The following article was originally posted on my blog Superheroes in Racecars.
I personally don’t have much to say about the political and social issues that fuel the #GamerGate mess, but all of this has gotten me thinking a lot about community management. Specifically, I find myself cringing at all of the very serious community management mistakes that have been hurting the #GamerGate movement ever since it started, so I mostly just wanted to write a postmortem-like post on how it all could have gone better.
More importantly, this made me think more about how we can better manage the overall videogame community, because at the end of the day, all I really care about is whether or not people actually like being here. I think this post turned into a pretty great case for why we need more smart, tolerant, and prominent voices helping to keep our community healthy.
Community as a Movement
For me, the most immediately interesting thing about #GamerGate is that it’s a completely grassroots movement that has absolutely no real leaders who can speak for the entire group. GG supporters are rather proud of this, because it adds a certain sense of rawness and authenticity to their cause, which they hope makes their voices more credible. Because no one’s really on top of this thing, #GamerGate is perhaps better described as a community of people who have come together to voice their grievances on several issues.
Once you start thinking of #GamerGate as a recently formed, disorganized community, rather than a movement, a lot of its quirks suddenly start to make more sense, many of which I’ll discuss throughout the rest of this article.
But there’s something extremely problematic about having a disorganized community that is also a movement. Movements are all about sending a clear message through organized action, and the biggest problem of the #GamerGate community is that everyone has their own conflicting ideas as to what that message should be—and how it should be communicated.
Many supporters believed that GG was about the ethics of games journalism, others thought it was about fighting back against the increasingly left-leaning views of the most prominent games journalists, others thought the movement was about defending the “gamer” identity from being associated with the ugliest parts of the Internet, and there were many who thought that GG was just a manifestation of the darkest, most misogynistic parts of Internet games culture. With so many different perspectives speaking under the same banner, it’s easy to understand why the movement was so confusing and chaotic, especially during its early days when it was making a lot of noise.
While many GG supporters did rise up to try to fix this problem by promoting messages about what GG was and wasn’t about, they unfortunately did not have much influence over people who were already convinced that their cause was what #GamerGate was really about.
At this point there was really only one clear solution to the problem: break up #GamerGate into its many sub-movements so that they could each have a clearer, more coherent, and more effective message. There were some pretty valiant attempts to start a new hashtag called #gameethics, where more organized discussion could take place, but many GG supporters had grown reluctant to switch to the hashtag, as they felt that their voices were louder under #GamerGate hashtag.
I’ve been doing a lot of summarizing here, but I hope you can see just how messy a community-driven movement can be. Dealing with a typical community is one thing, but once you start dealing with a movement, you’re dealing with an organization of people who are working together towards some kind of goal. You inevitably run into problems in pursuit of those goals, and these kinds of problems are usually solved more effectively and more efficiently by leaders who have the skills and respect to drive everyone towards what’s best for the cause.
Filling the Leadership Gap
It’s often said that when a disorganized group tries to do something, leaders naturally rise up when needed. However, if you have a group as fragmented as #GamerGate, what kind of person would have been needed to fill the leadership gap?
First, it would have helped if there were prominent people among the GG community who already had a decent following of fans who respected them. Unfortunately, the most prominent GG supporters were people like Adam Baldwin (a fairly well-known actor) who simply set a bad example for the movement by being a huge jerk to people and inadvertently (or advertently?) using his large number of similarly toxic followers to perpetuate the harassment that #GamerGate had become known for.
The communities that form on social media are different from typical online communities in that there are absolutely no formal leadership positions such as “admin” or “moderator.” Rather than having community managers, you tend to instead have community leaders, who emerge based on their reputation and the respect that they have earned from their peers. Basically, the more people in the community who respect you, the more power and influence you have to help lead that community. For example, it’s no surprise that the most prominent “leaders” of the Internet’s videogame community tend to be journalists and game creators who have both developed a decent following of fans and have expressed genuine concern for the health of their community. They may not have any direct control over the community (no community leader/manager ever does), but their voices, opinions, and ideas certainly tend to have more impact than usual.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of GG supporters simply haven’t made a name for themselves yet, and so there was a huge scarcity leaders in the #GamerGate community. Very few GG supporters had ever worked in the games enthusiast press or in the games industry, and so most supporters didn’t even have a modest following.
Another challenge with leading this kind of movement is that people have to actually pay attention to you. Throughout most of #GamerGate, however, everyone seemed to be paying more attention to things that made them angry, rather than things that would actually help resolve the conflict. Tweets that further infuriated the crowd were much more likely to get retweeted and gather replies than tweets that made people feel like everything was going to be fine. So even if there were level-headed people in the community, they just didn’t get enough attention compared to the more polarizing voices.
What Does Your Community Look Like from the Outside?
Perhaps the biggest problems that #GamerGate suffered from was the fact that it looked extremely horrible to most outsiders. Most people found out about #GamerGate when they heard all the stories about the excessive level of harassment that women and journalists were getting just for speaking out against the movement. GG-supporters have been trying pretty hard to explain to people that those harassers are not part of their movement, but the fact that the harassers are triggered directly by anti-GG tweets does little to change people’s perceptions.
So what could GG-supporters (or any community) have done to fix this problem? They had a good message: “We are not a group of harassers,” but the problem was that no one really believed them. Unfortunately, most GG-supporters responded by basically giving up and proclaiming that they just have to live with that perception. It would have been more effective if #GamerGate had instead taken action to communicate this message more convincingly, rather than simply telling people and expecting them to believe them.
It’s usually what you do, not what you say, that affects someone’s opinion of you. So if you want to make people understand that your community isn’t about harassment, then the community must make a genuine effort to fight against that harassment wherever they see it. If people actually saw GG-supporters standing up against the harassment raids that were hitting many journalists and developers, then they would very quickly come to believe that #GamerGate doesn’t tolerate harassment.
#GamerGate actually came very close to fixing this problem. GG-supporters started spreading the word that they were “policing their own ranks” to stop harassment, and they encouraged people to “report it to the hashtag” whenever they saw abuse. What was truly frustrating, however, was the fact that most supporters were very reluctant to actually do anything about the harassment that people were reporting. Because harassers are, by definition, not considered part of the #GamerGate community, most supporters responded with the sentiment that “it’s not our problem.” And so #GamerGate rarely took any visible action against harassers, and therefore, most people never saw #GamerGate standing against harassment, which only perpetuated the perception that GG supporters were just a bunch of jerks.
Another big problem involved how #GamerGate typically interacted with non-supporters. GG supporters have quickly gained a reputation for being a huge pain to deal with. Usually whenever someone tweets something negative about the movement, GG supporters come out of nowhere and start telling you that you’re wrong. There used to be a time when some of these GG supporters were at least a little reasonable and willing to listen to your point of view, but nowadays the only supporters still using the hashtag seem to be mostly bitter and rude.
It’s important to think about which section of your community is interacting with those who are outside of the community. Those are the people who have a direct impact on the public’s perceptions of what the community is like, so if they tend to be annoying and bitter, then of course, everyone’s going to think that the community is filled with annoying, bitter people.
In addition to considering how #GamerGate looked like to most gamers, we also have to worry about how it looks like to “everyone else”, or people who don’t really think of themselves as gamers. Several non-game-related publications, such as CNN, Forbes, and Salon, reported only on the ugliest parts of the #GamerGate movement, so what most people saw was a bunch of nonsense that made gamers look like a bunch of weirdos. A lot of gamers, including myself, were super embarrassed to have been a part of a culture that regularly looks this bad.
It’d help if gamers got more attention for doing cool stuff rather than only for having embarrassing moments like this. But part of the problem is that when gamers actually do cool stuff, most people get the impression that the coolness came from outsiders who weren’t necessarily gamers. They don’t make the connection that the “gamer” identity is anything more than the negative stereotype that they believe it to be.
Another part of the problem is how these news stories are framed. These harassment stories are usually depicted from the perspective of, “oh no, look at how horrible gamers are!” But what if gamers did something that changed the story to a more positive tone? What if the next time that something like this happens, rather than having the headline be “Gamers Threaten to Rape and Kill People,” we instead have the headline, “Gamers Stand Up Against Abuse”? Of course, we’re going to need to do something seriously inspirational to encourage that kind of headline, but it all goes back to what I was saying about how our actions are louder than our words.
Watching the Community’s Personality and Tone
Whereas the previous section was about how the community looks like on the outside, this section is about what it’s like to actually interact with the community from the inside.
If you have ever interacted with GG supporters or if you’ve ever read a lot of their tweets, how would you describe their community? Since I’m not a frequent visitor to the hashtag, I’m not sure if I feel credible enough to make too many claims about them, but what I can say is this: they are definitely not nice people to talk to. The tone of the #GamerGate community can get pretty hostile and combative, and their tendency to have knee-jerk reactions to certain comments makes them very difficult to have conversations with. It also doesn’t help that the primary form of content being discussed in this community involves things that people are angry about, so there’s very rarely anything positive going on in the group. All of this contributes to a rather unpleasant atmosphere that just drives away a lot of people and only further hurts the movement’s reputation.
There are several ways to fix this problem. One is to have multiple people in the community who are respected enough to be able to lead by example on how community members are expected to behave, but as I mentioned earlier, #GamerGate has a rather serious shortage of leaders. One can also set standards for what kind of behavior needs to be discouraged and what kind will absolutely not be tolerated. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad behavior that GG supporters are willing to tolerate, and if there’s any behavior that they refuse to tolerate, it’s speaking badly about #GamerGate.
Sometimes if you can’t change people’s behavior, the solution is to simply replace the people. In other words, drive out community members who break the rules while trying to attract more like-minded members to join. Unfortunately, to be associated with #GamerGate, all you have to do is use the hashtag, so it’s virtually impossible to kick someone out of the group, or to shun them in any meaningful way.
On Community Narratives
As with any political movement #GamerGate had some pretty strong narratives that encouraged its supporters to take action. However, I’d argue that narratives aren’t exclusive to movements alone. Most strong communities also have at least some kind of narrative associated with them, and these narratives are usually a reflection of what the community thinks of itself.
For instance, a successful school club might be motivated around the narrative that they are one of the most fun groups on campus. Likewise, a depressed community might start decaying around the narrative that they just aren’t as cool as they used to be. A community’s narrative is not the same as the way that it advertises itself. It’s completely dependent on what the members truly believe about their community.
In the case of #GamerGate, the movement was so fractured that there were easily several narratives flowing around. But one of the strongest (and most extreme) narratives that emerged was the “us versus them” story, and the idea that this was a war between gamers and journalists. This narrative left no room for understanding, no room for compromise, and no reason to be reasonable. People who bought too much into this narrative believed that their identity as “gamers” was under a very serious attack, and this led them to believe some pretty weird conspiracy theories to help them justify the sense of danger that they were feeling.
Community narratives are typically formed in response to certain events that the community must respond to. The more traumatic the event, the more likely the community is to create a toxic narrative that will only hurt the community’s health. It is the responsibility of good community managers to help the community emerge from these troubling moments by helping them to find healthier narratives to live by. This is mostly achieved by helping the community see the event from a certain perspective, one that doesn’t encourage so much hostility or hurt feelings.
Many of #GamerGate’s traumatic events have been building up over the course of the past few years, as games have been increasingly critiqued as a dominant form of media and popular culture. However, #GamerGate also had to react to the fact that most people had such a horrible first-impression of the movement that its supporters had trouble understanding why anyone would react that way to their actions. Rather than framing the problem as one of misunderstanding, most GG supporters came to believe that people were deliberately spreading false information about their movement, which is definitely not a healthy way to deal with communication problems.
Unfortunately, because #GamerGate lacked enough prominent members who could help lead the community away from these problems, there was little that could have been done to fix these narrative issues.
How Technology Shapes the Community
Twitter’s 140-character limit has a super significant impact on people’s ability to understand each other. You can definitely get around that by posting more tweets, but no one wants to feel like a spammer, so they inevitably try to keep it short. And sometimes keeping things short can make your posts come across with a tone that is completely different from what you had intended.
This is why the most enlightening things to come out of #GamerGate happened elsewhere, such as on Reddit discussions, YouTube videos, and blog posts. But the fact that #GamerGate had established its base of operations on Twitter really limited its ability to accomplish things. Tweets are simply harder to understand, so it just wasn’t a great vehicle for getting people to understand the cause.
When to Abandon Ship
Earlier I mentioned the idea that #GamerGate would have worked out better if people were more willing to stop using such a confusing hashtag. At this point, however, the problem is beyond just simple confusion. The movement’s reputation and credibility are pretty terrible, and it has attracted too many people who are only making things worse. At this point it really seems like it would just be a lot easier to abandon the effort and just build something new, something that’s free of the negative connotations and free from people who bring too many toxic vibes.
The idea sounds simple but can get pretty tricky in practice. If the new community or movement looks and sounds too similar to the previous one, people will start associating you as simply being an extension of the other. This unfortunately happened to some of the hashtags that I saw GG supporters start in order to clarify their message. It’s not just enough to do the same thing but under a different banner. You have to rethink how the entire community is set up so that it’s actually different from the previous attempt, rather than different on just the surface level.
Overall, I think the most important lesson here is to see just how crucial it is to have good community leaders who can help keep a community healthy. So if you’re someone who cares a lot about the community that you’re in, remember that you actually can make a difference, and sometimes the community’s health will only get worse if you don’t make a difference.
Of course, there are a lot of skills that go into being a good community leader, such as the professional and social skills needed to develop a reputation that earns people’s respect, the leadership and communication skills to be able to influence people, and the community management skills to be able to properly diagnose and treat a community’s problems.