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    The Five Habits of Highly Successful Community Managers

    by Roland Legrand
    August 31, 2009
    Philip Rosedale, chairman of Linden Lab, talks with Second Life residents at a luau during the 2009 Second Life Community Convention. Photo by Elisabeth Leysen

    Talking about communities, and newspaper communities in particular, often leaves people with a warm and fuzzy feeling. It’s true that being a community manager enables you to meet wonderful people, but the reality of daily community management can be difficult and unsettling. Every community manager has to deal with community politics (the online equivalent of office politics), disillusionment and a lack of appreciation. However, there are some ways to deal with all of these problems.

    The Daily life of a community

    Let me give you an example of a recent issue we faced at my own newspaper.

    There are some good strategies that community managers can use to help turn troubled communities into inspiring and friendly places."

    One day on our site’s forum, a well-known and respected community member was the target of some nasty personal attacks from people who resented his success and the fact he obviously enjoys discussing his achievements.

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    In reaction, the man announced that he wanted to start his own, private discussion group within our site. He wanted to have the right to choose who could join the group and have total control over its content. He even had a name for the group, and it incorporated the name of our newspaper.

    Other community members, including those not involved in the initial conflict, were upset by what they perceived to be elitist behavior. This caused yet another dispute within the community, and more headaches for us.

    Second Life Community

    My second example doesn’t come from a newspaper, but it’s illustrative of what happens in strong communities. It also shows how a strong community can contribute to a company or organization.

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    i-6fb3678af404272b5ca28b1cf093faef-slcc-2009-logo-sm.jpg

    This example is from the virtual world of Second Life. The “residents” of Second Life produce a staggering number of virtual objects, which they sell for Linden Dollars, a virtual currency that is convertible into real dollars. Much of what you see in Second Life is user generated. In August I attended the Second Life Community Convention (SLCC) in San Francisco, an event that’s organized by the Second Life Community.

    One thing I noticed immediately is that members of this community have very strong opinions. They are extremely important stakeholders and they are often displeased with the platform’s lack of stability and by unexpected policy changes made by the creator of Second Life, Linden Lab. Members make sure their voices are heard.

    However, the community also has enormous appreciation for Linden Lab (company employees are called “the Lindens”), and they have a deep respect for the chairman and founder, Philip Rosedale.

    Linden Lab is very active within the community. It maintains in-world office hours to help users and hosts a wiki that covers common technical issues. Lindens attend numerous “in-world” activities, and the company also helps sponsor the community convention, where employees and executives deliver speeches and participate in seminars.

    Yet community members still complain about inadequate responses and feedback from Linden Lab, and a lack of collaboration between residents and the company.

    The lesson is that even healthy communities will experience friction. The good news is that the sources of friction are often consistent, regardless of the type of community. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the sources of friction within communities built around media and news, and examine how successful community managers can deal with them.

    Three sources of friction

    • Power: Community members contribute to media and news organizations by commenting, writing blogs, participating in chat events, and giving leads for stories. Not surprisingly, they expect something in return. Rather than money, they often seek to influence how the the organization and the newsroom operates. This can be a source of friction,

      Also, within any community, there’s often a small group of people that are far more active than the average member. These important members often feel they deserve special treatment by the organization and by the less active community members. Sometimes, they can become stars in their own right, having as much, or sometimes even more, prestige as the journalists within the community. This can also create problems.

    • Disillusionment: Community members are often aware of what’s being offered in other similar communities. These other communities will sometimes roll out new tools and features. On top of that, your members (also known as the people formerly known as the audience) increasingly have access to sophisticated tools for producing their own content. This can cause members to demand that your community and organization adopt the latest tools and features as quickly as possible. There’s a danger that people will lose faith in your organization’s desire and ability to provide them with the very best tools. This can lead to complaints and, eventually, to a loss of members.

    • Lack of appreciation: A community manager will often face criticism from all corners. On one hand, she’ll be confronted with disgruntled community members; at the same time, she can experience a lack of appreciation from colleagues and management. What is she doing all day? they wonder. For its part, the community might also express frustration that the community manager is unable to respond to requests or questions. In the end, if no one appreciates a community manager, then it makes it hard for her to act in the community’s best interest and effect change.

      Community members can also feel unappreciated by the organization, especially if they are dedicating a significant amount of time and effort to the community and aren’t being recognized for their contributions.

    Five ways to reduce friction

    Now that we know some of the sources of friction, it’s important to look at solutions. First of all, these are not miracle cures. There will always be conflicts and unpleasant situations when groups of people work and live together. But there are some good strategies that community managers can use to help turn troubled communities into inspiring and friendly places.

    i-3ba881bf4a41ee24b09834d6a93951ca-linden office hours.jpg
    Linden explains Office Hours on its wiki

    • 1. Speak up. Don’t be shy. Let yourself be heard, not only by the community, but also by your colleagues. You’ll often have to mediate between the community, the newsroom and management, and your voice needs to be heard.

      Also make sure your interventions are visible within the community in order to let people know where you stand and how you can help. Of course, the principle “praise in public, blame in private” is good to follow, but you do need to be honest and transparent. Linden Lab maintains office hours within Second Life so employees can engage with residents, but this initiative wasn’t publicized enough within the community. Members didn’t know when or where to go for office hours, and this reduced the effectiveness of office hours.

    • 2. Focus on concrete issues. Community problems are often the result of very specific issues. Your job isn’t to define the role of Web 2.0 in the 21st century — it’s to manage the community. Show that you are aware of the most pressing issues and are working to resolve them.

    • 3. Be honest. This is self-explanatory, but let me offer a couple of scenarios to consider.

      Chances are that your employer is a for-profit company. The shareholders, be they public or private, own the place. But there are also other stakeholders such as advertisers, third party services and partners, management, and customers. Don’t be shy about explaining the competing interests at stake in any given issue. Yes, having the latest, greatest features can be of value to all stakeholders. But your organization also has to invest in technology in ways that can result in financial returns. Be honest about the factors at play in any given decision, and take care to manage expectations. People may not be totally happy, but they will understand.

      I previously explained a situation wherein a member of my organization’s community wanted to start his own private group using our brand name. In order to handle this, I contacted him and explained the problems associated with using our name without proper consent. He understood our position and the issue ended there.

    • 4. Be firm. It is of utmost importance that members feel safe within their community. Debates are great, but you should have a zero tolerance policy for personal attacks. Debates are about arguments, not people. Have clear rules and ensure that members respect each other even when they strongly disagree.

      Linden Lab is very good at creating this kind of atmosphere. Even though criticism can be harsh, there’s a great sense of humor and passion that makes the Second Life residents appreciate their world.

    • 5. Be grateful. Members invest time, emotions and sometimes even money to build and maintain the community. They care deeply about the project, and you need to express how much you and your colleagues appreciate their contributions. Also, don’t miss an opportunity to tell colleagues and management about the wonderful things being done by members.

      One of my lasting memories of the Second Life conference is the gratitude shown by Philip Rosedale at the community luau.

    *****

    My views on community management are the result of my experiences at our newspaper, and from observing or taking part in online communities such as Second Life. Please share your experiences and best practices in the comments.

    Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

    Tagged: community management linden lab newspapers online communities second life
    • Wonderful article, and yes the Community does mirror both The Family, The Business & The Nation. In other words the dynamics that make for effectiveness, the ability to tolerate difficulties because of a greater shared goal and / or strengths and the loyalty one feels these entities are all a part of Second Life.
      And because of the great diversity, there are imperfections and speed bumps. We are not a borg, but made up of individuals, who yes have great respect for each other and appreciation of where we are, and our differences. Great blog Thank you for this!
      Second Life is an awesome platform, for much.
      I am creating award winning entertainment here, and yes I love my inworld family, business and nation. http://www.the1stquestion.com/

    • Roland interesting analysis , and hits on core situations in all aspects of community management, in the flux we all find ourselves as we come to the end of the decade.

      Hope you do not mind me adding my pennies worth and say another sticking point with regard community management at the moment is both time zones as we squeeze the global village together, and clashes of social/business/cultural differences which at a glance would not be evident, but on closer scrutiny, you will find have specific negative impacts on communications of policy etc, which goes to the heart of your comment on transparency.

      Thanks for your work.

      Julius Sowu Virtually-Linked London

    • Like, “webmaster,” that all-power techno-god who made everyone queue up to him in the days before do-it-yourself websites and social media, this term “community manager” is one of those artifacts of yore when geeks from Silicon Valley were the only people on the Internet, and who insisted that they were the only people who could run the Internet.

      Those days are gone, thank the Lord.

      The entire concept of “community manager” is wrong. No one needs a geek overlord or corporate myrmidon to run a community. That isn’t a democratic, fair, or just system, and to insist that it “has” to be like this is like saying we “have” to live in the Middle Ages. People need to be placed on a far more equal footing with platform providers, who need to stop seeing themselves, like the game-gods of the old MMORPs, as overlords that rule with an iron hand, putting down “flamers” and “trolls”, and need to realize that they are facilitators, and even gas-station attendants.

      No, just because private companies run the technology doesn’t mean they get to behave in such a high-handed way like company-town stewards, driving workers into sub-standard housing and keeping them in debt to the company store. Newspapers and radio and TV broadcasting had to learn that they served a public interest and had to have the public trust, and couldn’t just behave like arrogant corporations; new media has to do the same thing, even more so!

      Communities, once they have the tools for fair voting (that means yes AND no votes and not just flash-mobbing of yes votes; that means being able to frame issues, not just respond to prefabricated issues) will rule themselves. They will *elect* or at least *acclaim* *their own managers*. The notion that software makers have the right to rule over human beings just because they make software is antiquated and outmoded. They don’t.

      The next iteration of the Internet and software is socialware, where social media can and should and must be created with the consumers as full-fledged participants — and not just “prosumers,” special cliques with advanced powers that the community managers give to only some customers, but consumers as equal citizens with the citizen platform providers.

      A sea-change is happening and will go on happening. Facebook couldn’t just grab everybody’s stuff and scrape their data to sell to ad space buyers just like that. They were forced to restrain themselves in a revised TOS. Linden Lab is forced periodically to back down, too, from some of its larger grabs of consumer property and rights, too, and it is already the most progressive of all such platforms by granting intellectual property rights to user-generated content (although it needs to do far more to protect IP from hacked third-party viewers).

      Every single thing you say here is all wrong. No one needs an unelected corporate flack to decide what constitutes a personal attack, which more often than not means legitimate criticism of him and his friends. You are just perpetuating this whole sick undemocratic culture by creating these “rules” and “best practices” Roland.

      The first order of business always is to overthrow the community manager and make democratic structures around him.

      No longer can the community manager role be one in which some happless flak like the infamous Tigger of the Sims Online gets eaten alive, crushed between cynical and indifferent coders in the company and expectant customers kept in the dark, or forced to work overtime as unappreciated blog marm like Blue Linden. Management needs to restrain coders and restrain itself through democratic processes and the rule of law. The platforms that can begin to create real authentic structures like that will win.

    • I like the comment on transparency – I think it’s important for building trust in a group. Teamwork is a lot more important than management, but it takes good management to foster teams. Yah the managers get eaten alive from time to time, and aren’t appreciated, and that’s sometimes because we haven’t communicated enough about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, or tried hard enough to make sure all of the members of a group are involved in decision making. It can take huge amounts of time.

    • I love your comment about transparency, and think that it is a very important element for all who interact within a community.

      Included in the “power” issue you highlighted I think that the length of time someone has been a member also plays a part. Sometimes long-term members of a community can be a little bossy or overbearing toward newbies, and many long-term members feel that their opinions should carry more weight than a newbie.

    • Interesting that transparency issues again are highlighted, Roland I think is specifically referring to ‘communities’ in terms of bought into or at minimum enrolled into “I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong”and though the group dynamics may seem the same this subtle difference that being there may already be TOS in place.

      Very interested in Sue John’s comment on power and would go further with regards above comment re community in question, as it will never be a true democracy as in changing the organization, or platform creator through some form of ballot the usual democratic stimuli that would make these changes within an open community do not apply.

      As such loud voices sometimes who I am sure have the interest of the community at heart take what little chance of said stimuli to take effect, as the newbie cowers under the tirade that might befall them should they deem their point interesting enough to grace a page or maybe comment, this tirade coming usually from older members of the communities, and by older I refer to time online in said community.

      Julius Sowu Virtually-Linked London

    • Wow. This discussion leads to an analysis of power structures in virtual communities.
      There is much to be said for Neva’s take that socialware could facilitate the community taking care of itself.

      Also in that case I think that the platform provider should enter into a conversation with the community. In an ideal world this would be a spontaneous process, but in the real world it helps if someone has the mission to stimulate this dialogue each and every day.

      I am not sure that even with socialware one can just ignore the issues of ownership of the platform. Ultimately Linden Lab has the right to throw residents out for whatever reason (according to the ToS).

      I don’t think newspapers are ready to hand over all control to the community.

      Even using socialware, nasty power struggles are possible in a community, for instance takeovers by people who have extremist political views and who are highly organized are not unthinkable.

      So I do think the owner of the site/platform has every right to have a community manager to ensure a permanent dialogue but also to intervene when core values or objectives of the newspaper are in danger – but I also do think transparency is essential in all this.

    • Roland,

      The TOS is, in at least one legal judgement, declared as unconscionable by the judge in the Bragg v. Linden case. It’s a “contract of adhesion” that forces unfair terms on the user to enable him to enjoy the benefits of use. “Any reason or no reasons” goes against basic notions of due process in any democratic constitution and even in a lot of authoritarian countries’ criminal codes — that at least go through the notion of allowing a person to face their accusers and be notified of the charges against them (something SL’s discipline system and most social media systems simply do not provide).

      The EU doesn’t allow people to be removed from their residence, their jobs, their properties, public spaces ‘for any reason or no reason” by merchants or government officials, don’t be silly. So why create an awful fascistic regime like that on servers, just because they are digital? That’s silly, and being a private corporation shouldn’t entitle you to create communities that violate basic EU norms of democracy and civil rights.

      As for ownership, you are looking at this narrowly from the problem of what your newspaper, a clearly-owned entity in which subscribers are not really construed as part-owners, and what happened when some powerful user got his knickers in a twist. If it were me, I would have ignored his complaints in the interests of free speech and told him to go on Ning.com or some place where he could make a closed community to protect his thin skin. I would not close *your* platform by making it available for elitist little closed communities using *your* brand name to chat without criticism from the public. That shouldn’t be on. That you even have to think it should be discussed as a “problem” is a signal of profound loss of rights and freedom in discourse.

      But in Second Life, people paying tier and ensuring the Lindens huge amounts of revenue not only from tier but through their additional grab of a percentage of all the sales on the web store XStreet have a stake that is utterly unlike what a newspaper reader has who may not even click on your ads anymore or pay you for a classified or even pay you for a subscription!

      In a virtual world, the stakeholders are like tenant farmers or small holders or more and just as the Magna Charter forced through the rights of people who believed that their working on land that the Crown claimed and their participation in society should give them some rights, so we will see the same thing in cyberspace, unless, of course, transhumanists succeed in removing humans and replacing them with artificial intelligence they control.

      The owner of the platform needs to do more when there are stakeholders of that magnitude.

      And even on a free site like Facebook, the owner exploits the presence of the users as ad-clickers to give himself revenue, so he owes them more than the abuse of “any reason or no reason”.

    • Wow, interesting discussion on moderation vs. socialware. There’s definitely a merit in the community manager giving the community room to breathe; there’s a danger in over-moderating – it’s stifling. Community participation tools are getting better and better (Echo, IntenseDebate, Disqus). The quality and quantity of your contributions allows you to garner more respect and recognition from the community, not to mention that using these systems allows you to collect and leverage your contribution from all over the Internet, and retain authorship. I think stuff like this makes community participation fairer and more democratic. Ideally, a community (through blend of own features and external features like Disqus), would be able to reward dedication, participation, leadership and non-destructive dialogue.
      However, without human interference (which ideally should be minimal, unless there’s a conflict), any such system can be easily gamed.

      If a community manager looks at him / herself as a steward / evangelist of community vs. a policeman / enforcer, I think it would help strike a balance between enabling lively, yet organized chaos.

    • @Maria, I couldn’t agree more.

    • This is a really good post and most of it rings true. I do need to add to the mix this fact: No two communities are alike and what works very well in one situation may not transfer at all to the next. The dynamics and culture are not dictated by the community manager no matter how great they are and holding on to hard and fast rules from one CM to the next, is difficult. I speak from experience, having grown an online community affiliated with a news organization from zero to more than 13,000 members. In many instances you do not know what’s coming and you must have an extremely thick skin and the ability to think on your feet. I write about this a lot on my blog and detailed many strategies in my book. I think that there is a time for moderation, particularly on news stories…but the community that exists in the comments section can be completely different from a community with more features, beyond just commenting. My point is there are absolutely great tips we can pass along, but what’s effective on site A, may not work at all for site B.
      Angela Connor
      Author, “18 Rules of Community Engagement”

    • I highlight an exception to Office Hours not being publicized enough… DOC TEAM! http://secondlife.com/tnt =^_^=

    • @Torley thanks for mentioning this “exception”! In the meantime the official SL blog features a very useful post about feedback initiatives: https://blogs.secondlife.com/community/technology/blog/2009/08/29/taking-technical-feedback-from-residents

    • Roland Legrand

      @Angela Great! another book I’ll have to buy…

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