Content Moderation: An overview and my recommendation

A concern that is shared by nearly all of our HOA boards is that residents will post inappropriate content to their neighborhood website. Board members often struggle with whether or not they should turn on the “content moderation” feature of their website, which allows a board member to review all postings before they are published.

My intention is to address this concern and lay out the benefits and costs of content moderation in this blog post and provide my recommendation for the content moderation setting on your neighborhood website. Please feel free to comment below. I would love the opportunity to hear your thoughts and concerns regarding this topic.

Now, before I dive into this, I want to provide you with a little background.

One integral feature of the eNeighbors website is the ability for every resident in the neighborhood to participate by posting their own news, events, groups, and classifieds. This capability is integral because it promotes participation, communication, activity, and resident interest. It also ensures that the success of the website is not dependent on a single site administrator or board member, but rather, thrives on the participation of each and every resident in a neighborhood.

Without providing the ability for residents to participate, neighborhood websites fail.

By this I mean that they are not used, content becomes stale, and the website is totally worthless as a viable communication channel. (I am not making this statement flippantly, I really mean that neighborhood websites without this ability are 100% worthless.)

So, by providing the ability for residents to actively participate you have established a viable communication channel in your neighborhood, probably for the first time ever. At the very least, you have laid the foundation for one to occur.

But, you have also opened the door for residents to complain and make you (board member) look bad. And therein lies the rub.

On one hand, you want to promote communication and transparency to help your neighborhood flourish. Afterall, communication is the means to all ends in a neighborhood. With communication you can promote social events, organize the neighborhood around community issues, form strong neighborhood watch groups, and so on and so forth.

On the other hand, you know that there are a number of contentious issues facing your neighborhood and that 50% of the neighborhood is on one side of the argument and 50% of the neighborhood is on the other side. If we allow people to communicate online, it’s just going to be a nasty, knock down, drag out fight in an online forum.

So what are you to do?

First, let me validate the concern. You are totally right – there will be postings on your neighborhood website where residents complain, debate, and even argue.

If you don’t believe me, raise dues. In one community, a resident posted a kindly worded news article that totaled 29 words. The title was “Rationale for $60 dues increase”.  The post is below.

“We were not able to attend the annual meeting could someone from the HOA Board please post the rationale for raising HOA dues by $60 to $300/year. Thank you.”

The above post received 98 comments from residents that totalled 10,747 words. (For every word they wrote, they produced 370 words in the comment string.)

I would argue that this type of participation is a good thing if not a great thing. For some board members, you might even fall over in your chair if you could elicit this type of participation in your own community, but for others, this type of dialogue may make you uncomfortable.

We are aware of the propensity for neighborhood discussions to become contentious or hotly debated, but this is not something to be avoided. In fact, this is when it is most important to have a healthy conversation. As a result, we have built in parameters that help maintain a healthy discussion so it can occur without becoming unproductive.

Here are the five things that we do to influence appropriate behavior on a community website:

  1. Residents agree to the Terms of Use when they register for access.
  2. Residents must register and sign-in to participate. No one can hide their identity. It is attached to every posted action. (example: news article or comment)
  3. Every news article has a link that states “Notify us of inappropriate content”. This automatically notifies the board, eNeighbors and the property manager.
  4. The board can suspend any resident violating the terms of use.  It is as easy as a mouse click.
  5. In the rare event it becomes necessary, content moderation can be turned on. This allows a board member to review content before it is published to the website.

Our experience with community content – 12,000 registered users and thousands of posts:

  1. No articles have ever been taken down because of inappropriate content.
  2. The “Notify us of inappropriate content” button has been pressed and submitted once; by accident
  3. No resident in any community has ever been suspended
  4. Only three neighborhoods use “content moderation”.  It has had a negative effect on the community because it discourages participation.

Now that you have an overview of the issue, let’s consider the rest of the story.

What happens if you don’t provide a forum for neighbors to communicate online?– They might create one themselves and you definitely won’t be in control of it. One property manager shared a story with me that their neighborhood board of directors got so sick of the “negative” posts that they shut down the site. Three months later, neighbors had launched their own website, which was public facing. One of the great things about eNeighbors is that everything is behind login, meaning you need a username and password to access the website. We also make sure that only residents are allowed in. This allows the community to have a discussion, contentious or not, without fear of the perception that may be created from the outside looking in. We like to think of ourselves as as online gated community.

Should we, as a board, remove posts that are bad? – Yes and no. Yes, if it is truly bad, as in, it violates the law, the terms of use or is an act of defamation. No, if it just makes you feel bad because the person publishing the comment was “rude” to you or the board. Instead, you should respond as a board member and public official with an even hand. Residents are angry because of how their neighborhood is being run. The only difference is that you are now aware of it because you have an open line of communication with them via the website. Wouldn’t you rather have the opportunity to respond to this type of concern rather than let it stew and grow in the community. Some board members choose not to respond to comments, and this may be an appropriate action given the topic. The website is still serving its purpose by allowing neighbors to voice their concerns.

We don’t want a website that is only used to complain. – Then use it differently. I apologize for my directness, but it’s true. As a board member, you must take an active role in forming the fabric of your community if you want it to be different. Another way to say this is that you don’t want a community that complains all the time. This is not the website’s fault that your community is complaining. If you get rid of the website, the complaining doesn’t go away with it. You just don’t see it anymore, except at your annual meetings. So my suggestion is that as a leader in your community that you help guide the neighborhood towards using the website for suggestions instead of complaints. Discussions instead of debate.

My final recommendation

In conclusion, I strongly recommend that you do NOT turn on content moderation. We have verified that it discourages participation and bottle-necks communication. The purpose of any neighborhood website is to promote communication and by moderating it you are acting as a barrier to the very thing that you want to encourage.

Goodbye, eNeighbors 1.0

When we first started buliding websites for neighborhoods we provided custom designed sites for each customer. We did this for our first 13 neighborhoods, but it quickly became unmanageable, which is why we decided to invest in a robust web application that could scale to support any number of neighborhoods and eNeighbors 2.0 was born.

Today, we say goodbye to the last eNeighbors 1.0 website. Arlington Park was our 4th neighborhood that we put online and they have now upgraded to eNeighbors 2.0. All 13 neighborhoods using our old websites have now completed the upgrade process.

I grabbed a screenshot of the old Arlington Park website just before taking it down today:

 Arlington Park Homepage

Now I get to take down that old server! Thanks to everyone who got us this far. We love you all.

Curry Association Management’s Annual Meeting

We will be presenting at Curry Association Management’s Annual Meeting for their clients.

The meeting is on Tuesday, April 7th at 6:30pm at the Holiday Inn on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City.

We have a short 10 minute presentation prepared where I’ll provide a quick overview of our services and some tips for generating participation on your neighborhood website. You can also meet with me after the presentation and I can answer any questions that you have in person!

If your HOA is managed by Curry, please be sure to attend, I would love the chance to meet with you.

If that’s not enough, we’re also giving away some gift certificates to Jack Stack BBQ to a few lucky winners.

Sharing Information: Yes we can

It seems like every day I have a conversation with at least one customer about whether or not they should post some type of information online – such as their neighborhood’s financial reports, bylaws, or meeting minutes. My answer is always absolutely yes, 100% without a doubt.

I’m always puzzled as to why this is even a hesitation, but I’m now convinced, given the breadth of the concern, that many, if not most people feel fear about sharing information on the web.

Here are some of the better “reasons” for NOT sharing information. (The quotes are paraphrased.)

  1. “If we publish our financial reports, our vendors will see what we pay and offer us less competitive rates.” Well, maybe. First, let me explain that if you use eNeighbors, only residents have access to your neighborhood website. So, unless your vendors are also residents, you don’t have to worry about this. However, why would you assume that the rates would be less competitive? You might find that they are more competitive and try to undercut your current rates. At the end of the day, you have to negotiate your rates, or allow your property manager to get you the best rate. This has nothing to do with what you’re currently paying. It has everything to do with what you’re willing to pay and what they’re willing to sell it for.
  2. “We have a resident that is filing a lawsuit against us and we don’t want him to have this information”. Sorry, but you can’t hold the information back from him anyway. You are making it a little harder on him to access it, but if he’s filing a lawsuit, it won’t really matter. One thing to consider: If you had made this type of information available in the first place, would there be a lawsuit at all? Boards that share information and operate transparently instill trust with their residents.

Here are my reasons for sharing information:

  1. Sharing information online instills trust with residents
  2. Sharing information online holds board members accountable
  3. Sharing information online provides a repository of historical knowledge for future boards to reference
  4. Sharing information online is convenient for board members, property managers, realtors, renters, and residents
  5. Sharing information online leads to unexpected results that will improve your community

As a board member you don’t really have a right to hold back information. Most of the information is publicly available (such as your HOA bylaws) and it is certainly the right of due’s paying members to have access to it.

And finally, I’ll leave you with a video of Sir Tim Berners-Lee (father of the Internet) and his perspective on sharing data. He’s way beyond sharing documents, he wants your raw data now.