Saturday, January 22, 2011

Online Communities 102: Perils and Pitfalls of Community Management

I've recently become involved with Quora, the newest, shiniest professional Q&A community. As with so many things, I seem to get involved *just* before the wave of humanity catches on and the whatever-it-is becomes inundated with new members.

In the case of Quora, the massive amounts of new folks signing up and figuratively walking the halls asking, "What's going on here?" "What is this, anyway?" "What am I missing?"  is forcing Quora to rethink the organized chaos model of community they've been using.

I have been moderating and administrating communities for a pretty long while in Internet time - my first experience was as a moderator of a UseNET group. (If you shuddered, then clearly you too have been around for a long time. ^_^)

There are definitely a few lessons we can learn from the Community Lifecycle. Previously I've discussed how the members' participation shifts over time in Online Communities 101. Today we'll discuss some of the common community management methods - and why they are all always wrong.

Stage 1: Organized Chaos or Hey Kids, let's Build a Group!

The first stage of any online community is an idea. I am interested in a thing and so are you. Let's talk about it over here. You mention how cool that group is to people you like. The group is pretty small, you have some control over who knows about it. The level of signal to nose is high, a few folks - probably the original members - dominate the conversation. In-jokes abound! It's a nice group, everyone has a lot of fun, everyone knows everyone. It's the online version of your local pub.

Positives: This group grew organically. The folks there understand the unwritten rules and maybe don't see the need for written ones. Everyone is helpful when a new person arrives - after all, that person is a friend of a friend.

Negatives: This is a clique, plain and simple. It's cool when you're invited into the clubhouse, but when you bring your kid brother, maybe it's not so cool for everyone else. Unwritten rules are part of the group mind. When you're not quite on the same wavelength, you will feel uncomfortable, like you're missing something and everyone else will feel uncomfortable trying to explain that this is all there is - it's not that you're missing *anything.*

Common negative reactions at this stage: Complain about clique-yness of original members; Try too hard to fit in; Cloak resentment in anthropological terms; Make yourself a nuisance and call yourself "gadfly."

Stage 2: FAQs 

The community has been around a few "cycles" (online cycles last approximately 3 months, with accompanying membership turnover and shift,) and there's some growing pains. What was a group of a few might now be a few dozen. People are joining who "heard of" the group from a friend of a friend, or saw a mention somewhere online. New people are asking the same questions over and over and over and the original members decide that they don't want to have to keep cutting and pasting the same answers. It's time for an FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions

Postives: FAQs are a simple way to remind folks that whatever urgent thing they need to know right now, has been asked before. There's a resource, a body of knowledge here. This group isn't fly by night. It gives new members a list of community standards, and a feel for what the kinds of thing the group talks about might be.

Negatives:  FAQs immediately depersonalize the group. No longer does everyone reach out a helping hand to a new person - the group may still welcome new members, but there's a sense that  "Here, RTFM, kthnx" seems to be the new welcome message. The original members are more remote, because they aren't touching base with every new member. Conversations will get more formal, less like a group of friends. Discussions of "process" will arise.

Common negative reactions at this stage:  Member churn can begin to accelerate. Discussions about "process" can become acrimonious, as differing ideas about how a group "should" be are aired. Original members are often squeezed out, as new members demand certain behaviors and the original members feel disgusted that their creation has gotten away from them. Original, now senior, members stop posting as moderation duties start to suck the fun out of the group.

Stage 3: Community Quality Initiatives

At some point, the mass influx of new members because of growing popularity and press coverage means that the signal to noise ratio will shift towards noise. Where once upon a time new people were new to "this community" but not new to communities, now new people are new to the concept of a community online. As a result fewer people read the FAQs or the "How to" tutorials or the community standards. They slam up the most basic questions, not realizing or caring that they have been answered a hundred (million) times already. They mistake user forums for professional support. These people aren't bad - they just don't get community life. They are the loud neighbors of your online apartment, leaving garbage on the curb all week, because they can't be bothered to find out when pickup is.

Senior members (one or two original members might remain, but the rest will be second- or third-wave members promoted to positions of seniority) will suggest that it's time to come up with and enforce a certain level of quality. Nothing major - we just want this to be a nice place for everyone.

Postives: A new reward system will be created. People with experience, smarts, stability and time will be given accolades, their efforts recognized. Community members will be able to see that being a good neighbor means being recognized by the Town Council.

Negatives:  The original members will have moved on, will be focused on the technical aspects of the site, or on the marketing, advertising or sale of the site and will in large part be leaving the day-to-day running of the site to the users. This is about as good an idea as it sounds.

Common negative reactions at this stage:  Shouts of "Elitism!" will ring from the online rafters. Trolls and "gadflys" will gather to poke and prod these new community leaders because it *is* easier to destroy than create - and this is the way they have fun. The loudest of these people will decry even the slightest testy response as an example that that leader is not worthy of the honor.

Special Negative at this Level:  This level is especially prone to a truly deadly complication - mistaking "usage" for "knowledge."

Online communities are built by programmers, developers...technical people. They "get" building forums, groups, features, games, etc. People skills may not be their strongest area. When these people need to spend less time moderating, they are often swayed by usage statistics. Jane  and Joe seem to be on the community a lot...hey, let's ask them to moderate! When bad choices are made (even one bad choice can really destroy a community) for senior members,  the community will suffer. In my experience, this is a killing field for a community. I've seen dozens of communities brought down because the biggest ass gadfly got a job as moderator.

 Stage 4: Follow the Money or "Choose Your Own Adventure"

I call this the "Choose Your Own Adventure" stage, because at this stage, the community is at its peak. It can no longer be run on love, it needs to bring in money, for real. Community owners now have to decide what they want to do - go after advertising, IPO, sell the company or...die.

Postives: All that time invested in a hobby - this is your baby, she's all grown up and when you wed her off, you'll get a nice dowry.

Maybe the owners will stick around to continue working on the community, creating new features and new designs. If they do, the community will change, but it will continue on.

Negatives: Or, will you? Will you sell her to a mean old miser who will do unspeakable things to her?

Sure the owners may be around, but their aren't working for themselves anymore - they serve a new master. That new master may have a completely different vision for this community. Ad revenue, membership mining, it could be anything. Or maybe they thought they wanted it...but they don't want to invest in it. By the time they get it, the technology platform may be old, tired, done with. It seemed like a good idea, but...

Common negative reactions at this stage: Sell Out! is the accusation at this stage. Bitching about the owners taking the money and running, leaving members to hang on to the crumbling hulk of what was once a really great community. "I remember when" is heard frequently. Slowly, slowly the rumor starts of this other great community over there....

Stage 5: The Afterlife 

Not every community dies when it dies. Some platforms live on, hosting specialized conversations or niches. LiveJournal is an example I use all the time. It was MySpace before MySpace and by the time MySpace was Facebook, LiveJournal was forgotten. Except for the thousands of people that still use it. Niche communities of many kinds still live and thrive there and while LiveJournal is not on the front page of TechCrunch, it's not dead or even dying. Sometimes the best thing for an online community is for everyone to just leave it alone. ^_^


As you can see, there is no way to "win" at online communities. No matter what choices owners/admins make at any level, someone will be unsatisfied. The trick is for administrators to find the best way to annoy the fewest people.

So, here's the homework - think about the online communities you currently participate in. What Stage are they at? What level of participation are you at in that community? What are your reactions to the changes of stage? And last, but not least - are your actions helping to preserve the community, destroy it or grow it?

Let me know your experiences with online communities in the comments!
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