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How to Kick Start Your Forum

Posted by Patrick on September 25th, 2014 in Promoting Your Community

Credit: ToddCC BY 2.0

When it comes to launching a forum, everyone faces the same challenge: how do I get things going? How you answer this question will help determine how successful that you become and how soon. You can either drastically help your odds or (to be a little dramatic) deal your new community a death blow. Or maybe something in between.

It’s not really that scary. It’s about having a process and not trying to skip any steps or take shortcuts. Recently, a Quora user asked, “how do I successfully kick start my forum?” Here’s my answer.

There are three big things you need to do: seed, curate and appreciate.

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It seems like I can’t go a few days without someone with a decent sized audience talking about how bad online comments are. Of course, they say this in a comment posted online – a comment they want you to read.

A lot of these people think online comments should just go away. Others have ideas for how to fix comments. I like ideas. Some of them are good, some are interesting – but many wouldn’t result in any progress.

There isn’t any magic trick when it comes to great comment sections at well-trafficked websites. You have to want it. You have to hire people whose job it is to make your comment section great. Have rules and enforce them. You can’t half-heart it, be cheap or expect it to just “work.” There is no auto-pilot, set it and forget it solution. It’s work.

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the-circleHaving been in this space for so long, I am fortunate to know many great minds that work within it. I enjoy the interactions that I have with them and have been thinking recently about how I could showcase those conversations here. I came up with something I am referring to as The Circle.

My hope is that it will become a regular feature, fueled by your questions. I will select questions and then ask great community professionals to answer them, instead of just trying to answer them myself. It’ll be a different group of people each time. A lot of these professionals will not be people who blog regularly or write regularly on the profession. They’ll be people I know who do the work and understand this space as well as anyone.

It’ll be fun to add these other perspectives into the blog. I look forward to learning from them. But to get started, I wanted to introduce the concept and put a call out for questions. What would you like me to ask? Please leave me a comment or, if you’d like to remain anonymous, send me an email. Thanks.

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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