Online community management 101

Here are some notes from a workshop I participated in at Webstock about managing and sustaining communities online.

I went not because I currently manage an online community but because I think communities are a big part of the future of news and of education, which are my two areas of interest, and I wanted to understand more about how communities come together, work together, stay together and play together nicely, as it were.

The one-day workshop was led by Heather Champ, community manager for Flickr, and Derek Powazek, publisher of Fray and more recently involved with MagCloud, a web-to-print publishing site I’ve been meaning to link to for a while (but that’s for another post). You can’t get much more qualified than that.

Needless to say, Heather and Derek had a wealth of experience to draw on and some excellent stories to tell. But they also brought some real warmth and enthusiasm and had clearly thought a lot about how to structure the workshop and include plenty of discussion. If you get a chance to go to a workshop with them, go.

Dean Stringer from Waikato University was also in the workshop and wrote an excellent summary.

UPDATE. Courtney Johnston at Librarytechnz has also written a great summary of the workshop that’s well worth a read.

These are heavily paraphrased notes from workshop leaders and participants and any mistakes or misrepresentations are mine alone.

1. A definition

“Web communities happen when people are given tools to use their voice in a public and immediate way, forming intimate relationships over time.” – Derek Powazek’s definition of communities written for his book, Design for Community: the art of connecting real people in virtual places.

Don’t call what you do a community. Just give people these tools and over time the people who use it will call it a community.

2. Ask yourself these questions:

Why?
Who do you think the site is for?
What is it they are going to be able to do? (individuals, collaborative, sharing information?)
Why will they want to do it? What will they get out of it?

If you can’t answer these questions, don’t build the site.

3. The paperwork

Let people see this stuff before they sign up.

Privacy Policy
Twitter privacy policy is well written and human – read it.
People pay close attention to this stuff.

Copyright/Ownership
Report and takedown process is important.  Easier you can make it, the better.
Ownership – need clear information on who owns content.

Terms of Service
Read Flickr terms of service as a starting point.

Community Guidelines
Flickr Community Guidelines a list of dos and don’ts (not just don’ts).
Members probably refer to this more than the terms of service.
Doesn’t have to be perfect at the beginning, guidelines grow as the site grows.

Managing abuse
Think about ways people might abuse your site.
Think about what you will not tolerate.
Decide what you will do if it happens. Write it down.
Be prepared, know who’s going to deal with it and how.
Need multiple people in the business who can manage this, so it doesn’t matter if you’re away.

4. Structure

User friendly is important but every community excludes someone.
Think about where to put the barrier to entry (do you want everyone posting or only highly motivated folk?).
Wisdom of Crowds. Value is in the aggregate of thoughts, guesses, estimates. Value is not identifying the smart individuals to listen to but averaging out the voice.
Give people small, simple tasks. If not getting feedback you hope for, ask for something smaller.
Give them to a large, diverse group.
Design for selfishness. Flickr tags are selfish (I want to find image later) but selfishness of tags becomes usfeul to all. What are selfish reasons for someone to participate? If you can’t name one, you have a problem.
Aggregate the answers. Be aware of:

Popular tags – a behemoth, doesn’t move, hard to use.
Hot tags add dimension of time.
Have to continuously change algorithms. If creating leaderboard, say, some people will game it.
Scores create games. First post – game in which you win by being a dork and writing ‘first post’ – adds nothing.
How do you observe without changing the outcome? Don’t show tally during vote, don’t show outcome of poll until vote is cast.
Randomness – instead of a top 10 list, take a top 20 per cent and show nine randomly.

It’s okay to build in an editorial, human step at the end. Even if you can figure out algorithm and game it, you can’t game the editor.

5. Keeping things ticking over

Eventually you will need a community manager.
Manager = shepherd, editor, cheerleader, advocate, judge, executioner.
You only hear from unhappy people. Be prepared to deal with that.
Best place to look for a manager is in your own community.
Learn when to respond, don’t have to respond to everything.
Have to set tone in the beginning then members start to take on roles, become champions, start moderating.
Don’t keep all moderation tools at top level, have tools for members eg flag this photo, ability to block people, report abuse (simple process).

Reward good behaviour
Use blog to turn spotlight on good behaviour, content.
Behaviour speaks louder than pages of rules.
Your ambassadors can help hugely in forums.

Transparency
Tell people what’s going on, keep it updated.
Own it when you’re wrong: ‘Sometimes we suck’.
Don’t wait. If going to introduce change, explain it, give people time to learn about it, give them an option to pull out, then make the change.

6. Trolls

Identifying Trolls
Repeated disruptions, steering conversation, server logs
They’re not the freakout comment, but the one before it. They goad.
Sometimes people use two identities to fight with themselves – can see it’s the same IP address. Puppet accounts.
Sometimes they do it to back up the first comment.  “You may not create puppet accounts and talk to yourself”.

Stopping Trolls
Silent treatment. Set it so only the troll can see their posts.
Disable puppets.
Timeouts. Slow down server response time – takes ages to log in, they need instant gratification.

7. Final nugget of wisdom

Observe the ‘ask for forgiveness rule': act first, then tell the boss.

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