I believe that some communities need managers (or facilitators or moderators — there are a few different flavors to this role).  I also believe there are ways to hold that space respectfully, in a way that takes care of everyone, while still being very strong.  As promised, I want to offer you some of the “moves” I’ve learned over the years in this role, with hopes that you can use them to help guide your own community spaces.

There’s just one problem.  Every time I try to write this blog post, it keeps growing to the size of a book.

So here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to let it be a series. Last week I gave you the prologue.  Now here’s Part 1: “Aikido Moves for Online Community Management: The Basics,” complete with even more intro material for context.  There will be a Part 2. I promise.

My Training

I’ve been building websites since ’97 and have held the reigns on a number of community-rallying projects.  There are two in particular, though, that I can attribute most of my lessons to.  They are:

The Writ – An online writing workshop and publication that had 2,000+ members and an ever-changing staff of volunteers. It started in 2003 and was just officially closed a few months ago, because it was time.

Genderfork – A community expression blog about gender variance that has 10,000+ readers a month.  It’s run by a staff of 10 volunteers who all have clear responsibilities for maintaining the site. The broader community contributes through submissions and response comments. It’s been around since 2007.

I built both of these spaces from scratch, with the help of friends and community members who wanted to see it succeed. And it’s important to note that in both of these communities, our goals were to:

  • make as many people as possible feel welcome and comfortable, especially newbies.
  • stay focused on a specific topic.
  • collaboratively create something bigger than we could build as individuals.
  • nurture and encourage quality storytelling and art.
  • inspire and guide community members to support and help each other.
  • represent ourselves in a positive way to the rest of the world.

So pretty much all of my advice comes from advocating for this culture.  There are lots of other community cultures that are just as relevant, but I can’t speak about them from experience.

What’s an online community and when does it need a manager?

I’m happy to report that I answered this question in detail last week.  If you’re not 100% clear on what I’m about to talk about, please go read it.  What follows is the beginning of an advanced discussion.  Last week’s post is the 101-level introduction.

Why Aikido?

Aikido is a martial art that involves a lot of rolling around on the floor.  I’ve taken a few classes, I’m not an expert, and if you’re interested in going deeper than the light metaphor I’m offering here, I encourage you to — there’s a lot to learn from it.  But for our purposes, let’s just look at a few basics.  When practicing Aikido, you…

  • blend with the motion of your attacker and redirect their force, rather than opposing it head-on.
  • protect your attacker from injury as you defend yourself.
  • stay in control with minimal effort.
  • remain balanced and focused.
  • roll with the punches.

I find this an incredibly useful metaphor for online community management.

And a few more disclaimers…

1. The thoughts below are limited in scope and context.  They are not comprehensive, and you should not assume they will all apply to your situation. They might not. Sorry.

2. I wish I could tell you I’m coming at this from a place of stability. I’m not. Even as I write this, a discussion is underway in the Genderfork community that might push to have my curation guidelines and original mission statement completely restructured.  This is actually okay.

3. I’m also aware that a lot of people will have plenty of reasons to disagree with me on some of my points.  Go for it — I’m always up for hearing how things can be done better.  (Just, you know, be nice about it please. Thanks.)

“The Basics”

Okay, ready? Here are what I consider to be important foundational moves.

1) Don’t punish people for stuff they haven’t done.

Be careful about comment and moderation policies, and make sure they’re addressing real needs rather than pre-emptively striking against imagined ones.

I anticipated that Genderfork would get a lot of hate mail, and I strongly considered turning on the “you have to be pre-approved to leave comments” setting to guard against it.  If you’ve ever left a comment only to see a “now waiting for moderation” message, you know what a slap in the face that setting feels like.  Fortunately, I decided to wait and see if I really needed it.  70,000+ total visitors later, we still don’t get a single shred of anti-queer hate in our comments.  ZERO. NADA. GOOSE EGG.  (Okay, well there was that one day, but it was super-isolated, and there was a miscommunication, so I say it doesn’t count.)  I now have it set up so that people can even comment anonymously — no name or email address required — because I know they appreciate the option, and they respect the privilege.  Still no hate.  Magic.

2) Set the tone, and the tone will maintain the tone.

Okay, so lack of hate isn’t really “magic” — it’s the tone we set from the beginning.

Have you ever shown up to a conversation that was already in progress?  What did you do?  You listened to what was going on, how people were interacting, and where they were in the discussion before you joined in.  You drew all sorts of conclusions about expectations and protocol just by taking a quick inventory of the situation, and then you went with the flow, adding your perspective in a way that seemed to fit.

That’s what people do when they show up to online communities, too. They take a brief scan around, they pull in whatever cues they can gather, they decide if they want to join in, and then they do so in a way that fits all the factors.  Think of the quality of comments on Flickr versus YouTube.  Flickr takes community management very seriously, and people have gotten the message over time (whether consciously or unconsciously) that being respectful in comments is important.  On YouTube, the expectation is more or less that people will be idiots.  So people are idiots.

Take note of what kind of conversation people are experiencing when they show up to your site. If you monitor it carefully enough in the beginning, it will begin to (mostly) monitor itself.

How do you set the tone? By contributing in the style that you’d like others to contribute. By offering some simple, clear guidelines on how people should treat each other and why. By suggesting to the people in your inner circle that they engage in a certain way. By showing up and being personally involved to positively redirect things when someone goes off course.

3) Stay detached from emotional conversations.

If your job is to keep the community healthy, then your “at ease” stance needs to be slightly above any emotional discussions.  You’re at your most helpful when you’re keeping a bird’s eye view on things and can understand everyone’s perspectives.

This might make you feel like the community’s not really yours.  That’s right. I’m sorry. It’s not. It’s theirs. You are the steward and caretaker, and when you’re hanging out there, you’re on duty.  Like a bartender at a good club, you get plenty of perks from being in the room, but you still need to stay behind the bar.  (And, preferably, sober.)

If you find yourself emotionally involved in a challenging situation, that’s your cue to go find someone else to advise you — someone who understands the community but isn’t involved in the drama. You can’t hold the Smite Buttons and be angry at the same time — that’s just not fair.

But even if you are angry, and you are getting advice from someone more balanced, you still probably need to keep your venting off the Internet. People need to trust you, and blame-heavy ranters are hard to trust.

So go off and kick trashcans, let a friend keep an eye on things while you’re gone, and come back when you’re ready to be sane again.  You just saved yourself from a mutiny.

~~~~

More soon.

Love,
Sarah

I tried to give a talk called “Aikido Moves for Online Community Management” at Social Media for Social Change in Oakland a few weeks ago, but it didn’t quite go as planned.  About fifteen minutes into me babbling tips and techniques to a room full of people who looked at me like I was speaking German, someone finally asked the question no one else would:

“What’s an online community?”

There were nods and exhales all around.

Woops. Ok. Let’s start over.

A community is a group of people who recognize that they have something in common.  An online community is what they get when they interact with each other on the Internet.

Unlike blogs which have a mostly-standardized format, online communities show up in lots of different structures.  These include:

  • Forums and message boards
  • Chat rooms
  • Email discussion groups
  • Blog posts
  • Blog comments
  • Wikis
  • Community areas (groups, fan pages) within a big social networking site
  • Community-specific social networking sites
  • Any number of custom-feature websites, widgets, applications that let people do stuff
  • Interactions happening anywhere on the Internet

Really, if you think online communities usually come in formulaic cookie-cutter websites, please go read that list again a few times. What we’re talking about here is how people want to interact — not how we think they should.

There are three other quirky things about online communities that I want to make absolutely clear:

1) The levels of commitment people have to them vary wildly. More often than we want to admit, it’s just a fleeting interest, and that’s okay. (Example: If I have a question about my HP printer and go digging through Internet forums for answers, I become part of the HP consumer support community for about an hour. And then I don’t care anymore.)

2) The levels of interaction people get into also vary wildly. See the 90-9-1 Principle: in any online community, about 90% of the people involved are just there to read (and please don’t demean this group as “lurkers” — think of how many websites you visit that you don’t say a word on!).  9% will respond to or improve the content that’s already there.  And 1% will generate new content from scratch.  Yes, this is an über-simplification and will vary by structure, but I can tell you from my own experience that it’s accurate enough.

3) The uniting factor for a community can be pretty much anything. Pick any combination of people, places, things, identities, experiences, and ideas. If people have it in common, there’s a potential community there. This isn’t to say that every topic is worth putting energy into, but please: if you have a limiting idea in your head about what people actually care about, now’s a good time to ditch it.

Now this leads us to the next question: “When does an online community need a manager?”

Not always. But sometimes.

If you or your organization created the space that the community is using to interact, and if it’s important to you that the community maintains a certain level of focus or respect, then you probably need a manager.

A manager is someone who smooths out the edges, advocates for what’s most important, encourages participation, and helps people get what they need.  They are not dictators. If a manager’s unchecked goal and approach is to control a community, the community will find a way to mutiny.

Thus, I want to offer you a set of techniques I’ve picked up in my experience managing the communities at The Writ (an online writing workshop that had 2,000+ members; no longer open) and Genderfork (a volunteer-run community expression blog with 10,000+ readers).  I call them Aikido Moves for Online Community Management.  They’re ways to keep the peace and stay on track without being a jerk.

And now that you’ve read this intro material, I’ll post them soon.

Love,
Sarah

Just a few minutes ago on Twitter, I quoted a snippet of my phone conversation today with John T. Unger:

Me: “…so basically, I’m just going to get everybody to love everybody.”

John: “If anybody can do that, it’s you.”

Then, realizing how out of context that snippet was, I added some clarification:

By “everybody” I mean “queers, sex nerds, artists, deviants, geeks, and creative folks who dance to the beat of their own drum.”

Call me naive, but I really do believe that covers everybody, with lots of internal overlap.  But okay, yeah, I live in a bubble, and it’s worth defining what that bubble’s all about sometimes.  I also acknowledge that a whole lot of somebodies have stopped defining themselves in those ways, so I’m not gonna worry about them right now.

I want to tell you about the dreams in my head… about the things I’m most excited about, and the structures I’m looking at for how I can serve more people and make our lives more exciting.

One of them is a monthly discussion series I’m kicking off in December at the Center for Sex and Culture (San Francisco) called Deviants Online.  Here’s the press info for it:

Deviants Online
hosted by Sarah Dopp
with special guest Mollena Williams

Tuesday, December 8th, 6 – 8pm
Cost: $10-20 sliding scale, no one turned away for lack of funds

The CSC is proud to announce this new monthly discussion workshop!

Deviants Online will explore the ever-changing “best practices” for social media: facebook, twitter, myspace, flickr, blogging, email, websites, and everything else.  How can we shine spotlights on what we care about without annoying our friends? What are smart ways to strengthen our relationships and broaden our networks? And how exactly do we get our (many) personal sides to co-exist with our professional life on the same Internet?

As queers, creatives, sex nerds, and other rebels, our lives depend heavily on our friends and extended communities.  Whether we’re looking for work opportunities, an audience, or an army of allies, we can all benefit from having a broader network built on trust and appreciation.

In this discussion workshop, we’ll explore what works and what doesn’t when it comes to representing ourselves online. The material will include a balanced mix of “how to think about it” and “how to do it,” and we’ll have plenty of time for questions. Whether you’ve just signed up for facebook or have been blogging for years, you’ll leave this workshop full of ideas on what you want to try next.

Deviants Online is hosted by Sarah Dopp, social media educator and founder of http://Genderfork.com.  It will also have a special guest co-facilitator, Mollena Williams!

For more information, please contact Sarah at [info at sarahdopp dot com].

I’ll have a real website up for it soon. (Promise.)

I also want to tell you that I’m partnering with Sarah Sloane of Equilibrium Consulting to make magical things happen. She’s helping me manage my consulting work (omigod i have a schedule now) and scheming exciting plans with me about how we can do more for those everybodies I mentioned above.

What’s really going on? We’re building a self-sustaining community of smart, creative, interesting people who work together (as clients, consultants, and co-conspirators) to make awesome things happen. I’m already in it… we’re already doing it… we just need to iron out a few more edges.

“…so basically, I’m just going to get everybody to love everybody.”

I’ll tell you more soon.

Love,
Sarah

ETA: The Deviants Online site is available here:  http://www.deviantsonline.com (YAY!)

I’ve been a busy little monkey lately, reorganizing my work, my home, my life…  Big things are shifting!  I’ve got new clients (who are WONDERFUL), new energy, new undertakings, and new partners helping me keep track of it all.

For the new and confused: I build websites. Right now I’m focused on smart, creative clients who do good things for their communities, and who like to be really involved in their own web presence.  Magically, they’ve been finding me.

What I need right now is an enlarged posse of Kick Ass Collaborators.  Maybe that’s you.  Maybe I already know you’re amazing and we haven’t merged brains in awhile, so it’s time for you to tug on my sleeve.  Maybe you just ran across this post through the ethersphere and you need to introduce yourself.  Maybe it’s somewhere in between.

To be totally clear: I don’t have a specific project that I’m hiring for. There is no work for you in my pocket. Not today. Opportunities are flying around in the air, though, and it helps to know who’s ready to jump on them.

I love working with people who…

  • Can clearly tell me what they kick ass at, and be honest about where they’re less experienced.
  • Prefer the freelance world to the employment world.  (There’s a big culture difference between the two.)
  • Have other clients, creative projects, and exciting stuff in their lives. (Just be sure there’s some space in there for more.)

I should also add, if you don’t already know, that I’m extremely LGBT-, gender-variant-, and “quirky weirdo”-friendly.

Right now I’m MOST interested in Designers.

The one I’ve worked with for years has moved on to other passions, and I need some new talent in the house.  I’m interested in designers who can…

  • Ask a confused client all the right questions to develop the look and feel of a new brand from scratch (logos, colors, fonts, etc).
  • Take an existing brand and a bunch of user experience requirements, and design a website layout in Photoshop that makes everyone happy.
  • Take an existing website design and make it better according to some requirements.
  • Create interesting illustrations for content.
  • Look at some examples of a style, and then design something new using that style.
  • Design something new using your own unique style.
  • Slice up mockups and export images for coding, being careful about file sizes and color quality.
  • Work within an existing webpage using your bonus HTML/CSS skills to change and restyle content.   (Note: WYSIWYG skills don’t count here.)

It’s okay if you don’t do all of those.  In fact, it’s fine if you can only do one of them, as long as you do it really well.

If you’re still nodding “yes that’s me,” please send me an email (info at sarahdopp dot com) with the following:

  • What, from the list above, can you do really well?
  • Please show me some examples of your work that give me a sense of your style and skills.
  • Please tell me what hourly rates (or package prices) you charge for your work.  (Unfortunate truth: I don’t have a lot of energy for negotiation, so if you don’t give me this piece up front, there’s a good chance you’ll fall off my radar. I can tell you that if it’s over $100/hr it’s too high for me, and if it’s under $20/hr it’s too low.  Yeah, I know, that doesn’t quite narrow it down.)
  • Please give me an idea of how experienced you are, both with professional design and professional freelancing/consulting.  Be totally honest. I can work with all kinds of experience levels, but only if I’m clear on what I’m working with.
  • Tell me about how much space you think you’ll have for new projects between now and, say, March.
  • If you’re not absolutely sure that I already know you, please tell me how you found me or where we’ve met.  Links to where I can find you on the internet are also really helpful.
  • What are you really excited about these days?  (Tell me anything.)

Please take your time and get it all into one email.  If you send me follow-up “oops, I forgot this…” emails, I promise I’ll lose at least one of them.

And while I’ve got your attention, there’s space in my world for other kinds of posse rockers, too.  I’d love me a broader network of…

  • Drupal experts
  • WordPress experts
  • XHTML/CSS coders
  • Smart, clever copywriters
  • Quality Assurance detail-checkers
  • [insert backend programming language here] developers
  • … you tell me.

Just adjust the requests above for what you do, and send me an email. Remember there are lots of people who can claim the same job title, so find a way to be more awesome than them.

Thanks, and I look forward to working with you!

Warmly,
Sarah Dopp

email: info at sarahdopp dot com