How to Make Cool Communities and Discord Servers: Literally Just Ban Bigots
If you’re reading this, you might be a community owner, aspiring to be one, or are just plain curious. This advice might not necessarily be targeted at you, and may even read as pointlessly obvious, but believe me when I say that some well-meaning people need it. It is a point of frustration me and many others have endured time and time again, and now that I can confidently say that I run a large-scale community in a way that I always wanted to find in the wild, I feel at the very least confident to say these things not just as a frustrated community member, but as a community owner.
It probably helps to know that I’m not talking out of my ass. Hi, I’m Tax! I’m a community manager with a good few years of experience. I’m a Discord Partner — which is a fancy way of saying I own a server that Discord deemed Pretty Alright, or at least Pretty Marketable at one point — with experience ranging from managing communities for games in a fan capacity, streamers and content creators, and indie games. One of my servers, for the game Half-Life, just hit about 12,000 users, so you could say my experience is mainly around the range of communities from 0–20,000 people (there are servers out there with over 100,000 users, and God help me if I know how they do that) driven with an interest in how good communities actually tick. How do you make good spaces on the internet?
Good means good for people, not good for the purpose of having good marketing. I’m not directly here to tell you how to grow your Discord (that’s more about luck and external factors than people are willing to admit) or how to bump up your server metrics (also mostly about luck and external factors), because that’s marketing. I have two pieces of big advice about community management to tell you in this. The first, really simple one, is that most community management advice is both common sense and very distinctly aimed at marketing in a way that I feel is both unhelpful and disingenuous. I have consistently found “successful” community managers to be some of the least humble people period. Pick a community manager speaking to basically anything that got or was really popular (Fall Guys, Among Us, etc) and they’ll talk a big game about numbers with charts while sidestepping two fundamental truths: Their thing had mass-market appeal, and they got lucky.
Good community management isn’t about numbers and charts no matter what someone tells you. Good community management is about good communities. Happy people who like being in the spaces you’ve built. If you focus on Growing The Community, you’ll inevitably miss the trees for the forest and end up with a big community that nobody wants to be in. The following advice might grow your community. It might shrink it, too. It might make your server more active! It might make it less active, too. The bottom line? This isn’t about numbers. It’s about people, and the numbers are something you consider when the people part is settled.
So let’s talk about the core thing you need to be a good community manager. I mentioned that this stuff is a lot of common sense, but this one is really, really deceptive. It’s common sense at surface level, but in practice, misconceptions about what this means are devastating. Bear with me here:
Ban bigots. “Bigot” is a far-reaching term, of course. That includes racists, homophobes, transphobes, and essentially anything that would infringe on the existence of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people. And I mean ban them for anything. I don’t care how minor or insignificant it might seem. The idea that bigotry only manifests itself at an immediate or “present” scale (active antagonization, slurs, etc) has been largely detrimental to the understanding of where intolerance often germinates within a community. Obviously, people screaming hate greatly apply under the previously stated “Ban Bigots” rule, but you hopefully don’t need me to tell you to remove those people. Instead, I’m gonna advocate for a more proactive response that makes your community a thing that both lacks and shields itself away from intolerance.
The full extent of what I mean what I say “Ban Bigots” isn’t going to land well with everybody. Some of you will need more convincing than others, so I’ll format this around bringing up some common responses to my proposal, then do my best to clarify what they mean to me, and how this advice should still applicable to you no matter how you manage your community (or rather, how you might need to manage it differently).
Let me tackle some of usual responses “Ban Bigots” can garner:
But I already banned all the bigots from my community! It’s against the server rules! is usually the most common response from well-meaning people — which is to say, people who are not trying to create the environment I’m advising you on how to avoid. You may be right! I have no way of knowing what this article may apply to on your end. For all I know, you run a place I’d adore to hang out in and everything in this article is completely obvious to you. But just keep an open mind, okay? Internalizing the possibility that you can always do better has never had a negative impact, and in community management, it should practically be a mantra.
Rules are great, but writing something down and saying you can’t do it and actioning that rule are two very different things. I mentioned above that bigotry enters your community through a lot of non-obvious means. It’s important to understand that far-right beliefs are, fundamentally, camouflagable. Some people will come into your server bearing fascist iconography — which in my opinion, community owners should be educated enough to recognize at a glance, though that’s outside the scope of this article — with names like “GERMAN PATRIOT” and an iron cross ASCII symbol in their bio. This is the easy part, and recognizing this with a ban typically isn’t up to question unless the community has more sinister motives in its core ethos. Again, I’m not here to be Captain Obvious. Instead, I’m asking you to consider what your personal definition of bigotry is. Most would agree that bigotry is anything that actively infringes on the existence of another person or group out of pure intolerance. When does someone step the line into inexcusable, actionable intolerance? That’s when the argument usually starts.
I’m here to tell you that all bigotry is bannable bigotry. Someone might say or do something less clear-cut and hard to deconstruct, say, a message that reads “immigration is ruining my country.” It would be easy to ignore this and let it get drowned out by other messages and forgotten, since it might not seem as easy to deal with as a slur, but I’m here to tell you to ban this person. First of all, this is right-wing populism. Political education is also outside the scope of this article (I’m not an expert, and I’m sure even in my curt descriptions I’ll get something wrong), but we’ll let this be a catch-all example for now. A quick Google search on anti-immigration beliefs will bring you to a general understanding about what right-wing populism encompasses. In short, nationalism (which requires no explanation), social conservatism (respect for traditional social forms, usually in the form of pushing out anything not considered “the norm” in society), and a whole bunch of other things you’ll find if you do more research. Donald Trump ran his 2016 campaign with a platform that embodied a lot of right-wing populist beliefs. According to the words of sociologist Jens Rydgren, as quoted on Wikipedia, right-wing populists work to “mobilize on xenophobic and racist public opinions without being stigmatized as racists.”
So a little bit trickier than “racist” at first glance! So what should you do? You might think that banning the person is a little harsh. Sure, you disagree with what they think, and you’re worried about what else they think that you might disagree with, but having this opinion here isn’t actively harming anyone, right? And hey, you might think to yourself, it’s not like everyone against immigration believes every aspect of right-wing populism. This leads to our second common response:
Banning is harsh! Why not talk to the person instead? The situation seems complicated, and it seems like the most logical course of action is to simply ask the person to explain what they meant. The takeaway from this article is “Ban Bigots,” not “Ask Bigots to Expound on Their Opinion And Then Decide Whether or Not to Ban Bigots,” and I’ll tell you why in four, simple words: It gets fucking exhausting.
There was a time when me and my server staff debated essentially everyone who was muted or otherwise removed on account of a political stance. We didn’t just debate them on their behaviour, but on history, religion, and naturally, politics. This was our real solid go-ahead at doing things the “fair” way: Not just giving everyone what we perceived as a fair chance, but giving everyone the chance to have an informed debate about the disagreement. We treated everyone this way during a particular Pride Month, which for obvious reasons resulted in dozens of people airing their grievances and general frustration. We dealt with all manner of republicans, fascists, and even stalinists with the goal of helping them see why we, and everyone around them, actively rejected their beliefs. The hope was that this would result in the person rethinking their political stance and, hopefully, being able to rejoin the community. By challenging their beliefs, we hoped to do some good.
It didn’t work.
It never worked. Not once. Most of the time the people were simply unreachable, but sometimes, they resorted to tactics designed clearly and deliberately to exhaust us. The rare occasions where we deemed someone “understanding” enough to rejoin the server led to immediate repeat offences. It did, however, result in an extraordinary amount of wasted time on our end, immense frustration, and a downward spike in the mental health of everyone willing to talk to the people instead of immediately banning them. My advice for you? Don’t do this. Don’t expect your staff to do it. Certainly don’t expect your users to debate the person. I am telling you to take the proven and most sustainable path, and that is to ban anyone engaging in at least a modicum of bigoted behaviour or speech.
Maybe you still think that’s harsh. I can’t spend all day on this one section, so let me ask you to think on something before we move on: There are differences in beliefs which can be reconciled, and there are differences in beliefs which cannot be reconciled. You might view banning these people as harsh because you’re essentially “enforcing” your belief on top of the server rules. Think of your server as an embodiment of you. When you design and run a community, you typically try to create one that you’d enjoy hanging out in. When I ask you to ban and remove any and all possible bigotry, I’m not asking you to ban anyone with a differing opinion on a serious subject. There are plenty of differing opinions on legislation, regulation, and general practice which can be reconciled, if both parties are cool enough to respect that agreeing to disagree isn’t the end of the world. This does not encompass debates about fundamental human rights. If someone disagrees with your view on what is fundamentally moral, ethical, and right, you probably wouldn’t be comfortable being around that person. Your beliefs cannot be reconciled. You cannot “agree to disagree” with someone about how human beings should be treated. You cannot sustainably run a community with several of these impossible to reconcile views running in tandem.
In this sense, you essentially pick a stance for your server to take. But you want a server with the people you’d wanna hang out with, right? So just… pick yours. Seems simple, doesn’t it? If your server embodies what you think is moral, ethical, and right, won’t you feel better about running it? Won’t you attract people to your community who share your fundamental beliefs about what’s moral, ethical, and right? There is, simply put, no negative to this scenario. There is no grey area and rarely any edge cases to consider. Your server adopts a mantra that the people you’d like to gather around your community love to hear: You share our beliefs on what is fundamentally moral, ethical, and right, or you leave. If they choose to stay, you ban them. It’s as simple as that. It’s not an “echo chamber,” which is the inevitable attack that’ll get thrown at it. Banning everything you don’t like is an echo chamber. Banning things that you don’t think should exist is proactive and common sense.
There’s a big case here I’m not considering that leads into our next response. So far, this has been pretty politically charged. This is because bigotry targets marginalized groups, which are intrinsically interlinked with the political state of the world being charged with the sort of bigotry that marginalizes them in the first place. But a lot of community owners have a particular response that seems, at surface level, to defeat roughly everything I just said:
Well, I banned political discussion on my server! This can’t happen, because I don’t let it happen. Anyone is welcome as long as they follow the rules.
I’m gonna let myself be a little condescending here. Really? People typically do this for a few reasons, the chief of which is that the disagreements I’ve outlined can’t happen if they aren’t allowed to happen in the first place. This is because they see the sort of arguments bigots cause and, rather than addressing the source, they simply regard political discussion as landmine zone that’s easier to outright disallow than control. This. Is. Dumb. If you do this, I’m here to tell you that it’s dumb. Much like political centrism is impossible, an apolitical server is, fundamentally, impossible.
For a bit, I’m going to paraphrase an incredibly important Twitter thread that you can read here. Simply put, civil-behaviour-based moderation favours assholes. You might think that having good rules is enough to weed out bad people, but it isn’t. Bigots thrive in these communities. They won’t follow the intent of your rules, but they’ll get incredibly good at finding ways to toe the line and needle people while staying within the boundaries of your guidelines. They get really fucking good at this, trust me. Before long, your server is gonna have a political stance anyway, just not one you chose. Members of the marginalized groups being targeted will snap first, and as soon as you start moderating in a way that punishes them for being rude, you have officially, unwittingly or not, taken the side of the bigots.
The consequence of this is pretty obvious. The people being targeted will leave your server, either out of frustration or as a result of your actions, and you’ll be left with the people who got really good at tricking you into helping them. Then, one day, you might wake up and realize that the community you run is a trashfire hellhole devoted to racism, homophobia, transphobia, and basically any type of intolerance you can imagine. People who have been successfully driven out by the groups you protected will tell their friends precisely what kind of server you’re running, and the word will spread far and wide, attracting the people who thrive off it and repelling the people who would experience widespread harassment if they came in. They may even drop the sneakiness at this stage, since you’d effectively have to engage in mass-banning practices to actually punish anyone.
At this point, the “Ban Bigots” philosophy can sometimes become the “Delete Your Server” philosophy. There are some things that just can’t be fixed. For all I know, 4chan was made with the best of intentions, but its philosophy of lacking accountability and a theoretical space for all beliefs resulted in some horrible beliefs dominating what is now widely regarded as a right-wing, insular, and unfriendly place host to as much depravity and meanness as innocent conversation. The best and most moral thing anyone could do with 4chan would be to delete it. I’m not saying your server is as bad as /pol/ on 4chan (far from it), but you can see what happens over a large period of time when everyone is, theoretically, welcome. You don’t have to end up with something unfixable if you’re willing to do something. If your server already disallows political discussion, you’ve got a simple but tricky experiment to run. Allow political discussion somewhere (anywhere or a special channel, you pick) and see what happens.
A server I once casually moderated awhile ago which disincentivized and disallowed political discussion opened a channel at the height of Pride Month and the Black Lives Matter protests to discuss an impromptu donation the server owner had made to a bail fund designed to help release protesters who had been targeted by the police. This was one such “apolitical” server, where the server owner had political views (good ones!) but was stifling their community from sharing their own. Now (as they inevitably are), politics were unavoidably a Thing. So, for the first time in years, the userbase of the server got to discuss politics.
The result was pure, unfiltered vitriol on a scale so large that I still struggle to believe it. Racist, transphobic, and even anti-semitic rhetoric and hate raged for days. These were normal users; regulars and even people with special roles. It was impossible to address, especially with a moderation team largely sourced with no concern for politics (some staff members sided with people upset about the fact that the server had become Political, and plenty of others were completely unable to recognize the hate symbols like triple parenthesis being thrown around). It was a horrible display, but also a deeply embarrassing one. The communities you manage reflect you, whether you want them to or not. Imagine doing something publicly in alignment with your views and the group of people you’re fundamentally connected to also disagreeing with it publicly.
If you run this experiment, and get a response similar to the one I outlined above, all I can really do is wish you the best of luck in addressing it. There is only one way to address it: Banning most of your users, regulars or not, regardless of how the fallout might come. Ban the people who will argue against it. Ban anyone and everyone who is a symptom of the culture you’ve created. You will have to work ruthlessly to fix the mess you’ve allowed to pile up. And hey, I’m not perfect. I’m not talking down on you, so long as you’re willing to finally kill that mess. I’ve made every single mistake I’ve outlined in this article, and I’m sure I’ll have made enough more to make a sequel to this in two years. Recognizing that your community might be like this is like trying to leave a friend group you’ve been in for years when you’ve become uncomfortable with their beliefs. It’s hard, and you feel stigmatized as hell. It takes a lot of social courage to not just speak out, but ruthlessly take action. But for the sake of you, others, and the things you believe are right, you’ve gotta do it.
Anyway, don’t ban political discussion. Political discussion is your absolute best tool for catching assholes. It’s also your best tool for repelling assholes. It’s also one of your best tools for attracting good people to your community. Lean into politics instead. That means doing Pride Month, keeping your pride logo after June, having pronoun roles, recognizing helpful charities, highlighting ways people can help, and basically everything you can possibly do that communicates your beliefs as well as the beliefs of your server. There was a beautiful moment where, after stepping away from running anything in my community for awhile because of personal circumstances, I came back to find the place basically self-regulating itself. Informed discussions about complicated topics like gender and sexuality were happening without the need for intervention, bigots were actively avoiding the server, and the ones that came in to cause trouble were promptly being driven away by the users themselves.
So I guess in a sense, I’m ultimately encouraging you to do the inverse of the “no politics” situation. Good people staying, bad people being driven away, and the entire community rallying to drive the bad people out if they happen to crop up. There might be a sense that what I’m recommending here is… actually a lot of work. But if you do more work, you actually have to do less work. Getting to feel proud of the space you’ve created is also really, really nice. It’s pretty thankless work that makes a big impact, and when you really succeed at making a good place for people to hang out in, you’ll know it the first time someone goes out of their way to tell you how how happy they are there. Heck, save those messages somewhere and look at them again whenever you’re feeling down. Then imagine that for every person that tells you that, there’s a bunch of people quietly thinking the exact same thing.
Community management is about giving people that feeling. It’s nice to think about.
I’m going to end this article with a quick internet history lesson. It’s cool, promise.
“Community management” is a new career term for an old thing. People have been managing online communities for a long, long time. Probably a little longer than you think! In 1983, programmer Steve Dyer created a forum called net.motss (now known as soc.motss). The mechanics of how this worked back then are sorta cool, but I won’t get too technical. This was originally built on Usenet, and wasn’t too dissimilar from how forums and comments work today. motss meant “members of the same sex” and was explicitly for the support of gay Usenet readers, as well as the nuanced discussion of issues surrounding the views and treatment of gay people by American society. It’s widely regarded as not only the first explicitly LGBTQ space on the internet, but the first international space for LGBTQ people of any kind.
If you can imagine dealing with bigots in online communities in the 2020s, imagine doing it in the 1980s. Internet access not being remotely as accessible back then certainly had a hand in helping, but imagine dealing with homophobes amidst the AIDS hysteria. Most people can’t even envision online communication as being around back them, much less what it’d be like to manage a forum for discussion on a topic under such insane mobilized attack as being gay in the 80s. But, in spite of what I’m sure were great efforts by homophobic losers, soc.motss didn’t shut down or die out. In fact, you might not believe it, but soc.motss still exists in some form today, nearly 40 years after its inception. It’s not nearly as active as it once was (Discord and things like Twitter have largely superseded the more intricate back-and-forths you’d have over something like Google Groups), but it’s there. So, what can we learn?
It would be impossible to give a thorough answer on this topic without an insane amount of research, but I think a simple one can be given by looking at the group’s aims as they were established in 1983. For a place usually host to verbose discussions about complicated subjects, the rules are simple. One of them is as follows:
Soc.motss is definitely NOT for discussion of whether homosexuality is good or bad, natural or unnatural, moral or immoral.
People on soc.motss weren’t expected to debate their rights. They weren’t expected to justify their own existence against people that would see them erased. With soc.motss, a fundamental, required aspect of its use was the pre-established belief that being gay was not unnatural, not bad, not immoral. Anyone raising a word to the contrary or otherwise trying to debate the issue was immediately and unceremoniously banned. I want to close the article with this to compel you to do some reading of your own, but also to acknowledge a simple truth: Nothing I just told you is new advice. It predates Discord. It predates any forum you’ve ever been on. In a very real sense, it predates the internet.
Most community managers want to make spaces that grow and last. But sometimes, they don’t really think about the scope of what it means to manage a big community in this age of the internet. There are people who will unavoidably join your community young and impressionable, some who are maybe even too young to be allowed there, and they’ll just… hang out. When you were younger, you can probably recall an online community that was really impactful in the way it helped, or hindered, your upbringing. We don’t build communities to raise people, but that’s what happens in some form anyway. You will generally never see the longterm impact a community you manage will have on the people who pass through it; the true scope of that is basically unquantifiable. We, however, can look at what impact other long-lasting communities have had on the people who have hung around there. Places like 4chan, KiwiFarms, and the policies that govern them have created hateful and broken people, and have led to devastating real-world consequences. Some people manage to grow outside of those dark, insular places and learn to understand exactly what they were viciously taught there, and others never do. You never need to contribute to that cycle. You can make communities that do so much more. Communities where people feel safe. Where they feel like they can grow. Communities that teach people what it means to be a kind and well-informed person who doesn’t stand for hate. Communities that push people to consider a better world.
You set that example. So ban bigots, okay? Thanks.