The most interesting thing to come into my mailbox this morning was my regular update from e-mint.
e-mint is the Yahoo group for Community Professionals, and a really interesting, knowledgeable, helpful bunch of people they are too. I heartily recommend you join them if you’re working within social media.
What has the e-minters in fine debating fettle today is the case of a Community Manager called Kurt Greenbaum who works on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch website STLtoday.com. You can read a more detailed version of events in Matthew Ingrams’ blog (the blogger and communities editor at The Globe and Mail in Toronto), but the story in a nutshell is this: a reader posted a comment onto an innocuous ‘water-cooler’ feature about food. The comment contained the still-unacceptable-just-about-everywhere ‘c’ word. It was quickly removed, reposted, and removed again. Nothing too odd about that: fairly standard immature user behaviour and counter-procedures. But what Kurt did next has the news and social media folk in a flurry. From his email notification of the comment posted he could tell it was from a local school. He then forwarded the local school the email, who tracked the anonymous poster from a combination of IP address and timestamp. The poster (who had used a false email address on his post) was a member of school staff who promptly resigned.
Kurt first seemed to be triumphant about the outcome in an avenging-angel kind of way, but then – having been on the receiving end of a torrent of criticism for overstepping the mark and misunderstanding his role – to some extend recanted and admitted he might have got things slightly wrong (though he still didn’t apologise for his actions).
e-minters, and indeed most opinions that I have seen on the story, have been united in their disapproval for Kurt’s actions. Whilst it’s true that he didn’t at the time of contacting the school know that it would result in the man losing his job, Kurt moved far outside the usual moderation remit by contacting the school and forwarding the email comment alert.
Why did he do this? I guess he was just having a bad day. Perhaps it was once too often that he’d had to deal with users re-posting obscenities, and felt justified when he saw it came from a school. He wanted to set an example, show people they couldn’t hide under a cloak of anonymity. And I do truly sympathise – moderating is an often thankless job, where you have to spend a lot of time staring at the wrong end of human behaviour. But I believe, that he did, truly, get it wrong in this case, and there were other options open to him: most of which have been pointed out by the hundreds of people commenting on this case.
Firstly: if you can’t cope with an occasional ‘c’ word, if it really upsets you so much –or indeed, want to protect your readers from sexist, racism, suicide and bomb threats et al – why don’t you pre-moderate *all* comments?
Secondly, the comment was anonymous: no-one looking at the site could tell it was from a school. Thus there was no need to protect the school’s reputation.
Thirdly, whilst it is true, as Kurt has written in his defence, that blocking the IP address would have potentially stopped the entire school from contributing to the news site, apparently it should have been possible on the WordPress site to set that particular IP address to ‘pre-moderate’.
Fourthly, and finally, he has violated the privacy under which the reader was posting. Not over something which was time-critical and life-threatening: most moderators wouldn’t hesitate to pass on IP addresses to the authorities over issues such as child abuse, suicide threats, extreme bullying or threats of violence. But for a vulgarity? Unfortunately, Kurt’s behaviour, far from securing him the high ground, has simply put the ‘c’ into ‘community management’.