Creative Commons License photo credit: amsfrank

“Communities can’t be managed. They have to be nurtured/loved/served/encouraged/grown. Due to this, the community manager job title is bad. It should be something like community facilitator/friend/guide/helper/specialist/intermediary.”

Once in a long while, I’ll see something like this expressed. So it’s not really a popular thought, just one that pops up. Often from people who have spent little or no time as a community manager, but who are general marketers or social media professionals. It seems like one of those thoughts that occurs when you have a little too much time to think and begin over thinking a situation.

Without wanting to be disrespectful to anyone who has had it, I can’t help but feel that this is one of those echo chamber things. Something that sounds catchy, plays to a crowd and really means nothing at all. It’s a good example of focusing on the wrong thing. For one simple reason.

The members of your community do not care what the community manager’s job title is.

If you don’t believe me, in the entire world of online communities, across all the forums, the Facebook pages, the blogs and wherever else on the entire history of internet that is still online today, find me 50 instances where an actual member of a community complained about the job title of the community manager. To say “find 1” would not be good enough because 1 doesn’t mean much. I can find 1 person who says that fresh air causes cancer, if I went looking.

When you look at the definition of manager on Dictionary.com, “a person who has control or direction of an institution, business, etc., or of a part, division, or phase of it,” I think it’s the word control that bothers some people. It shouldn’t. Community managers do have control of a community or, as the definition says, “a part” of it. Managers don’t control people, they manage the circumstances that surround people and use their influence to connect the right community with the right people and help those people get the most out of the community.

Communities are managed. Management isn’t bad. Don’t confuse the word manager for puppeteer. Most managers in the world (that’s all managers, not just community managers) manage people and that requires certain skills. The title isn’t community dictator or community director of no fun. It’s simply community manager.

Let’s look at other areas where people gather socially. Restaurants. Beaches. Sports stadiums. Mini golf courses. Do these places need managers? Yes. Does that mean that the restaurant manager controls me while I am eating in her establishment? No. I mean, she might tell me what I can order (what’s on topic) and if I stand on the table or loudly make offensive or profane remarks, she might have a word with me or ask me to leave, but she doesn’t control me. She’s simply maintaining the atmosphere, safety and focus of her establishment.

The restaurant manager ensures that things look nice, that the paint isn’t peeling, that the chairs aren’t in bad shape. She makes sure the community looks aesthetically pleasing. The restaurant manager decides what is and isn’t OK within the restaurant and talks directly with parties who may be in breech of those standards and have made other guests uncomfortable. She moderates the community. The restaurant manager hires, trains and monitors a team of staff to cook and serve the food. She works with a team of moderators who are the front line, often seeing situations before they reach her.

The restaurant manager greets customers. She welcomes them to the community. The restaurant manager changes the menu based on what guests want to order. She re-organizes the offering based on the needs of the community. The restaurant manager ensures that the front of the restaurant is attractive with an appearance that is updated based on current promotions, specials and events. She highlights new and relevant content to the community. The restaurant managers listens to feedback and complaints, responds and improves where possible. She listens to feedback from her community.

But if the restaurant manager mistreats guests, exercises her authority in a poor way, makes changes that are poorly received, refuses to be flexible or if she tries to control her guests by forcing them only to eat from one section of the menu, she runs the risk of alienating her community.

Does that mean that restaurant manager is a bad title? Should it be restaurant guide/facilitator/representative/greeter/intermediary/something else? Or would those be less accurate than manager, when you consider the responsibilities? And if manager works fine, why must we try to treat the field of online community, as a profession, as if it is something totally different than every other job in the world that requires you to treat people well or lose them? Community management is not some unique pantheon in the history of professions that somehow rewrote the rules for treating human beings. A community manager manages a community like a restaurant manager manages a restaurant.

Could they be called something else? Sure. They could call themselves Restaurant Astronaut or anything they want. But why? People know that when they have an issue, they should talk to the manager because they will make it right. Calling yourself something else could, frankly, confuse people. Who is this “facilitator?” Who is this “ninja?” Who is this “community intermediary?” Can’t I just speak to a manager?

In fact, that’s probably the only thing that community members really do care about, when it comes to job titles and how the community manager is labeled. That when there is an issue, they know who to contact. That the person is identifiable and approachable, with a title that makes it clear they are responsible for the community. Not that they have a title that makes them sound like they are just another member. Not that they have a title that makes them sound like some independent third party that has no authority in the community. But that they have a title that makes it clear that they are responsible and have the authority to handle problems that occur.

We don’t need to set ourselves off from other professionals in other fields, as if we are the only people who understand how to encourage people to participate in something and to enjoy a sense of belonging.

If you work in this field, also don’t underestimate the importance of having similar professionals use similar job titles. When compensation studies are done, this will help you to more accurately be paid for the work that you do. If everyone decides to give themselves some touchy, feely title that sounds nice but doesn’t more accurately describe what they do, it could remove data from the study, which removes data from the industry, which hurts this profession. If you have a different title, hopefully you have a very good reason for it.

And that’s the main point here. Job titles are for companies, organizations and professionals in your field. Those are the people who care about them. Those are the people who benefit from them. What you call yourself doesn’t make you a better community professional. It doesn’t impact how well you serve the community. You are what you are and your community members don’t care what you call yourself. They only care that you do the work and that you treat them with respect.