How I messed up and created an island of toxic community members

Bless my heart!

This post about toxic influencers on community landed in my inbox today. (Thank you, Rosieland. It is so so good!) It inspired me to write about what to do when a toxic member shows up in your community. But instead, I got sucked into an old story. One that always had me questioning my skills as a community leader. Let me share it with you…

Early in my community career, I ran a really, really, really large online community. A single toxic community member spent months picking apart any other member that disagreed with them (and being abusive to the team publicly and privately). They continually shifted the tone of the community, while crossing the line in small ways.

One day I realized that the team of community moderators spent a good deal of time monitoring threads and supporting members affected by this person.

I finally made the call and permanently banned them from the community.

I sent them an email to let them know they were permanently banned. I explained that this was decided after reviewing a pattern of toxic behavior. I told them this decision was not reversible, ever. And here’s what happened next…

A small but vocal group of community members were upset that I didn’t have a really good single reason to ban this person. They thought my decision to remove this member from the community was personal. They wrote emails directly to the founder and I was reprimanded by leadership for my decision.

And then things got worse…

This person created a website entirely devoted to hating the community we built. (Granted, it wasn’t only me they despised, but the entire brand community. I can’t take full responsibility. Ha!) They started writing daily blog posts and invited other toxic community members to contribute. Since they owned this website they got even more toxic and personal. (We found a post calling a team member’s new baby ugly.) This was awful. I couldn’t believe this was happening.

I felt like I did the wrong thing and I stepped away from the responsibility of running this large forum. I leaned into community education. I launched programming dedicated to bringing people together to support each other and share knowledge.

“I’m great at unlocking growth for community members. I’m great at community strategy but I’m horrible at actually managing communities.” I told myself this for years.

Thinking about sharing this story challenged me to rethink this situation.

I now realize I did the right thing.

Sure, I pushed our most toxic members to this toxic island created by a banned member. But this was an island with a very small population and one that wasn’t easy to find (unlike our forums). These conversations had an alternative place to live, on an island that eventually sank into the sea.

All these years I thought I had created this island of toxicity. Now I realized I was able to shuffle our most toxic people onto a boat and sail them off to a new location.

This situation also challenged me to create community spaces that were laser-focused on what we could share and give to each other. I went on to create programming that brought people together around a vision and shared goals. We collaborated. We worked through pitfalls together and we celebrated milestones. There wasn’t much room for toxic behavior, we all had a lot of work to do together.

And this is how I tackle community building to this day. What incredible things can we do together that we can’t do individually? Let’s focus on what good we can create and leave little room for negative distractions. When these toxic characters do show up, they often feel out of place. They get little attention and so they go off to find islands where their toxicity can take root and grow.

I still own up to mistakes made as an early community leader. The removal of this member could have been done with more grace, I’m sure. If you’re dealing with toxicity in your community, reach out. Happy to listen and support you!

P.S. All these gifs are made by my dear friend, Julie Smith Schneider.