A Solution to Admin Baiting

One issue that would sometimes arise in our old public discussion forums could be described as admin baiting.

This is when some members assert the right to ask an administrative question, challenge a community rule or its application, or challenge an admin decision – by posting a message in the forum community for all to see.

From the perspective of an individual member, this makes some degree of sense. That person is a member of the community and asserts the right to pose such questions or challenges, expecting a staff member to answer them. From their perspective it may seem similar to sending an email or private message to a staff member. They could also justify posting the message publicly by considering that maybe other members would like to chime in as well, or perhaps others might be interested in the answers. So yeah, on that level I agree that it may seem like a reasonable thing to do.

This practice gets very problematic when you consider the admin perspective though. From the admin’s viewpoint, it’s much easier to see why this sort of behavior could be seen as an unreasonable form of entitlement.

Interestingly, I virtually never see this kind of behavior in certain groups that I’ve participated in, including groups consisting of entrepreneurs, coaches, or website owners. When I think about the culture of those groups, I’d say that most members would likely consider it rude or obnoxious to do this. Those community cultures wouldn’t reward this kind of behavior and would frown on it if a member did this, especially if it happened semi-regularly. They’d expect admin-related matters to be handled privately. When admin matters are handled within the public space of the group, there can be a real risk of stirring up drama and distraction for the community.

In other communities, this type of behavior can be very common, including in communities I’ve managed. A lot of communities have it; it’s usually just a question of how much. If you’ve ever managed your own community, how often have you seen members practice admin baiting? Did you feel obligated to answer publicly?

In our public forums, I didn’t see this as too big of a deal. We had a dozen volunteer moderators, so the load was spread around. My ex-wife Erin and I were also active in the forums, so we could field these types of questions or concerns when they came up. We didn’t necessarily see it as a problem, just a routine part of managing an online community.

The reason I use the admin baiting label is that from an admin perspective, there’s a sense of obligation to personally reply. You want to be helpful to community members, including answering questions and addressing concerns. But those good intentions can really trap you sometimes, even when you can see the nature of the trap well in advance.

For many instances of admin baiting, a quick reply or two is all it takes to handle the request – no big deal. But what if the matter is contentious? What if other members have different opinions about the initial post? What if you can predict that it would lead to a complex discussion, and you’d rather not take the time to engage in that? That’s where it begins to feel like you’ve been baited into a potential time and energy sink. Have you ever taken the bait and felt icky about it afterwards?

What if you simply ignore such requests? Community members may not like that. You may not like it either. Some may start trying to answer on your behalf, with posts that start with, “Maybe they …” or “Maybe it’s because …” Some members may post false or misleading answers – it happens. Members could even start debating with each other about it, right in front of you. If you wait too long, members may start posting conspiracy theories to explain your silence.

If you give a quick, short reply, some members may be unsatisfied with it, concluding that you’re being illusive. They may ask more follow-up questions, which only draws more attention to the discussion, inviting even more replies from other members. And if you reply to those, you may invite even more.

On the other hand, if you provide a long answer, trying to dispatch with the issue in a single reply, you actually give people more hooks to latch onto for asking more follow-up questions and/or debating with you.

How this plays out will differ greatly from group to group, but it’s easy for it to appear that you have not good options. As soon as a member posts the initial admin baiting message, you may feel that you have little choice but to take the bait, even if you can predict that there will be negative effects without much upside, like stirring up a lot of drama.

I’ve experienced this dynamic in Conscious Growth Club as well, ever since we started in 2017. In the beginning, having open discussions about the administrative aspects of the group made sense to me. It was a co-creative effort, I maintained a progress log within the group, and these open discussions seemed like a good way to be transparent with members and keep them in the loop. It felt sort of like maintaining a friendly open door policy.

Sometimes it was a bit draining though. I didn’t always want to share information on decisions if I thought people might want to debate it a lot, especially if I was busy with other projects. Sometimes I also felt that people over-stepped in their demands for info, as if they were entitled to interview me about the details whenever a member quit the group or was ejected. More than one I would see an admin baiting post and say to myself, “Oh great… this is going to lead to some drama for a few days.”

I adapted as best I could. I learned to detach emotionally, answer honestly, and let such discussions run their course. I got used to dealing with all sorts of member dynamics. I’ve a lot of practice since I’ve been involved in online communities since 1994, including founding a few of them. I’ve spend well over 10 years of my life as the head admin of one community or another. For some reason though, it took me a really long time to feel like I really understood admin baiting and why it can be so problematic. Basically I dealt with so much of it that I developed strong coping skills over a period of years without stopping to question the framing behind the issue.

Recently there was another round of this in CGC, which led to days of discussion and many dozens of posts, and some members still consider it unresolved to their satisfaction. Along the way I kept feeling that there was something entirely wrong with this approach.

I’m not entirely sure if this is related, but I’m also doing a 31-day dietary experiment this month – no grains, no legumes/beans, and no sugar for the month of August. I often experience improvements in mental and emotional clarity when I experiment with more restrictive diets. So it’s possible that this was a contributing factor to seeing the problem from a different perspective.

Eventually this question popped into my mind, and it was a game-changer for me:

Is it reasonable for members to assume the right to engage in admin baiting by posting a question, challenge, or demand related to community policies or admin decisions within the community forums, and thereby to obligate me (or any staff member) to answer them?

What do you think? Do you think that’s a reasonable privilege that a community member should have? Think about it. What’s your honest opinion on this?

Even though this privilege isn’t explicitly granted or promised, I think a lot of community members assume that it’s reasonable. They may even feel it’s unreasonable to be told otherwise. And so they may engage in the practice without even giving it much thought. It’s not unlike sending an email, right?

But if I were to ask other community managers or entrepreneurs this particular question, I think more of them would shake their heads and recognize just how unreasonable it is. It’s a disempowering obligation.

That’s when I finally realized – this assumption isn’t reasonable at all. It’s actually a ridiculously unreasonable expectation that anyone in the community should be able to assert the right to bind me to a potentially time-consuming group discussion – any time they want, as often as they want.

Note that this is entirely different from one-on-one communication, like sending someone an email. Expecting decent customer service does seem reasonable – privately.

This problem can easily creep up on admins in a slippery slope manner. Many admin-related questions are no problem to answer publicly in a forum setting. Some are just a little more complex but still easily dispatched. But ever now and then, usually at random intervals, a more complex or contentious case of admin baiting can occur, and now you’re looking at many hours of work – and potentially some community drama – if you accept that invite.

Do you, as a community admin, have the freedom to say no to such invitations? Can’t you just decline, especially when you can clearly see the downsides of getting involved?

Well, how would you do that, assuming you care about maintaining a quality community with a positive and mutually supportive culture?

Will it work if you ignore it? No, we covered that already. In many cases that will make it worse.

Will it work if you reply, “No comment” or equivalent? Probably not since some members may interpret that as meaning that you have something to hide.

The problem is actually upstream. Once someone has engaged in admin baiting, your good options are limited, and they all require some time investment – time that could be better spent elsewhere.

Admin baiting is like going to a party at someone’s house, and sometime during the party, you click your glass to get everyone’s attention, and then you ask the host a question, or you challenge the host to explain something, or you demand that the host change or fix something at the party. You’ve effectively baited the host into having to respond, not just to you but now to everyone in the room. And no matter what kind of reply the host gives, anyone else in the room may assert the right to continue discussing, debating with, or interviewing the host. This could last for a minute… or 10 minutes… or the rest of the evening. The host never really had a good option after being put on the spot, and their ability to engage with the party the way they’d have preferred was derailed to some extent.

For in-person settings like a party or live event, this kind of behavior is typically considered a bit obnoxious except in certain limited settings. But people tend to think differently about online communities. They don’t see all the other people while looking at a forum window, so the social cues aren’t the same.

Within the past several days, I pondered how to solve this problem. I still want to serve community members. I still like being able to provide some transparency. Is there a win-win solution that would serve the same purpose without the practice of admin baiting?

If we take admin baiting off the table, what could we do instead? I think the basic solution looks like this (and “thank you” to the friend who suggested this phrasing):

Take it outside.

In other words, handle administrative issues privately, via one-on-one communication such as email or private messages. Don’t handle them within the community space in front of all of the other members.

Such interactions are likely to be faster and shorter, and they don’t clutter the community with admin-related discussions (especially lengthy ones).

Admin baiting often turns into member baiting as well. Generally speaking members usually prefer to engage with a community on the basis of the community’s core focus and purpose. But if an admin-related discussion arises, especially a complex or contentious one, it can easily draw other members into the discussion, even though they’d probably be better served by focusing on other discussions instead.

An issue that a few members care enough about to engage in a private exchange with an admin could blow up to rope in 3x, 5x, or 10x as many members if discussed openly in the community space. That potentially creates a lot more burden for both the admins and the members.

Now if an admin sees that multiple members are having the same sort of requests through private interactions, the admin can disseminate relevant information more widely, such as by adding an item to a FAQ or by sending out a group email. But in that case it’s a choice – an option – not an immediate obligation.

I saw many other potential benefits to the removal of admin baiting, including better focus for the community, fewer distractions, better community morale, and more value for the members. Consequently, I’ve opted to test this approach in CGC. Yesterday I updated our member rules and guidelines to prohibit admin baiting in the community, steering members to handle admin-related items through private communication, including admin-related questions, sharing feedback on decisions, and more.

It’s barely been 24 hours, and I’m already seeing benefits from this approach. For starters, it’s predictable that this will save a lot of time, energy, and angst down the road. My wife Rachelle is our Community Manager, and she’s also pleased with this change since it makes her job much easier too.

Secondly, the initial feedback and questions that are coming through privately have been thoughtful, useful, and actionable. I like that communicating with a member one-on-one feels more intimate than doing it in the public space of the community forums. I can focus more intently on one person’s questions, comments, or concerns instead of seeing a long page of mixed messaging to decipher.

I can understand that some members may see this as a move away from transparency because we won’t be having open discussions about admin policies and decisions in the forums. I thought about that in advance, and my thinking was that this is probably a neutral type of change transparency-wise. It doesn’t limit my ability to share information with the members. It just gives me more options for doing so.

If I really want to do so, I can still invite an open discussion regarding a policy or decision if I think it would be useful and reasonable. So I always have that option; it just isn’t obligatory. I can see some situations where that might be useful and productive.

Also, there’s still the open door for members to share the same types of issues. We’re just handling this communication outside of the community space.

I like quality feedback, especially when it’s actionable. I’m okay with some debating now and then. I like helping customers and CGC members. And gradually I’ve been learning that some communication is much better suited to a private, one-on-one format.

Even when you considering the transparency aspects, it’s easier to be transparent in one-on-one communication, especially when the relationship is high-trust, and you can customize the communication for each person.

In some ways this is similar to the decision I made not to have public comments on my blog. I actually started with having comments when I began blogging in 2004, but I removed that option in 2005, after it reached about 100 comments per day. What happened afterwards was that I received private feedback via email that was much lower in volume and much higher in quality. I found that to be a very positive change, which is why I’ve kept it this way for 15 years now. I have no regrets about that; it still seems like it was a wise change.

Interestingly, people are more likely to add posts to a community discussion than to send a private message about it. A blog post that might have garnered 100 public comments may generate only a few private emails, sometimes none at all. A forum post on an issue that could have generated dozens of replies may generate just a handful of private messages.

You might think there would be a lot of redundancy from having to field the same types of questions and comments privately, but it’s actually the opposite. There’s way more redundancy when discussions are public. When people send private messages, they tend to be more unique and varied. I’m still pondering why that is. Maybe it’s because people are strongly influenced by what they read in a discussion, and it narrows their focus.

I genuinely feel this type of change is better for our members too, although I can understand why it may be harder to see that when the change is still fresh. I imagine that it will take some members a bit of time to get used to it, but I think they’ll grow to like it when they see how much simpler and smoother it is for all involved.

I think it has a lot of promise, but it is reversible, so if for some reason it doesn’t work out, we can always revert back to the old ways if necessary. I’d be reticent to return to the old reality though, and I’m hopeful that this change will prove itself to be an intelligent, win-win solution. It’s also pretty flexible, so if problems arise there are still plenty of ways to tweak it. In fact, if you know of a better approach than what I’ve outlined here, please do let me know about it. I’m still on the lookout for intelligent communication practices for online communities.

Lastly, I want to make it clear that I harbor no resentment towards anyone who has engaged in this practice in any community I’ve managed. It’s the behavioral pattern and its consequences that I’m addressing here. I surely must admit that in some communities, I occasionally engaged in admin baiting too, not seeing it from the admin perspective at the time. Going forward I want to watch out for this pattern within myself and do my best to “take it outside” for matters that would be more gracefully handled in private.

It’s interesting what solutions can emerge when we look at a problem or challenge from multiple angles.

Receive Steve's new articles by email.