Oldstyle Community Management

This article was originally published on the Idealware Blog in May of 2009.

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It’s been a big month for Online Community Management in my circles. I attended a session at the Nonprofit Technology Conference on the subject; then, a few weeks later, ReadWriteWeb released a detailed report on the topic. I haven’t read the report, but people I respect who have are speaking highly of it.Do you run an online community? The definition is pretty sketchy, ranging from a blog with active commenters to, say, America Online. If we define an online community as a place where people share knowledge, support, and/or friendship via communication forums on web sites or via email, there are plenty of web sites, NING groups, mailing lists and AOL chat rooms that meet that criteria.

The current interest is spurred by the notion that this is the required web 2.0/3.0 direction for our organizational web sites. We’ve made the move to social media (as this recent report suggests); now we need to be the destination for this online interaction. I don’t think that’s really a given, any more than it’s clear that diving into Facebook and Twitter is a good use of every nonprofit’s resources. It all depends on who your constituents are and how they prefer to interact with you. But, certainly, engagement of all types (charitable, political, commercial) is expanding on the web, and most of us have an audience of supporters that we can communicate with here.

Buried deep in my techie past is a three year gig as an online community manager. It was a volunteer thing. More honestly, a hobby. In 1988, I set up a Fidonet Bulletin Board System (BBS); linked it to a number of international discussion groups (forums); and built up a healthy base of active participants.

This was before the world wide web was a household term. I ran specific software that allowed people to dial in, via modem, to my computer, and either read and type messages on line or download them into something called a “QWK reader“; read and reply off line, and then synchronize with my system later. There were about 1000 bulletin board systems within the local calling distance in San Francisco at the time. Many of them had specific topics, such as genealogy or cooking; mine was a bit more generally focused, but I appealed to birdwatchers, because I published rare bird alerts, and to people who liked to talk politics. This was during the first gulf war, and many of my friends system’s were sporting American Flags (in ASCII Art), while my much more liberal board was the place to be if you were more critical of the war effort.

At the peak of activity, I averaged 200 messages a day in our main forum, and I’m pretty sure that the things that made this work apply just as much to the more sophisticated communities in play today. Those were:

    • Meeting a Need: There were plenty of people who desired a place to talk politics and share with a community, and there wasn’t a lot of competition. The bulk of my success was offering the right thing at the right time. It’s much tougher now to hang a shingle and convince people that your community will meet their needs when they have millions to choose from. How successful — and how useful — your community might be depends on how much of a unique need it serves.
    • Maintaining Focus: many of the popular bulletin boards had forums, online gaming, and downloads. My board had forums. The handful of downloads were the QWK readers and supporting software that helped people use the forums. The first time you logged on, you were subjected to a rambling bit of required reading that said, basically, “if birdwatching and chatting about the issues of the day interests you, keep on reading”, and I saw numerous people hang up before getting through that, which i considered a very good thing. The ones that made it through tended to be civil and engaged by what they signed on for. By focusing more on what made for a quality discussion, as opposed to trying to attract a large, diverse crowd, my base grew much bigger than I ever imagined it would.
    • Tolerance and Civility: We had a few conservatives among our active callers, and that kept the conversation lively. But we had excellent manners, never resorting to personal attacks and sending lots of private messages to the contrarians supporting their involvement. We really appreciated them, and they appreciated semi-celebrity status. It was all about the arguments, not about the attitude. Mind you, this was 1989/90 — I’m not sure if it’s possible to have civil public political debates today…
    • Active moderation: My hobby was a full time job that I did on top of my full time job. I engaged with my callers as if they were sitting in my living room, being gracious and helpful while I participated fully in the main events. There was a little moderation required to keep the tone civil, and making the board safe for all — particularly the ones with the minority opinions — required having their trust that I wouldn’t let any attacks get through without my response.

I think that the biggest question today is whether you should be building a community on your own, or engaging your community in the ample public places (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) that they might already hang out in. In fact, I think that where you engage is a fairly moot point, what’s important is that you do engage and provide a forum that helps people cope and learn about the issues that your organization is addressing. Pretty much all of the bulleted advice above will apply to your community, or out in the community.

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