Clicks don't lie: people gravitate toward drama (and who am I to deny them?)

By on Dec 6th

I wrote yesterday about the process of realizing that a community management tool I'd established in 2008 for the Offbeat Bride Tribe was no longer relevant to my community's 2012 needs. In a nutshell: my current community doesn't need high-drama posts filtered. But more importantly, they don't WANT them filtered out.

You know why? Because on a certain level, we all gravitate toward difficult emotions. As one Offbeat Bride Tribe member said:

Is it just me or do other people actually love reading Primal Screams too? … I like to read about other peoples dramas – when the issues are different than mine, it takes me outside of myself and allows me to put my own issues in perspective. When the issues are the same as mine, I can realize that others go through the same things and not feel so alone in this process.

This member does a great job of articulating the constructive value of drama: it can give you perspective. It can be reassuring. But I'll speak for myself here: drama is titillating. Train wrecks are interesting. Gossip is scandalizing. Arguing can be exhilarating. Telling someone on the internet they're wrong and then waiting for a response? KIND OF FUN.

Moderated into a corner

I've written before about how the Tribe's activity this year has been pretty flat. The community has been functioning super smoothly. The moderators have had way less drama to deal with. Everyone's been very well-behaved. We've got all our systems smoothed out. Things have been really… nice.

And you know what my members told me this week? Basically, things have been TOO NICE. Basically, under my direction, my community manager and her team of volunteers have moderated the community into a corner. I think part of why traffic has been so flat is because we've been SO committed to keeping the community SO drama-free that members are, well, kinda bored. When there's no drama, there's less engagement. There's less investment. It's less, well, interesting on a certain level.

The drama hose

I watch my traffic real-time like a television when a contentious post goes viral on an Offbeat site, and here's what I've seen time and time again: as comments get crazy, traffic gets equally crazy. People drop their bombs, and then refresh and refresh and refresh waiting for responses — so they can fire something back. We usually let this happen for a while, until the editor who moderates the site begs for mercy. Then we do what's known as "clean it up, shut it down."

The minute comments are closed on a contentious post, traffic starts falling. Readers stop commenting, commenters stop refreshing, and everyone puts down their pitchforks and wanders off for something else to do. It's completely predictable: shut off the new drama hose, and the traffic dries up. I'm MORE than fine with this (more about why in a minute) but from a short-term business perspective, I'm shooting myself in the foot turning down those pageviews.

On a certain level, this makes me sad. Can't nice communities be awesome? Do we really need drama? But then the cynic in me shrugs her shoulders and sighs, "of course we do… and who am I to deny people?" I am a web publisher and pageviews are my business. I've been so committed to enforcing low-drama community management that on a certain level I've shot myself in the foot. Most of the time, I'm ok with this — you'd have to pay me six figures to put up with the daily drama of managing an Offbeat Families forum — but this week I'm recognizing the ways that I just need to let go of the reigns and allow my community members what they want… a relatively supportive place to work through tough issues, complete with the drama that may come up during those discussions. That drama is not my problem — and in fact, it's potentially my paycheck.

Personal values vs brand strategy

Being drama-free has always been a brand issue for me, but it's an extension of a very personal value. I spend too much of my life online to waste any of it looped in behavior that one friend described as "flank-biting." Arguing drains me, and rather than spend time fighting over stuff, I'd rather everyone put down their pitchforks and go DO some cool stuff. For me, I want less bickering and more learning. I want less critique and counter-points, and more creating.

I totally understand the appeal and pull of gossiping, drama-mongering, and online shenanigans — I engage in them regularly outside of my work, but I feel like they hurt me. They feel like a form of self-harm, and work hard to fight it and live a life that's focused on constructive communication and proactive choices. I try to avoid this kind of online self-harm in my personal life, and I've extended that value to my brand… and therefore introduced that dynamic into the relationship I have with my readership.

Here's the thing though: it may be that this personal value is not only denying my community of readers the opportunities to develop their own values around conflict, debate, and disagreement — but also hurting my business. I'm a publisher. My success ultimately is tied to my pageviews, and by having filters like Primal Scream and our no-drama comment policies not only do I create a lot of work for myself and my staff, but I'm also fighting against my community — all in the pursuit of a value that may not resonate with anyone but me. I'm on my proverbial bleeding knees, rattling my chains and sobbing, "I work so hard to try to help you LOOK AT HOW HARD I TRYYYY" and my readers are shuffling around awkwardly being all, "Uh, we don't need your help? It's ok. Maybe you should get up and chill out?"

Lessons learned

The question I've been considering this week: is this really a win/lose situation? Is there a way I can provide a less-controlled space to my community in a way that doesn't make me feel like I'm sacrificing my values? There are three factors here:

  1. The inate communal attraction toward drama
  2. My personal values about constructive communication
  3. The business realities of pageviews & money

By shifting the way Primal Scream works on the Tribe, I'm essentially saying, "The people have spoken, and they want their chocolate in their peanut butter." Keeping the two separate has cost me time and money… all to enforce something Tribe members made it clear they didn't actually want. Why am I working so hard to inflict my values on my readership? How far am I willing to go to force my brand vision on the community members who ultimately pay my bills? I mean, here's the thing with the attraction to online drama: I GET IT. I've made a choice to try to steer my time away from online drama, but most people don't… and I think it might be time to learn from my readers and start exploring the separation between my personal values and my business strategies.