healthy community growth

I wrote this post as a draft several years ago. I don’t plan to finish it, and honestly the moment has passed even more than it was passing at the time of writing this. But I like what I was doing here and wanted to preserve it and not keep it as a forever-draft.

I noticed a bit about community and blog commenting and such over on the Securosis friday summary last week. It sparked some thoughts I wanted to get down. I’m going to steal the part that got me thinking:

Back when we started the [Securosis] Friday Summary the world of blogs and social media was much different. RSS feeds were the primary means by which most of us sucked down our news, and we tended to communicate through cross-blog links and comments….
Since then a lot has changed. People blog a lot less, and there are far fewer discussions across blogs commenting on each other’s posts. Much of this has gone over to Twitter – which is sometimes good and sometimes bad…

First, my own observation mirrors theirs. I still get a lot of my news and discussion from RSS feeds. I still personally comment a ton, but I will say that I do see a lot less commenting overall on other blogs, both from readers but also from the authors. And much of the (stunted) live discussion takes place on Twitter, and any breaking news will come first from my Twitter feed updating in front of me (huge benefit!). There’s no arguing that at all. The downside is how ephemeral Twitter is. If you’re not outright watching the feed as it goes, there’s really no scrolling back to catch up on your day. This reminds me of days on very busy IRC channels years ago.

I wasn’t involved and I don’t know them personally, but I remember times when the AShimmy blog would get into back-and-forth blog postings with other blogs. These days, this same situation will occur in Twitter. And if I’m not there to watch it, it’s gone and the group dynamic has missed me. Likewise, if I’m not actually already following those participating parties, I’ll miss it (something that irks me to absolutely no end with Twitter). This means you’ll involve the people who already know and are present at the time, but cross-blog discussions mean someone can watch and get to know the authors or even participate a few weeks later. Pulling new people into the discussion can work by accident with blogs, not so much with Twitter. (present edit: I’ve actually come to disagree with some of the Twitter feelings at the end of this paragraph.)

I’ve long been a proponent of web forums; I still think they’re the ideal place to share discussions and build community in an online world with people of similar interests. I’ve long been a consumer of those services (I still comment quite a lot in the security arenas!) and even been a leader in a few (online gaming communities around Quake and UT, primarily). So here are some “community-building observations” that apply to blog commenting and social communities and not just web forums. (I’ve made a similar post in the past.) (present edit: I still believe in forums, but their time is also passing by now. It’s hard to be a contributing member of more than just a couple forums or communities, and these days you’re left with Twitter, Reddit, maybe some LinkedIn or FaceBook conversations, but beyond that it’s difficult to find the time to keep up. I think what I was really going for here, was basically what Reddit has become today: a partly-ephemeral threaded community board.)

1. Always respond. – If someone posts on your site/discussion/forum/blog post, always respond in a positive and public manner. Others that see that interaction will know you’re present and it may encourage future participation. Likewise, it you’re not present, unless the community has taken off and can guide itself for periods of time, it will absolutely depend on you and reflect your participation. In one UT forum long ago I earned the reputation of always replying to almost every topic. This was true, but while I don’t think I was all that integral to the community being a success, that sort of behavior does not hurt it. It may in fact give more character and actually spur further discussions!

2. Don’t dominate discussions. – By this I mean don’t dominate individual discussions and quell other people’s ideas or opinions. You can be the one who dominates new topics and bringing them up, but always make other people feel like they’re important, respected, and contributing. No one likes a know-it-all, and no one especially likes one that knows he’s a know-it-all and pushes them on others. Be a bit vulnerable, ask for ideas, and if someone else ends up being a dominant presence in the community, that is actually a good sign.

3. Don’t let stagnation develop. – Nothing kills a community more than a sudden absence of new content or discussion or topics. Do this, and you might lose everyone you had before and have to start over from the beginning, only with the stigma that your community died once and may die again. Even if you’re the only one posting, keep posting.

4. Embrace anonymity. – Especially in a security-related community, you really need to embrace anonymity. We’re a hyper-paranoid and privacy-sensitive group of people, and if you want a solid cross-section of persons talking frankly and openly, we need to embrace anonymity. Sure, they can use their real names and reveal their employers or maybe leave themselves open to be tracked down, but that needs to be their decision. Also, don’t ever deride someone for a valid opinion just because they made it with the veil of anonymity. You might have a point, but so do they. Embrace that. (Likewise, keep in mind your female participants who may have a wholly different experience in digital life than their male counterparts.) (present edit: This is becoming less of a thing. People use their real names far more often now thanks for Google+ and FaceBook and even Twitter to a degree. But also, most of us end up meeting each other through job or con networking anyway. Still, some of us definitely still prefer the old school screennames…)

5. Reinforce the hardcore. – A nicely growing community will likely have one or more “hardcore” persons who participate far more than others; maybe they comment a lot, maybe they enter lots of discussions, maybe that start lots of them. Either way, recognize them when you have them, and make sure you listen to, include, and encourage them. In a way, having some “hardcore” participants in your social circle you have is a way of measuring success. If someone regularly comments on your blog, encourage them or say hey via other channels, or whathaveyou. This doesn’t mean walk on eggshells around them because they’ll make or break you, but just recognize that they’re integral to keeping things from being stagnant and in driving further discussion and community growth. I think many, many services online are made or broken by their hardcore constituents, and they really need to be carefully tended, and yet not over-tended… Bottom-line, just the fact that you have to deal with this group on any level is a good sign.

6. Encourage and welcome the new blood, but let them control the exposure. If they reach out, reach back. – Don’t force new people to introduce themselves, but embrace it if they do. Never let an introductory presence go unnoticed. Always respond, and ask engaging, interested questions. If they express interests or expertise, probe that and make them feel valuable or interesting. But don’t force it. Some people will lurk for a considerable amount of time before participating, but others will dive right in with newbie questions. Embrace all approaches and positively reinforce them.

7. Actively draw people in. – You don’t build something and expect people to find it. You have to go out and draw people in. If you want people to comment on your articles, you need to get them to first see your articles, and then demonstrate that you’re interested in comments. This usually means commenting on many other blogs in turn. It takes a lot of effort and time for a community to be self-sustaining as far as new members goes. Again, your hardcore will help with that, as will just being a positive place for people to participate in, and suggest to others. But for a long time, you’ll need to funnel the people in, either with compelling content or brute force. [In my gaming sites, I had it easy with well-respected gaming tournaments bringing in people, so this part was easy. In something like BackTrack forums, their software brings people in.]

8. Embrace off-topics. – Just take a look at any forum for even niche topics, or any group of Twitter followers and you will see that “general” or “off-topic” discussions often will be the busiest places in a community. Let people fraternize and talk about other things, and give them a place to do so without watering down the on-topic stuff. I also consider the health of the off-topic discussion area to be an indicator on the health of the community.

9. Practice design/navigation simplicity. – This probably applies directly to web forums, but please for the love of all that is pure and sweet, keep things simple. Don’t make 20 nearly empty forum boards for various topics. Make 3 (on-topic, off-topic, site help) or even less. I really desparately hate, as a new user, trying to find where I should be going. Growth of sub-topics and separate forum sections should grow organically and only as-needed for the community. Only make a new section if there is already a need to populate that section with content that is getting in the way of something else. This helps make sure you don’t wind up with 1 forum with traffic and 15 stagnating ones; a quick glance by an outsider will reflect more stagnation than use.

10. Be clear and consistent with your content policies. But be reasonable. – Primarily I intend this advice to be about images and avatars used on the site, and primarily to make a site viewer-friendly (safe for work, safe for kids, safe for family…). Let people be themselves, but make sure your site is viewable by the people you want to attract during times they are available to interfact. For a security/professional board, that likely means being work-friendly, so no thong-clad avatars nor signature smiley banging another smiley. Letting this get out of control early is a bad deal, and letting anyone (even your hardcore group or best friend) bend the rules too much is asking for trouble in your community.

11. Be careful when dealing with abusers. – Don’t start a ban-war with abusers or start moderating and editing their contributions. Let them know where they stand. If you have a mature community and someone starts acting up, the group should self-correct them, or if that fails, an admin making the rules clear should fix things. Just be careful making a martyr out of someone or creating an “us against the unfair admins!” situation. This is probably the most difficult thing to dance around when administrating a community, and is largely inevitable. But for those of us in business and security, it shouldn’t be an entirely foreign concept.

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