How To Avoid Drama in Your Online Community
Read any web page about how to build an online community and more often than not, you'll see a reference to Discord, Skype, or forums. These platforms can be a great way to feel connected with your community, to be able to fine-tune your project, business, or presence, and fix problems in real-time, but there is also the possibility of some members of your Discord, Skype, or forum community acting out, being excessively emotionally needy, or acting in an abusive way towards others in the community.
This can be a tricky situation to navigate, so I'm going to give you a few suggestions to assess the potential for drama, to tackle it if it does occur, and to keep the community a positive, enriching place for your community to come.
Assessing the Potential for Drama
What is your group about, and who are you likely to draw in? If the group is for discussing something dry such as economics or photography (and by 'dry' I certainly don't mean boring! I mean that they're unlikely to incite abusive behaviour or any other kind of acting out), then your Discord community probably isn't going to become the home to somebody who acts out too often. No community is completely immune, but some are simply not likely to attract drama. Others, such as gender dysphoria/anxiety/abuse survivor/other support groups, S&M groups, or particularly popular fandoms, are more likely to.
Any online community, regardless of its core remit, can be an emotionally healthy or unhealthy place to be. It depends on the individual community members and how they behave. So, before we go into how you manage drama, how do you assess the potential?
Karpman Drama Triangle
The quickest way to assess this is with the Karpman Drama Triangle (Karpman, 1968). The human condition is notoriously complex but this diagram simplifies the dynamics that lead to acting out in any community (online or not), and once you're used to it, you will become adept at spotting it quickly and efficiently.
The three corners of the triangle each have a label: Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim. If a person is acting as any one of these in your group, then they need somebody else to play a role on the drama triangle as well (for example, you can't be a rescuer without a victim, nor a victim without a persecutor, nor a rescuer without someone to persecute). So if you have somebody in your Discord or Skype community playing any one of these roles, ask yourself:
Which role are they playing, and who (if anyone) is filling in the other corners of the triangle?
The other roles may be being filled by somebody outside of the community. For instance, if I come to your online community and complain about how I've been passed up for a promotion at work (yet again! It always happens!), then I may be stepping into the victim position (I say 'may be' because discussing problems is not automatically a sure sign of victimhood. See the 'Winner's Triangle' later in this article). My persecutor is my boss, and I'm asking you to be my rescuer.
Except... you cannot be my rescuer in this situation. You almost certainly don't have the power to veto my boss' decision to pass me up for that promotion. Therefore the best way I can condition you to play the part of rescuer for me is to make clear how sad and angry I am about missing out on 'my' promotion and convince you that it's your job to make me feel better. How can you do that? By bad-mouthing my boss, perhaps, or by offering me alternative work? None of these things need to be your responsibility, but a victim will try to convince you that they are.
This is a relatively benign example, but what if I describe being thrown out of the house by my family to live on the streets, or being on the receiving end of life- or health-threatening acts of homophobia? Am I not entitled to complain about it or seek help wherever I can?
Seeking help for a problem is healthy, however it needs to be done with an honest eye on who realistically can offer the help, and who cannot.
What You Can (or Can't, or Shouldn't) Do To Help
There are a few things you can do to minimise the impact of a person in the role of Victim in your community.
Keep The Remit of Your Community in Mind
First and foremost, you need to keep in mind the remit of your Discord or Skype (or whatever else) community. What is the group for? Bird-watching? Support for children of personality disordered parents? Video game development? With the group's remit in mind, how much support is it appropriate to offer? A support group of any kind should be able to offer something, whether that's knowledge, funding, or a well-managed safe space.
Some groups may incidentally attract people who need more support than you initially expected (for example, a group for artists may end up attracting a lot of people who spend a lot of time drawing by themselves in order to cope with difficult life situations such as bullying, abuse, health-related issues, or financial problems). This, again, is something worth noting and responding to accordingly.
Vent Rooms - the Pros and Cons
Having a support room or 'vent room' is an obvious first choice. It can:
- help to remove discussion of the individual's support needs to a dedicated area, ring-fencing it from the main areas
- give people a specific place they feel they are welcome to discuss their problems
That is, of course, the theory. In practice, it can also:
- become a highly visible forum for people who want to play Victim-Persecutor-Rescuer
- become a place where games are played and incidents of acting out or excessive negativity gains a firmer foot-hold in your Discord community. A common game that gets played in these situations is Why Don't You, Yes But.
Creating a support room can, in itself, be an act of playing Rescuer and offering an invitation to anyone in your community who is looking for one, so it pays to be aware of your own motivations for offering a support or venting space. However, if you feel that one is necessary (such as in that art forum) but you don't have the resources or expertise to deal with all of the problems that may be discussed there, there are still ways to help.
Consider having a support or vent section but adding extra conditions such as not mentioning politics (this can escalate and has a tendency to introduce a sense of tribalism into groups) or using direct insults.
This can be very effective at nipping drama in the bud. Have a support or venting room that only the founder can post in, and explicitly state your position on offering support there. One community owner used the following wording:
"People online can't necessarily give you the help that you need - if it's possible for you and your problems are bad enough that you need more than just "friend" things, consider looking for a counselor offline.
In general, you should probably avoid asking for validation about appearance, that you made good decisions, or about deep, nagging insecurities, because those questions may force us to choose between being friends and offering good advice. Counselors are good for those situations!"
He also used a boiler plate (see below).
Referring on / Signposting
This is a great way to bring Victim-Persecutor-Rescuer dynamics back to reality. If it's not realistic for you to help the person (or if the help they're asking for doesn't seem to fit or solve their problem), then refer them on to a resource that can (or is able to talk to them more knowledgeably about the subject). This is called 'signposting' or referring, and even professional therapists do it if they are unable to help with a given problem (for example, a person may seek therapeutic help for an addiction, but a therapist cannot offer a rehab service and would need to refer them on to one).
Some Victims may try saying that you are the only person who can solve their problem, but this is almost certainly not true. If in doubt, think about their situation in terms of the Karpman Drama Triangle and whether having 'nobody to help them but you' is a realistic assessment of the situation. In this scenario, signposting them somewhere else breaks the narrative of "you're the only one who can help me". It'll be uncomfortable for the Victim to hear and they may try to Persecute them into becoming their Rescuer, but you can only offer what you can offer, and there are support resources available for just about every problem in existence.
Creating a boiler plate is a way of signposting people to where they can get the support they need. It doubles well with the idea of having a support room with restricted access. A generic boiler plate may include:
- Depression: (to learn more about depression and to seek help) https://turn2me.org/
- Social Anxiety Association (to learn more and to seek a community) - https://socialphobia.org/
- Social anxiety forum: https://socialphobiaworld.com/
- General emotional support: https://forum.deviantart.com/community/life/
- Samaritans: https://www.samaritans.org/ (UK only so you may want to find an equivalent telephone-based listening service in your country)
And of course, you are welcome to add more.
Have Some Gatekeeping in Place
So far, this article has had an emphasis on managing people who present themselves from the Victim position. However, people can also approach your community from the Persecutory or Rescuer positions.
Depending on how niche your online community is, you may wish to vet the people coming in to ensure that they are keen to join the community for its intended purpose. This will help to filter out trolls (aka Persecutors) and proselytizers (aka Rescuers).
All of these suggestions should help you to protect the focus of your community and your peace of mind. The last point I'd like to make now is to highlight the difference between Victim-Persecutor-Rescuer, and the Winner's Triangle (Choy, 1990) which is made up of Vulnerable-Assertive-Caring.
The Winner's Triangle
The Winner's Triangle is the far more constructive counterpart to the Drama Triangle. Some of you (especially those of you whose communities are naturally given to offering emotional support) may have been protesting throughout this article that a person who talks about their problems in your online community is not necessarily a Victim. Neither is a person who wants to help necessarily a Rescuer, and neither is somebody who has something to fight for a Persecutor.
You are right, and Acey Choy articulated this beautifully in the Winner's Triangle. A person describing a problem they're experiencing can simply be allowing themselves to be vulnerable (without being a Victim). A person who wants to help others can be caring (not a Rescuer), and a person who wants to right for what is right may simply be assertive (not a Persecutor).
These are all healthy positions to be in, so long as we are only in them when they are appropriate to the situation. If you find yourself frequently stuck in any of the positions of the Drama Triangle (or if somebody in your online community seems to be trying to pull you onto a position on the Triangle) then reverting to the Winner's Triangle equivalent is a great way to resolve the situation with minimal drama.
Thank you for reading this article. I hope it's given you some clarity and guidance for keeping your online community drama-free. If you have any questions then you are more than welcome to contact me; I look forward to hearing from you.
Berne, E., 1968, 'Games People Play'
Choy, A., 1990, 'The Winner's Triangle', TAJ 1, 1990.
Stephen B. Karpman M.D, 2014, A Game Free Life, San Francisco, Drama Triangle Publications