The deeper I tumble down the rabbit hole of community development, the less I care about the social media marketing crowd, and the more interested I am in people who just do it without realizing how or why.

I’d like you to meet Whitney Moses, if you haven’t already.  (Chances are you have.)

Whitney Moses

Whitney is a massage therapist with a social life.

The social media numbers?  It’s unfair to talk about them since she could care less, but I’m going to anyway. She has over 1600 friends on Facebook, and is actually friends with every single one of them.  She keeps a close written account of her life for her inner circle of friends (400+ people) on Livejournal. And being still kinda new to Twitter, she’s rallied about 630 followers from her universe on there.  (It’s also worth adding that she and Amanda Palmer go way back.)

The only internet stats she does care about are her business reviews, since they’re critical to her livelihood.  Having changed office spaces several times in the last few years, she’s at the mercy of her clients to rebuild that pile from scratch every time.  The last move was a few months ago, and she’s up to 30 reviews on Yelp and a 5-star rating.

Whitney is active, both physically and socially.  She sings and dances regularly in the San Francisco club scene, and she monkeys around at the rock climbing gym whenever she has the chance.  She’s obsessed with the human body, and is usually enrolled in extra courses to expand her massage therapy offerings, even though she already has plenty of certifications.  Online, she reads as much as she can about what her friends are up to, comments on their stuff religiously, and sends them personal notes whenever she’s thinking of them.

People love her.  She’s smart, generous, compassionate, aware, engaged, fair, accessible, and joyful about life.   Whenever a friend needs something, she finds a way to make it happen for them.  Whenever she needs something, people run toward her in mobs, holding as much of it as they can carry.

When I started the Deviants Online series in the winter, Whitney was one of the first people I invited to speak at the workshop.  But when I asked her, she looked at me like I had three heads.  “Social Media Marketing” isn’t her subject.  She wouldn’t even consider herself a great example of how to “be awesome on the Internet.” That’s for other people to be experts on. She’s just being herself.

Exactly the point.

I’m still working on her, and will hopefully get her to start articulating her methods and philosophies soon.  But that’s not what’s going on right now.

Right now, she has a broken leg. Well… worse. A knee full of ripped ligaments. As of last Saturday, she’s injured and not allowed to walk, dance, or work for six months.  Our Whitney, the center of a massive community, is down. And without insurance.

I saw her last night.  She was laughing about it, but also clearly frustrated, and worried about how this is all going to play out.

I managed to wait until I left before I burst into tears.  I crumbled into an incoherent, snot-dripping wreck, mumbling onto the shoulder of another friend, “No.  We NEED her OUT there!”

It’s just six months. She’ll get through it. But the shock still has me dizzy: Whitney’s been a lighthouse of passion, activity, health, and engagement in my life for years.  I don’t think about it — I just stand up stronger because I know she’s there, and living with the grace and force and connection that I pretend I’ll someday attain. Seeing that threatened hit me like a fist to the gut.

No. We need her out there.

Fortunately, the whole “without insurance” thing is only a half-truth.  It’s true she’s probably facing $30,000 in medical bills and 6 months worth of lost wages, but there are also hundreds (maybe thousands) of people who are committed to helping her out.  The crowds are already organizing a central calendar to plan visits, transportation, and meals for her, and schemes for several fundraisers are already in the works.

She doesn’t have that kind of safety net because she’s a nice person.

She has that safety net because she has spent her entire life listening to and supporting the people around her, pursuing her dreams as honestly as possible, and including as many people as she can in them.

UPDATE!  Stuff You Can Do…

I think I’m ready to consider my next large contract, but only if it’s exactly right.  And I mean that: I’m perfectly happy right now hanging out in Small Contract Land, and I won’t let anything big into my life unless it’s absolutely the right match for both of us.  But maybe that perfect match is out there somewhere, just waiting for me to wink in the right direction. Let’s find out…*

Passionate Multi-Talented Consultant Seeks Online Community that has Lost its Way

Me? I’m a smart, tech-savvy online community organizer who gets really excited about making good stuff happen in the world.

You? You’re the extended online community of a company that appreciates you and wants you to be happy, but that doesn’t quite know how to take good care of you yet. You have a lot to offer and you can tell this organization wants you to shine, but for some reason, somehow, the pieces just aren’t lining up.

At your core, you’re a real catch (and you know it, too). You enjoy lively, informed discussions and you sincerely care about helping people. (In fact, you often have so many ideas about how the world could be better that you can hardly contain yourself! It’s okay, I understand that.) You’re creative and multi-faceted with lots of hobbies and interests, and you bring what seems like lifetimes of experience to the table. Anyone would consider themselves lucky to have you, but it’s disappointingly rare for you to be with someone who grasps exactly how precious and invaluable you really are.

If you let me in, I will be that someone. I will listen to you, find out what you need, and do whatever I can to provide for you.  I will ease your internal conflicts and nurture the parts of you that want to make the world a better place.  I will help bridge that gap between your needs and your organization’s needs, and I will empower you to make a meaningful difference in the way they approach their work.  Under my care, you will grow stronger and healthier, making it possible for you to also grow bigger.

But I need to tell you up front: I’m not interested in a traditional relationship. If you’re looking for the perfect partner who will meet all of your needs for the rest of your life, you’ll have to keep looking — that’s not me.  I have a rich and varied lifestyle with room only for hot, life-changing affairs, and I want us to live in the moment on this one. I’ll come in to your life, strengthen you, heal your wounds, and make the connections you’re craving. I’ll show your organization exactly how valuable you can be to them, and I’ll teach both of you to take care of each other directly, so you won’t need to rely on me. And then I’ll let you stand up on your own.

Are you okay with that?  I know the goodbye will be hard, but I think you’ll agree with me that it will have all been worth it.

A little more about me… I’ve founded and nurtured several online communities that grew in size and scope over time by natural interest. I’m fascinated with what drives people to contribute to things, and obsessed with helping them find ways to do it. I’m excited, engaging, optimistic, and interesting. And I also work my butt off.

I’ve been blogging and building websites for over ten years, and have expert skills in HTML and CSS, as well as strong social media savvy. I’m also a formally trained technical writer with a knack for making complex things easy to understand.  I’ve been making a living as a technology consultant for over five years, and I work well in lots of different environments, including from my home. I’m in San Francisco, but you can be based anywhere.

The arrangement I’m looking for would involve a contract (I’m not an employee) at respectable business rates.  My ideal commitment would be about 20 hours a week over a period of 6 – 12 months, but I want to make sure all your needs are being met, too.

If you know the matchmaker who can arrange this affair, please send this to them, and I will owe you a hundred hugs.

And if that matchmaker is you, I look forward to your reply. Please email me here:

info at sarahdopp dot com

…and we can further explore our compatibility.

With great appreciation,
Sarah

* a hat tip to Havi for this format. (Have you read her stuff yet? She’s wonderful.)

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