Setting clearer expectations will reduce online toxicity

A few months back I attended a memorial service for a friend, mentor and advisor to this company. I was struck by the number of people who praised the way he clearly communicated -- and lived up to -- the expectations he had for his relationships with family, friends and colleagues. His efforts led to a life well lived.


Since then I’ve thought a lot about his personal formula for successful relationships, and what it means for the work we do to promote diversity and inclusion, and trust and safety in online communities. Can his approach of expectation setting eliminate the toxicity we see in social networks, dating apps and online games?


The Importance of Expectation Setting

Most interpersonal conflict comes down to differences in expectations. When two people meet for a date, do they both expect to see a movie and call it a night? Or was one looking forward to painting the town red? The same is true for family building. One parent may fully expect the family to sit down together for dinner seven nights a week, while the other thinks it’s fine to just grab a plate and eat wherever. Conflict and disappointment can result from these unmet expectations, which is why it’s so critical to our wellbeing that we discuss them upfront.


Our public lives are equally governed by expectations. We wait for our turns in line, refrain from swearing in formal situations, treat one another with respect, and expect similar treatment in kind. Our institutions -- churches, schools, the military -- are able to function because we know what is expected of us, and that, in turn, spares us the pain of being blindsided. There’s comfort in knowing there is a process and how that process applies to us. These systems, habits, and rituals are fundamental to a healthy organization, family, relationship, community, and society.


Most people want to live up to established expectations if only to spare themselves the embarrassment of going against the grain, or worse, subjecting themselves to public shaming when someone brings attention or reports wrongdoing. Getting called out on the carpet for bad behavior is a powerful deterrent for the majority of people.


Then Along Came the Internet

The Internet is rightly called the great disrupter, and through the years we’ve seen just how much it has upended our expectations for social behavior. Why is that?


When the Internet was still new, it was seen as a place for maximum privacy, a place where people could explore topics that were difficult to discuss in person. Remember that famous Peter Steiner cartoon: “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”


That anonymity removed the risk of embarrassment and public shaming, and made it difficult for others to report bad behavior. This anonymity gave rise to some unintended consequences. People with an ax to grind suddenly had a vehicle with which to inflict maximum damage to others at minimal risk to themselves. This was new ground for the human race, as it was the first time our actions could be separated from our identity on such a wide scale. Expectations for inclusion and respect just didn’t seem to apply.


We’ve seen this play out way too frequently in social media platforms, dating apps and in the online gaming world. Anonymity, or even thinly veiled identities, emboldens bad actors and can lead to toxic situations.


How Do We Fix It? 

As I mentioned earlier, most interpersonal conflict is due to the misalignment of expectations, and the Internet is no different. Users of a social media platform may have widely different notions as to what is acceptable and what isn’t. Some people think Facebook is the exact right place to discuss politics, while others believe it’s uncouth to share one’s views in a forum where so many may be offended by those opinions. Some see name calling as free speech, others believe it’s just wrong to stoop to that level.


The platform vendors themselves have expectations as to how their users should behave. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter clearly state that racist, misogynistic and bigoted speech are not allowed on their platforms, while Reddit and 4chan are far more likely to turn a blind eye to such comments.


To avoid friction in these platforms, users must have a full understanding as to how they are expected to behave, along with an easy and effective mechanism to report abuse. As my friend clearly understood, the most important driver of leveling expectations is communication. 


The Role of Communicating Expectations in Online Communities

Online communities have not done a good job in consistently communicating their evolving expectations for user behavior on their platforms. Most seem mired in policy minutiae, as they attempt to define the types of statements that are not allowable. This is a futile exercise. True, there are specific words, images and phrases that are clearly racist, misogynistic, homophobic or discriminatory, but focusing on such proscriptions won’t ultimately create a trusted space.


For instance, none of the words that make up the phrase, “blood coming out of her whatever,” are offensive, but the sentiment expressed by the speaker is clearly misogynistic. How can platforms protect their communities from such toxic sentiments? Not by developing a list of verboten words, but by making it abundantly clear that misogyny has no place in their communities - if they so choose.


Users themselves have a vital role in keeping a community safe. We see this in the offline world when people participate in a neighborhood watch program, or report suspicious activity to the police or 411. Online, only about 18% of people report toxic behaviors. It’s clearly in the platform’s best interest to make it easy for users to report abuse and to make it abundantly clear that they won’t tolerate it. A mechanism for reporting and addressing abuse is absolutely essential.


At present, platform vendors tend to point to their policy guidelines for conduct and put the blame on users who don’t comply with their rules. This isn’t working. Rather, they need to proactively and frequently engage their users as to what is expected of them. This can be done in a variety of ways, via in-game mechanics and reminders, newsletters, website updates, and so on. Finding creative ways to engage the community as to the actual policy (i.e. expectations) is key.


They need to communicate the steps they will take if and when a user falls victim to abuse. If the platforms don’t make it clear to their users that they have their backs, people will resort to disguising their gender, interests, beliefs, sexual identity, religion and other aspects of their beings to avoid abuse. This is hardly a good situation.


Communicating expectations won’t eliminate all bad behavior, but it will bring to the online world the mores that have governed our offline behavior for so long. Most people would never tell someone to f*#@-off at a reading in a public library just because they disagreed with what that person said. Polite interactions in public venues are absolutely expected. It’s time we held the online world to the same standard.