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.

5 thoughts on “Content Moderation: An overview and my recommendation

  1. How, as homeowners, do we know if our Board is monitoring our content prior to posting?

    It is clearly easy to share your belief in transparency, and that a very small % of your sites use content filters, but how can we (homeowners) be so certain?

    Thanks.

  2. If your board has opted to moderate content you will receive a notification when you attempt to post information. Your post will also not be posted to the website immediately. I looked up your account and your neighborhood is not currently moderating content.

    I’m not sure what you mean by your second question: “It is clearly easy to share your belief in transparency, and that a very small % of your sites use content filters, but how can we (homeowners) be so certain?”

  3. Pingback: Censorship and social media « eNeighbors.com Blog

  4. Pingback: Content moderation is off! (I love it) « eNeighbors Blog

  5. Any suggestions for a past HOA president and the current interim pres (VP) who use content moderation feature to squelch comments related to the governance of our association?

    Since turning on content moderation (for the second time in 6 months) there have been 10 articles (first one appearing 11/01) informing residents of sporadic break-ins of homes and vehicles, with 37 comments attributed to the whole. While I tend to think those comments are ‘Bulletin [instant] worthy” they don’t appear until 24-48 hours after the notification has been sent to the site, due to the content moderation lag.

    The responsibility of an HOA director doesn’t have to be a “hard” job. This site was designed to operate transparently and openly. We can’t get articles or comments published regarding upcoming meeting status or bylaw commentary, let alone instant notification of neighborhood crime,

    Actually, I think everyone was happier in their “bubble”, preferring to read about rain gauges and lost pets, because there is virtually no pressure for the Board to conform to the site regulations regarding comment suppression of matters legal and budgetary. I know this is an unfortunate “internal” problem, but what a waste of our HOA dollars!

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