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16 Causes of Conflict in an Online Community

causes of conflict in online social media communityWhen things go wrong in an online community, they can go very wrong, very quickly. The first step of understanding how to deal with conflict in your community is to be able to identify the cause or source of the friction.

Generally, conflict will arise either out of conflicting personalities amongst your community’s membership, be related to common difficulties associated with the usage of online communication tools, how your membership go about achieving their goals, or the members’ perception of you as a community manager, your company or the online space you’ve provided them.

By digging into specific reasons for conflict and defining individual causes, you can identify whether the outcome is likely to be productive to your community (if the issues are to do with personal goals, platform-related or other factors you can influence) or destructive (if issues are generally interpersonal or emotional or if you have no control on the source of the issue).

While community conflict is sometimes highly complex, the following list of possible causes will help you pinpoint what type of problem you are facing and hopefully find a resolution.

Expectations related causes of conflict

Your community members may have expectations that aren’t being met, or don’t match up with other members’ expectations. These can include:

1. Differing principles & mismatching values: Are your community principles prominently displayed and are you attracting the right people to your online community?

2. Diversity of perspectives: do you have such a diverse membership that their perspectives are clashing too much?

3. Lack of focus: Is your community wandering aimlessly or do they know what the purpose of engaging is?

4. Disagreement over strategy or execution: does your membership agree with where you want to take your online community and how you are going about doing so?

Personality-driven causes of conflict

We’re all very different and have our own unique personality. While this makes your online community interesting and encourages a range of debate, sometimes personalities and ways of communicating clash, for example:

5. Limitations of reading and writing capabilities: are some of your community members less literate , or less careful about how they write or making sure they understand the message they are responding to than others?

6. Immovable opinions: Have participants decided their personal positions in a debate and are incapable of flexible debate?

7. In-articulation of differing values: Are participants in the community not making differing sets of values clear enough for productive discussions to take place?

8. Dismissiveness: Is there an element of patronising, demeaning or condescending language being used in the debate?

Environmental causes of conflict

Sometimes, the environment you provide for your community can cause problems. When communicating we rely on tools, both interpersonal as well as functional. When these are lacking in some way, the following can happen:

9. No physical communication cues: Are the lack of non-verbal visual cues causing problems for your membership in identifying mood and tone?

10. Impersonality of the medium: Are your community members losing their inhibitions and saying things they would not dare say face to face?

11. Misinterpreted silences: Is the inherent asynchronicity of the medium your community uses to communicate resulting in the time delay in-between responses blowing issues out of proportion?

12. Perceptions of public vs private spaces online: Do individuals amongst your membership have differing understandings of how public or private their discussions are on the web?

Emotional causes of conflict

Over time, underlying emotional issues will develop between your online community’s membership which will affect how they communicate.

13. Historical problems: Do certain community members have previous personal arguments affecting their ongoing interactions?

14. Prejudice: Are there personal prejudices at play when people butt heads in your online community?

15. Perception of injustice: Is one member in particular complaining of being persecuted by other elements in the community?

16. Power dynamics: Have a few cliques developed and are they vying for supremacy and control over your community?

This list is by no means exhaustive! Other causes could be related to jealousy, revenge, wanting to abuse authority, rudeness, a victim complex, a lack of trust, passive-aggressiveness, or simply people’s desire to be “right”.

Have you come up against other causes of conflict within your own online community?

[Angry Birds By Denis Dervisevic]

16 causes of conflict in an online community was originally posted on Blaise Grimes-Viort - Online Communities and Social Media. Copyright Blaise Grimes-Viort, 2011.

Join The Conversation

  • May 21 Posted 6 years ago Sophia (not verified)

    Thanks for posting this Blaise, 

    It's a very useful post for anyone who manages an online community - forewarned is forearmed as they say. 

    It would be great to uncover some examples of people who have overcome any of the issues you raise - have you had any responses to your closing question? 

    I also liked Courtney's point about how a crises can heighten emotions - a good one to add to the list. 

    Thanks to you both,


  • Courtney Hunt's picture
    May 20 Posted 6 years ago Courtney Hunt

    For the past several months I have been participating in and observing several online communities that have built up around several wildlife cameras. I wrote a blog post a while back noting how well the first one I joined (focused on a pair of nesting eagles) provided a live case study for observing best practices as well as challenges, which I invited people to study with me. I planned to write a follow-up post highlighting key elements, but then the mama eagle was killed in a tragic accident and all hell break loose. Around the same time the tornados wreaked havoc on Alabama and other states, and I couldn't help but observe the important role social media - and digital communities in particular - played in helping people work through these crises. So I wrote a second post a couple of weeks ago called "Tragedy, Hope, and the Undeniable Power of Social Media as a Force for Good."

    The communities I've studied and written about are unique in many respects, but we can still learn a lot from them. A couple of factors I would add to your list relate to crises that can occur. These crises can cause heightened emotions and confusion that can create a lot of conflict. I have also noticed that both in general and when there's a crisis, a lack of clear and consistent community posting guidelines (which you allude to) can promote conflict, both among members and between members and community managers.

    I've previously written about managing comments in online communities, which has been shared on SMT too. The ideas in that post, as well as the NY Times pieces to which it links, can provide some additional insight on the question of community conflict.

    Courtney Hunt - Founder, Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community

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