What it might mean if you work in community roles.

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 this post 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 two of a four-part series.
Part One | Part Three | Part Four

The Dangers of a VC-Backed Double Standard

Part Two 

I’m not too naive to believe that we all don’t have a job at the end of the day.  Provide business value through a top-tier community experience.  The type of business value that can be calculated by dollars in the bank - not emojis, feel-goods, or a pat on the back.

So why does it feel like we turned community building into catching some arbitrary friend quota and feel-good vibes? I get it — proper attribution is complex and only getting more complicated. To simplify the task of determining the business value of community initiatives has been a popular target of venture capital dollars — so much so that entire funds and projects have been built off this initiative.

I’ve read the blog posts — heck, I’ve been guilty of writing some of these blog posts. I’ve thought about what headlines would gain traction or what would capture the eyes and entertain and inform my audience. I’ve felt disheartened when product vision didn’t align with the larger world.

Product landing pages and blogs are filled with advice for community builders, coming from a supposed subject-matter expert position — but if you look around at the actual execution of their community efforts, things seem just a little bit off.

Providing recommendations to others when you knew damn well that on a strapped budget and with resources tight — these were the hard things to justify. Know that your product brings the most value when working on a team or that folks should advocate more for themselves — when it’s hard to do the same yourself — these are the hard things to do. Add on the cost of the product you’re gainfully employed by; it’s tricky.

Now that’s not to say that community-building outside of the venture context isn’t realistic or inherently does not bring value; instead, we must prioritize different disciplines.

As a friend and mentor said, “you’re at a startup proving business value. You don’t have to do anything immoral or against your ethics — but you have to be willing to do the capitalism you’re willing to do.”

I’m comfortable with the concept of business goals and initiatives. I like steady paychecks, living wages, stable jobs, and healthcare perks as much as the next person.

However, I don’t have to be comfortable with the double standard set in front of us through blog posts, guidebooks, press releases, and empty promises of a flourishing community. I want realism.

In the case of tech specifically, shareholders seek revenue growth from mature companies that they experienced in the first and second waves of tech boom & bust. Yet we see budgets around community engagement cut across industries. Despite what we perceive as a current downturn — 2022 was the second-largest investment year in history. What the hell happened in the last six months?

These unprecedently high valuations have become unsustainable. The advice previously given to “grow at all costs” as recently as last year was rewarded with further “funding and high values” and has now been followed by mass layoffs and wage disparity between workers and executives.

According to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), “CEO pay rose 18.2%, faster than the U.S. inflation rate of 7.1%. In contrast, U.S. workers’ wages fell behind inflation, with worker wages rising only 4.7% in 2021.”

This so-called greedflation is far from a community-led mentality.

Simply put, the ethics of advocating for a way of doing don’t inherently align with the capitalistic values of venture funding.

Build genuine connections — but don’t fear “automated workflows or prompts to remind members to introduce themselves.” As if anyone wants to respond to a bot these days.

Events have never been more critical. After several years of avoiding in-person events or only attending virtual events, attendees are ready for the evolution of events,” writes an event platform, simultaneously promoting the importance of a webinar strategy because who the hell willingly wants to attend a webinar in 2023?

Or how about the “only full-stack community platform” that raised $66 million to acquire businesses, pouring their hearts and souls into the projects, only neglecting them by going radio silent? What happened to the original users of the companies you acquired?  How did they survive scaling communities beyond capitalism?

Tell me more about how you understand the importance of “aligning with company stakeholders” as a top priority of several teams when you’re a company building a model and a tool to quantify the impact community has, yet don’t have a devrel team yourself. I guess all is fair in love and war; they said in their own words, “community is hard to do.”

We spent our time building up our clout (and possibly over-inflating our egos) on a would-be $1 billion unicorn early in the pandemic that had raised more than $10 million. Surprisingly, we don’t enjoy low-quality, unfiltered content with a massive moderation problem or sketchy data privacy.

How are we, as community builders, donating our time, money, energy, and effort to a professional networking group acquired by a for-profit organization that struggled with its own layoffs? What even is the power of community in business?

I could go on and on, but you get the point. As community builders, as developer relations professionals, as yet another human who has been propped up and told that they’re valued and essential in an organization — and here’s another tool that will help you prove it — how did we come to tolerate this double standard?

All of the above is written with the intention to throw no shade or pushback regarding the authors of those articles or the teams that produced them — but rather a pushback on the state of the industry and a call to action for a little more gosh darn realism.

How are we expected to be complicit to “best practices” and a high-quality community experience if the companies we set as our North Star have neglected their users, communities, and teams themselves?

Maybe the better question is: who is doing community ‘right’ then?

This is part two of a four-part series.
Part One | Part Three | Part Four