Google+ Fitness Community Now Active again

When a Google+ Community with almost 300K members suddenly disappears you can bet there is nothing ‘routine’ about it. On Saturday evening (GMT time) the largest Fitness Community on Google+ suddenly vanished from the screens of every one of its members.

For a Community owner this is the worst nightmare come true. The Community you have worked so hard to build up and maintain suddenly gets shut down. Before coming to Google+ I was active on Facebook and had helped ran several very successful pages with followings that run in the hundreds of thousands. I had seen two of them deleted without warning and despite weeks spent in emailing and communicating with the Facebook team they were never reinstated nor was any explanation ever given. All I got was canned responses back.

I mention this here for two reasons: First, because I am always aware of the fact that a Community (or indeed any other digital property) built on a social network platform is there to serve the needs of the platform, first, and any other plan you may have a far second. Second, any Community on a social media platform is subject to the platform’s TOS and will be subject to punitive action if they are not followed. In short, if you think that “this is my Community, I can do whatever I like” gives you the right to do anything, think again.

The Fitness Community is regulated by four administrators (including myself) and it has been Neila Rey’s brainchild. Amongst us, because of timezone differences, we manage to keep an eye on things almost 24/7. We all have some kind of fitness background and understand the passions that drive its members. We have always worked hard to maintain value in the stream in terms of content, engagement and interaction. The people who come to the Community on a daily basis range from fitness enthusiasts with seriously impressive physiques to complete amateurs who come to the Community to help motivate themselves, learn new things and simply be surrounded by people who actively think of how to get and stay physically fit.

Now it was offline. No explanation given beyond an email message we each received with a “There’s a problem with your Google+ Community” in the subject line. The contents of the email were vague. It said the Community “appears to” violate Google+ Community User Content and Conduct guidelines. The Community was suspended and visibly only to moderators. That was it.

My inbox and that of the other moderators was being flooded with angry emails. The community members trying to reach the Community were getting an error message. Thinking they had been banned from the Community without any warning or explanation they were suddenly venting their frustration.

Moving into Action

All of the moderators in the Fitness community are experienced online users. When it comes to content we’ve always avoided getting into a censorship role where only things we agree with appear in the community. As long as content follows the TOS guidelines and is of value to the community members it stays even if we are diametrically opposed to it.

The approach made us pretty confident that the content within the community was not an issue. Yet, with a community of almost 300K passionate members posting content every minute of the day you need to always double-check.

Our first move was to go each go through the content of the Community again, check it carefully, make sure nothing had slipped through. When a Google+ Community is suspended Google has an appeal button in the notice that appears at the top of the Community. We next pressed that.

The notice that appeared thanked us for asking for an appeal and notified us that the appeal process would take several days.

For a large community whose members were busy venting on the stream and sending abusive emails to the moderators the prospect of having the Community down for several days (I assumed that nothing would be done over the weekend and the appeal process would probably start on the Monday, depending on how many such appeals were in the queue and who was handling them) was not the kind of proposition we were willing to entertain.

The Google+ Difference

This is where it gets interesting. In any other similar situation there would really be nothing else to do. The Community was suspended for reasons unknown. An appeal had been lodged and was in process. All the boxes had been checked. Google was in the clear. We now just had to sit on our hands and wait.

But this is Google+. This is the place where transparency, accountability and a very unique spirit of cooperation has become global. If there was any place and time where the values of Google+ we all espouse would be put to the test, this was it.

Neila Rey, tired of receiving more angry emails than she could handle and unable to individually let community members trying to reach the community know what had happened, used Google+ to put up a note in the stream. It became a focal point for a discussion as well as a way to show support. (When you’re under stress a short, expressed message of sympathy by a virtual stranger has an incredible calming effect).

With the post working, attracting the attention of Fitness Community members and also raising awareness of the issue across the wider Google+ population the volume of angry emails and messages being received started to become more manageable.

Google+ Resources

I went and raised the issue on Google+ Help, a Google community set up to provide help in all sort of issues that arise in Google+. I admit I was not too hopeful. The community is staffed by volunteers and it was weekend.

Surprisingly, I received a response, almost immediately from John Skeats, a Top Contributor, who sought to understand the issue and how it had arisen. Once we got to the point of explaining how well moderated the community was and how we had double-checked the content to make sure nothing had slipped through he escalated the issue with the Google Communities team. By then we had slipped into Sunday. The community had been offline for almost 24 hours. Across Google+ the discussion had expanded to cover Google’s transparency, the wisdom (or not) of starting and building a community in a social media platform you do not control and whether Google could be trusted more or less than other companies in the way it generally handled things.

The Outcome and the Aftermath

By midday Sunday the Fitness community was back up and running as usual. Why it had gone offline in the first place we may never fully know. A community as large as this is always bound to attract some unwanted attention and there are always those who will benefit from its absence. What is really important is that working on a Sunday, the Google Communities team had taken less than four hours to check, diagnose the issue, fix it and reinstate the community.

Some of its members, those who log on late on the weekend, had not even noticed that it had been offline. Many however did. The fact that it disappeared without warning or explanation led to some loss of trust. Many thought they’d been banned on a whim and others that the community had been deleted by its owner. Both thoughts brought up the spectre of impermanence in their minds and added a tangible tint to the suspicion that their content was not totally within their own control. These are insidious issues to deal with. They surface slowly and once they appear they are resistant to management of any kind. Every explanation offered then begins to sound like a lame excuse.

Dealing with that aftermath will take some time.

Unsung Heroes

More than anything however, the crisis highlighted some things that can only happen in Google+.

• Unlike any corporate entity I’ve known, Google listens. There is help. The Unsung Heroes award has to go to John Skeats who stayed on for hours on Neila Rey’s thread about the community answering questions, giving explanations and calming things down in general. Not once did he lose his cool, despite facing a sometimes belligerent crowd.

• Google responds. The Google+ Communities team got to work on a Sunday, investigating the issue and reinstated the community in record time.

• The members of the Google+ community were simply incredible in their support. Some just commiserated and asked if there was anything they could do, while others called upon their own contacts within the Google+ community to see if there could be any help.

• Google+ is no like any other social network. The people who run it are in the stream, right alongside us, its users. When things go wrong (and inevitably they will at some point) they respond fast in a way that’s very human.

Takeaways

In retrospect there are a few things I would have done differently: I would have gone to the Google+ Help community a little sooner than I did. I would have put up regular updates. Neila Rey’s post started a great conversation and it was seen by many members but the sheer number of comments made it difficult for all of them to keep up. I would have avoided a lot of irate emails by putting out smaller, regular updates myself.

Does it make sense to have a large community on Google+ rather than, say, your own website which you control completely? In light of what happened I would say that Google+ is the only place it makes sense to have a large, global community at. Drama aside, the platform’s stability and the ability to interact through a large variety of tools (Community Events, Hangouts and Chat) is unrivaled. It’s when things go wrong that you actually get to test the quality of your faith in a company and Google came through. The feedback from the team was that measures were being taken to ensure something similar was unlikely to happen in future, so the lessons learnt from the Fitness community hiccup are benefiting other communities across the platform. I suggested that perhaps having a message other than an error message when a community is suspended may also help keep peace. The Google Communities team have taken this one on-board too.

Overall, the issue with the Fitness community helped make the experience of this platform better. I really know of no other social media platform where anything similar has ever happened.