dealing with troubled users at Christmas

The BBC, and many other websites, keeps it’s message boards and have your say debates open 365 days a year, including Christmas and boxing day. Why? Well, for the BBC it makes perfect sense – our TV and radio broadcasts are never switched off, so neither should services available on our website. Also, to close over Christmas would favour Christianity at a time when an increasing number of our audience is likely to be Muslim, Hindi, Jewish, Buddhist or non-religious.

Having been in the online community management industry for years, I also know that this time of year is the one where we encounter the most “troubled users”: people who are lonely, depressed, bereaved or perhaps even suicidal. This time last year I came across at least one of each of these myself. So what’s an online community manager, discussion host, or moderator supposed to do? Lawyers disagree as to whether websites hosting online communities owe their users a legally imposed duty of care. To be safe, you should discharge that duty of care if you think one exists. Besides, even if we don’t have a legal duty of care to those who use our services, we probably owe a moral duty to them and should do what we can, within reason, to ensure their safety. Here’s how easy it is to make a real difference and, in some situations, to save someone from harming themselves or others:

1. Explain to the user that, although you are concerned and sympathetic, you aren’t a trained counsellor – “I realise this must be really difficult for you and, although I’d like to be able to help, I’m not a trained counsellor…”
2. Suggest that the user seeks advice from someone they trust, their GP, or another professional who is trained to help – “… many people find that talking to someone helps”
3. Point the user towards The Samaritans, ChildLine (the two I most often suggest) or another more specialised organisation.
4. If you can, make contact with the user in a way that doesn’t commit you to engaging in a long term dialogue with them. I know of a number of instances where discussions hosts have befriended users only for those users to then not understand that, if they don’t get a quick reply to an email, it means they aren’t working, not that they don’t care anymore.

Of course, if you think a user of one of your websites is in imminent danger to themselves or someone else, you might want to consider contacting the police.

Luckily, this is something you’re not likely to have to deal with very often. By the way, your community members do appreciate you being there on public holidays:

Haveyoursay (screenshot from BBC News Online)