So you joined an online community, are you now unknowingly a lifetime member?

A discussion about autonomy, expectations and trust

a blog post by Sara

Pre-pandemic I joined a lot of local, in person communities. I went to their meetups and events, some I felt right at home, others not so much. If it wasn’t a fit for me, I just didn’t go back. I let my membership expire or opted out of emails and moved on.

Fast forward to 2022, in the midst of this raging pandemic and, I, like many others joined a lot of online communities. Some were paid, but many were free and all I had to join to find out if they were a fit for me. When I realized for ‘reasons’, that a community wasn’t a fit for me, just like in person, I stopped showing up. No problem right? Just log out and don’t look back.

Not so fast....

Just because I logged out doesn’t necessarily mean I’m not still considered a “member”. Sure I can go in and remove what information I would like to, but in many instances, my name, image and email address is still visible to members, discoverable on search engines and definitely accessible to the founder. So it seems I am now a “forever” member unknowingly. When I stop to think about removing myself from these free online communities, it isn’t easy.

  1. A Slack account can only be deleted by the Primary owner of a Workspace. In many of these Communities, I as a member, have no idea who to contact to accomplish this task.
  2. Founders or Community Managers haven’t outlined the process to remove a members account at their request.
  3. Removal of inactive members might be in process, but it isn’t communicated to members.
  4. Inactive accounts aren’t addressed due to lack of review of community data or no CM or generally no community ops management process in place.

So what’s the big deal?

Do we need to remove inactive members from online communities or even let them know? In short, yes, we should be removing members who wish to be removed. It comes down to data management, both legally and ethically, and the more personal side of community in autonomy and trust.

The not so fun side of community management, data obligations

The nuance around data management, legally or otherwise ,to inform members on what is being collected, how it’s used, stored, managed and ability to be deleted is different based on where you are in the world. Many of these communities don’t have a terms and conditions, data management policy and haven’t considered the implications of all the member data they have access to. The biggest concern comes down to what community founders are legally required to do when it comes to data. We all know that newsletters require you to have an unsubscribe button. Should online communities be required to do the same? I see it eventually coming to that, especially as online communities continue to expand exponentially.

Remember they are human beings, not just an email address

When it comes to member autonomy, the boundaries are more clearly defined in person than they are online. But be sure, they are the same. Those in person communities I left don’t continue to count me in their numbers or share my information as part of their member listing. Shouldn’t we be allowing online community members the same autonomy of choice? Maybe they do want you to archive their data and want it removed. Allowing members to have a say in what happens to their membership data is allowing them online autonomy.

Trust is the cornerstone of community. Continuing to count members in your data, keeping and/or sharing their member information when they are truly no longer part of the community isn’t an accurate picture and it’s presenting a false sense of members representation to the community. How can members trust that what the community is doing is as it states when something as key as members isn’t accurate?

Now, how and when do you remove members?

Rosie Sherry wrote a great blog post about Community Debt and tackled some of this topic. My take is slightly different. Membership, free or paid, should be be easily terminated by both parties.

Founders should have a membership sign up and termination process well defined and clearly communicated before they create a community. Ensure members know through terms and conditions and plain language what will happen with their data, if there are any expectations around community involvement, grounds for removal and most importantly how members can delete their account.

Members have an equal responsibility to research and ask before they join a community what the expectations of the community are, guidelines for membership, process is for ending their membership, and details around account and data management.

See, it’s simple!

Nothing about community is simple, easy or one size fits all. Every community is unique, and the process of membership, data management, communication and expectations should be approached with empathy, nuance and care. Thinking through the less fun administrative and legal sides of community aren’t always easy, but they’re necessary and can lead to a much healthier community in the long run.

This blog post was inspired by a fantastic discussion on Twitter started by Noele Flowers