Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On HuffPost: What NOT to Say to an Eating Disordered Friend

Now live on HuffPost Teen:

So you've just found out that your friend or family member is struggling with an eating disorder. You want to be supportive, but you're not sure what to say, and before you know it, your friend is defensive and angry or (perhaps worse) completely shut down. What went wrong?
The fact is, eating disorders are complex mental illnesses. Without a basic understanding of how an eating-disordered mind works, you can easily stumble into trouble. As someone with a long history of personal struggle, I've used my insight to compile a list of the most common mistakes people make in this area.

Read more at Huffington Post...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Are You There, Pinterest? It's Me, Maddie.

Pinterest has been through a lot since their meteoric rise to popularity this year. Last week, they revised their rules to cover a gaping hole in their TOS in response to copyright concerns. This week, they added a clause to forbid pinning anything that "creates a risk of harm, loss, physical or mental injury, emotional distress, death, disability, disfigurement or physical or mental illness to yourself, to any other person, or to any animal." This comes in the wake of public outcry against pro-eating disorder communities and Tumblr's move last month to ban content that promotes self-harm, including pro-ED content.

Here's the problem: Pinterest is still saturated with pro-anorexic content. A search for the keyword "thinspo" (a term used by the pro-ED community to describe images that provide inspiration to continue eating disorder behaviors) turns up endless images of jutting collarbones, stick-thin legs, and concave stomachs. I know from years of experience in content moderation: Don't ban something if you don't have a plan in place to remove it.

But worse than these issues themselves is that Pinterest's team has remained eerily silent. I am particularly surprised that Pinterest's community manager is nowhere to be found. In fact, as the CM of a user-generated content site myself, I saw the copyright debacle coming and reached out to her via LinkedIn. About a week later, everyone was talking about it. I didn't take offense at her lack of response; she must be busy. But doing what?

This is the real problem with Pinterest, the one they're going to have to solve or sink. We all make mistakes, as individuals and as companies. Pinterest hasn't made any mistakes from which they can't recover. I've read a lot of criticism of the company, but I haven't read anything that indicates people aren't ready to forgive and forget. But when you make a mistake, you need to reach out to people and invite them to do so. Admit you're not infallible, and use that point to relate to your users, rather than remaining silent and risking a loss of brand trust.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Not-So-Illustrious Origins of #InflatableShark

It all started with an inflatable shark. Not even an actual, physical inflatable shark. Just the threat of one.

As the community manager of HubPages, I've dealt with a lot of persecution complexes. As I like to say, "the internet brings out the crazy" (often in otherwise seemingly sane persons). Online, as off-, people want to believe they're being specially victimized, rather than examine what responsibility they carry.

The original #inflatableshark moment arose from one of these situations. A user was highly indignant about one of his Hubs (articles on HubPages) being moderated as containing unrelated products. He insisted that all of his Amazon and eBay capsules contained products relevant to the subject (cable TV programs). The user sent several abusive emails to staff about the moderation, and we responded politely more than once to explain the problem. He ignored this and went to the public forums on our site to open a thread ranting that HubPages is staffed entirely by idiots.

I responded:
You have an inflatable shark in one of your product capsules. 'Nuff said.

Normally, I would not respond so brusquely, but having seen the emails coming from this guy, it was clear to me that he wasn't actually reading our communications to him. Partly, I wanted to be as succinct as possible to maximize the likelihood of him actually recognizing the problem. And partly, I was quite frankly sick of the guy. Perhaps not my finest moment as a community manager, but it gave rise to an internal meme around the site and office, which would quickly gather a life of its own.

Suddenly, the thread was hijacked by several users posting endless pictures of inflatable sharks... and some dolphins too! One of our moderators (anonymous for her own protection) pasted the image of an inflatable shark over the cowbell in a photo of Will Ferrell from the classic SNL sketch, with the caption "More inflatable shark!" Around HubPages HQ, we started referring to "inflatable shark moments."

When an Internal Meme Goes Public

As community managers, we all have these moments. We've all posted to our Facebook pages as ourselves instead of our brands, or mistakenly tweeted something personal from the company Twitter account. And really, these moments are not exclusive to community management. In a way, the user who prompted the whole meme was having one of those moments too.

In a #cmgrchat discussion a few weeks ago, I mentioned #inflatableshark on Twitter for the first time. The other community managers (and a few in particular) immediately latched onto the hashtag. I believe it was Michael Hahn who suggested we could use it as a funny codeword for a community mishap of any kind. Penelope Singer suggested t-shirts. A few days later, Matt Hirshfelt pointed out a daily deal site offer for inflatable sharks, and both he and I bought them for our respective offices. Rosemary O'Neill uncovered a forgotten inflatable shark on her table at home! We tweet each other regularly using the hashtag, sharing pictures, stories, and general camaraderie.

Taking those bad moments and laughing about them is vital, not only in community management, but in life. I see this user's quiet exit from HubPages (without even responding to the thread he himself opened) as a lesson. If you take yourself too seriously, if you can't take responsibility for your actions, if you can't laugh at yourself when necessary, you're doomed to a very unhappy on- or offline existence. Bottom line: we all make mistakes. It's how you recover from them that counts.

What #inflatableshark moments have you had recently? Join me on Twitter and share.