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Long-running online communities have a challenge when it comes to highlighting newer members. Old members – many of which may not even be active any longer – tend to be the members with the most total posts, most reputation or some other accumulated number.

One of the reasons people participate in communities is for recognition, and one of the ways that happens is through these metrics. If the path to recognition seems impossible, that makes some people less likely to participate.

Community software (or, perhaps, add-ons for our chosen software) can help us here, by displaying metrics that are more timely, in addition to the overall ones.

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Xubuntu 13.10
Creative Commons License photo credit: dno1967b

I recently had someone ask me why I haven’t written (in a long time, anyway) about my recommendations for community software. It’s a good, fair question and I wanted to answer it.

The title of this article might sound a bit callous. I care about community managers and professionals, not software. So when I say I don’t care what software you use, what I really mean is that I am not passionate about your choice, like a person might be passionate about a political party and only vote for candidates in that party.

That’s just not how I operate. No matter what software you choose, I’m not going to be all over you about it. I still want to help. That’s the extended title of this article: “I Don’t Care What Community Software You Use… I Still Want to Help If I Can.”

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When there are new tools that we can use to engage with our community, we tend to focus on the great features those tools have, how easy they are for people to use, the cost of them and the value they offer.

One thing that gets lost, but that should always be at the front of our minds, is how the tool separates us from our community. If we wish to stop using the tool, do we have access to the community data? Or can the tool effectively hold us hostage?

If they can hold us hostage, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it, but you just have to be very aware of what you are doing. For example, Facebook and Twitter would fall into that camp of tools. You are engaging with people, but you can’t take your database of Facebook Page likes and do anything off of Facebook with it.

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Facebook allows you to download an archive of  content you have posted on their platform. Google allows you to do the same with many of their services. Twitter will also provide you with an archive. As will many other social media platforms.

And yet, I don’t know of a single community or forum software application that allows members to do this. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an option or two that does, but we need to do better and I want to push for that change.

I can think of reasons why it hasn’t been a priority. Posts in an online community are seen more as being part of the whole, so there isn’t necessarily a strong desire to download content separated from the larger conversations. In my 14 years of managing online communities totaling well over a million contributions, I have never once had a member request that they would like an archive of their posts. But that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be a welcome feature.

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I've got nerd bling... Too much or just enough? #geek #nerd #bling
Creative Commons License photo credit: betsyweber

If you work in community, marketing or “digital” (whatever that means to you), you’ve probably heard a lot about the declining reach of Facebook pages, the death of Google+ and how Twitter isn’t far behind. Everybody loves to talk about platforms dying.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think any of these stories are that big of a deal. The Facebook reach drop is probably the most impactful one, but Facebook doesn’t owe pages anything and it was never said that they wouldn’t change how reach works on their platform. Google+ has provided value for some people, while others never found traction. And Twitter is still what you make it.

No matter how great third party platforms are performing, even if you could go back to the days when beer flowed like wine for brands on Facebook, one simple fact remains. It always goes back to the spaces you actually control.

When I keynoted at Podcamp Topeka in November of 2010, this slide was in my deck:

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Movie ForumsI’ve known Chris Bowyer for at least 14 years, which is as long as both of us have been managing online communities. Like many people, I found him thanks to forums. In 2000, he launched Movie Forums and he has run it ever since.

Movie Forums had the same design for a very long time and I knew this because I’d occasionally bump into it online. When I saw his announcement that he had launched a brand new design, it caught my eye because it is very challenging to redesign a forum that has had the same design for a very long time. I was impressed by the fact that the community was widely adopting and praising the design, which itself was quite nice. It’s not easy to achieve this and I knew Chris was responsible.

After the new design was launched, I reached out to Chris to ask if he’d write a guest post here, walking us through his process. How did he achieve such a positive result? What did he do to involve the community? How did he reduce the shock of changing a design that the community had been used to for so long? Chris was kind enough to share the details.

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Sometimes, when you are visiting your community, you will see a post that is really borderline. After consideration, you determine that this post is OK and does fit within your guidelines, even if it is just barely.

But your moderators don’t know that, unless you tell them. And because it is borderline, there is a fair chance that a moderator will remove it. If they do, you’ll have to correct it. How can you prevent this and inform them that the post is OK?

You could make a post in your documentation system, as a note tied to the member who made the post. But that might not be seen before the post itself. You could post in the general staff forum. But that has the same problem. You could send a private message or email to each staff member. That will probably work. But it is a little more unwieldy and time consuming, for everyone, than is necessary.

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This is something that I am asked somewhat regularly, when I’m doing an interview or someone is looking to start a community.

Of course, that is a really generic, vague question and it lends itself to a generic, vague answer. There is so much one could say. It’s a big topic. Yes, I have a million tips. How much time do we have?

We don’t usually have much, so I try to talk about a few foundational concepts that I feel would apply to most people. Here are some of the things that I usually mention.

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My friend Jared W. Smith recently sent me a link to and asked for my thoughts on an article on TechCrunch by Sarah Perez, “The Best Platform for Online Discussion Doesn’t Exist Yet.”

Ms. Perez laments the current state of online comments and discussion, saying that TechCrunch has been missing the “sense of community that blog comments once provided.” Hence their switch to Livefyre. “But there’s no system alive that can bring that [sense of community] back, because that era of the web is over. And it has been for a long, long time.”

Tired of short comments and noise, she wishes that more people would take the time to read an article and comment in long form. The proposed solution is some sort of system that tells you whose opinion’s carry more weight. Ms. Perez criticizes commenting systems for “competing on features” like crowdsourced anti-spam techniques because they don’t “really improve the nature of online discussion.”

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Google+ Communities just launched, providing a way for anyone to create a discussion group or forum, as part of Google+. Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges that the service faces is how some people are hyping it. Let me get a few things out of the way.

Google+ Communities does not change anything. Things are exactly the same today as they were the day before the functionality launched. Google+ Communities is not anything new, except within the world of Google+. Google+ Communities does not, will not kill anything, whether a specific branded platform (like Facebook) or a type of platform (like forums).

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