Why community for us community folk never was about the bustling community industry, but the connections we built.

Authors note: I was previously employed by Orbit, have spoken at events sponsored by CommonRoom, and have been paid for content by Commsor. As with all the posts on this site, this blog post is my opinion.

I've been sitting on these posts for a while. I wanted to ensure it came from a place of empathy and understanding. I want this to serve as a commentary on the state of the community industry, not a critique of anyone or any specific organization. After some thought, conversation, and the spirit of candor, I feel it is essential to publicly express my expertise and opinion on this topic.

As I started writing, I realized there’s enough for a multi-part series. And it’s not all “bad things,” either.  As someone shared with me this week — it’s time for the community industry’s reckoning.

This is part three of a four-part series.
Part One | Part Two | Part Four

Substance > Hype, Signal > Noise

Part Three

I fell into the community world. Fell into it. I didn’t even know it was a “real” job until I was told I was moving from a product manager to Head of Community for an open-source ecommerce platform. (Cue a series of panicked google searches on “what a community manager does” and “how to build a community strategy”).

It’s been quite some time since then, and I’ve got quite a bit more experience under my belt and don’t see myself returning to product management at this time — however, I will admit I sold myself short early on in my time as a community builder.

I’ve almost always been very online.  Online friends have always been real friends in my world: whether it’s connections made through Geocaching.com forums, custom MySpace or Tumblr templates for random strangers-become friends on the internet, blogging about my crushes on my LiveJournal or teaming up with friends to conquer villains of various types online — from League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Neopets, or Runescape.  Doing something together, online or off, crafts substance we crave.

I’ve met friends who have become neighbors through Twitter (seriously), landed jobs through the internet, and even had a fair share of trolls and creeps online (yikes).

While I am disheartened at the current lack of realism in some areas of this industry, it doesn't leave me without any hope. I am very excited about a resurgence of grassroots efforts in many of these community spaces over the past few years.

When I think about what excites me about these spaces, it’s a conscious prioritization of substance and signal. An intentional focus on creating rich, deep connections between people through quality experiences.

Community tooling: Whether employed by a for-profit company or for play, the essential things that matter to the group members must be emphasized.

Who has substance and signal?

When looking at the community-minded spaces that have spun up and are either maintained by hobbyists, organizations, or for pleasure, we can dissect what uniquely makes them work. Let’s explore a few of my favorite community-driven spaces.

Ghost: If you’ve followed me on social media — you may have heard me rave about Ghost. It’s one of my favorite tools as a creator, developer, journalism nerd, and open-source enthusiast. Whether it's their creator’s discord they’ve launched, the developer's forum where one can get help and support, well-documented repos, or the most beautiful documentation page that I reference to absolutely anyone who asks me about docs — Ghost has built this beautiful community that blends professionalism, intention, expertise, and care into what they do.

Patreon: Patreon has been one of those long-time community greats, from how they conduct themselves online and off to the effort they put into ensuring that once you join the platform, you get what you need to be successful.  From office hours, help and support forums, creator tooling, and even internal teams dedicated to the success of the creators — they ensure that they’re providing value, even when it can be challenging at times.

r/Hobonichi: I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time in the Hobonichi subreddit lately.  If you’re not an obsessive bullet journaler like myself — Hobonichi is a type of planner that has developed this wildly active online fan community of creators, contributors, and even collectors of planners and accessories.

Sims: ICYMI, The Sims is still around and kicking.  And has one of the most active and engaged communities and fandoms in and outside the gaming world. One of the things that stands out to me is how they embrace who they are and who their community members are and then facilitate their growth through resources, community-driven events, and product features.  From the ability to mod content and subsequently places to show off that modded content — I remember having my creativity captured and curiosity embraced through this brand. Now, decades later, I still have fond memories of my time online in the forums and creating and it doesn’t make me feel out of place or cringy for still belonging.

Community-driven products and organizations don’t just happen.

These spaces are crafted and cultivated with time, energy, intention, and effort. If you’re in or around the community space, acknowledge this.

Acknowledge the trust possibly lost within an organization or among stakeholders.  Acknowledge that some people have to be spoon-fed the value of community — no, they aren’t just going to get it, even if it’s crystal clear in your mind.

If I were a community tooling company today, I’d first acknowledge the challenging position it can be right now to be a community builder.  Then I’d work like hell to make sure every existing user didn’t stand in fear of losing their job or perception of value.

How are these tools generating measurable time, energy, or value in the community-builders day that they can turn around and report? Or — worse yet — are these tools generating a dangerous precedent that everything should be measured and calculated, and if it's not, it's a complete waste of time? What do the folks in these roles need at the moment?

Help me make the case to my boss for a higher budget. Demonstrate exactly what impact my live stream, blog post, or heck, conference attendance had. Give me easy and flexible tooling that helps me work collaboratively across other organizations — not a new language to translate to them, but a way to show that I can bring value to every team.  

I can easily say the amount of time I spend in community tooling since being employed by a tooling company has significantly decreased — but not because I want it to, but because there are so many other things I have to do on my plate. Acknowledge this reality.

This is part three of a four-part series.
Part One | Part Two | Part Four