Heads up, this content is 14 years old. Please keep its age in mind while reading.

I believe that some communities need managers (or facilitators or moderators — there are a few different flavors to this role).  I also believe there are ways to hold that space respectfully, in a way that takes care of everyone, while still being very strong.  As promised, I want to offer you some of the “moves” I’ve learned over the years in this role, with hopes that you can use them to help guide your own community spaces.

There’s just one problem.  Every time I try to write this blog post, it keeps growing to the size of a book.

So here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to let it be a series. Last week I gave you the prologue.  Now here’s Part 1: “Aikido Moves for Online Community Management: The Basics,” complete with even more intro material for context.  There will be a Part 2. I promise.

My Training

I’ve been building websites since ’97 and have held the reigns on a number of community-rallying projects.  There are two in particular, though, that I can attribute most of my lessons to.  They are:

The Writ – An online writing workshop and publication that had 2,000+ members and an ever-changing staff of volunteers. It started in 2003 and was just officially closed a few months ago, because it was time.

Genderfork – A community expression blog about gender variance that has 10,000+ readers a month.  It’s run by a staff of 10 volunteers who all have clear responsibilities for maintaining the site. The broader community contributes through submissions and response comments. It’s been around since 2007.

I built both of these spaces from scratch, with the help of friends and community members who wanted to see it succeed. And it’s important to note that in both of these communities, our goals were to:

  • make as many people as possible feel welcome and comfortable, especially newbies.
  • stay focused on a specific topic.
  • collaboratively create something bigger than we could build as individuals.
  • nurture and encourage quality storytelling and art.
  • inspire and guide community members to support and help each other.
  • represent ourselves in a positive way to the rest of the world.

So pretty much all of my advice comes from advocating for this culture.  There are lots of other community cultures that are just as relevant, but I can’t speak about them from experience.

What’s an online community and when does it need a manager?

I’m happy to report that I answered this question in detail last week.  If you’re not 100% clear on what I’m about to talk about, please go read it.  What follows is the beginning of an advanced discussion.  Last week’s post is the 101-level introduction.

Why Aikido?

Aikido is a martial art that involves a lot of rolling around on the floor.  I’ve taken a few classes, I’m not an expert, and if you’re interested in going deeper than the light metaphor I’m offering here, I encourage you to — there’s a lot to learn from it.  But for our purposes, let’s just look at a few basics.  When practicing Aikido, you…

  • blend with the motion of your attacker and redirect their force, rather than opposing it head-on.
  • protect your attacker from injury as you defend yourself.
  • stay in control with minimal effort.
  • remain balanced and focused.
  • roll with the punches.

I find this an incredibly useful metaphor for online community management.

And a few more disclaimers…

1. The thoughts below are limited in scope and context.  They are not comprehensive, and you should not assume they will all apply to your situation. They might not. Sorry.

2. I wish I could tell you I’m coming at this from a place of stability. I’m not. Even as I write this, a discussion is underway in the Genderfork community that might push to have my curation guidelines and original mission statement completely restructured.  This is actually okay.

3. I’m also aware that a lot of people will have plenty of reasons to disagree with me on some of my points.  Go for it — I’m always up for hearing how things can be done better.  (Just, you know, be nice about it please. Thanks.)

“The Basics”

Okay, ready? Here are what I consider to be important foundational moves.

1) Don’t punish people for stuff they haven’t done.

Be careful about comment and moderation policies, and make sure they’re addressing real needs rather than pre-emptively striking against imagined ones.

I anticipated that Genderfork would get a lot of hate mail, and I strongly considered turning on the “you have to be pre-approved to leave comments” setting to guard against it.  If you’ve ever left a comment only to see a “now waiting for moderation” message, you know what a slap in the face that setting feels like.  Fortunately, I decided to wait and see if I really needed it.  70,000+ total visitors later, we still don’t get a single shred of anti-queer hate in our comments.  ZERO. NADA. GOOSE EGG.  (Okay, well there was that one day, but it was super-isolated, and there was a miscommunication, so I say it doesn’t count.)  I now have it set up so that people can even comment anonymously — no name or email address required — because I know they appreciate the option, and they respect the privilege.  Still no hate.  Magic.

2) Set the tone, and the tone will maintain the tone.

Okay, so lack of hate isn’t really “magic” — it’s the tone we set from the beginning.

Have you ever shown up to a conversation that was already in progress?  What did you do?  You listened to what was going on, how people were interacting, and where they were in the discussion before you joined in.  You drew all sorts of conclusions about expectations and protocol just by taking a quick inventory of the situation, and then you went with the flow, adding your perspective in a way that seemed to fit.

That’s what people do when they show up to online communities, too. They take a brief scan around, they pull in whatever cues they can gather, they decide if they want to join in, and then they do so in a way that fits all the factors.  Think of the quality of comments on Flickr versus YouTube.  Flickr takes community management very seriously, and people have gotten the message over time (whether consciously or unconsciously) that being respectful in comments is important.  On YouTube, the expectation is more or less that people will be idiots.  So people are idiots.

Take note of what kind of conversation people are experiencing when they show up to your site. If you monitor it carefully enough in the beginning, it will begin to (mostly) monitor itself.

How do you set the tone? By contributing in the style that you’d like others to contribute. By offering some simple, clear guidelines on how people should treat each other and why. By suggesting to the people in your inner circle that they engage in a certain way. By showing up and being personally involved to positively redirect things when someone goes off course.

3) Stay detached from emotional conversations.

If your job is to keep the community healthy, then your “at ease” stance needs to be slightly above any emotional discussions.  You’re at your most helpful when you’re keeping a bird’s eye view on things and can understand everyone’s perspectives.

This might make you feel like the community’s not really yours.  That’s right. I’m sorry. It’s not. It’s theirs. You are the steward and caretaker, and when you’re hanging out there, you’re on duty.  Like a bartender at a good club, you get plenty of perks from being in the room, but you still need to stay behind the bar.  (And, preferably, sober.)

If you find yourself emotionally involved in a challenging situation, that’s your cue to go find someone else to advise you — someone who understands the community but isn’t involved in the drama. You can’t hold the Smite Buttons and be angry at the same time — that’s just not fair.

But even if you are angry, and you are getting advice from someone more balanced, you still probably need to keep your venting off the Internet. People need to trust you, and blame-heavy ranters are hard to trust.

So go off and kick trashcans, let a friend keep an eye on things while you’re gone, and come back when you’re ready to be sane again.  You just saved yourself from a mutiny.

~~~~

More soon.

Love,
Sarah

Heads up, this content is 15 years old. Please keep its age in mind while reading.

Dear Silicon Valley,

First of all, I don’t know if I’ve told you this lately, but I love you.  We do great things here, and this life is pretty damned fun.  You’ve taken very good care of me, introduced me to brilliant people, given me the tools to stay connected with a world of friends, and even started paying my rent.  I’m forever grateful that we found each other.

And I have a favor to ask.

I’m noticing that the stuff we make here — these websites and tools and communities — can influence the rest of the world pretty significantly.  It used to be that only the geeks were using the Internet, but now it’s becoming “pretty much everybody.”  And here’s the powerful thing: when a website is considered “good,” whatever that website displays as content, images, default settings, or options is considered “normal” by its users. You have the power to influence “normal.” I could give you examples, but I know you already know what I’m talking about.

The favor I want to ask is this: please think about how you’re handling race and gender on your websites.  Just look at it.  You don’t have to change anything.  Just make a mental note in your head about what your saying to your users about the importance of race and gender, and the categories that exist for them.

I’ll give you a hint: If you’re still asking about race in a required drop-down menu, you’re way behind.  Because doing it that way says to a user:

  • You have a race.
  • It’s really important to me.
  • It’s one (and only one) of these listed here.

Seriously, I really don’t think you’re doing this, because it would be horribly weird.  My friend with the half-Jamaican-half-Chinese father and Irish immigrant mother would either laugh hysterically at you or be extraordinarily offended.  “You want me to tell you what? WHY??”

The way we build a profile page matters.  You get that it matters.

So… this next part’s gonna sound a little weird, but hear me out for a minute.  I think gender is taking the same path as race.  It’s still visually defining, but people are starting to acknowledge that there are grey areas. And those grey areas are growing.

There’s a longstanding argument that “male” and “female” are a biologically-defined and relevant way to split our population in half. But if you’ve ever met a feminine man or a masculine woman, you know that these categories are way too rough to mean anything more than a stereotype sometimes.

It goes deeper than that.  For example, within lesbian communities, “butch” and “femme” have been considered separate genders for awhile now.  Yes, they’re both female (well, sometimes), but they have different roles both in the community and in relationships (except when they don’t, which is true for any gender).  There’s also a growing presence of people who are living today as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. Sometimes you notice them and sometimes you don’t.  (Hint: You won’t know how many you aren’t noticing — that’s the point.)  There are people born intersex — with the biological features of more than one gender (and there are more of these than you might expect).  And you may have noticed this in cities and among young people — there’s also a growing presence of folks whose genders you just can’t identify.  Some of them, if you ask them respectfully, will tell you they feel like both genders.  Or neither gender.  Or a gender that needs a new name.  They might answer to both “he” and “she,” or they might prefer something different.  They’re in-between, and that’s where they belong.

Just for a minute, try to imagine yourself in the shoes of someone who has spent a lifetime feeling just as uncomfortable in the men’s locker room as in the women’s locker room — for whatever reason.  Imagine having to dress in clothing that just feels wrong to you, everyday, because you know it means you’ll be treated better than you would if you wore what you like.  Imagine walking through the world knowing that everyone’s first assumptions about how you see yourself, who you love, and what feels right for you are completely wrong.

Now imagine signing up for a cool website, and then being required to select an option from a drop-down menu that doesn’t include anything that represents you.  If you don’t decide to close the browser window right then and there, you’ll probably pick the gender of the restroom you still use in public when you have no other choice (even though people might stop you to tell you you’re in the wrong one no matter what), and you’ll feel defeated. You’ll want to argue that whatever they think they’re learning from that drop-down menu, it’s not really true. You’ll want to tell them that they’re adding to your humiliation by making you do this. You’ll want to tell them that they’re missing a huge part of you by boiling this rich and beautiful characteristic down into a two-option drop-down menu.

Okay, you can come back now.  That’s all I needed from you — just to think about it. The truth is, there are no perfect solutions to this problem right now.  Gender is still relevant (except when it’s not) and drop-downs are still the cleanest way to gather data (except when they’re not).  To quote Facebook (a site that’s only sort of doing it wrong), “It’s complicated.”

So just keep an eye out.  Be aware of what you’re calling normal.  Make a mental note of who it might be excluding.  Make conscious choices about how you handle things.  And please remind the web developer in the next cubicle to do the same.

Thanks and love,
Sarah Dopp

Heads up, this content is 15 years old. Please keep its age in mind while reading.

The BlogHer Geek Lab in Washington, DC was loaded with questions about how to improve a blog and increase its reach.  I ended up on my soapbox more times than I expected, ranting about misinformation and imploring bloggers to rethink their strategies.

I’m summarizing most of my rants below because I think they’ll be helpful to some people.  Please keep in mind that I’m coming at this from my own experience.  I’m not an “ad revenue” blogger, and there are plenty out there who can give you tips on what they’ve done to be successful. I encourage you to go talk to them, too.

The Goals Rant

If you ask me, “How can I make my blog better?” I’m going to ask you what “better” means.  What are your goals? If you don’t know, stop whatever you’re doing right now and figure them out.  Here are some common ones:

I want to…

  • express myself in a creative, positive way.
  • vent my frustrations in a safe and constructive way.
  • work through some challenging issues.
  • document a process or experience.
  • create a space for myself that’s separate from my daily life.
  • establish a certain kind of reputation.
  • convey a certain tone and aesthetic.
  • serve a certain community in a certain way.
  • build a community that supports me.
  • make money with ads and affiliate revenue.
  • find new work/jobs/clients/customers.
  • maintain my existing work/jobs/clients/customers.
  • give friends and family a way to keep track of me.
  • keep track of my thoughts and the interesting things I’ve found on the web.

If you have a lot of these goals (and hopefully some others I haven’t named yet), that’s great!  Now you need to prioritize them. Which ONE do you care about first and foremost? How about second? Third? Fourth? Lay them all out in order — NO TIES! It’s fine if your priorities change in the future, but you need to be honest with yourself about what they are right now.

Once you’ve got that, you’ll know what “better” means. And you’ll probably be able to brainstorm about 20 answers to your original question without any help from me now, too.

The Money Rant

So you want to make money from blogging, and you’ve heard that ad revenue is the way to go.  That’s great and I completely support you, but let’s talk about it for a minute.

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