Free Speech in Online Communities: The Delusion of Entitlement

Back in 2004 and 2005 when people asked me what I did for a living, I’d tell them I was a blogger. I got a lot of blank stares and invariably had to explain what a blog was. After that, people would lower their eyes, figuring that I was obviously on some ridiculous dead-end path with my “online diary.”

In January 2006 I gave a 90-minute Power Point presentation to explain blogging to a group of about 60 speakers in Las Vegas. By that time I was earning a decent sustainable living from blogging (a few thousand dollars a month). I predicted that blogs would be everywhere within a few years. That wasn’t a difficult prediction to make since Technorati was reporting such phenomenal growth month after month with no end in sight. You didn’t have to be particularly prescient to see that blogging and other social media had bright futures. But I doubt many people in the room believed me.

They believe me now. 🙂

Fast forward a few years, and social media has exploded. Now I can scarcely find people who haven’t at least heard of blogging, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Unfortunately there’s a downside to such a rapid technological and social change. Part of that downside is that people approach social media with some misguided expectations that aren’t based in reality. In this article I’d like to offer some suggestions and analogies to help steer people away from such erroneous thinking.

The major mistake people make is that they assume they’re entitled to free speech when it comes to participating in online communities such as blogs, forums, Facebook, Twitter, and so on.


In the USA and many other countries, free speech is a protected right. Well, that’s certainly debatable these days, but let’s be idealists for the moment.

There are some legal limitations on free speech (criminal behavior, slander/libel, copyright laws, Patriot Act, etc). Some countries, such as China, restrict free speech more than others. I live in the USA, and we Americans are accustomed to a wide latitude when it comes to free speech.

It isn’t surprising that this sense of entitlement to free speech should be carried onto the Internet. In general I’m all for that. I’ve especially enjoyed having the opportunity to interact with people around the world.

Free Speech and Contract Law

Free speech protection, however, does not extend to private homes or businesses. You may have the right to say what you like in a public forum, but you don’t have the right to enter a private home or business and do that. In such situations your right to free speech is subject to the discretion of the owner of that private forum.

Contract law may apply in many cases as well. With some limitations it’s perfectly legal for a contract to limit the right of free speech. This is because you have the ability to enter into a contract that restricts your right to free speech.

I’ve signed many business deals over the years that restrict my free speech rights. Many business contracts include a non-disclosure clause, whereby I agree that I won’t disclose certain financial or other protected info that another business shares with me. This is very common in business.

It’s likely you’ve entered into many contracts over the years that restrict your right to free speech. For example, if you ever sign up for an online service and agreed to their Terms of Service, they usually define pretty clearly what restrictions you’re agreeing to.

Free Speech Online

For many of the online sites where you may think free speech is protected, you’re required to contractually agree to limit your free speech rights. You actually don’t have the same right to free speech that you would in a truly public forum.

This is true of Facebook, Twitter, and pretty much all the major social media sites I’m aware of. Review their Terms of Service and see for yourself.

In most cases the restrictions are reasonable and maybe even necessary for maintaining a quality service. It depends on who’s running the service.

While it may seem that you’re entitled to free speech just the same as you would in a public forum, in actuality you waived that right when you joined the service. That was a condition of your registration.

Some online services are quite liberal when it comes to restricting your free speech rights, while others are more restrictive.

The Catch-All Clause

Many online services also include some kind of catch-all clause which basically gives them the right to censor you however they see fit.

For example, Twitter’s Terms of Service includes the following sentence: “We reserve the right at all times (but will not have an obligation) to remove or refuse to distribute any Content on the Services and to terminate users or reclaim usernames.” So according to those terms, they can nuke your account and content whenever they want.

Since I’m a Twitter user myself, Twitter could disable my account and delete all my Tweets on a whim. They have the right to do that because I agreed to their Terms of Service. Now if they actually went around doing this sort of thing, it would likely generate some bad PR for them, but because I agreed to their ToS, I don’t see that I’d have a strong legal case if I tried to fight them on it. The legal reality is probably more complicated than what I’m expressing here, but as far as I can tell, I do have a valid contract with Twitter where I willfully agreed to restrict my free speech rights when it comes to using their service.

Consequently, I know that when I post updates to my Twitter account, I have no entitlement to free speech. I’ve signed away that right in exchange for the privilege of using their service. And yes, it is a privilege. Tweeting is not a guaranteed right under the law.

I include a catch-all clause for the discussion forums on my website as well. It says, “The owners of Personal Development for Smart People Forums reserve the right to remove, edit, move or close any thread for any reason.” In addition to that, you also have to agree to follow our forum etiquette rules. You can’t post messages in our forums unless you agree to our Terms of Service.

So in order to post your own messages on my website, you must also waive your right to free speech. If you think you can post whatever you’d like with impunity, you’re sorely mistaken.

This certainly isn’t unique to my website — not by a long shot. The phrasing I use came standard with the forum software I installed. A simple Google search can verify that thousands of other forums use similar phrasing.

The Reality of Private Forums

Why do so many online communities restrict free speech? Isn’t the expansion of free speech the whole point?

This isn’t some draconian conspiracy. It’s largely a matter of business realities. Creating and managing a highly social website isn’t free. If someone is going to go to the trouble to host and maintain such a community, especially one that may become very popular, they want to make sure they have enough control over the management of the site to fulfill their reasons for building the community in the first place. Unbridled free speech can easily degrade the quality of a community and run afoul of the site owner’s agenda.

If they were legally prevented from restricting free speech, fewer people and businesses would host such online communities. I for one would not host an online community under those conditions.

While it’s nice that government played a major role in funding the underlying Internet infrastructure that makes online communities possible, they don’t directly subsidize online communities like mine. I have to pay my site’s expenses. This includes my $350 monthly web hosting fee.

Computing power costs money. Bandwidth costs money. Site management, including installing security updates and performing basic maintenance activities, takes time. The forum software I use costs money; I pay an annual license fee to use it. Maintaining an online community certainly isn’t free on my end. Even if I use free software and find free hosting, I still have to invest my time. And someone else would still be paying for it somewhere down the line.

Allowing unbridled free speech on my website would be a very bad idea. It’s easy enough to predict what would happen because I know what our moderators deal with on a daily basis, and I’ve seen what happens to other forums that have done that. Within a few months, the site would be overrun by spammers and marketers looking to promote their wares. Flame wars would flare up on a daily basis, and threads beyond a certain length would be quickly derailed by juvenile comments and trolling by drama addicts. The quality of discussions would go down the drain, especially when it came to sensitive personal topics. I’d take one look at the mess and quickly pull the plug. Our forums would not be able to fulfill their purpose under such conditions, which is for conscious growth-oriented people to come together to help each other solve problems and improve their lives.

Although our community has more than 25,000 registered members and more than 407,000 messages posted, the core community of regular daily visitors is actually much smaller. Our top contributor has more than 10,785 posts herself (2.6% of the total). On any given day, the number of registered members who visit the site is around 400 people total. So the core community isn’t nearly as big as the casual visitors. This is pretty common when it comes to online forums and social media sites in general. The hardcore users make up only a small percentage of the total community.

Managing our community requires a staff of volunteer moderators. These moderators aren’t paid for their work. The forums don’t generate enough income to justify it, especially since I removed all the Adsense ads last year. If the quality of the community was too low, we’d have a really hard time recruiting decent moderators, which would lead to a downward spiral. So if we slacked off a little, the community could quickly go from bad to worse as our moderators concluded, “This just ain’t worth my time.” By maintaining high community standards, our moderators can see that their efforts help keep the community as a whole running smoothly, and that intrinsic reward is very important to maintaining community integrity as a whole.

Many of the most active members of our online community have been with us for years. I’ve met many of them in person, including several of our volunteer moderators. Consequently, our community doesn’t much resemble an open public forum. I’d say it’s closer to a really large family reunion with lots of drop-by visitors.

The Site Owner’s Agenda

Amazon wants to sell products. They allow you to post product reviews because someone at Amazon decided that allowing lots of people to do this would increase their sales. Do you honestly think they’d let any of us post reviews if it hurt their sales or cut into their market share to do so? They have some free speech restrictions to prevent people from doing too much damage to their sales, like posting non-Amazon links in reviews. It’s their site, so they make the rules about what you can and can’t post in a review.

The owners of Facebook have an agenda too. Investors have poured a lot of money into the site, so I’m sure they want to see it turn a profit. Consequently, you’ll see ads on your Facebook pages. Facebook makes money from those ads.

And as for Twitter… well, I don’t think Twitter’s owners have even figured what Twitter’s agenda is yet.

Some people seem to think that my primary motivation for starting and maintaining an online community was financial, as if being an entrepreneur means that all of one’s actions are driven by a profit motive. Now that’s a laugh and a half. If I really cared that much about money, I’d never have launched our forums in the first place, and even if I did, I’d have quickly realized my mistake and would have dropped them within a few months. Our forums aren’t profitable. They hog a lot of computing resources, requiring me to pay for a much faster server than I’d need for my blog alone. The forums usually cost more to run than they generate in revenue. On top of that, I’m not counting the value of the time Erin and I invest in administration. If we had to pay someone else to handle the admin, we’d lose more money on it, even if we could hire someone for less than minimum wage.

This isn’t the first time I’ve hosted an online community, so this didn’t surprise me. I used to host a popular forum for game developers, and I’ve been active in online communities since the early 90s. My game developer forum wasn’t profitable either, but I kept it going for a while because I enjoyed the communal interaction. So I knew full well when I started my personal development forums that they weren’t likely to be very profitable. Fortunately my blog generates more than enough revenue to subsidize the forums. But if I ever sold the site to someone who sought to maximize revenue from it, they would most definitely either ax the forums, flood them with third-party ads, or make some other changes to financially justify the community’s existence.

The main reason I maintain a discussion forum is that I like having like-minded people over to hang out. Just as I frequently invite people to my home, I also invite people to my online home to hang out together and talk about life. As I see it, paying for the upkeep of the forums is similar to providing snacks for my house guests.

If you have issues with the site owner’s agenda, don’t pay a visit to their virtual home. And don’t make the naive mistake of assuming their agenda is to help you assert your right to free speech.

Common Courtesy

When people approach online communities with the erroneous belief that they’re entitled to unbridled free speech, this misjudgment often leads to inappropriate behavior.

For example, sometimes people will register for my forums and try to trash talk me.

I don’t mind a bit of friendly ribbing now and then, and I’m all for intelligent debate, but if people come to my website and try to treat me, my friends, my business associates, or other members of my community with disrespect, they get banned very quickly.

Try going around to various privately owned forums and trash talk the site owner and his/her family. See how long it takes before your account is nuked. Sure, some people will allow you to do that. Some people don’t care. Some don’t pay attention. Some will get into it with you because they like the drama. But quite often you’ll end up having your account disabled. Ostensibly it’s for violating their Terms of Service. But in reality, you got banned for behaving like a jerk in someone else’s home. And when you find yourself bounced to the curb, see how much anyone cares to hear your protests that you were simply exercising your right to free speech. I’m sure the crickets will enjoy listening to your well-formed arguments.

You Are an Invited Guest

Here’s an attitude I suggest you adopt when it comes to participating in online communities. When you visit someone else’s online community, you’re a guest in the owner’s online home. Behave accordingly. Your participation is a privilege subject to the owner’s discretion.

For example, is my own private website. In case that wasn’t obvious, take note of the URL. Notice that the URL is NOT 🙂

For some reason, certain people seem to confuse those two URLs quite often.

Technically Pavlina LLC owns, and technically an LLC is a separate legal entity from a person. Lawyers, accountants, and IRS agents get off on that sort of thing. But based on the company name you can probably guess who owns Pavlina LLC… and you’d be right.

Some people seem to have a really hard time with the whole notion of privately owned online communities. The idea that they don’t have the right to free speech everywhere online really messes with their heads. They visit their favorite online communities expecting that they’re entitled to rant and rave about anything they wish, even after they just legally agreed that everything they post is subject to the site owner’s discretion.

From time to time, new visitors come to our forums, register for a free account, and immediately start posting disrespectful trash talk about other community members, believing they can say whatever the heck they want. They’re wrong of course, and they get banned rather quickly.

Some visitors act really immature and annoy our members. Banned. Some visitors try to use our forums to promote the latest pyramid scheme. Banned. Some people think it’s fun to derail other people’s threads. Banned. And some people try to participate without ever having seen The Princess Bride. Banned and sent to Count Rugen for rehabilitation.

Most of the time, I’m not the one doing the banning. We have a team of more than a dozen moderators who do a great job of enforcing the community rules. But if I happen to be the first to notice a problem, I’m happy to take care of it myself. It’s my home, so I’m ultimately responsible when problems arise.

Sometimes people who’ve been banned will go to another online community such as someone else’s blog or another online forum and rant about what happened. “I can’t believe it. All I did was go to Steve Pavlina’s website and insinuate that he was a loser for being into self-help, and he banned me. What a jerk!”

Sometimes someone else who had a similar experience will chime in and commiserate. “Yeah, he banned me too. And all I did was call him a Satan spawn for not believing in the Bible. Can you believe that? He’s censoring people!”

No, actually I banned you for being a moron. Well, it might not have been me personally, but I’ll gladly take credit for it. And if I was the one who handled it, most likely I did it without guilt or remorse. As everyone knows, the Dread Pirate Roberts never takes prisoners.

Do I censor people? Technically yes. But I don’t like the word censorship in this case — not because it’s too strong but because it’s too mild. I’m not just censoring people. I’m kicking them out of my home and telling them not to come back. I’m not saying, “I don’t like what you’re saying, so I’m going to cut you off.” I’m actually saying, “GET THE HELL OUT, BITCH! AND TAKE YOUR NASTY CHEESE PUFFS WITH YOU!”

Is that clear enough?

So my critics in this area are a bit off base, not because they’ve accused me of something I didn’t do but because they didn’t accuse me of enough.

If you’re going to come into my private online home and behave like a jerk in my presence, I will show you the door every time. And after you’re gone, I’ll return to my other guests and refill the snack bowls. And then we may even have a conversation about what a jerk you were and how nice it is that you’re no longer with us.

Who Makes The Rules?

Ostensibly when someone is banned from an online community, it’s because they violated the Terms of Service and/or community rules. But the deeper and more accurate reason is that the site owner has ultimately decided they don’t want you there.

After all, who wrote the rules in the first place? Quite often the site owner did. At the very least they approved someone else’s boilerplate text. Where did those rules come from? They came from the owner’s sense of what behaviors they’re willing to accept in their online community.

Who wrote the formal rules for my online community? I did. I solicited a lot of input from others, but the final decisions were mine to make. Where did those rules come from? They’re based on what sorts of behavior I’m willing to accept from people in my online home. If I’m not willing to tolerate certain behavior in my online home, and if I can articulate it reasonably well, I add it to our community rules, and it becomes part of our Terms of Service. But the unwritten rule is that every member who participates in this community does so at my personal discretion, especially given the catch-all in the ToS. Most people seem to have no problem with this, especially those that have had a lot of experience participating in other online communities.

Now generally speaking, if you want to build a cool community, it’s wise to be fair and reasonable. If you behave abusively toward your own community, you’ll have bigger problems to deal with. I happen to think our current community rules are quite fair and reasonable given the nature of the subjects we discuss. Again, it’s like having people over at your house. If you host a good party, people will enjoy hanging out there, and everyone is happy. If you’re an ogre, you’ll scare everyone away, and your parties will suck. The point of throwing the party is to bring people together to socialize. Maintaining a good social atmosphere requires maintaining a careful balance between freedom and good manners.

How would you react if you were hosting a party at your home for your friends, family, and community members, and someone waltzes in and starts treating your guests rudely or otherwise behaving like an obnoxious buffoon? Would you continue to welcome this person into your home, or would you show them the door right quick?

In general, this is the unspoken truth about how online communities are managed. The idea that you have free speech is a delusion. Your participation is subject to the site owner’s consent. Even if the community has written rules and does its best to uphold them fairly, who makes the rules? In most cases the site owner makes the rules.

Online Abuse

If people want to rant and rave about me in their own homes or on other websites I don’t own, more power to them. I don’t mind that. Some bloggers commit libel by posting ridiculously false info, and sometimes we end up with a version of the telephone game where information loses accuracy as it spreads around… and eventually becomes false info. But as I see it, such things are a natural consequence of my chosen lifestyle. This can get a bit weird sometimes, but after several years of blogging, I’m used to it. It’s easy enough for me to tune out someone who rants about me somewhere else. No one is forcing me to go look at it. Whether I choose to read stuff like that or not depends on how masochistic I’m feeling.

That said, I have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to being abused in my own home, whether online or offline. I’m simply unwilling to enter into an abusive relationship with anyone. If I catch you peeing in my yard, I will hose you.

When someone posts trash talk on my own website, it’s like they rang my doorbell and left a pile of crap on my doormat. It smells bad, and it’s a waste of my time to deal with it.

Do you have to become my close personal friend or agree with everything I say to participate in my website’s online community? Heck no, I’m not that strict. But if you pay me a visit online or offline, I do require that you treat me and our other guests with basic courtesy, politeness, and respect. Treat me online as you would if you were a guest in my home. Just as I open my website to others, I often open my home to a variety of guests as well. I love hanging out with many different kinds of people, as long as they behave with a modicum of human decency.

Now if at some point you think that I’m behaving oddly or that my manners are a bit lacking, you’re always free to leave. No one is forcing you to sit there and listen to me. It’s my home after all, and if you’re going to hang around in my living room 24/7, you’re bound to catch me at my worst at some point, so try not to be too shocked when that happens. But rest assured that when I visit your home, I’m going to be respectful of your space.

Am I trying to build a cult of supporters? No, I’m actually stricter than a cultist would be. I’ve turned away people who might have had the potential to become good and loyal cult members, but I just didn’t want them in my home because they acted too stalker-like. I want to hang out with interesting people who enjoy intelligent discussion, and I want to maintain a persistent place where people like that can come together. I have no interest in surrounding myself with mindless minions.

Misunderstandings arise when people make erroneous assumptions about how online communities really work and why people run them. This really isn’t rocket science. Can you grasp the analogy of virtual communities being equivalent to someone’s online home, regardless of how big they appear to be? Does this make sense to you? Does this help shed light on some of the problems you may have encountered in the past?

Quality Criticism

Isn’t it a community owner’s obligation to be receptive to criticism?

I’d say that’s entirely up to the owner.

I do think it’s reasonable to be open to critical feedback. A bit of constructive criticism now and then is good for growth. It keeps people honest and grounded.

If I’m going to listen to criticism, however, I want it to be of high quality. I don’t want to waste my time listening to drivel. In my case the best quality criticism almost always comes from people who know me pretty well. They’ve met me in person. We’ve hung out together and have had some good conversations. They know me on a personal level beyond my public persona as a blogger.

I’m not nearly as receptive to criticism from people who wander in off the street (virtual or otherwise) and who’ve never had so much as a single one-on-one conversation with me. Such criticism is almost always of such low quality as to be useless. Too often such people base their criticisms on one or more inaccurate assumptions and build a house of cards on top of it. It’s totally inactionable; they might as well be talking about someone else.

There’s a difference between offering genuinely helpful constructive feedback to someone you know, coming from a place of respect and wanting to be helpful, vs. cluelessly ranting because you want to vent or you like drama. I do my best to listen to respectful, actionable criticism because it’s in my own best interest and the interest of my community to do so. But it isn’t a good use of my time to wade through unreasonable criticism, and I don’t welcome unreasonable critics into my home to hang out with me either.

By and large, most of the unhelpful feedback I receive comes from people who are projecting their own issues onto me. Sometimes it’s easier to criticize someone you don’t know that well in order to avoid dealing with those same issues within yourself. Those are pretty easy to spot because they generally follow the same pattern: (1) it’s someone who’s never met me face to face; (2) they begin sharing an assumption about me that isn’t accurate, usually based on limited information such as something I mentioned in my blog; and (3) they tend to give me really long and detailed feedback about what I’m doing wrong and what I must do to change.

Communities within Communities

On some sites we see communities within communities. For example, I have a Facebook page which is maxed out on friends. The friend limit is 5,000. Someone else owns and manages the monstrous beast that is Facebook, and all members are subject to their Terms of Service. (Edit: I quit Facebook.)

Beyond that, anyone of the 5,000 Facebook members who want to post messages on my Facebook page are subject to my unwritten Terms of Service.

Imagine that the larger community is an apartment complex, subject to the terms of whoever owns that complex. All residents and guests of residents must follow that owner’s rules. But within that complex, each unit is additionally subject to the individual resident’s terms.

I regard my Facebook page as my online apartment. It’s another fun place to hang out online. If people visit my apartment and try to trash the place, I kick them out and unfriend them. It goes without saying that if you go to a friend’s apartment and behave like a jerk, they won’t be your friend for long.

When I visit a friend’s Facebook page, I consider myself a guest in their online apartment. We all live in the same complex, and it’s fun to pop over to other people’s units and see what they’re up to. But I know that if I go to my friends’ apartments and graffiti up the place while they’re gone, I’m going to lose those friends rather quickly.

I suggest you adopt a similar mindset when interacting in online sub-communities. It will save you a lot of grief.

I think if you have your own Facebook page or something similar, especially if you have a lot of active friends, you’ll have a reasonably good idea of what it’s like to manage a larger online community. How would you react if people came to your community and started posting trash talk about you? How would you feel if they started disrespecting your friends right in front of you? I imagine you’d send such people packing right quick. And I seriously doubt you’d be swayed by their protests of free speech entitlement.

So just to be abundantly clear, in most cases you are not entitled to unbridled free speech when you participate in online communities. You are a guest of the site owner — and possibly of the virtual renter as well. Behave as you would if you were a guest in someone else’s home, and you’re likely to be welcomed as a friend. Give the site owner a reason to dislike you, and you’re likely to be booted to the curb.

Online Fairness

Is this whole situation unfair? Maybe it is unfair.

I think the concept of fairness stems from a misguided sense of entitlement. You may be entitled to the right of fair treatment under the law (but realistically you can’t even count on that anywhere on earth that I know of), but you certainly aren’t entitled to fair treatment in someone’s private home, whether online or offline. When you enter a private residence or online community, you’re subject to the rules of the Lord or Lady of the place. Whatever level of fairness you may experience is at their discretion. Fairness is a privilege that humans may choose to bestow upon each other, not a right that you’re automatically entitled to.

I imagine that most homeowners like to consider themselves fair people, but their implementation of fairness is a very personal decision. You have no special entitlement to be treated fairly by others. Some laws may apply under certain situations, but generally speaking, whoever owns the house makes the rules.

If you go through life thinking you’re entitled to fair treatment by people who barely know you, let’s just say you’re in for a rude awakening. The real world doesn’t work that way. Give it another decade or two, and reality will hopefully straighten out your belief system.

I’m not saying you have to like this situation, but I’d encourage you to accept it for what it is. If you have a hard time accepting it, you may have picked the wrong planet on which to incarnate.