Safe Spaces

A dozen digital communicators gathered for Saturday evening’s Digital Communicators’ Caucus, held at the 2015 Creating Change Conference in Denver, to discuss trends, challenges, and opportunities in the digital LGBTQ movement.

As a co-facilitator of this caucus, I was struck by the commonalities between participants’ experiences, given that their backgrounds ranged from campus organizers to digital directors of national organizations. One theme struck a particularly strong nerve: creating safe spaces online for the LGBTQ community.

I’ve volunteered for the past year with a nationally-known youth support organization, and I’ve seen first-hand the tremendous difference a safe, supportive online discussion space can make for at-risk individuals. As community managers, we want to allow discussion to blossom, and to encourage many points of view to be heard. But where’s the line? Where do we have an obligation to our community members to make sure the marginalized view is protected, even if it means quashing a competing point of view?

From personal experience with an immigration reform campaign, there are three core tenets I’ve come to adopt: compassion, clarity, and consistency. In creating a public Facebook page for undocumented immigrants to tell their own stories, it was imperative that the community feel supported in speaking out as undocumented in such a public way. For this page, we developed a set of publicly-stated standards that encouraged compassionate interaction, encouraging people of all backgrounds to engage in conversation but forbidding racist or derogatory remarks. Doing so helped create a safe space where individuals felt comfortable “coming out” as undocumented. We also very clearly stated conditions under which comments or users may be removed. By establishing expectations and consistently enforcing them, over time the community became a large group that supported each other and even self-moderated when a rogue participant tried to devalue another community member’s worth or story.

In discussing ways to approach creating safe spaces with fellow communicators at Creating Change, there were many opinions and nuances offered on how to foster conversation on sensitive and potentially triggering issues. Drawing both from direct community feedback and from experiences in other communities, such as the undocumented community, here are five initial tips for creating a safe space online:

  1. DO have a clear, consistent standard of acceptable participation
  2. DO affirm participation with comments, likes, favorites, and replies
  3. DO create a decision tree for when to delete comments and/or ban users
  4. DON’T ignore feedback from community members in the form of comments, inbox messages, or direct messages
  5. DON’T be the loudest voice in the digital conversation—step back as the moderator so others can step up

How do you create safe spaces for your online communities that are secure yet inclusive of competing points-of-view? Tweet @ZackFromDC to let me know!