with the non-utopian stuff all at once!

    I've met them all: the Door-to-Door salesmen spam my blog daily (especially a young woman called Marry... are you reading this Marry - please do go away!)

    The Pirate was kind of a shock: have met him twice, once in one of my own communities and once had a lesson plan taken from another community... (it turned up in a magazine almost word for word) these people are so damaging because what they do is essentially create a feeling that one shouldn't share anything (lesson plans, ideas etc) with others in other people's communities but I have learned to ignore the threat and plug on (obviously!)

    The Predator is one of my greatest fears and I had a huge argument with someone via email due to a project he was about to embark on - unknowingly he could have put many of his members at risk.

    I think the vast majority of community starters start off thinking that everyone that comes into their e-communities will be warm, loving, sharing people but that's very idealistic.

    Despite my age, I have been spammed with "date requests" and some seedier messages which scares the living crap out of me when I know that the community in which this took place also contains young people.

    The Drop-out I think is quite common and I must say that the first e-community I began, I dropped out of...

    patience is a virtue, eh ?


  • Nicky says:
    March 23, 2010

    Nice post, Karenne, thank you.I am lucky enough never to have had to personally deal with any of the types that you describe, although I have seen some of them in action in public forums. (In our case, all of our e-communities are closed course or ex-alumni groups, so it's simply not an issue).

    of course the big issue for the moderator of such an e- community is how to deal with these people, and at some point one needs to step in and ban them. It's fairly straightforward when the offensive person is clearly offensive and out of line from the beginning, but all too often we have borderline cases, such as trolls who never quite overstep the mark to the point where the moderator can easily chuck them out, but they still manage to offend people regularly...

    Looking forward to your talk at IATEFL! (And sorry that we didn't coincide at the TESOL Spain conference a few weeks ago...)

    Nicky Hockly (Barcelona)

    March 23, 2010

    Hi ya Nicky! Ta, very much for your comment - yes, I think in private communities the above factors are definitely reduced to just about zero but... not always :)

    Sorry I missed you in Spain too - I was hoping to run into you at least once I saw that I'd missed your presentation but it wasn't to be :(

    Looking forward to seeing you in Harrogate though and would be very honored if you came: it'll be very much a conversation rather than a presentation in the strictest sense though!

    March 25, 2010

    Was just chatting with some IT students about e-communities and we were talking about some of these issues and threats in their non-edu communities we started talking about how quiet people are about these very real events!

    It is actually very important to talk openly about them, however, so do hope more e-leaders will contribute with their opinions and share their experiences - in real life we have policemen, politicians, priests and we hire and elect these because we do know that all of life is made up of Ying and Yang :)

    And not talking about them can lead new e-leaders/moderators to feel shocked, overreact or put the blame on themselves!


  • Shelly Terrell says:
    March 25, 2010

    Great ideas Karenne and a great series! I've been enjoying in my reader. Unfortunately, hectic schedule means I haven't been commenting much. Another threat I have seen but don't know what I would name are when people get over zealous and begin their own projects with the original idea but forget to let the leadership know. Often the other members will be surprised and think the leadership approved extra projects from the individual who advertises. When this happens many get upset at the leadership and not the individual.

    Another one is when a member takes something out of context and smashes others for this problem in a childish type of way by name calling or even cursing. This is different than the troll because usually this person didn't start out as a person who hated the community. Usually the person is offended with a differing opinion and takes this as a personal vendetta or mission.

    In the same respect, another problem is if a person tries to overthrow the community because they feel some vendetta or niche isn't being reached. I think in this case the person should start his/her own community without feeling the need to get people to go against the other but online communication is often difficult and you will always meet some people who just don't get it.

    People forget that a majority of communication is nonverbal, even 93% some studies say. This means when communicating online people will more than likely misunderstand the messages due to the lack of nonverbal communication. Also, I think most people have never been taught about online communities. Therefore, series like these serve an important part of the learning process about online communication and participating in communities.

    I should note that all these instances reflect things in the past and have been in various online communities I've belong to so if anyone reads this comment it is not necessarily that person. (eek my disclaimer) LOL

  • Andy says:
    March 25, 2010

    Not really experienced any of these to any great degree - spammers, yes obviously, and trolls, definitely, but not the others. The biggest threat I see to any community (on or offline) is apathy and a general lack of involvement and proactiveness

    March 25, 2010

    Thanks so much & welcome back, Shelly!

    I think I should add one more threat:

    The Time Thief :-)

    Thank you for adding some great extra threats and they remind me of solid things I've seen and been part of -

    Communication is such a vital word, isn't it.

    I once asked permission from one community - I asked the e-moderators if I could start off a project which would serve the community at a crunch moment in time and despite the success and the usefulness of the project, I later found out that I had seriously upset some of its leaders who then went about saying that no permission had been asked (the e-moderators hadn't passed the information back to their heads) - and that experience was incredibly upsetting to me as I had... (and it was actually quite a lot of voluntary work so no ego-boo there let me tell you just a "watch-out and don't help out anymore as there surely be dragons..."

    I've seen the name-calling and petty throwing of toys out of the toy-box you mention in my time and oddly enough, I'm actually now friends with someone simply because I was so upset to see it that I reached out to the person on the receiving end - funny, eh - how conflict can sometimes bind others together.

    I agree, it's definitely best to start one's own community when one feels that one's niche isn't being met.

    In fact that's pretty much how BELTfree started - I looked high and low for a way to reach and talk to other ELT bloggers and when I couldn't find a group or start a realistic sub-group (there weren't so many edu-communities available until very recently), I launched my own.

    I think your comment

    "People forget that a majority of communication is nonverbal... when communicating online, people will more than likely misunderstand the messages due to the lack of nonverbal communication.

    is very true!

    A lot of dry humor can be seen as sarcasm, a message which refers back to an old message in long-standing communities can end up sounding horrifically out-of-context and offensive to new members...

    oooh, it's such an interesting life, this virtual world!!

    March 25, 2010

    Hi ya Andy - yes!

    Thanks for your comment, it's good to put this one out there too: Apathy and a general lack of involvement and proactiveness -

    Although I generally put that one mostly down to the

    Time Thief (who's not a person but a horrific real-life reality)


  • blog-efl says:
    March 25, 2010

    Excellent post, Karenne. I can't think of any that are missing, but I have had problems with a kidnapper recently. He joined our community and started spamming the wall and forums, trying to direct our participants to his communities and criticising the way we'd set up the site. After trying to reason with him, we decided to eject him from the community,. Later, we found that this is something he'd done in lots of other communities.

    It didn't stop there, though, as banning him obviously got his goat and he hijacked our hashtag on Twitter, posting criticism of us and our community every day.He also set up some scribd pages to create an online presence to continue his criticism.

    It's got to the point where it's now more than annoying - we decided just to ignore him, as any attempt at rational argument just led to him restating his odd views (always expressed in bureaucratic jargon) time and time again.

    He hasn't stopped yet, so there'll be a part two to this stoory I'm sure...

  • Shelly Terrell says:
    March 25, 2010


    We've had the same experience in our community with the hashtag. We have more than one person who has used the hashtag to trash the community. What do you do? Twitter is public and there is no way to ban someone from a hashtag. At least with spammers no one responds really or engages in conversation but with real life people and not bots people do engage. Sometimes it helps draw us tighter as a community as people rise to the occasion to defend the project but some of the people have been especially crude and even began name calling. I think someone should write an ebook on how to deal with this situation as it is sure to rise.

  • ddeubel says:
    March 25, 2010

    A nice framework Karenne - in my case, I'd add an additional few but won't list here (read on and you'll understand my philosophy :)

    I've ran into all these types on other communities but on EFL Classroom, really only spammers seeking to promote things that are either blatantly commercial or not ELT related.

    I've often wondered why we haven't had problems with other "types" and I think it is not because they haven't been there but rather because of how things operate. It's worked on EFL Classroom and I'll offer up this advice (but everything is relative....).

    1. If there is a problem that is on the line or over it, whatever the problem (stealing, profanity, kidnapping, predator etc..) don't talk to the person! Just ban them. That's that. The conversation and stimulation is what they want and better just to deny them that.

    2. Example speaks more than "guidelines" or "warnings". Meaning, I think it is for the few leaders on a community to set the tone and standard. It all flows from that. A lot of the bad types won't even bother if they sense the community has a tight ethos or spirit/ethic.

    3. Private. I have many people asking me why a community should be private - why not open the doors if you say you are so "open". My retort is that it keeps only the people who want to be there, there. I also believe that to have a good online community, people must have a "stake" in its essence, just like a community in real life. They value its streets, trees, gossip, houses, clean sidewalks etc... A quick membership helps instill that. But without any pressure. People have a key and enter and leave as they want and when they wish.

    Alas, I won't mention my other categories - my philosophy is to ignore these negative types and keep marching forward!


  • blog-efl says:
    March 25, 2010

    Shelly, I suppose you can't really do anything about the hastag problem, unless there was a way for someone to 'own' it (i.e. you register a hashtag in twitter and can control it) - impossible I know, but perhaps there's a way of being able to build it into an educational interface for twitter that will filter out (or only include those who register and use the hashtag)...maybe not practical, just wishful thinking though...

  • evision says:
    March 29, 2010

  • Clare says:
    March 29, 2010

    I've had all the problems you list Karenne, except the troll. One case of someone calling another a pedophile, but we nipped that in the bud v quickly.

    We post rules (no commercial posts, no giving your age) which seem to work, and I only very occasionally need to go in and remove posts / ban those flouting the rules.

    I agree with banning - draconian as it seems, because some people do like the argument, and others ignore the warnings. But in about eight years of forums, I think I've banned about 10 people...

    Another thing that helps keep the spam out is to make your forum membership double opt-in. If you have to confirm an email, it's more hassle for the spammer.

    But the thing that works best is "self-policing". Many of our forum visitors are happy to tell other people about the rules, answer questions, encourage others to post etc. It's more hands-off for me - ideal, as the forums are about providing a place for visitors to communicate with each other.

  • Sue Lyon-Jones says:
    March 29, 2010

    Interesting post & discussion, Karenne.

    Though I'm fairly new to the edublog scene, I've dipped in and out of groups on the net for a long time & I've encounted most of these types at some point or other. Thought maybe The Axe-Grinder is another one that might be worth adding to your list.

    The Axe-Grinder's motivation for joining groups is to draw attention to some slight or burning issue that peeves them greatly.

    Axe-Grinders have a tendency to view any thread as an opportunity to air their gripe (however tenuous the connection may be) and if allowed to vent unchecked, can swamp e-communities with multiple, similar threads on their pet topic.

    Agree with what others have said that the best way to deal with those who threaten the stability and/or growth of e-communities is banning and ignoring any extraneous ranting or flaming afterwards.


  • Tara Benwell says:
    March 30, 2010

    We have some trolls who keep changing their names and avatars after being banned. It's usually our active members who spot the trolls in their new disguises.

    Do you have a name for the people who continuously copy and paste junk from the web and post it randomly around the community because they can't think of anything to say? Litterbugs? I recently requested that all of our members take a "Plagiarism Pledge" but sadly many do not understand the harm they are doing to a site that was intended for practising English. I just love this series Karenne!

    March 30, 2010


    And I adore you for coming back to each post and adding your experience - I can't wait for IATEFL etc to all be done - have a nice idea to help out with your community so will be back there very soon!


    March 30, 2010

    Yup... like in life, I know a couple of axe-grinders in e-life too :-)

    Hey ya Clare, yes - I think self-policing usually works really well... especially if you have a healthy number of editors and active members who will report these!


  • Jason Renshaw says:
    April 05, 2010

    Hi Karenne,

    Great post/list, and I have to admit that I have come across almost all these types (plus some of the others mentioned - really like Tara's "litterer" one!) on my own forum.

    I think this has a lot to do with the fact that I keep my forum completely open to all and sundry, and you attract the negative types in equal proportion to the growth of your community. My members recently topped the 4,000 count, and I've noticed an increase in the baddies.

    However, I do follow Dave's advice and:
    (a) ban obvious transgressors immediately
    (b) don't directly engage with them (because yes, they sort of like or seek this in many cases)

    It seems to work - I need to do a little clean out of these types every 1-2 weeks. Takes 30 minutes or so, and I see this as necessary cleaning and sorting and securing work for running an online community.


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