What happens when that bit-of-fun community, or shiny social channel that you run, has to deal with something tragic or very serious?

People around the world are learning that the Facebook group they created for their town or village, or the forum thread to discuss baking recipes, are as exposed to the serious side of life as much as any newspaper or TV station.

Thankfully, my (completely unscientific) observations on these things lead me to think that the editors and managers of these spaces are learning fast and doing really well. And that’s probably because they are just nice people, who know when to be sensible and when to be serious, off- and online.

Two recent examples from very different spaces got me thinking about this. The first time, I was at a race track, feeling a tad jealous of my friend Jamie who runs social media for Speed Chills. There he was, sat in the air conditioned media centre at Silverstone, unfettered access across the whole circuit, tweeting away about Lotus Cortinas and vintage Maseratis. As one of the few active online channels at the event, plenty of people were online, guessing the answers to his ‘name that obscure car part’ competition. All good fun.

Then a driver died. And Jamie still has to work, and report on it. Sensitively, and bringing some perspective to thousands of people who were stood around in shock.

Tweet announcing death

The second example was closer to home. I have huge respect for the people who run my local Facebook group. As far as I can tell, they’re a couple of ordinary Joes who like to bring their local town together online. It’s a useful forum: traffic reports, local restaurant reviews, people looking for local tradesman and so on.

But, when someone was murdered in the town, I held my breath. I recalled the weeks of journalism training I received about handling murders – the relationship between publisher and police, the conventions and respect that needed to be balanced with an audience hungry for information. How could anyone managing a live forum possibly manage a story like this?

In fact, it was handled brilliantly. Speculative comments were moderated very quickly, and, at one point it seemed, through the night, and for days after. Statements were published guiding users on what was and was not appropriate to post, under the circumstances.

Adverts for second hand push chairs and requests for decorators were put on hold, while the community paid their respects. It all seemed to be dealt with calmly and professionally, much like you’d expect from a local newspaper editor. All from a small band of people who haven’t had a day’s training in their lives.

I am sure there are countless stories out there of communities who have got it wrong. However, I am really hopeful for this growing band of local volunteers and social media channel managers, whose responsibilities go way beyond second hand pushchairs and campaign hashtags – whether they like it or not.