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The Next 5 Years of the Online Community Profession

Posted by Patrick on September 15th, 2014 in Thinking

Credit: CrystalCC BY 2.0

In June, I visited Brandon Eley and his family in LaGrange, Georgia. Brandon is one of my oldest and closest friends. We have a great time when we get together, but we also talk a lot about business, life and the future. Where we are, and where we want to go. I enjoy these talks tremendously.

During that trip, I published my “I’m Hungry for Change” post from his house. That is a good clue as to one of the topics we discussed: my future and the future of my profession. We talked about how I felt a responsibility to others in this space to accept a role that befit my experience. I laid out what I saw as the future of the online community profession, as far as how the role should fit into companies. Not where it is now, but where it should go.

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A couple of weeks ago, I shared a wonderful conversation between online community pioneer Howard Rheingold and his daughter, Mamie Rheingold. If you haven’t watched it yet, definitely check it out.

Among the many great things that Mr. Rheingold said, this quote really jumped out at me:

“If you were a good FidoNet operator, you would have a lively community. You would let people fight it out among themselves, but if things got too heated, you would try to communicate with them backstage. You would do your best to work it out. If you couldn’t work it out, you threw people out. That [operator] has to work. So Teresa Nielsen Hayden at Boing Boing or me at Brainstorms – we passionately cared about our community, so we would talk with people. We would talk with people who were outcasts, and not every outcast is a troll. If you throw out your outcasts, you lose a lot of your creativity and verve.”

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Livefyre released a study on anonymous commenting last week. Their conclusions are generally in favor of allowing anonymity on your blog. They found that when you require a real identity, you also say good-bye to more than three quarters of people who would normally comment anonymously.

I spent a lot of time looking at the numbers, and before we discuss them, it’s important to understand the sample size. I found some of the information confusing, but Skyler Rogers of Livefyre was very accommodating in answering my many questions. Thank you, Skyler.

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When I talked about how I don’t tell people to “grow a thick skin” and “ignore the trolls,” Regina Buenaobra left a great comment.

“You can’t effectively manage a community or ask your members to report problem users if you also tell them to ignore trolls,” she wrote. “Sure, advise members not to antagonize problem users themselves, but they definitely should not ignore troll comments – they need to be brought to the community manager’s attention. It takes collective effort to ensure a safe and friendly community environment, and ignoring trolls is not a great way to cultivate that environment.”

This is a fantastic point. “Ignore the trolls” is kind of like saying that trolls must have a place on your community. They are inevitable, they will have their space, so please just stay away from them. But that’s not how it has to be. It reminds me of a general policy that we have on the communities that I manage. I refer to it as “report, don’t respond.”

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Credit: THORCC BY 2.0

In “Closing Comments Alters Your Purpose,” I discussed how the existence of comments on your website informs the purpose of your website. This was inspired by Evan Hamilton, who was in turn commenting on an article by Alexandra Petri of The Washington Post.

While Petri’s article was interesting and raises some good points, I really feel like Petri’s representation both ignores community as a profession and undervalues the relationship that a writer can have with the people who consume their work. That doesn’t mean I think comments should be everywhere or that everyone needs them. I don’t.

But the article begins with this aggressive condemnation of comments as a whole (emphasis mine):

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If you work in the online community space, I encourage you to learn about the history of online communities. Not only is it interesting; it’s beneficial to the work we do today. A little knowledge can go a long way. If you aren’t sure where to begin, the video embedded below is a great, approachable start.

The video is a conversation between Howard Rheingold, a well known online community pioneer, and his daughter, Mamie Rheingold, a project manager at Google whose work also involves community. Titled “Past, Present, and Future of Virtual Communities,” it was recorded during the Google Developer Groups Global Summit in June and released last week. I found it care of Bill Johnston.

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Closing Comments Alters Your Purpose

Posted by Patrick on August 21st, 2014 in Thinking

Credit: mjmontyCC BY 2.0

Evan Hamilton wrote the other day about a Washington Post article by Alexandra Petri, where Petri suggests that the idea of a good comment section is too hard, therefore not worth the effort. Petri’s article is interesting and makes some good points, but that’s not really what I want to discuss.

In his post, Evan made two points that he felt the Post missed. First, pointing to io9, that comments can be a reason that you return to a site. That comment sections can be so interesting and engaging that they are a primary reason that many people choose to visit a site. They enjoy the passion, the knowledge and the conversation that happens in the comments.

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Amazon.comWhen viewing products on Amazon.com, you may notice a section on the product page labeled “Customer Questions & Answers.” For example, on the page for the Flash Point board game, which I purchased last week. In this section, you are encouraged to “ask the owners” (of the product) a question.

The labeling is misleading because they don’t actually limit the ability to answer to owners only. You don’t have to have purchased the product on Amazon to be able to answer the question. I guess you could say it is based on the honor system. But that’s beside the point.

I was reminded of this feature recently when I received an email from Amazon. They knew that I had purchased a particular product (since I bought it from them), so they wanted to know if I was willing to answer a specific question that was asked about that product. The question was included in the email as well as a link to answer. I found it compelling, so I clicked and found that others had already answered the question adequately. I assume that when the email was sent, there were no answers.

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Please Vote for Our SXSW Interactive 2015 ProposalAbout a month ago, I published an interview with Bassey Etim of The New York Times and David Williams of CNN. They lead comment moderation at their respective companies. I really enjoyed our conversation and couldn’t help but feel that it would make a wonderful fireside chat-style talk in-person at an event.

Between the 3 of us, we have more than 30 years of moderation experience. Bassey and David deal with a volume of comments that few can fathom. Not just that, but they work in an environment that is highly charged, in a space where people expect to say what is on their mind.

It was fascinating to hear about the moderation philosophy differences at play between CNN and The New York Times. Though each has taken a different path, they have both been successful. I’d love to explore those differences in-person, while drawing from my own deep experience, and have an advanced, high-level conversation about comment moderation.

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Whenever someone talks about the abuse they are dealing with online, inevitably there are people who tell them to grow a thick skin and/or ignore the trolls. I don’t doubt that most of these people have good intentions at heart, but this advice just isn’t useful.

It’s not useful because we already know it. Chances are, when you say this to someone, they have heard it before. Thanks to the internet, I believe that we have thicker skins than ever before. If you know someone who is opening up about the sort of abuse they receive, chances are they already have a thicker skin than you do. You are just hearing about what they are choosing to share with you, not the entirety of what they have received. They don’t need to hear “grow a thick skin.” They already have one.

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