Silence & the value of ‘slow’ community

Sitting here watching the dramatic siege in Sydney’s Martin Place unfold with the rest of Australia and many around the world, it’s impossible to avoid the social media noise.

It’s still humming.

It’s frequently speculative, occasionally hate-filled, intermittently impassioned. If you turn off your devices (and good luck with that), it’s being folded into news reporting.

It’s prompted me to reflect a little on why it’s so hard to be silent.

These thoughts aren’t intended to trivialise the siege events (as I type, they’re still occurring). I have the utmost respect for the authorities managing the crisis and the deepest of sympathies for everyone impacted; especially those poor hostages.

They’re my own way of processing what’s going on through a partly professional lens, and I hope they nudge some thinking.

Street art showing man with finger to lipsFlickr: jefaerosol

So why can’t we shut up?

Talkativeness means survival. It’s a coping mechanism for many in life, and for humans as a collective.

We talk to change the subject and avoid the confrontation that reflection might deliver.

It also means identity. We talk to cohere and ascribe meaning to a shared experience.

A recent study even revealed that talking to strangers may well make us happier.

We’ve also done it forever, long before the internet. It’s community in action.

But filling the digital void is a different ballgame. It’s easy – and – for those who require it, promises attention a water cooler never could. The normalisation of user generated culture has embedded a sense of entitlement to have a say. Giving voice is a gift of the ages. But when noise is unchecked, it feeds the disaster-porn machine that traditional media thrives on. We feed it, then we complain about it. The circle of life goes on.

When noise swirls it feeds the disaster-porn machine

Accelerated culture means a millisecond can have a lifetime of impact.

Slow community

I wasn’t silent either. I had fascinating conversations with community managers and social media leads through the day, in private communities.

Some asked for tips on how to address the topic in their own communities (which either had direct connections to the event or were discussing it like everyone else).

Many unpacked the way the Lindt team were dealing with the myriad challenges they face on social media. Others were sharing strategies.

Some just wanted the group hug of knowing others were out there.

We shared some acute examples of posts that were ill-thought, or just plain inappropriate, including a high profile journalist, an editorial staffer from a major student publication and a prominent social media personality, among others.

Importantly, we also talked about the value of silence as a response – and that shutting down comments and commentary is absolutely sometimes the right decision.

Shutting down commentary is absolutely sometimes the right decision

Those group discussions were largely measured, thoughtful and constructive.

They weren’t a hyperactive stream. Call them ‘slow’ community.

Women with hand held to mouth, with lips on hand

Flickr: danielavladimirova

What makes it slow?

  • It’s a carefully constructed community of purpose, with intentional barriers to entry;
  • It’s hand moderated to reasonable standards of what is and isn’t acceptable;
  • Finally, the audience is much narrower – the ‘public’ is finite.

This is the conundrum with the gun-powder publics of the web… and just how infinite they can be.

Private communities in small and large form appear to be making a comeback with the mainstream. Maybe that’s a healthy thing for digital discourse and driving value – business or civic.

Noise can and does become something pretty powerful now and then. Time heals, and it can transform toxicity into remarkable shows of hope and humanity. Like this one.

The social washing machine churns the ‘thing’ around and like-mindedness clusters.

But while that’s happening, maybe we need some ‘slow-community’ to buffer the speed of noise.

Social Media Manager or Community Manager?

I’ve led social media and community management for companies, hired, and worked with many social media managers and community managers.

Let’s be honest – the two roles are often confused. The number of blog posts explaining the difference should be a tip-off.

(I like this one, fwiw: Differentiating Between Social Media and Community Management – Rachel Happe, Community Roundtable)

In Australia, for example, most Community Manager jobs advertised are actually Social Media Manager jobs.

There’s a few of reasons for this. One is that advertising agencies dominate the discourse around social media and online ‘community’ in Australia.

Another is that there are fewer enterprise and organisational online communities in Australia compared to North America and Europe, where the distinction is more native.

Finally, the market in Australia is a small one and it’s all but assured social and community professionals will end up delivering both functions at some point.

So we muddy our waters – what’s the harm?

Here’s why this confusion can be a problem.


Why the difference matters

Just like anything in life and business, if you’ve got the wrong tool for the job, you won’t get the outcome you expect or need.

You might be using the wrong strategy

Communities and social media solve different problems for businesses and organisations.

Are you building brand awareness, or do you want to scale customer service? Does your roadmap take into account community life-cycles over the long haul (communities take years to build and pay off more over time – a little like bricks and mortar)?

Communities are different systems to social networks, defined by the structure of their relationship matrix, not the platform they inhabit.

Here’s a nice way to visualise this important difference (big thanks to Matthew Cox for the image):

Network versus community diagram


You don’t know what you’re measuring

Objectives, end goals, metrics for success, measuring tools and methodologies are very different for Social Media Managers and Community Mangers.

Social Media Managers might look at engagement metrics around native social content, reach and amplification, social media sentiment and conversions (however that’s defined for the organisation in question).

Community Manager measurement includes: membership funnels (visitor to registration), engagement ratios over time, volume and balance of strong and weak ties, progress toward member objectives, number of volunteers – and critically – community health (including sense of belonging, level of influence). If you don’t know what you’re measuring, you can’t define or achieve success.

If you don’t know what you’re measuring, how will you know success?

You’re devaluing both functions

Saying an SEO Strategist is the same as a Digital Editor doesn’t do justice to either, even though a Digital Editor will have strong SEO skills and understanding, and an SEO Strategist will understand the mechanics of great content.

In particular, this conflation tends to disadvantage community builders, whose work is commonly longitudinal (complex peer-to-peer relationship building across many years).

You’re hiring the wrong people for the job

If you hire a Social Media Manager when you need someone to design a community strategy, you’ll be disappointed. It’s a different mission, with different timeframes and different skill requirements.

You might also be facing wasted resources, morale issues and broken outcomes.

Community manager meme

What’s in a name?

Community is frustratingly, beguilingly oblique word. It’s about identity and investment, so it’s inevitably bespoke to at least some extent. But there is a long history of established social science defining community structures and a network structures that should inform us here.

At a high level, social media is about reach. Communities are about relevance. Content is the glue of social media (formal or informal). Relationships are the glue of communities. They complement one another functionally and structurally. Deftly managed social media is an effective way to discover community member prospects and spark the journey to registration.

Neither is better or worse – and together they’re supremely powerful.

Audiences on social media and community members are part of are very different social systems – and we’re not doing ourselves any favours confusing the two. We can’t set objectives, define and measure success, or hire the right professionals if we don’t know whether we want people getting excited about our latest product, or a sense of belonging.

Audiences on social media and community members are part of different social systems.

Many Community Managers have become adept Social Media Managers as social media platforms have risen to nest the conversations of our age. And great Social Media Managers understand the way people tick in ways similar to community builders and negotiators.

We’ve developed deep and real appreciation for our respective functions and talents.

But it’s a risk to assume we’re fluent in each other’s discipline, and riskier still to not match person – to role – to need.

Facebook goes back to the future with Rooms

Pseudonymity in online community received a boon last week from an unlikely source.

Facebook, King of ‘real name to rule them all’ culture online, launched a beta version of a new app called Rooms that lets users create a virtual chat community around any topic they want using a pseudonym – and without a Facebook account.

Users scan a 2D barcode which is then shared to whoever they’d like to invite. Moderation functionality allows for filtering, pre-approval and banning, and owners can customise the design.

For those of us weened on bulletin boards, alt.newsgroups, IRC, LiveJournals, Nings and more, it’s a welcome bolt from the big blue – who may have finally got identity right.

FB rooms image


Creator Josh Miller, former chief executive of discussion site Branch, waxes nostalgic about Rooms, calling it an intentional hybrid of early online communities and modern smartphone technology.

Miller calls out what many of us who participated in and built communities in the early Internet era acknowledge – that a name is different from an identity in a social setting – and that online communities thrived long before social networks.

A name is different from an identity in a social setting.

I’m thrilled to see posts like this from Miller in recent days, highlighting precisely the sort of organic community catalysing that this type of platform empowers:


Reclaiming our social selves

Swarm co-founder Alison Michalk and myself have been suggesting for some time that the social web is circling back on itself, with the resurgence of branded online community hubs, and micro-communities of relevance, and the growing weariness with catch-all networks overrun by brute marketing noise.

Early online communities were largely pseudonymous, and mobilised around passion and purpose. They weren’t the ambient town squares of today’s major social networking platforms.

They were about hyper-relevance, not widespread reach. They understood that the people we know in real life might not be the people we want or need to form an online community with.

They recognised that community metrics are about strength of ties and dynamics of interaction over time, not vanity clicks.

Early online communities were about hyper-relevance, not widespread reach.

We saw the gradual backlash against AOL when that company attempted to be the single source of truth for a person’s content and relationships. Facebook has experienced a credibility deficit over time as its tried to enforce its inorganic real name policy and a similar model.

As I see it, Rooms could be the smartest play Facebook has made in years; a discrete service that offers something things to people (and organisations) their core platform does not – agency and non-intermediated context.

Of course, they’re not the first to respond to this identity fatigue, and they’ve had a substantial hand in creating it to begin with. But the arrival of Rooms appears so promising for constructive, flexible community building that it almost doesn’t matter.

What does it mean for community managers?

Community managers have already been discussing the potential impacts of Rooms on their work, and the wider web landscape.

Some of the questions being asked:

  • What impact will this have on more existing traditional forums, and newer forum platforms like Discourse?
  • What kind of mechanisms will it evolve to curate content (bubble it up or push it down)?
  • Should Rooms let users port a username across multiple Rooms so they can accrue content and interaction against that alias?
  • How and will Rooms be commercialised? What frameworks (official and unofficial) will spring up to manage businesses and brands? How will a brand’s Room federate with user generated rooms on the same topic?

As Rooms settles into the hands of users, we’ll surely see business swoop to explore and make use of it. Anything that inspires someone to dive down a rabbit-hole (games, movies, television, books, art, technology) should find Rooms has something to offer, let alone the inspiring applications for the public sector, activism and health, just to name a few.

Learning from the grand master

Forums are gloriously stubborn, because they’re still the social technology format most closely aligned with who we are as humans. Despite regular cries of their death in an age of appified, anywhere sociability, they persist, even thrive.

It’s not surprising that Miller and his team have looked to forums and IRC as the inspiration for the conversational architecture of Rooms. The two go hand in hand. The forums I was involved in through the 1990s all had IRC satellite channels, where members would ‘second screen’ while composing longer posts to the ‘mainstage’ of the bulletin board.

Both offer people agency over their identity and a way to engage many-to-many, using any expressive media that suits their topic – features that cohese and foment community.

Facebook is taking care not to position this as a backflip on its militant approach to IRL naming conventions, but I can’t help but think it’s a positive signal for users and online community builders that the network giant is letting people behave more naturally online.

What makes a good community manager?

Too often people hire community managers when they’re really looking for a social media marketer, an SEO specialist, or customer service officer.

These can all be helpful skills for an online community manager – there are frequently things expected of a community manager in a role – but recruiting to those backgrounds is looking in the wrong place.

It starts with knowing what you need, which is another blog post altogether…

Let’s say you know you need an online community manager. What should you look for?

In my experience, there are some non-negotiable characteristics, then a range of qualities or skills that relate to the role you’re recruiting for and the culture of the organisation doing the hiring.


Community manager must-haves

Relationship builder

A popular misconception about community managers is that they’re inherently social – at a party, they’ll be the centre of action, directed at them.

Yet some of the best community managers I know are shy, even socially awkward offline. Popularity has nothing to do with community management. Let’s get rid of that myth once and for all.

A popular misconception about community managers is that they’re inherently social.

What the great ones have in common is that they’re native relationship builders - people who believe building relationships is a good and useful thing, are skilled at doing it and care that it’s done well.

They need to be able to connect others with others, not just themselves. They make members the centre of each others attention. Beware community manager ‘rock stars’.


I’m not talking about the kind you measure with Klout. Successful community managers, particularly those who grow into senior management or executive community roles, have finely honed influencing instincts and skills.

You need to motivate prospective members to convert and remain; current members to activate and connect. You must coax quieter voices into contribution and less useful voices out of the way.

You need to persuade prospective members to convert and remain; current members to activate and connect.

You need to persuade staff to engage with – and be accountable to – the community, product creators to adopt member considerations, and lobby leadership for the resourcing to reach objectives. You also have to detect influencing capacity in others, and harness it constructively.

Patience & resilience

If you’re someone who requires a steady stream of quick wins, I wouldn’t recommend community management. Though the world of social media can deliver some professional dopamine hits, community managers need to work across months and years to execute and refine their approach and end run.

In every community you’ll run into bad behaviour. The topic, technical platforms and social culture will determine the costumes and arsenal of the offenders, but it’s inevitable.

You need to roll with the many punches you’ll take from – and on behalf of – your community. You have to manage and distill the impacts of conflict, then weather the haters, trolls, sock puppets and crazies.

Great communicator

This isn’t about literacy. You could have a Pulitzer and not be able to ‘read’ the room in a community and communicate effectively with members.

It’s about being able to take on the voice of a community, in their language, and create content and context they care about.

You need to interpret and articulate stories, needs and issues within the community and back to the organisation, and help members express themselves effectively.

You’ll do this within a communication framework for the community that drives toward overall community goals and outcomes.

It’s about being able to take on the voice of a community, in their language.

A chameleonic empathy that can extend in every direction is also a community manager lightning rod.

Business nous

Commercial acumen matters. Your community manager doesn’t have to be shooting for the C-suite, but they must understand how and why the community is part of business strategy and operations, and analyse data to create actionable insights about community content and direction.

Although community managers are more social scientist than salesperson, their work can and should support and empower world class marketing efforts.

When you demonstrate the relevant business case for the value of community management, you help the entire profession, not just your own career. You also make sure your community gets the recognition it deserves as a business asset and revenue generator.

When you demonstrate the relevant business case for the value of community management, you help the entire profession.

Nous also provides objectivity. Good judgement and common sense will see your community manager through plenty of trials.

Duty of care

Work ethic is always important, but it’s even more significant for community managers. We’re not curing cancer here, but we are accountable to a group of people that, if we’re succeeding, will place their trust in our intentions and efforts.

There’s a responsibility implicit in that transaction we can’t afford to blind spot.

If a member turns to community management, you’ll need to find a way to deliver – whether it’s you personally or not.

Other things to look for: curiosity, agility and a genuine interest in how and why people tick – and stick (that’s why the social sciences are an ideal foundation).

Square peg, square hole

What matters most of all, is that your community manager is a fit for the community you want to build, or need to nurture and grow.

For certain communities it won’t matter if they’re not an expert in the subject matter – only that they understand and empower it’s value. For others, fluency around topic and purpose is a non-starter. Fan communities are an example of the type to swiftly out an imposter community manager  if they don’t know their material.

Don’t hire a soft-spoken person who loathes sport as the community manager of a large, loud football community. They won’t match topically or tonally, and they won’t last. The brusque, tough-talker isn’t the best candidate for a community dedicated to families dealing wit palliative care.

A credible frame of reference is essential. The employee needs to fit company culture and your community manager needs to match community culture. If you haven’t launched your community yet, they should reflect the culture you want or need to create.

Your community manager needs to match community culture.

Once you’ve ticked the boxes on these must-haves, then you consider the relevance other skill sets to the role you’re hiring – SEO, social marketing, customer service and more.

You’ll notice passion isn’t on this list.  Why? It’s there in everything else. You don’t attend to a suicide threat in the middle of the night if you’re not passionate. You don’t work long and hard to convey member sentiment to the business if you don’t really care about that business.

Passion is awesome, but without these other qualities, it’s just unfocused energy.

I wrote about other qualities a good community manager needs here, unpacking ageism in the industry.

9 lessons from theatre for community managers

Before I became a community manager, I studied at Tisch School of the Arts and worked in musical theatre. I grew up a performer and still work as a choreographer.

Since transitioning to a career in online community, I’ve found I draw on lessons from that former life regularly. After participating in a Google Hangout about this exact topic with the crew from My Community Manager, I thought I’d reflect what’s translated over the years.

An acting teacher once told me to be a great artist you need ‘the hide of a bear and the soul of a poet’. The strength to let nothing bother you, yet empathy for others and the belief their stories matter.

It’s what I look for in community management hires to this day.

1. Authenticity

“Never allow yourself externally to portray anything that you have not inwardly experienced and which is not even interesting to you,” wrote iconic acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski.

To act well is to summon another’s truth, and intimately understand your own. If you cannot access and harness authenticity, you’ll falter before you begin.

So it is with conceiving, building and managing communities. If you don’t have a firm grasp on who you are, your strengths and vulnerabilities, what you love and hate, where you draw your boundaries – it’s difficult to support others and keep things upfront.

2. Motivation

‘What’s my motivation’ is the old actor catch-cry. As a community manager and strategist you need to understand motivating behaviours, influencing drivers and desired outcomes.

What is the intrinsic and extrinsic motivation of your members? How can you help extrinsic become intrinsic (deepening connection to the community and strengthening ties)?

Actors ask explicitly what their objective is in every scene, as well as through their whole narrative. Community managers need to determine the purpose of every task, feature and mechanic within their community; they should relate directly to the ‘play’ – the needs of the community.

Want to introduce a new bell or whistle? A new marketing campaign? Make sure you’re in the same play and on the same stage as your ensemble, or you’ll be out of tune.


3. Resilience

Systematic rejection is character building. As a performer, you learn quickly you’ll be judged and turned down on a regular basis. You’re just not right for the role, even if you’re the best actor in the room. Or the chemistry with other cast members wasn’t quite right.

Taking knocks and getting back up again is part of the game and can’t be a big deal if you want to survive and ultimately thrive. You learn the value of failure, and that you won’t succeed without it.

Bonus: you develop the kind of thick skin necessary for dueling with trolls, serial pests, sock puppets, bullies and other critters without flinching. Creation demands you don’t give a crap.

4. Improvisation

Most performers learn the principles of improvisation. They’re pretty great rules for life generally. And they’re definitely practical for community management.

The first rule: accept the ‘offer’. Always say “Yes! And?”. Don’t block. Don’t shut the situation down by saying “No”. Accept the circumstance and build from there.

“Yes! And?” drives constructive collaboration, problem solving and creativity.

Other improv rules equally golden for the art of managing community: add new information (take things forward, not backward), play in the present and use the moment.

This ingrains adaptability, a key quality of a good community manager. You need to be able to connect and communicate with anyone in any (social) language. To quickly read the power dynamics of a ‘scene’, dive in and accept the context you’re given. To be material agnostic – managing a Chekov play or a Joss Whedon script with equal awesome.

Improvisation techniques remain some of the most useful skills in my CM (and life) toolkit.

5. Humility & gratitude

Staying humble is a big part of sustaining a career in the creative industries. That fellow auditionee you’re snippy to could be sitting behind table directing the next show you’re vying for.

Be proud of your hard work. Be confident in your skills and knowledge. But be grateful and humble about every opportunity that comes your way and every amazing person you have the chance to learn from.

6. Understanding people

Performers make a study of the human animal. It’s our job to scrutinise people and figure out what makes them tick. It’s a skill we need to inhabit on a character, get under its skin and bring a story to life.

My ability to read digital body language was honed by years of theatrical ethnography – being trained to observe, interpret (and emulate) how people convey their state of being at the most nuanced level. It was an exercise in extreme close up of the best and worst of people, and basic training for community management.

7. Co-operative direction

Working as a director and a choreographer you get good at mobilising a group of people around a common goal.

Along the way you need to temper egos, keep people focused, indulge eccentricities, support quieter voices, moderate dominant ones, bring out the best in disparate types and adapt your outcomes (without compromising your vision), to suit the talent on the floor.

You need to lay down a strong framework and destination, then support your cast and team as they experiment with the best ways to get to that destination. It’s chaos within order analogous to online community.


8. Good work takes time

Ask any ‘overnight success’ and they’ll tell you they’ve been working at their craft for years; taking bit parts to keep working and learning, slugging through materials and experiences that flex and tone their abilities.

Community is a long game and ‘overnight’ strategies are smoke and mirrors.

9. Courage

Bearing your soul is a leap of faith. It takes guts to stand on a stage. To belt out a tune. To dance a solo. All the while fearing your voice, muscles or nerves will seize, exposing you as an impostor not worthy of the work or the attention. And the nerves never leave you, as I learnt working alongside some extremely famous folks who assured me they still got those butterflies.

Studying, working and living in the theatre world, you absorb a sometimes irrational tenacity that carries into every other aspect of your life.

If you don’t go for it, the work is inauthentic, labored and half-measured. You doubt yourself, and you can’t inspire trust or action in your fellow cast members or your audience. Pussyfoot in the business of community and you’ll have the same struggle.

In theatre, and community, you give it a shot, knowing you could fail. Because you know the really great stuff happens mid-leap (or for some of us, mid-jete).

Why anonymity matters in online communities

In the last decade we’ve seen a not so subtle push toward “real name” culture by online giants like Facebook and Google.

These businesses monetise your data, so the more they can quantify and attribute, the richer their offering and profit margins.

It’s a legitimate business model, but has nothing to do with building or managing great online communities.

Anonymity is the lazy straw man for bad behaviour online. Community managers in particular are exhausted listening to the argument that outlawing someone’s ability to adopt a virtual pseudonym (if that were even possible), will be panacea to our digital ills.

Anonymity is the lazy straw man for bad behaviour online.

It’s true that in some online environments anonymity will disinhibit in a destructive way. But those environments – like comment streams – are rarely communities. An online community has an implicit and explicit regulatory framework that intermediates that disinhibition.

Recently we’ve seen another Facebook controversy over naming conventions; this time preventing drag artists from using their drag identities on the platform, after rogue users reported their profiles – then reversing that decision and creating further contradictions in their broken approach.

As people often look to social networks to draw lessons in community building (not a wise idea generally speaking) – and companies like Facebook tend to dominate the discourse around this issues – I thought I’d lay out some of the reasons anonymity or pseudonymity are important and useful for online communities.


Why anonymity is good for community

It promotes disclosure

Just as anonymity can lower barriers to participation in a negative way (creating the perception of speech or action without consequence), it consistently does the opposite – creating permission to say what might otherwise go unsaid.

The volume and quality of contributions in a community is a direct result of people feeling safe and comfortable posting. This requires permissiveness, and in many communities a real name is a barrier to self-disclosure. Comfortable self-disclosure is a critical element in community formation and cohesion.

In many communities a real name is a barrier to self-disclosure.

The kudos that attach to community contributions – like post counts or member badging – are easily awarded to a pseudonym.

A legal name identifier is not a precursor to adding to the scope of community knowledge or helping the community fulfill its mission. Decades of prolific, high value online community activity put the lie to that. Anonymity is a catalyst for authenticity.

It promotes trust

By demanding ‘real names’ as part of the hurdle to registration, you’re effectively implying trust can’t be achieved without them.

Allowing members to identify as they choose signals trust and respect, and invites reciprocity. This helps members invest in the community from the start – which in turn leads to the sense of co-ownership and belonging necessary for community defense and sustainability.

Allowing members to identify as they choose signals trust and respect.

Getting names out of the way means community manager and members can focus on best practices for promoting good behaviour and strong community – codes of conduct, moderation policies, reporting mechanisms, steering discussion, balancing interaction and personality dynamics – community management that keeps members focused on the bigger picture.

It protects

Under age children, whistleblowers, dissidents, victims of crime, people suffering illnesses, people being stalked or bullied.

Vulnerable and marginalised voices are everywhere, including the places we least expect. And they have a right to be heard and engage in online community without identification.

People explore identity throughout their lives. They might experiment with alternative lifestyles. They might adopt unpopular politics. They might have something they would prefer the Googling public, employers, friends or even family not to associate them with – something that shouldn’t be assumed criminal or suspicious.

The right to not reveal identifiable information about yourself could be a matter of life and death. If you’re a young gay man in conservative America, who has found support in an online community for people with similar life experiences, sharing your ‘real name’ online could lead to physical assault, or worse.

The right to not reveal identifiable information about yourself could be a matter of life and death.

Imagine the consequences for an online community of domestic violence victims being forced to sign up under their legal name.

(This infographic does a good job of highlighting a few of the reasons someone may want or need an alias).

It’s realistic

Writers, painters, journalists and drag artists are just a few people who often operate under a pseudonym.

We don’t walk into every conversation, group or situation in our lives and immediately share our legal, full name in order to engage. In most cases, it’s irrelevant.

Compassionate or petty, smart or frivolous. Unless we’re dealing with transactional relationships with institutions, we’re defined by how we are, not what we’re called. Leading with a legal identifier feels awkward because it is.

Community isn’t about your name

There are virtually no online communities where using a legal name to register enhances the experience for the member, or the outcomes for the community.

Having a pseudonym doesn’t stymy the building of meaningful relationships online, or the capacity to be a productive member of a healthy online community. More often than not, it does the opposite.

Your community needs censorship

coolkidsCommunities aren’t democracies by default.

They’re governed by a social rules and norms – whether publicly stated and consistently enforced, or organic and unspoken.

If you want to build a successful community, you should be aiming for the middle of those two poles:

A conduct framework that is relevant and real to your community members, and formally and consistently supported by moderation.

Context invites censorship

Codes of conduct are all about context.

Culture is contextual and the lines we draw to define our sense of order are created within that context.

An online community for cancer survivors will likely have a different threshold for acceptable language, tone and behaviour than a fantasy football forum.

It’s the job of an online community manager to work with the founding members of their community (as collaboratively as they realistically can) to unearth and formalise social consensus around acceptable and unacceptable content and behaviour.

Boundaries tell us who we are and strengthen our sense of membership in the community.

When people, content or behaviour that isn’t welcome cross those boundaries, we need censorship to remove the thing obstructing the community’s reason for being and throttling shared member objectives.

Don’t let it all hang out

As social media hit mainstream tipping point, businesses were told that this ‘new world’ meant they had to take the bad with the good, no matter what; that deleting criticism sent a clear signal you had something to hide.

That radical transparency would set you free.

In many respects, this is true. Deleting criticism for the sake of it will get you nowhere fast. You’ll look out of touch and appear as if you’ve got something to hide. You’ll struggle to build trust, support the formation of relationships, motivate people to take a desired action and fulfill the intent of the group.

The web is making business accountable in all sorts of impactful, game changing ways.

But there’s a big difference between giving critique and debate their due, and letting a fight break out in your living room.

Radical transparency doesn’t comport with online community.

Communities should be managed as openly and honestly as possible, but allowing anything and everything to remain online in the name of ‘transparency’ will break what you’re working to build.

Hopefully you will find a way to involve members in moderation – through a volunteer system, reporting functions, and for certain communities, even in policy and decision making processes.

But for a community of purpose to thrive, something has to sit outside the lines.

Community managers are constructive censors, and systematic censorship is part of a healthy community.

On whose terms?

Creative protest

Popular photo sharing network Instagram changed its privacy policy and terms of service last week, and sent the web into a tailspin with the fine print about sweeping rights claims to monetise and re-purpose people’s photos.

The Instagram end game looks to be allowing companies to pay to promote themselves to your followers, using photos you took that involved them. It’s also aimed at letting them monetise with advertising that is (to quote a smart friend of mine) on the right side of “the line between socially relevant and creepy.”

When you mix social and economic norms it can become a bit of a minefield. Despite the fact users could connect with strangers, most Instagram users I know describe the service as feeling more ‘personal’ and ‘intimate’ than Facebook, because of its photocentricity. Exchanging visual moments usually connects us in a more powerful way than words.

Oh, and the absence of ads. Instagram felt private, even when it was public. Facebook has long since felt like a shopping mall with grating elevator music.

If a company amasses social capital they need to follow through and acknowledge the social contract that comes with that capital when navigating their commercial pathways. Community managers (if they have one) are well placed to help them do it.

Culture clash

A community establishes a culture and array of social codes. It speaks a language and has a ‘way’. (It’s conventions are so tangible they can be parodied). Then it’s bought or taken over by another company.

The new owners may want – or need – to change the way things run. They may have a different philosophy of community or a different approach to community management. They may want to moderate more (or less) strictly. Change the way the community looks and is organised. They may want people to start using their real names. They may need to make (more) money.

They may see users, not members, and not understand the distinction.

As a mandate collides with established ways of being and interacting, it provokes a culture clash. These clashes aren’t new – ask most community managers and they’ll tell you a story of one – but we will see more of them as our social lives remain public, interconnected and somebody’s bottom line.

What if Facebook buys Reddit? Or Apple buys Trip Advisor?

There’s nothing wrong with monetising a community. It’s usually essential and there’s some innovative ways to do it.

But beware when you snap change the rules of engagement in a space you’re not seen as a part of.

You can change the culture of a community (sometimes you have to), but it takes time, and that time is usually proportional to the lifetime of the community. You also can’t do it without the help and influence of members.

Behaviour doesn’t change because of guidelines, or terms. It changes with conversations, heroing desired behaviour, and most importantly, social proofing.

Ripping the band-aid off will make things worse, and may kill your community altogether. If you don’t want to invest the time, reconsider investing in a community. Companies who buy platforms powered by people (even if they weren’t looking to buy the ‘community’ in itself), need to make a plan for change management within that community beyond an announcement saying they’ve moved in.

An update to the fine print binding a community is felt more acutely than a simple terms change on a service website.

If you’re going to change stuff – for safety, convenience, consistency or profit – figure out the cultural impact on the community and work with those best understand that culture to manage the change as smoothly as is possible.

If your users care, you’ll need to care at least as much (even if you didn’t originally).

If you steam roll your changes, you’ll alienate your best users and bait your worst; and you’ll start corroding the asset you’ve just purchased. It’s more politics than system update – and for all their digital acumen, the founders of some of our most successful social companies seem to miss this point.

If you need to merge the acquired community with another, it’s even more delicate. Be honest about how they’ll fit. Can you afford to maintain existing boundaries (visible and intangible)?

Look at the effort members have invested over time (content, ideas, achievements) and work out how you’ll recognise that in the new community structure. If you can’t, at least explain why. And don’t send the lawyers to do it.

The ‘takeover’ will be a milestone in the history of the community, even if specific operational changes don’t emerge for a while. It’ll be a target. Don’t make it an easy one.

Signal that you understand while the community isn’t (usually) a democracy, it does have a shared destiny and you take the responsibility of steering it seriously.

You can’t and won’t keep everyone happy. But why set yourself up for failure by ramrodding change through a sophisticated social space? You need to lean on change management, not legalese. And for goodness sake, don’t be cavalier.

What stood out about Instagram’s policy update was how much it felt like a Facebook maneuver. Announce. Backlash. A retraction that wasn’t, which further muddied the waters. The sneaking suspicion that nobody really took user objections too seriously. Now a part of the Facebook machine, Instagram appear to have absorbed their attitude to users, and this is incompatible with a community built around passionate sharing, under largely pseudonymous handles.

Instagram management have to overcome an almost total lack of trust around their new parent (Facebook), and demonstrate they can still be trusted to put the needs of their users first, even if the rules of engagement have to change. They knew the anticipation of this change was out there (if they were listening), and yet they still rolled it out flippantly.

I’m disappointed their community managers didn’t seem empowered to help mitigate the blowout. I didn’t hear their voices at all, as an Instagram member.

Blaming the victim

Pundits delight in dismissing the type of concerns Instagram users raised. People are ‘stupid’, ‘naive’ and ‘vain’ for presuming their content was their own, that they’re anything other than a product, or that Instagram would ever want to sell their crappy photos.

There’s a pill of truth within their snark, and that’s the social role we’ve fashioned for our pundits; trolling populism.

But we’re not talking about uncooperative software, we’re talking about people.

We’re not neat creatures, which is inconvenient to an end game of quantitative existence. “Will Instagram sell my photos?” is the wrong question.

They probably won’t. They might someday. They’ll certainly use them in ways they didn’t originally tell me they would.

‘What does it mean that a moment shared between friends is a commodity?’ is the more interesting question, now that most understand that it is. When we tether our intimacies to the profitability of a private company we will get angry and feel betrayed when terms of service change. They’re terms of existence.

Of course my photos don’t really matter to anyone but me. But they matter to me.

Your diary, scrapbook and photo albums are listed on the stock market. That’s the world we’ve allowed folks like Mark Zuckerberg to create.

Personal, private and public are fuzzy realities now. But this doesn’t mean we should shut up and suck it. Just because we choose to make something public, it doesn’t mean we’ve divested it of a personal connection. On the contrary, it may have even greater emotional weight. And it’s the personal which is often the casualty in these debates.

Let’s stop calling OTT and beating up on people who express that connection, just because we don’t feel it or buy into Zuckerberg’s new world of ruthless transparency (unless you can afford a big wall).

Don’t bully me into not having an opinion about the fact I have value as a fleshy bundle of data, if not a share in the rewards (Or I might get mad).

5 tips for community governance

I was asked for five tips on community governance by the lovely April Allen, over at Knowledge Bird.

Here they are.

1. Self-moderation is a myth

Some communities are proactive in regulating tone. Usually these are communities that have been around for some time, and have had a chance to establish a sense of group identity. But even these groups need a simple scaffold to help them stay safe and stable.

Offline communities need police forces, fire brigades and other specialist groups of people looking out for them when stuff goes awry. Ideally, they’re never needed. But knowing they’re there (with training, equipment and accountability) if stuff happens, is an important comfort that lets us relax and get on with life.

Online communities aren’t much different. Knowing they’re supported acts as a stabilising force.

An external, impartial guiding hand ensures that certain voices or personalities don’t hijack or dominant moderation, and will look out for the community as a whole, rather than special or individual interests.

If you’re a member of an online community, do you really want to be concerned with warning people about bad behaviour, removing spam, responding to copyright take-down notices or defamation claims? You want to get to the point, and let others look after the fine print, for everyone’s safety.

2. It’s all about context

Whether creating criteria for usernames and accounts, community guidelines, terms and conditions, oversight procedures and mechanisms for reporting, you need to ensure your governance acknowledges the legal and social contexts of your unique community.

A support community for a serious disease will have very different attitudes to anonymity than a community of public officials. A community of teenagers will have a different take on when insults cross a line than a community of small business owners. And sometimes you’d be surprised at those differences!

Don’t assume anything. Learn about your community and your members. Work to understand their needs, objectives and where they’re coming from. Do your best to appreciate what makes them tick. (listen to what they’re not saying as well as what they’re saying). Then make sure your choices, your style, the words you write and the processes you put in place resonate with and respect those realities.

3. Consistency, consistency, consistency

Flawless consistency isn’t human, but building a strong community over time means applying the rules equally, repeatedly. It’s even more important to strive for consistency when you’re behind a screen and usually not able to share all the details about a decision or moderation action. Your members will point to any sign of favourites or special treatment, and call you out on it.

A long term member who’s been a great contributor suddenly goes rogue and seriously violates the rules of engagement. Decisions and consequences can’t be lighter than a newcomer, but you might want to spend a little more time explaining the outcome to the community (or them).

Be careful of over justifying your actions in public, and keep it professional. Whlie transparency is the ideal, too much detail about moderation can actually breed dissent and weaken your community over time.

4. Share the burden

Letting community members contribute to their own safety and harmony gives them a critical sense of empowerment. While likely only a handful will step up to do this regularly (and you can’t rely on this alone), you can’t afford not to let your members help you with regulating the space.

As you scale, it’ll become indispensable. And there are legal considerations. You have to give members a straightforward, quick way to report things like defamation, copyright infringement or issues concerning younger users to ensure compliance and protect each other.

Over time, listening to and learning from the way members report bad actors, or behaviour they consider gives you invaluable insight into the true social mores of the group (which may be different than the ones they’d articulate if asked).

5. Consult, but don’t design by committee

Good governance steers but doesn’t trickle down or impose.  If you have the good fortune to develop guidelines and rules of engagement with your members from the start, do so.

Involve them in a way that shows you’re truly interested in their ideas about what their community will and won’t stand for, and how that bears out in operational practicalities. It shows you’re wiling to let them truly extend ownership over the shape of the community.

However, manage this input and the expectations around it smartly. For example, offer them input to a draft of guidelines, rather than open slather on creating them. Be careful not to imply that they have responsibilities they don’t, or more power than they do.

Until the law catches up with the realities of our networked lives, those keeping the lights on bear the cost and liability, and get sign off on house rules.

Sloane’s Run: Are you too old to be a social media manager?

Time to pack up our Tumblr accounts and run for our lives!

The myth of the digital native has been soundly debunked, but the final nail in its coffin may well be Cathryn Sloane, unwitting poster child for the worst of Gen Y cliches.

Cathryn’s post ‘Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25′ enthusiastically makes a case for its self evident title, predictably spinning up a tempest of heated debate among said social media managers.

Countless commentators have taken her arguments apart (including advocating for her own demise Logan’s Run style), so I won’t retread those.

I choose to believe she’s taken the feedback and insights on board in good will, as a budding professional communicator would.

Who hasn’t said or done something (especially when they were young) that they didn’t think twice about with the blessing of hindsight.

But she did get me thinking…

Over the years managing communities I’ve hired the very young and the much older.

Of those ‘older’ people, most had a decade plus experience online, dealing with proto-social media and early online communities.

A couple had limited experience on digital front lines, but had important qualities like persistence, empathy, a desire to make a difference, or deep knowledge of the community subject matter.

Some were parents, which proved indispensable training for community management.

The people I don’t hire are the ones that show no knowledge of the depth and breadth of the web; zero interest in perspectives other than their own; those who don’t have the written communication skills for a predominantly editorial medium; or those with no interest in collaborating with others. Those are deal breakers for me.

Maybe it’s the circles I move in, but I rarely meet young people that insular.

The young people I’ve worked with are hungry learners, which is a positive influence on everyone around them.

What I don’t see in Cathryn’s post is that hunger.

Miles on the clock are a good thing, and most jobs ask for some so they know they’re entrusting their livelihood with someone who’s put out a few fires and boasts a few scars.

But it’s curiosity, adaptability and unflappability that’ll make or break you over the long haul – and lead you to a neat little set of life literacies. Ossification and narrow mindedness is what we have to avoid, not the middle aged or elderly.

Show me how you manage coordinated brand attacks and complex human dramas and we’ll talk. Show me your insights about what makes communities tick, and we can do great things together.

Tell Yoda he should retire, will you?

I’m talking about character here, which transcends age.

An acting teacher of mine once told me you need the hide of a bear and the soul of a poet to perform.

I’ve found that gem even more relevant to social media. You need the thickest of skins, and empathy beyond your filter bubble. You have to balance duty of care with keeping it all in perspective. You have to catalyse connections through a screen, and inspire the courage to contribute.

Whether you can do this has very little to do with your age. Ask Yoda.

Great social media managers and community managers possess a passionate curiosity about the way humans behave and interact, understanding and respect for social systems and the inter-connectedness that makes up those systems.

The strongest social media talents look to history for context and lessons learned, while clamoring for fresh knowledge and skills. They’re as psyched about the latest social platform as they are to sit with someone who’s been running a gaming forum for 10 years to pick their brain.

If you struggle to see the value in people and their stories, I’m not sure social media is a universe you want to splash about in. People are media in our age, and purpose informs platform.

We’d all be better off if we were more interested in the value of meaningful generational exchange – and the time and effort it takes to conduct.

Prepare your Twitter tributes!

How can we embed our fast media with moments where learning, deep and long form discussion and exchange and can find a home?

I wrote about the pressure on ‘slow’ exchange and reflection in a paper for Fast Capitalism, and the risks of confusing noise in social channels with worth, reputation, influence or wisdom. To me, Cathryn’s clumsy gauntlet throw shows she hasn’t yet figured out the differences between those things.

Understanding a tool isn’t understanding the behaviour it promotes or discourages. Googling trends isn’t the same as forecasting the life span of a community based on longitudinal analysis.

Taking the time to explain a new Facebook feature to a colleague doesn’t mean that colleague shouldn’t be there. It’s a chance for you to earn your salary, as a professional facilitator. If that work makes you impatient and bitter, you’re in the wrong job.

Neither social media or community management are about being a social butterfly or an early adopter.

Try coaching, social work, hostage negotiation, group therapy or politics and you’re getting warmer.

It’s taxing work that demands communicative maturity and reflexivity; an ability to parachute into any group, read its social codes and nuances and engage respectfully.

It’s about knowing what to say, do and what not to do if a member of your community commits suicide, or launches a cruel assault on other members. It’s about meeting the needs of others, not your own, and the complex, delicate alignment of those needs with your employer, or other stakeholders.

It’s considering the medium and long term (even now, too many brands are cultivating communities only to leave them to atrophy). It’s about diplomacy, moderation and risk mitigation.

It’s about story telling through endless, evolving forms, speaking to timeless emotions and ideas. It’s as much about offline as online.

It’s about the wallflowers as well as the prom queens.

It’s about humility in the face of shifting baselines and supporting one another.

Howard Rheingold talks about peeragogy as a better, 21c model for learning. I think we should be applying it to our work lives as well as our schools. Ageism has no place in a social business.

Should social media make us feel like we have a use by date?

I don’t buy generational stereotypes as a rule, but we are forged by the social and cultural strains of our era.

Cathryn Sloane is coming of age in an accelerated, always-on culture that doesn’t parse her personal and professional life.

It teaches her that if she’s living it, she can monetise it.

She’s growing up in public and her existential teething will be blogged, shared, trolled, voted up or down, and impact her reputation for life.

If that’s all you’ve known, you can hardly be blamed for throwing your hands up and declaring that anyone expected to professionally navigate those waters will need to feel as perennially invincible as a twenty-something.

The thing is, with age, it’s likely she’ll realise she is that invincible, and constant change won’t seem nearly as panic inducing.

I can see how Cathryn’s ended up where she is. She’s probably upset at losing jobs to people who’ve been in the game longer. She’s maybe met some authority figures who don’t appreciate her skills or passions. Oh – and she lives in a world that fettishises the new and asks young women to be worldly but look like a child.

I see young people everywhere rising to the challenges of this world and finding amazing possibilities in the midst of its odds. They teach me every day. And I try to return to the favour.

After all, on the web, no one knows if you’re a dog over 25.

Cathryn’s had a public setback, but if she’s serious about a life working with people and technology, I imagine she’ll be grateful for the lessons.

Cathryn – I’d love to read what you have to say on this topic in another decade. I wish you lots of luck (and some great mentors).