What’s an Online Community and When Does It Need a Manager?

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

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22 Responses to “What’s an Online Community and When Does It Need a Manager?”

  1. Sonia Connolly Says:

    “They’re ways to keep the peace and stay on track without being a jerk.” Looking forward to hearing your Aikido Moves! I’ve been involved with online communities for many years, and I’ve seen enough chaos and bad behavior to know that non-jerky management tools are important. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Alan Bostick Says:

    The psychological modality in which I’ve gotten a bunch of training (“process-oriented psychology” or “process work”) would call the task you are describing the community facilitator, rather than manager. The facilitator is the person who helps what needs to happen to happen. What I like about framing it this way is that the facilitator is not positioned as a Manager (i.e., Boss) or even a moderator. And in fact in unmanaged or poorly managed communities, online or otherwise, anyone can act as a facilitator and facilitate effectively, whether or not they have any acknowledged authority, if they have some sense of what they are doing.

  3. sarah Says:

    @Sonia: Glad to have you here! Thanks for the solidarity.

    @Alan: Yup. What I just described sounds more like facilitation to me, too. That’s most of it. But there’s also the added technical privileges of being able to email people privately, boot their accounts if necessary, or put out an announcement that takes up more real estate than others have access to. So it’s a mix.

  4. James Says:

    Thank you for this. The explanation for those of us who are not internet based professionals is quite appreciated.

    Yet, I have a quip about language, because the words we choose to use are important. I thing we can agree on that; the right word for the idea is just as important as the right tool for the job (or the right format for the file?). Here, you choose to use words derivative of “manage” to describe the work of “someone who smooths out the edges, advocates for what’s most important, encourages participation, and helps people get what they need.” I realize that “Online Community Management” is probably professional jargon, but I’m worried that your colleagues forgot that the internet has dictionaries on it too.

    Specifically, a manager is “a person with a primarily executive or supervisory function within an organization.” To manage is to “Handle, wield, make use of (a weapon, tool, implement, etc.)” and to “control the course of (affairs) by one’s own action; control and direct the affairs of (a household, institution, state, etc.).” I don’t know about your, or the larger online community, but I cringe every time I hear “manage” derived words. I consciously leave most public and community spaces when I detect the presence of someone doing those things, above, which define what management is.

    Also, “someone who smooths out the edges, advocates for what’s most important, encourages participation, and helps people get what they need” is decidedly not management. It’s facilitation. To facilitate is to “Make easy or easier; promote, help forward (an action, result, etc.)” and to “Lessen the labour of, assist (a person).” I’m fairly well convinced that you’re more interested in facilitation than management.

    The other neat thing about using “facilitate” derived words is that, you might be aware, there is a body of interdisciplinary work (spanning business, consulting, psychology, and group dynamics, among others) which focuses on effective facilitation. The idea of this work is to teach a facilitators how to ease group and community dynamics, advocate without taking charge or being overbearing, develop fuller and deeper participation and help people connect with each other. Since the vast majority of that is lingual communication strategies, it may well be very worthwhile to include in your, or your colleagues’, professional development.

    I’m not a pro in the field of facilitation though, and much less on online communities. I’ll be excited to get to read your “Aikido Moves for Online Community Facilitation.” You always make me think so good!!

  5. James Says:

    pfffft. Now I know why deep and thoughtful responses don’t exist on the internet – somebody else says what you had in mind while you’re still drafting!!

    Glad to know I’m not the only one who had the thought though. Thanks Alan.

  6. sarah Says:

    Ha. Alright, so we’ve got “Manager,” “Moderator,” and “Facilitator.” Three words.

    I’m using “Manager” here because “Online Community Manager” is a job title these days. It refers to the person who has the authority to make changes, and the responsibility to keep the community healthy… which is what I’m talking about. I didn’t pick the word — I’m continuing an existing conversation.

    Moderators are another position… often volunteers in the trenches of an active forum who have the authority to fight off assholes.

    Facilitator is a good word for both.

  7. sarah Says:

    To be a little clearer… what I’m talking about *is* an executive/supervisory role, and one that involves a lot of directing. I push back against the word “control” because it can suggest coercion, which I don’t think belongs in any kind of management. But maybe “control” fits sometimes, too.

    I’m not talking about a party-goer who makes good introductions. I’m talking about the party host whose goal is to help people have a good time, but who also has full power to kick them out.

    Thus, I like both Manager and Facilitator, and I maintain that Manager is still appropriate.

    Keep debating?

    xo

  8. Ariel Says:

    Very much looking forward to this series — a couple years back on a whim I started a Ning community as a side project …. that’s now grown to 11,000+ EXTREMELY active members. I have five mods managing it, and I still get overwhelmed when I think about it too much. Can’t wait to read more!

  9. James Says:

    hmmm. I appreciate the clarification. I think we’ve hit our philosophical differences though. The reason why my participation in Online Communities is limited in the way it is (i.e. no genuine attempts to be recognized and known to more genuine members and participation in social media (twitter, facebook) only as a last resort) is because there is an individual (or oligarchical structure) acting as management with the coercive power of exclusion. (I know you don’t like the idea of you having coercive power, but see “the added technical privileges of being able to … boot their accounts if necessary” and tell me that’s not coercive.) I understand that coercive exclusion is sometimes necessary, but any “community” which exercises this power through a single, dictatorial individual both does not fit my definition of genuine community and is a gathering I explicitly avoid.

    My solution here, is to give the community some form of coercive power which can be exercised in a democratic or consensus based process. The other less tasteful solution is to use a representative democracy model to find a manager. I am aware that this solution is very occasionally used, and I don’t really understand why it isn’t utilized more often. Maybe someone who is more familiar with the field can tease that out for me?

    Other than that one controlling coercive power you seem to still be describing facilitation to me. The two primary differences between moderation and facilitation are that moderation implies starting with tension and discord, while facilitation does not, and that facilitation heavily connotes participation, whereas moderation connotes more distance.

  10. sarah Says:

    I agree fully with your last paragraph, on the difference between facilitation and moderation.

    And I totally get (from past conversations — those eavesdropping might not know you and I have been talking about this for awhile) the concerns you have about online communities not being genuinely egalitarian. It’s true. On websites, there’s usually at least one person who holds an “off switch” or “smite button.”

    And sure, booting accounts (or threatening to do so) is a form of coercion. Touché.

    It’s possible you and I may be talking about different kinds of communities. The kind of representative democracy or consensus-based decision-making approach you’re describing is really appropriate for some groups. I don’t think it appeals to all of them, though.

    For what I’m focused on, the “party host” metaphor works well. There’s a sort of tacit agreement that happens between the host and the attendees. The attendees are the community, and they can make their own choices. The host is offering up their living room, a bunch of alcohol, and some yummy snacks, and in return expects that the attendees treat the space and each other with some respect. If everyone trusts and likes each other and agrees with the arrangement, it works. If the host starts being a jerk, the party can decide to take their conversations somewhere else. And if the party turns into something the host really isn’t on board for, she can shut it down.

    I want to talk about how to be a good party host.

    Are you more concerned about my use of the word “manager” or the non-democratic approach to online community organization?

  11. James Says:

    It makes sense to limit access to “off” and “smite” commands. What doesn’t make sense, to me, is having individuals or oligarchical structures be the decision making authority about the use of that coercion. I would never argue that coercion does not have an appropriate place. It does, and it likely always will. The questions are, who wields it and how is it wielded.

    So, I think that to talk about “different kinds of communities” we get into a useful need to distinguish between various current uses of the term “community,” which has become a nice buzzword in recent years. I think it would be foolish (not to mention out of line with what the word actually means) to call a party a community. Perhaps my error here was to assume that you are talking about working with genuine communities and not the modern, fashionable simulacrum of communities. (If you don’t know “simulacrum” I suggest looking it up – beautiful word.)

    I certainly agree with you – parties need somebody to stay sober and keep it under control. Typically, and preferably, that’s the host. It actually makes good sense to me to talk about management for online party hosting. And, that is the work of a good party host – isn’t it? – to make sure, by hook or by crook, that everyone plays nice and has a good time at the party. I can actually get behind simple social engineering. I just want it to be called what it is.

    My concern here started as the perceived misapplication of management to communities, but is turning to focus on the misuse and cheapening of the term “community.” A community is primarily “an organized [not led] political, municipal, or social body; a body of people living in the same locality; a body of people having religion, profession, etc., in common” which has some form of “(A) common character; (an) agreement; (an) identity” and exists in “The state of being shared or held in common; joint ownership or liability.” Put more simply “Life in association with others; society; the social state.” What I find important here is that, to be a community, it has to have some form of (often informal) organization which includes responsibilities, commitments, and an identity all of which form part of a life spent in association with this community.

    I strongly believe that something as meaningful as a genuine community and with as much potential deserves more trust and autonomy than management, or any outside coercive ability to alter the community itself (i.e. exclude some members), can possibly allow. While parties and social gatherings which are not outgrowths of a vibrant community may well need outside management with limited coercive control it cheapens the idea and reality of communities to call these parties which need “party hosts” a “community.”

    I recognize that I’m picking a bone with much of your profession right now, and I’m okay with that. What I’m not okay with is this: “I didn’t pick the word — I’m continuing an existing conversation.” That kind of cop out – that kind of denial of responsibility for the words that you choose to use – it’s beneath you, Sarah. You have too much integrity, too much spirit, too much respect from your colleagues and clients, and are too much of a visionary, to pretend not to be responsible for the language that your profession uses.

  12. sarah Says:

    Heh. You wrote so much you broke the layout of the comment box. ;)

    I think one of our problems (and by “our” i’m referring to the whole damned internet) is that we don’t know how to define a community. In the party metaphor, I’d say the community is the people, and the party is just the set of circumstances they decided to hang out in for awhile. That set of circumstances may need a manager/facilitator/pick-a-word. The community itself might not.

    Let’s look at Genderfork, though. The argument could be made that when I refer to the “Genderfork community,” I’m really referring to the “gender variant & allies” community in the context of them hanging out on Genderfork. I can assert some power over their interactions when they’re on Genderfork. But they can just as easily go interact elsewhere, and it’s often the exact same group of people.

    What’s being managed is the interaction space. The community is separate.

    And you’re right. Words matter. I’m still grappling with this distinction.

  13. James Says:

    Clearly, I am too long winded for the internet. I think I deserve an award or something. ;)

    So, you’re telling me that the internet doesn’t know how to use a dictionary? Because here’s the thing, community is a rather well defined word. It has two senses, seven meanings which are currently in use, and two meanings which have fallen out of use (SOED6). Now, I recognize that the “Online Community” thing is a little new, and the traditional definition of community includes physical proximity, but the fundamentals – a body of individuals who share a common identity and actively participate in social intercourse – haven’t changed at all. I’m not sure what’s so hard about that, and nobody has ever succeeded in managing a vibrant real world (the internet is real too people) community without significant coercive force. (I dare anybody to prove me wrong.)

    Aaaah. Lovely distinction. What can be managed, and is managed all the time, is the space where the community meets. You have a Community Center in the neighborhood and, if somebody misbehaves badly enough, they get denied access. They’re still part of the community, they still live in the neighborhood and are seen around, but they’re thrown out of the Community Center, which has rules, regulations and a level of coercive control. The thing that bothers me about forming communities on the internet is that people can’t “just as easily go interact elsewhere.” Part of why Genderfork is so successful is that there isn’t another good option, so you get a lot of people who are thrilled to have finally found someone doing what you do. Only those with particular, privileged technical skills can actually “just as easily go interact elsewhere” because only those people can create the space to interact in. So now what you have is more of a Community Center that, if it kicks somebody out, somehow also evicts them from the neighborhood. Funny thing about that – it’s one of the ways that the Catholic Church used to keep parishioners under control, and still keeps priests under control – by being able to excommunicate people which prevents them from interacting with their community in any form. So, yeah, I’m really bothered by a website with a manager being the only way for a community to interact.

    You’re right, the community isn’t being managed, a community space is. See the ending of my last post for why you should be conscious and careful about that distinction.

    p.s. Nice dodge there. Especially just dropping the whole “parties” thing and picking a spot about halfway through my post to reply to. I don’t think you’re avoiding me though, so I’m not offended.

  14. sarah Says:

    Dude. Okay, I’m giving you the “pushing sarah’s buttons” warning now. The “know how to use a dictionary” and “nice dodge” comments are unnecessary snark.

    By “define” I meant “identify the boundaries” of a community in concrete terms. With all the overlaps going on between them and the ease with which people can come and go, that’s hard to do.

    And format check-in: Comment conversations are not good for digging into multiple topics at once. If there’s something I didn’t address that you wanted me to, please tell me. I’m dropping tangents to stay on what I think is the main topic… which… now that I stop to think about it, I’m not sure I can articulate anymore.

    Put it into a sentence: what are you trying to reconcile here?

  15. sarah Says:

    Also, I’m finding that lots of really sweet community spaces exist elsewhere for the Genderfork reader-types, and thank god for that because we don’t provide full-featured forums and profiles (why? cuz i don’t want to manage them). Check the “More Discussion Spaces” links area on the sidebar at http://www.genderfork.com. “Queeries” is especially impressive (I just signed up today).

    And many of our readers are connecting on Facebook through that fan page (there are 1200 folks who can see each other there) and I see them bantering on Twitter.

    The community. It is bigger than the space.

  16. James Says:

    Well, shucks.

    Looks like we’re starting to push each other’s button and, out of respect for your dislike of that sort of thing, I’m just going to let go.

    *furtively resists the parting quip*

    The big things I want to be sure to say last, is that this kind of gentle debate is one of the most loving and caring things that I do. (Yes, I am a weirdo for that. I know.) And that I have consistently appreciated, respected, and, occasionally, been touched by what you’ve had to say. Thanks!

  17. sarah Says:

    James, your creativity and attention to detail charms me.

    Thank you.

  18. Spidvid.com Says:

    Very helpful and informative especially to those who are not aware that this exists, some just don’t realize it is. Well done Sarah!

  19. Meg61 Says:

    Great post Sarah, although you are being a bit of a tease making us wait to hear about your Aikido moves. The debate in the comments after was great fun to read. I think James should have to say oligarchical structures 5 times fast as punishment for breaking the comment box. :-P

  20. Jenny Says:

    Sarah,

    I’m going to be at the Techliminal holiday party in Oakland on Friday, Nov 18. Would you be able to come? I’d love to meet you. Anthony suggested we’d get along well.

    The event is to open to everyone. It is a meetup for nonprofits, socially-minded folks, and geeks (particularly around the topic of web design, social networking, and Drupal).

    Hope to see ya’ll there.

  21. Anthony (sometimes Severe) Says:

    ^ Busted. Your post hit on some lovely topics my organization is dealing with (or at least SHOULD be) as we are starting to create (and hopefully manage) online communities, so I took the liberty of emailing a link to the right people. Not my department necessarily (although the lines are getting fuzzier). Also, I’m pretty sure Jenny meant December 18th :)

  22. Jenny Says:

    Gak! Yes! The 18th! Here is the info, and sorry to spam here… but I was encouraged (or at least feel justified since I screwed up the first more subtle post).

    Are you a non-profit looking for an affordable way of re-doing your website? Want to talk to other non-profits and developers for free about your concerns and ideas?

    Are you a drupal user already, looking to share ideas?

    Are you a developer, eager to help? Looking for business?

    Join us for this special get together of non-profits, socially minded folk, web designers, Drupal users, and other geeky folks to celebrate the start of a new year with brainstorming and networking about how we can do more with the internet.

    Techliminal
    268 – 14th Street
    Oakland, CA 94612
    (near City Center BART)

    Drupal: http://groups.drupal.org/node/39006

    Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=197219094322&ref=mf

    Yelp: http://www.yelp.com/events/oakland-nonprofits-websites-and-drupal

    Techliminal (host) website: http://techliminal.com/