It’s hard to avoid trolls and haters on the Internet these days. Even parents who see how the Internet can be good for kids might worry about the darker side of online culture. We’ve written about some of the risks of online hate, and how to pick a Minecraft server that keeps griefers at bay. Those of us running kid-friendly online communities have a lot of motivation to continue to improve our craft.
Connected Camps has been collaborating with researchers at Harvard, MIT and the University of California to investigate how to create safe and inclusive spaces for kids online. This work involves looking carefully at kid-friendly online communities such as Scratch, DIY.org, and Connected Camps. Andres Lombana-Bermudez has been writing up some of the findings from this work. Every community has a unique culture and process, but they share three essential elements: shared values and guidelines, processes for moderation with feedback, and support for leadership to emerge from the community.
Shared Values and Community Guidelines
Every kid-friendly online community starts with a shared values, that are clearly laid out in a set of community guidelines. Whether is is the Scratch online community, DIY.org, or kid-friendly Minecraft servers, community guidelines cover how to be friendly, constructive, and inclusive, and how to be safe by keeping personal information private.
At Connected Camps, we followed the lead of other kid-friendly online communities in crafting our guidelines;
- Don’t grief. Ruining another player’s experience includes:
- Destruction of another player’s buildings of creations
- Stealing items from other players
- Using a modified client in a way that affects gameplay.
- Be nice and respectful.
- Hurtful, disrespectful, and foul language is not allowed in in-game chat, tickets, or signs.
- Do not continue something that is annoying other campers and counselors after they have respectfully asked you to stop doing it.
- Keep personal information private. For safety reasons, don’t use real names or post contact information like phone numbers or addresses.
- Help keep our community welcoming, kind, friendly, and inclusive.
Most importantly, community members need to be exposed to these values in ways that will ensure they feel bought in. This takes engaging kids directly, and in an ongoing way. For example, at DIY.org, moderators like to quote one of their guidelines, “Don’t be a jerk,” and find that kids quote it frequently as well.
At Connected Camps, at the start of each program we ask the kids to come up with some agreements about how we’ll behave and interact. The list they come up with generally aligns to our core values right away, like “no griefing” and “no yelling.” We then ask them what we should do instead. This leads to campers agreeing to “respect each other’s space” and to “wait your turn to talk.” Our counselors meet every week to talk through how things are going in the community, and reflect on how they can best model and uphold our values through discussions like this.
Moderation with Feedback
Kid-friendly online communities also have effective ways for keeping the community free of offensive speech and dealing with violations of community norms. Some kid-oriented sites limit what kids can say by only offering drop-down menus and fixed phrases for chat. This solves the safety problem but limits how much kids can express themselves and learn from each other.
By contrast, Scratch, DIY.org, and Connected Camps are all committed to kids’ self expression, so that solution doesn’t work for us. Instead we use a combination of automated filters for bad language, and full-time moderation.
What happens when kids violate community norms? In the past, many online communities simply banned or blocked people who violated the code of conduct. The famous dictum “don’t feed the trolls” reflects this viewpoint. The problem with simply blocking the trolls is that they don’t learn to mend their ways, and often come back to attack another day.
These days, experts agree that it is important to take steps toward providing feedback and reforming violators, rather than simply banning them outright. For example, Riot Games tried clearly explaining the problem and consequences of offensive speech rather than quietly banning violators in their League of Legends community. They found this more often than not led to apologies and remorse that they didn’t fully understand the impact of their comments. Riot was able to lift 280,000 members out of the “offender” category because of this policy change.
This reform-oriented approach is particularly important in kid-friendly online communities. Griefing in Minecraft, at least among kids, is more often than not unintentional, such as when one player is trying to “fix” another player’s build. At Connected Camps, we always start by talking directly with the offending player. Our Code of Conduct has a detailed set of steps we take to make community members aware of violations, including involving parents. Banning campers is a last resort that is extremely rare.
Leadership and Ownership
When a kid-friendly online community is doing things right, members take ownership of community values and model them for others. Scratch, DIY.org and Connected Camps rely on community members to moderate and uphold community norms, in addition to paid staff. One staff member at DIY.org explained, “I think moderators help by setting the example, and kids tend to model their posts after ours.” In both DIY.org and Scratch, community members can flag projects and posts that violate community guidelines.
At Connected Camps, our counselors are right there in-game with the kids so they know in real time what’s happening. We tell campers to speak up and flag a counselor if something isn’t right. Our counselors include both paid staff and college students, and high school volunteers. When they see community members stepping up to take more ownership and leadership, they might invite them to be a “junior volunteer.” Junior volunteers get invited into the ranks of counselors, which also means being part of the counselor and staff slack channel.
Cultivating ownership and leadership among of our campers, volunteers, and counselors is key to our success as a kid-friendly online community. Our community values need to be rooted in what our campers and counselors are doing together every day in our programs, and not just a guidelines posted on our website. As with all online communities, maintaining these values is an ongoing and shared process, and one that we hope makes for a better Internet for all kids.