I’ve spent a lot of time, over the years, thinking about how to help people connect, interact, and form community – especially in digital spaces on the Internet. I’ve participated in many kinds of communities, and been a part of shaping a few as well. This is a collection of some of the things I’ve learned along the way.
A lot of my community-building experience has, for various historical reasons, taken place in digital settings. But these ideas apply equally well to any collection of people who intend to interact with each other on a regular basis: everything from personal relationships, to friend groups, to organizations with a specific purpose, and even large social circles.
What things look like – the details – will differ. How this all plays out in a small, informal group will be quite different in practical terms than the way things go in a large company. But the principles work everywhere, with suitable adaptation.
This also isn’t just applicable to specific participants. All members of every community can benefit from understanding and thinking about these things, regardless of how we interact, or what we’re expected to do.
I will, however, be focusing on a particular role in communities, and that is the role of facilitator or cultivator. The details of this vary widely by setting and context. In online spaces, we may think of this role by such names as “administrator” or “moderator.”
I’m gathering up things from my own experiences in such roles. I have applied all of these principles in action in real community settings. However, most of them I did not invent or discover; I was taught almost all of this by other participants in communities.
There have been plenty of times when I have learned from other people in the same community, but the vast bulk of what I’ve found helpful, over the years, for running a particular space has come from outside that space itself. Communities have outer edges, but they are not impermeable bubbles.
In particular I want to take a moment to acknowledge and thank the incredibly long list of Black thinkers and community-cultivators who have heavily shaped my own understandings, through the generous sharing of your own learned experiential wisdom.
This piece is both a record of and an effort to relay a key attitude that I believe is mandatory for anyone who wishes to cultivate community: learning never stops, and we all have something to learn from everyone around us.
Before I dive in, I should also note that everything I say here is grounded in my own understandings of socio-political dynamics. I recommend at least a basic familiarity with anti-racism, decolonial thinking, disability justice, harm reduction, and the ideas behind abolition movements for anyone interested in creating communities. Some of my personal recommendations are curated on my Collected Resources page.
There is a difference between collecting a bunch of people in a place, and creating community. My ideas here focus largely on creating a particular kind of safety – a safety which is essential to true community. Without safety, a gathering of people is not a community, it is a coincidence.
Accountability is not just a thing that “moderators” or “leaders” should be imposing on “everyone else.” People who are charged with the safety of a community must be held to stronger expectations of accountability, not weaker ones. Maintaining safety requires ongoing re-evaluation of trust. Those with power and responsibility should be evaluated more strictly and more often.
We are all fallible. We will all fuck it up, here and there. This is unavoidable. To cultivate community, we need to have strategies for holding each other to account, while also acknowledging that we all fail.
However, room for mistakes is not the same thing as removal of consequences. Accountability requires consequence. Pointing out problems, with no results, does not produce safety. Appropriate consequences depend on context. Ejecting people from a community who point out problems destroys accountability.
We should be very careful with how we approach imposing consequences, lest we recreate carceral society in our spaces. Cops and prisons do not create safety, and therefore cannot create community. Mimicking the patterns of policing and punishment in our spaces does not create safety, and therefore cannot create community.
We are all finite. The intentional creation and cultivation of community takes effort, time, and energy. It is incredibly demanding to protect communities from harm. Put simply, being a moderator or protector is exhausting.
A community cannot last without thinking carefully about how to sustain the people who put in this effort.
Each and every mod, admin, protector, or facilitator should have personal arrangements for their own healing, joy, and well-being. Preferably those things should be well-established before beginning community work. They will also need to be periodically re-examined, because the stresses and demands of community-building change over time, and if we are not also adapting our support structures to match, we risk burning out.
Nourishment is not simply a matter of avoiding burnout, however. Chronically stressed and frazzled community leaders will spread their stress to those around them. Left unchecked, this erodes safety, damages accountability, and poisons trust over time. Unhealed traumas and internalized oppression also leech into our relationships, and impact our ability to truly provide safety for others.
Taking care of ourselves as we seek to create community together will, inevitably, lead to better communities around us.
An important practical point here is that sometimes, facilitators need to take breaks. Any community that does not intentionally plan for this will eventually suffer. I’ll cover more ideas around this in the Practical Advice section later.
I’ve mentioned trust as a key factor to safe, healthy community. Trust is not instant or automatic; it must be grown. However, even well-grown trust is not inherently permanent. It can be damaged or revoked at any time. A key practice for building, maintaining, and repairing trust is transparency.
Transparency is an ongoing, continual effort. It cannot be done in half-measures; in order to be effective, we must be honest, forthcoming, and thorough in communicating what we do, and why.
All communities have a system of operating, even if nobody ever thinks carefully about what that is, or explains it. In order for a community to trust in facilitators, that system must be characterized by transparency. When leaders are clear and explicit, other community members don’t need to waste time and energy wondering if the system is working correctly.
When protectors and facilitators are clear and explicit about what they do (and do not) consider to be harmful, community members don’t need to waste time and energy fearing that their interests and well-being are at risk.
Lack of transparency is damaging to trust. Worse, when we spend too much time exclusively in communities run by people we do not know how to trust, we can even lose sight of what trust feels like. In communities full of people who are not in tune with trust, danger and harm run rampant, because nobody is quite sure what “safe” even means anymore. We all owe it to ourselves to get out of such situations whenever we can; only then, can we reconnect with trust. The way to build trust is to be honest – in all directions, and at all times.
Honesty and transparency do not mean perfection. We also have to acknowledge mistakes. This is crucial for accountability – if a community never knows that its members have fucked up, those members cannot face consequences for their choices (or mistakes). Setting a “community standard” means being clear about what is and isn’t acceptable, and what consequences are imposed when the unacceptable shows up.
These standards are, again, even more crucial for those with positions of authority and responsibility, such as administrators and moderators.
Many people will try to create and operate communities, but reject transparency. They often fear criticism. They will fight hard against calls for accountability, and make excuses to avoid honesty and humility.
Do not stay in such places if you have a choice. Those people may indeed have power, but they are not safe, and they will not build healthy relationships and interactions around them. There may indeed be many people hanging around in the spaces made by such “leaders”, but their following is not a community, it is a coincidence.
Organization and Structure
Hierarchy is a tool of oppression.
To the extent that a collective of people relies on hierarchical allocation of power and responsibility, that space has limited capacity to be healthy and safe.
Any gathering that treats the “leaders” or “facilitators” or “moderators and admins” as being above the general membership will inevitably reproduce abuse and harm.
Allocating roles and responsibility is not the same thing as conferring status or granting power. Every community is built on a diversity of roles, whether it is a tiny gathering of friends, an intimate relationship, a digital space that spans continents, or a worldwide movement. There are ways to recognize and honor such roles without hierarchies.
I’m not just talking about things that resemble “org charts” from the corporate business world. When establishing a community, we should also be careful not to recreate other harmful hierarchies, such as class or caste systems.
Think carefully about roles, who would fit well into those roles, and how to recognize those who are effective in the roles. Think about how to recognize when someone has been miscast – when they are taking on a role that they are not well-suited to. Keep in mind that change is inevitable and that sometimes, the best role for someone may also change over time. Don’t pressure people into roles without their consent, or without informing them of what the role means.
All communities have needs. In the context I’m thinking of here, we might emphasize the need for safety and trust and belonging. Identify what your community needs, and watch for those needs to evolve as time goes by.
Learn to dynamically redistribute the work of meeting those needs. Identify roles that can be created and supported, which help attend to the core community needs. The larger the community, the more complex this gets. It will become tempting to reach for familiar tools like hierarchy and class. Resist this. Refuse to grow if the only way you can envision to expand relies on picking up oppressive tools.
Having the ability to respond to change by reallocating who is taking on what work in the community is incredibly powerful. It will protect the community from the inevitable moment when someone needs to step back from facilitation roles. It enables sustainable functioning across long spans of time. It offers healthy ways to grow.
It also alleviates the pressure on someone to always perform at the same level once they are given a particular role; knowing we have “backup” that we can trust, at any moment, makes it safer for those who are facilitating community to acknowledge when we need help ourselves.
We are all fallible, and we are all finite. Healthy, safe communities organize around this reality.
Whenever we set out to create something, we generally replicate a lot of what we already know – from past experiences, from our cultural backgrounds, from our own preferences and principles. We live in an inequitable, unjust, imbalanced world, where safety and trust are not commonplace, especially where diverse communities are concerned. Thus, if we are not careful, the new communities we create will also have these problems.
A great way to counteract the tendency to recreate oppressive dynamics in our spaces is to put the disadvantaged and oppressed in charge. Give those with the most at stake the greatest degree of influence. Always consider the larger context of life’s realities when evaluating this; context is vital to good decision-making.
I want to be clear that I am not talking about “empowerment” here. In many settings, empowerment is a bureaucratic euphemism for “we have created a channel by which your needs and concerns will be ignored promptly in an official capacity.”
I’m talking about giving final say to those who are most closely impacted by a given decision.
This does not require the creation of permanent roles or structures, only a willingness to consider the context of every decision carefully. This is also inherently incompatible with hierarchies, which makes it unfamiliar and perhaps scary to many aspiring “leaders.” Take careful note of who tries to cling to decision-making power and how they wish to see it allocated – this is not an attitude that is compatible with healthy and safe community.
I want to put this into very concrete terms for community moderators in particular. Women and femmes should be deciding what does (and doesn’t) constitute sexism and patriarchal behavior. People of color should be deciding what counts as racism – but only for their own racialized identities. In other words, it does no good for an Indigenous person in American community to make decisions about anti-Black racism if that person is not also Black. Queer people should be making decisions about homophobia. Trans and gender-expansive people should be making decisions about transmisia. Disabled people should be making decisions about ableism. The elderly (and, as appropriate, also the young) should be making decisions about ageism.
Covering all these bases may seem difficult or even impossible; how can a community protect against all those kinds of danger and harm, if there aren’t people to fill those specific roles?
Resist the urge to believe that safety is possible without including the perspective and contributions of someone affected by the danger. A community cannot be safe and healthy without such input and active decision-making.
I know of two productive ways to confront this limitation: one is to increase the number of people in facilitation/moderation roles, and the other is to just be honest about the fact that your space cannot guarantee safety for those who are not represented in its leadership.
Not all communities can (or should) attempt to cover every possible facet of oppression and danger that might affect people. Just be transparent about who is – and who is not – adequately protected.
Affected people will know the space isn’t safe for them, either way. At least being honest about it doesn’t damage trust, or invite anyone to take unnecessary risks with their own wellbeing. Who knows – such honesty may even create opportunities for someone to join the community who can help offer those perspectives and experiences, thereby strengthening the community as a whole.
That was a lot of words! But that’s ok, because making a safe community is a lot of work. It is, inherently, a process of growing something. The more thought, care, and effort we put into a community and how we grow it, the healthier and livelier the results will be.
For the remainder of this, I’d like to just make some quick points. There is plenty more thought behind each of these, but I want to avoid making this collection too overwhelming to process at once. If you happen to be in touch with me and would like clarity or further exploration of any of the following points, I’d be glad to do so.
- Learn what’s going on. Situational awareness is vital. This means knowing the larger context of what puts people in danger in the real world, both systemically, and in other, similar communities. In places like federated social networks, it means knowing what’s going on with other spaces and their members, so that dangerous people don’t just wind up hurting members of a new space when they get pushed out of an old one. Many abusers and toxic people transmit their poison by hopping between communities who have never heard of the damage they’ve done.
- When building a new community, or establishing a new phase of growth, start by thinking about how to handle change. Everything else in the planning process will be easier, and the results will be more sustainable, and more resilient. Preparing for changes will inform a lot of decisions. It is especially helpful to think about how to deal with changes that we cannot see the details of in advance – knowing we can withstand the unknown is a great source of trust and safety.
- Strongly consider requiring that staff take breaks on a regular basis (e.g. 8 months on, 4 months off, or similar rotations) to protect against exhaustion – this will also help strengthen the community’s ability to handle changes in staff. Adapt the frequency and duration of these breaks to your situation, but err on the side of significantly more time off than feels necessary. It is hard to gauge the need for recovery when everything is calm.
- Understand that things like systemic oppression, as well as interpersonal harm and trauma, are not justifications for misbehavior. Being oppressed does not make anyone immune to being a bigot. Being hurt is never an excuse for abusing others. Hold zero tolerance for anyone using their own pain as an argument to hurt someone else, or their own disadvantage as “evidence” of their infallibility. We rarely get to choose what damage gets done to us in life. We always get to choose what damage we inflict.
- When selecting for roles that help protect the safety of a community, look for those with active, ongoing healing practices in their personal lives. Prefer to appoint staff who are well grounded and rooted in such practices both for themselves and for those around them.
- Believe victims, but don’t put extra work on them. If someone with lived experience says there is damage and harm going on, be prepared to listen and respond. But don’t expect such people to be the sole or even primary carriers of the duty of protecting the community. We’ve got enough to carry already.
- Education is crucial for both protectors and survivors. Knowing how systemic oppression and interpersonal abuse work is genuinely vital. This awareness cannot prevent harm by itself – that’s a larger societal task – but it can help affected people find ways to deal with what they’ve already experienced, and possibly avoid some amount of further problems in the future. Consider how to foster this kind of learning, across the entire community.
- When allocating roles and responsibilities, play to people’s strengths, and also acknowledge their limitations. Be open and transparent about what each person can and cannot do, and what is expected. Be dynamic – let people step into (and out of) roles as they see fit. Be prepared to handle that change. Think about how to allow that fluidity without it being disruptive.
- Responsibilities and roles do not need to have hard edges. As a single example, most moderated communities rely on “reports” to bring issues to the attention of the community facilitators and protectors. Even though a small number of people may actually have access to “the Ban Button”, community safety is a community responsibility. Spreading the load helps alleviate the strain on the staff, as well as offering a small degree of protection against accidental re-implementation of policing.
- Notice and attend to “negative space.” What are some things that we are missing that are good and desirable? On the flip side, what is bad and problematic that we’re not directly noticing and aware of? Ask these questions often, and look hard.
- Be very mindful of what kind of person tends to do the emotional and intellectual labor in facilitating a community. Don’t recreate patriarchy in the way roles are allocated and in who is expected to provide what to the community. This also applies to placing burden on racialized community members to defend against racism, and so on.
- Leadership and community facilitation come in many flavors. There is a lot of false leadership out there; it often comes along with titles and status and credentials, usually highly endorsed by the kyriarchy in one way or another. Know how to recognize the value of the former, and how to limit the damage created by the latter.
- Take time to understand common tactics and behaviors. Learn about DARVO, gaslighting, abuse grooming, weaponized identities, weaponized ignorance, and so on. Acknowledge that it is not possible to catch every possible bad act in advance, or even recognize it as it happens – learn from victims and survivors when they point out issues. Check for your own affinities and preferences being used against you to attack victims by co-opting your own influence.
- Keep records. It doesn’t matter how, as long as it works for everyone involved. Just be prepared to hand off that knowledge to new people as needed, when someone steps into a cultivating role. Good audit trails make the work a lot easier, and help a lot with consistency and transparency.
- Beware of obsession with numbers. Growth for its own sake is a capitalist, white-supremacy-culture fixation, and it is bullshit and damaging. The drive for chasing bigger numbers is destructive to safety. Treat it like the poison it is. Remember that popularity is in opposition to safety unless one is directly acting to the benefit of hegemonic, oppressive interests.
- It is dangerously easy to mistake complex, nuanced, skillful decision-making with inconsistency. Keep this in mind when considering transparency around official decisions, especially ones that pertain to community safety. It is a popular tactic for malicious people to attack a range of decisions for being “inconsistent” when in fact the decisions are made in light of different contexts. Being consistently transparent about why decisions are made helps protect against this.
- Learn the value of aggregating many perspectives. Learn how to weight those perspectives in various contexts. Keep in mind the importance of reducing harm and not perpetuating existing biases and systemic problems. Yes, it’s hard and takes a lot of time and energy to do this well – but a diversity of perspectives also distributes this effort across more people, and helps a lot with meeting the needs of nourishing and tending to the community protectors and facilitators.
- Truly safeguarding a community is not merely about responding to bad things. It requires some thinking ahead. Be careful about relying too much on one particular mode of protection. Being purely reactive cannot reduce harm – only address harm that’s already happened. This is not a route to safety. But trying to plan for everything in advance, and leaving no route for responses or changing decisions when needed, becomes brittle and leads to a false sense of security. Overconfidence in an established policy or system is not a route to safety, either.
- Whenever possible, think about certain things the community (and facilitators especially) will need in advance, so you can be prepared to handle them. We can’t foresee every possible issue, and we shouldn’t waste energy chasing shadows of problems we may never have – but some things are well worth planning for up front. What will you do when someone disagrees with a moderation decision? How do you deal with a moderator who makes a bad decision, or acts out a personal emotional reaction using their powers? How will you handle people leaving support roles? How will you handle getting new people established in support roles? How do you check in with each other to make sure everyone is OK? How do you hold each other accountable?
- Conflict is not the opposite of safety. A lot of unqualified community “leaders” seem to take a stance that any kind of disagreement, upset, strong feelings, or argument is inherently harmful. In reality, explicit conflict mostly arises after harm has already been done. Be aware that policies or attitudes around “avoiding drama” are often just redecorated versions of “know your place” dominance dynamics. Also be aware that the majority of toxic people have long since learned how to stay “under the radar” and provoke conflict without looking like they are being overtly harmful, from the perspective of under-informed and ignorant community protectors. This is a very common tactic for turning community authorities against the most vulnerable in the community, while redirection attention and blame away from the actual offenders.
This is hard stuff. It’s a lot of work. Far too many people jump into the responsibility of leading a team, managing a company, or starting an online space without understanding what it actually takes to create community well. The result is always the same: someone needlessly gets hurt.
If this is intimidating, and prompting you to rethink your own eagerness to start (or join) a space in a facilitator’s capacity, good. We should be careful about when we commit to such responsibilities, and honest about how hard it is.
But we should also support each other. Share resources, experience, advice, and encouragement. Teach what we know, and learn from everyone around us. It can be easy – and even tempting – to think of a given community as existing in a bubble of isolation, especially when we are deeply invested in that space. But the truth is that nothing exists in a vacuum.
I’d like to close with one final idea, that has been instrumental in my own journeys and experiences. It applies to everyone who participates in a community, and if you keep nothing else from all of this collection of ideas and suggestions, I hope this at the very least can help you nurture trust and make safer decisions for whatever communities you find yourself in:
It is easy to falsify words.
It is vastly harder to falsify actions.