Should All Communities Be Managed?

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This blog has been getting a lot of interesting comments lately, and those comments always spark further rumination. Ruminate. Ruminate. I may not always respond right away, but you should know that I’m ruminating on them.

Recently, Ron “humbly submitted” (hey, I recognize another Twilight Zone fan when I hear one), “that there are a couple pieces here that the industry, or the profession [of community management teams] has down much better than academia [because] we’re in this stuff up to our necks every day.”

I agree we always have a lot to learn from the people in the trenches. Problem in the trenches is, it’s a lot about problem-solving, sometimes not so much about understanding. Ron said that “community managers” are a special breed. They are engaged in an honest, open dialog with the community”jointly engaged in a long-term relationship,” acting, ideally, as “an authority in good standing.”

Ron says that”the whole gig” of being a community manager “is to maintain a trusting relationship with the community.” Sounds like the idea of being a brand manager. But in other words, the community manager is both part of the community, and a leader of it, an authority figure, at a higher lever in the hierarchy because she controls the resources.

Here’s what Ron had to say:

“The community manager guides it, at times with an iron fist, but only so long as their actions can be accepted and seen by the community as good for the community. It’s very much a case of leading by running slightly faster than the others, only with a handful of bright shiny objects to occasionally use for course correction as well as an ultimate authority to basically boot anyone who gets too far out of line.”

I like the Pavlovian feel of “bright shiny objects,” “iron fists,” and course corrections. They have the carrots and they’re not afraid to use them. “Well done, Jeffrey, here’s a free membership to Wii-Monthly and a ticket to see “Aeon Flux: The 3-D IMAX Edition.” And the stick and the trapdoor. “You, you with the big potty mouth: Out!” The community manager is in charge. They are in control. Boo-yeah.

“There is nothing wrong with your community. Do not attempt to adjust the culture. We are controlling transmission . . . we will control the feedback. We will control the commentary… For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all you see and hear… You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery that’s reaching from the Corporate Mind to… The Online Community.”

Now, as Ron points out, this is control for the greater good. The greater good being The Company’s greater good. Corporate community managers are beneficent rulers, online baron landlords with velvet gloves as well as “iron fists.” But even they have limits to their jurisdiction or credibility. Can’t push the people too far.

In case of a disastrous event, they need to deal honestly and directly, “always with the view that the goal is prolonged positive relationship.”That’s interesting because it says to me that this community might outlast any particular company or any particular brands–especially true in online land, and in the world of entertainment offerings, like games. So it’s not just this particular community, maybe, in part, but it’s relationships with a holistic, pre-existing community that also matter. And so it is “a very active and meaningful role.”

Although I’m having fun here, there’s really nothing I disagree with of Ron’s statement, except the notion that all communities can or should be managed. In fact, when you pose the question like that it sort of seems ridiculous. Should the Chinese-American community be “managed”? Well, not really. Should the Catholic community be managed. That’s interesting. How about the African-American community? Well then why would you want to “manage” the science fiction or RPG or MMOG or young mom or low-carb dieting or Cola-drinking community? The question of course is managed by whom, for what ends? And why the heck wouldn’t you just let the community manage itself, while you interact with it? You: emissary, ambassador of corporate community. Them: receptive-but-at-times-understandably-skeptical consumer community. Not necessarily Leader of the Communal Charge, Chief Online Overlord, Corporately-Appointed-Ruler of This Hear Brand Coh-munit-tee.
The key of course is what Ron is talking about in relation to what I’m talking about. We’re actually comparing mangoes and pomegranates. My big interest is in these grassroots, self–managed, organic, naturally-occurring gatherings, often based more on a group of individual’s common structures of interest than a particular brand or corporation’s interests.

But Ron says it himself: what he is talking about is “online community in a site, a social setting, built around and hosted by the corporation (this is not etribes, this is a community dedicated to an ongoing relationship with a game, product, brand, etc.).” Not etribes. Managed brand communities. It’s a social site, but it is built around and hosted by the corporation. That’s why they control transmission. That’s why community managers can dish out bright shiny objects (“Would you like to win an Underdog Pez for your suggestion this week?”). That’s why they have their hands on the trapdoor level (“Away with you, Foul Potty Mouthed One! An Never Return!”). They control the resources, therefore they are in control.

And so this was a response to my blog about Dean Devlin and the Godzilla board, definitely a corporate run site. But it could also have been in response to my many other blogs about Communi-space and the idea of managed, created, community. And that’s where I like to draw some differences and maybe a few lines in the communal kitty litter.

I’m back to a particular metaphor that I like, which is the managed community metaphor. Kinds of works with online and offline communities equally well. I think that managers have been working with the idea of the manager as Good Cowboy. As I’ve explained it in a number of presentation, the community of consumers is conceptualized pretty much in this way:

  • As A Community of Consumers Needing to be Directing
  • Community Needing to be Controlled (for their own good)
  • Community Needing to be Owned (if we don’t Own them, our Competitors Will!)
  • Communities Needing to Fed (if we feed them, they we like and trust us; and need our food)
  • Communities Needing to be Weeded (mangy unkempt things!)
  • But always Managing Community to keep consumers happy
  • Happy, happy consumers

Mooo. Yeee-haw! Come on, Bessie. Move em out!

Yes, we’re “joint participants” in this community, but I’ve got the stick, the horse, the pen and the gun and it’s your job to eat the hay and make the milk. Or make the Wool and lie down and get shorn when we tell you to. Pick your metaphor. Don’t matter much to me.

Okay, that’s extreme. My point is that community is ALSO an emergent phenomenon. The E in eTribes Stands for Emergent. They emerge on their own. They are a phenomenon of Self-Organization. That doesn’t at all mean that they don’t have anything to do with managed communities. Of course they do. They are both manifestations of culture world and online world, two permeable, connection-seeking realms that dissolve boundaries. They merge, combine, and hybridize in all sorts of interesting ways.

An interesting example of this hybridizing just given in a BusinessWeek article about SmugMug.com, the online photographic service. It’s a family run business, but where did they hired their additional 22 workers from who weren’t family? They recruited them from their message forum, Digital Grin (dgrin.com). They found people they knew, people they could trust, fellow members of their interest community, their affinity group, who already had an affinity for their service, brand, and company, and they helped them turn their hobby into a career (just as the owners had done). I saw the same sort of fan-amateur to professional evolution happen all the time in the fan community. Those are very permeable borders, and in the past I’ve called fandom a breeding ground for professionals. Why wouldn’t it be? And the same thing holds true oftentimes for online communities.

But Emergent etribes are different from the managed herd that Ron and the Communi-space people talk about, lead around, and experiment with. There are lots of interesting real-world intersections between these two types of communities that we need to explore, but they seem like two distinct categories. The Exchanges are different. The Benefits are different. The Rules are different. And what might be nice to manage and contain in one situation might be much better left in its feral state in another. I know that the instinct in companies is to want to manage their environment: that’s what they do. But there are also phenomenon that are best left alone. Or, hey how’s this, PARTS or ASPECTS of the phenomenon that are best left alone.

So that raises an interesting question. What’s a good mix of Domesticated to Wild Community for a company to have? Two parts to One? Depends on types of company, brand, consumption, community, I’d say. Depends on the company’s goal. Depends on the history. But I do think we need to think more subtly about Communities and company’s and organization’s relationships with them. These categories are important, and they’re constantly evolving. And it’s our job to think about them, understand them, and figure out what to do.

2 Comments

  1. ron January 31, 2008
  2. ron January 31, 2008

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