By now, just about everyone involved in online media has heard of the ‘Craigslist killer‘. It’s a tragic story that has sparked a debate about Craigslist and the way it manages its online community.

It’s a touchy subject. There are more than a few people who believe
that Craigslist is helping to facilitate these crimes by providing a
hands-off environment. And there are more than a few people who
believe that Craigslist simply offers a website and can’t be held
responsible for the actions of the people that use it. Good and
passionate arguments are made on both sides.

What I do think the Craigslist controversy does highlight is how important moderation and user reputations are for online communities.

When it comes to moderation, I’m in no position to argue what Craigslist should do to police its service. Any organization running an online community needs to decide what it finds acceptable and what the rules should be. Establishing the right balance for the target market can mean the difference between success and failure.

But I think Craigslist’s stance vis-à-vis ‘erotic services‘ ads, for instance, is a good reminder that how you approach the rules will have an impact. In the case of the erotic services ads, despite lots of criticism, Craigslist decided to keep them open. In 2008, it settled with 40 attorneys general over its most controversial section. The agreement: Craigslist obtains the phone number and valid credit card number of anyone who posts an erotic services ad. The hope is that this will keep the section from being abused.

That hasn’t meant that the criticism has stopped and in the wake of the latest tragic events, the subject is only getting more attention. Craigslist should do what it feels is right, but for those who believe that Craigslist is being unfairly criticized, a bit of pragmatism is in order. Craigslist has set the rules that it believes are appropriate and some people don’t think they go far enough. That’s fair game.

When it comes to user reputations, one thing I must admit I’m surprised about is the fact that Craigslist has never implemented a real user feedback system. By letting users build a demonstrable reputation on Craigslist, it certainly seems like some of the people who have fallen victim to crime through Craigslist ads may have had better information on which to judge the ‘riskiness‘ of the transactions they were contemplating. Obviously Craigslist’s simplicity is part of its appeal and ‘culture‘ so balance is needed but that doesn’t mean that a basic reputation system shouldn’t be considered.

So what does all this mean for you? If you or your business is running an online community, you should:

  • Understand that the rules you set will be interpreted as reflecting your values. No if, and or buts about it: if you permit certain types of activity or content in any shape or form, people will believe that you condone that activity or content, even if the reality is a bit more complicated. So give a lot of thought to the rules you establish and how you enforce them.
  • Never underestimate the importance of giving your users the ability to establish a reputation. Whether it’s a feedback system (a la eBay) or some sort of points system (as is found on many message board communities), there are few things more valuable than reputation online so running a community without a reputation system is a big mistake.

Photo credit: blmurch via Flickr.