SitePoint Podcast #119: Online Community Roundtable

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Episode 119 of The SitePoint Podcast is now available! This week the panel is made up of regular host Patrick O’Keefe (@iFroggy) with guests Venessa Paech (@venessapaech), Sarah Hawk (@ilovethehawk) and Matt Haughey (@mathowie). The panel discuss the profession of Online Community, how it’s grown in importance and profile, and what it means to today’s Web.

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  • SitePoint Podcast #119: Online Community Roundtable with Matthew Haughey Sarah Hawk and Venessa Paech (MP3, 49:53, 45.7MB)

Interview Transcript

Patrick: Hello and welcome to a special edition of the SitePoint Podcast! This is Patrick O’Keefe (@iFroggy) and I’m joined by a panel of community management veterans. Today we’ll be ripping on the profession, the challenges that we face and the state of community management today. I’m joined by Venessa Paech (@venessapaech), Sarah Hawk (@ilovethehawk) and Matt Haughey (@mathowie), and rather than having me introduce yourselves I’d like to ask each of you to give me the 20 second bio and talk about your experience in community management, Venessa, why don’t you go first.

Venessa: Sure, hi everybody, it’s really fantastic to be here. So, me; well, I came to the Web in general very early on, kind of early-ish pubic Web, kind of the late 80’s and was involved in online communities from the start as a user, so early IRC communities, bulletin boards, lots of glorious fun things, and so got to kind of experience them as a user from an early stage and saw how interesting and how fascinating they were and kind of always had that in the back of my mind. Had a bit of a background in journalism and in theatre and in a number of other sort of interpretive and communicative professions if you like that somehow or another involved in studying the human condition, and ultimately I sort of in the mid-90’s found myself dealing with being the one in the organization that I was working in who was charged with dealing with the people online, whatever context that took, whether it was a forum or people sending emails or people in various social networks. And most recently I’ve been working for Lonely Planet, the travel guide publishers who are sort of running their whole ecosystems, online communities, the Thorn Tree Forums which have been around about 15 years right through to their Facebook and Twitter presences and things like that. So, yeah, I’ve been around a while and seen a lot of changes obviously.

Patrick: And Sarah?

Sarah: Yeah, hi. My introduction to community management has been solely through SitePoint, actually I started off as a community member about eight years ago I think, I was a .net developer for a big corporation and out of, I don’t know, laziness and desperation I suppose I would use SitePoint to solve problems and grab code. And, yeah, as a result got really interested in the community side of things which was a much better fit for me working with people rather than code (laughs), which I know will surprise quite a few of you, and so, yeah, worked my up through the staff really and left the workforce to have kids three years ago, two-and-a-half years ago, and SitePoint sort of tracked me down and asked me if I wanted the perfect stay-at-home mother job of managing the community, and so, yeah, I’ve been doing that for a year now and have absolutely no intention of giving it up anytime soon, that’s me.

Patrick: And Matt?

Matt: Hello, glad to be here. Matt Haughey, I guess I started online in the mid-90’s, sort of kicked around a whole bunch of different web design mailing lists and kind of had in the back of my mind I’d like to run my own community, the world of blogs was sort of coming up around ’98, I started working on my own software because there was no such thing as Blogger, WordPress or any sort of Weblog software, so I sort of taught myself Cold Fusion at the time, built my first web app and quickly realized if you make a single author database powered site you can have 10,000 authors if you want, and if you make one page you can make 10,000 pages, so I made a little community blog and I had no idea how big it would get, I thought it would be four or five authors posting, a couple hundred commenters or something, and after a couple of years it sort of blossomed into a few thousand and we’re running up on our 12th anniversary in a couple weeks.

Patrick: Excellent, congratulations.

Matt: Thanks.

Patrick: And for any listeners that might be unfamiliar with me, obviously I’m Patrick O’Keefe, I run the iFroggy Network, it’s a network of websites covering various interests, I have been managing online communities for 11 years, online community is what I do and I think as with everyone here it’s a passion for me and I speak about it at conferences and events and using my experience I wrote the book, Managing Online Forums, which is a practical guide to managing online forums, communities and social spaces. So with that said let’s jump into the topics here. I think the first one that I want to tackle is online community, as I just called it a profession, it’s a hot job, it’s a hot title right now; countless numbers of job descriptions or job listings cross I guess my Twitter page would be the place I see them the most, and it’s always online community manager, and there are just so many of them popping up; what does the ideal online community manager look like, what skills do they have, how does this compare with how the role is packaged and sold? I don’t know who would like to take that one first but I’ll just start with this thought, it’s funny to watch how the title it’s almost everything, a catchall title in a way, where you have — I saw one the other day, I’m not going to call anybody out on this, it was actually in Australia, I’m not going to call anybody out but the title was Online Acquisition and Community Manager, and I think Sarah knows this job so we’ll keep that to ourselves, but the requirements for the position were: three years of online marketing experience, experience with search engine marketing, experience with email marketing and a passion for online marketing (laughter). So there wasn’t anything about community required, you didn’t need to have done that part of it before, so it’s a good thing because it means that the profession itself is kind of growing and it’s a hot thing right now, but on the other hand it’s sort of mixing up I think what the role is, and, Venessa, since you laughed I’ll ask you to chime in on that first.

Venessa: (Laughs) No, I’m sorry, and I don’t mean to be cheeky. I think we’re probably all saying this, I think on the one hand it’s genuinely fantastic that more and more people professionally are talking about the importance of online community, the idea of having some sort of staff member or personnel dedicated to thinking about and managing online community as a concept, as a cohesive concept across a business and across departments. I think my frustration is that along with that sort of ascendancy of awareness comes the natural confusion of a role, and that starts to happen which is that it’s sort of that people watching have a correct sense that it’s sort of a part of everything, that because people are media and online community for many businesses online underpins almost everything that they do that therefore it sort of has to be a part of everything and bolt onto everything, so they’re not quite sure where to put it but they have a general sense that everybody should sort of be doing it and thinking about it. So you do see all these very mixed messages and some truly hilarious job titles. And my reaction to what you said, Patrick, is that that’s an online marketing role and perhaps there’s a line item or a bullet point there that says that it’s really advantageous to have a deep or sophisticated understanding of online community and how it connects to what you’re doing. I fully disclose right now that I am a bit of a snob when it comes to the role, and by that I mean that — I don’t mean that someone needs to have necessarily an arm length of qualifications to have a job as an online community manager, but simply that I think that it’s much the same as me walking into a giant digital agency and saying, right, I’m going to take over all of your accounts, I’m a digital marketer and I know what I’m doing, I’m going to run everything for you; people would look at me rightly like I was mad. I think to me unless you put out quite a few fires and unless you’ve brushed up against what can be the mess of community as much as the fabulousness of community, then you probably aren’t really in a position to call yourself an online community manager, perhaps you’re a theorist, perhaps you’re an online community designer, a strategist, all of these other things which are components of the role, but I really don’t think unless you’ve sat with a group of people that you could arguably call a community and experience them in all of their complexity, good bad and ugly, that you really have earned the right to call yourself a community manager. And as I said, I freely admit that that’s a slightly snobbish position (laughs), and I’m open to having my arm twisted on that, but I do, so consequently I rankle when people sort of say, yeah, you’re a marketer and community manager, I’m like really, really? Do you ever actually touch people; do you understand how that works? So, yeah, as I said, I think it’s great that more people are talking about it and are aware of it and that there is this I think quite innate sense that it underpins a lot of what we do, but that it is still profusely misunderstood (laughs).

Patrick: Matt, I kind of identify with your background because I think we’re similar, and correct me if I’m wrong here because I looked at your blog and I didn’t see anywhere where it said hire me or consultant, so I look at it like I made up my own projects, my own communities, I don’t consult or you can’t really hire me, I kind of just do this, and you with MetaFilter have done that as well where you’ve been in this field doing it for over 12 years now, and so you were around before pretty much every community platform that now exists, was in existence, I mean that’s literally what it was like back then; I mean I tried to launch a community shortly after you launched a site and I remember the options that were available, so for you to see from where it started, or at least from that point because it started obviously earlier, to now and how it’s sort of become this professional thing, what do you think about all this?

Matt: Well, so I’ve got like three moderators as employees and I just can’t, I mean I know there are commonalities among community managers, the last person we hired had experience going back like to sort of, what came before Wow, like sort of massive online multi-player game forums from like the late 90’s she had experience, but I always hire from within, and so I mean I would say even if you’ve run a community or something before I would be hesitant to hire anyone what wasn’t like a longtime member, that didn’t understand the culture, a true mature community has its own culture, its own sort of feel, you’ve got your regulars and what they can handle and what they’re used to, and having someone come in and shutting down threads or deleting stuff would just be a nightmare. So, I essentially the first two people and even the third person I heard people are doing a better job than I was, so there was just a point of like when I was doing it I did it by myself for the first six years and I had a full time job at the time and it was just hellish on my life, so every spare moment was spent on the community, and so if I pop in late night and people are going, “Ah, why isn’t this the way, why doesn’t the site work like this?” And I’d scrabble out a quick little reply like, “Ah, I just don’t have the time to program that, and if you guys could just relax, you don’t need that special,” and I noticed some other user would be like, “Well, I understand your concern but there’s only so much horsepower in the server and I don’t think that little edge case feature is really important.” And then I realized holy cow that person is way better than me at my own job and ended up hiring those people to help me run the site. So I would hope that real serious mature communities could hire from within at least so that the people that will be doing the community managing have a really good sense of the community.

Patrick: Yeah, I think that’s a good point, and you know it’s important to distinguish between communities that are well established like a MetaFilter was six years in versus communities that are just getting started or a company that wants to better engage with their community, obviously those are different circumstances; I manage a volunteer team, as Sarah does with SitePoint, and it’s always from within because those are the people who understand the community. And so with an established community like that you do have to be really careful, so I guess just to kind of finish up on that skills point, Sarah, I wanted to ask you what do you view as sort of the primary important skills that you need to have to do this?

Sarah: A thick skin would be the primary necessity. I think that the key things for me are the fact that you are very much a people manager, as you say, in my case it’s an unpaid staff of approximately 60 which is a big staff to manage, especially when they’re not being paid, and for that reason I spend a lot of my time acting as a mediator both between the staff members themselves and the staff and the community, and I guess what makes that difficult is that all of this stuff is done in a very public way, so you’re managing your brand as well; whatever happens in your community spins off in ways that you can’t necessarily control, you can’t control what other people Tweet about you, you can’t control what other people say on Facebook about you, you can’t control what other people say on other forums about you, or on your own forum, really, if you want to manage things the way I do, so I think, yeah, very much people management skills, a very thick skin, some good mediation skills and a high-level awareness of your brand and how you want your brand or your company to be seen in the outside world.

Patrick: Yeah, on the topic of thick skin, Sue on the Web on Twitter, Sue John, she runs a community, she’s based in Charlotte, North Carolina, she Tweeted yesterday I believe, “Today a troll called me a bitch and wants me to die of cancer,” (laughs) so there you have it.

Sarah: Yeah, that can happen.

Patrick: Yeah, it’s a funny thing. We had a panel at South by Southwest years ago, and I forgot everyone who was out there, I think one was Heather who used to be the community manager at Flickr, and they all had on the back of their tags at the front of the stage they had what people had called them, and they flipped it around instead of their names to this awful name that someone had called them once (laughs), so that was pretty funny. Venessa posed a topic of why forums still rock, and I guess the point is the importance of forums within the space right now, whatever you call that space, whether you call that social media or you call that online community, and kind of how they fit in. Venessa, do you want to talk a little bit about that?

Venessa: Yeah, absolutely, and I thought this one would be close to your heart as well, Patrick.

Patrick: Thank you.

Venessa: Just before we moved on though I just wanted to say something an acting teacher of mine told me once, and I think absolutely encapsulates the community manager skill-set quick nicely is, “Hide of a bear, soul of a poet.”

Patrick: Okay, yep. Written word is important when you’re managing a community.

Venessa: Yeah, being able to spin that around and be necessarily empathic while being called every name under the sun is quite a skill sometimes, so to Sarah’s point completely. So why forums still rock, I find this really interesting because you’ve got, as the Web’s churning on, you’ve got a whole bunch of older established communities and many of those are forums because that was the technology available at the time, or the dominant technology. And I just think there’s something about we all know probably from experience that the physical structure of a social architecture can inform the behaviors within that, so you know whether it’s more conducive to sort of short form status update style sort of exchanges, Twitter, whether it’s 140 characters is something else again, creates a certain, or suggests a certain way of exchange, and forums again something different with their capacity to kind of let you dive a bit deeper and delve into lengthy long-form discussion, or it’s an environment that is invited and certainly considered acceptable, obviously people can disrupt any of those forums anyway, so you can do whatever you’d like with these forums but I do think they are conducive to one type of communication or another. So what I love about forums in a Facebook world is that it’s a space where you can still dive deeper, it’s also something about the fact that I think it creates in a world where you know Facebook and Twitter sort of dominate the paradigm and everything is very telegraph style short form updates, it can get a little ambient and it’s kind of wonderful and transient and amazing and awesome as well, but I think that our social lives tend to scroll past us so fast online now that it actually makes sometimes forming a community or sort of creating a sticky, if you like, sense of community a little bit difficult, a little bit challenging, perhaps that’s more like real life in a sense, but what I love about forums is that it creates a real sense of social wallpaper, it’s actually kind of a sense of a physical space, a bounded place where you can if you like hang up posters and decorate and kind of put up your fate; it’s the pub environment if you like where you can return time and time again and just have a real sense of shared history in that space that is a little bit more accessible than in the wall culture and status update culture. So it’s one of the reasons I like it, I think it provides a type of social interaction online that is difficult to achieve in some of the more popular social networks. So, what does everybody else think, do you love forums still or do you think they’re becoming redundant?

Patrick: Well, what I found funny was when I joined in QUORA for while and I still check in once in a while, but when it first got going and I was there I was having fun answering questions and I found that I would answer like three, four questions in a row about ‘are forums dead’, it’s like is this what I’m here to do on QUORA, it’s like are forums dead, why are forums stuck in 1999, why haven’t forums innovated ever? It was like these are the kinds of questions I have to answer, do you not understand the website you’re on? I mean QUORA is essentially threaded text conversation, they have some cool features, and features that some forums have had for quite a while, I mean the ability to vote things up and down, obviously QUORA is more reliant on that then many other communities, but there’s all these features and essentially when you break it down it’s a forum, and I think when I look at the social web as a whole I just see a lot of forums and forum-like functionality and I don’t see it as a necessary categorization I would say. It’s almost like when I talk to people, some people anyway, they try to separate forums from everything else in the world, like forums can’t innovate, forums are this, and they’re always this, this, this. Facebook came up with ‘liking’, aren’t they awesome, and forums had a thank you link on their site for — I’ve seen forums with that for many, many, many, many years, long before there was a Facebook. So, to me it’s a lot of the same and it’s all very deeply related. I don’t know, Matt, what do you think?

Matt: Well, from purely pragmatic point of view I sort of consider what I do blog, or giant community blog, but forums have always sort of filled, I think they’ll be around forever filling a gap in; I use them personally as whatever the gap in knowledge is between a thing you bought and everyone who owns it and what the site or company offers which is usually slim to none, like forums are always there for everything, it’s mostly just regular end users sharing the knowledge they have about whatever it is they own and they like, and I own an iPhone but I also own an Android phone for testing, and it’s like I can’t use an Android phone for 30 seconds without having to look up some forum hack for what I want it to do. And like every car I’ve ever owned has a very specialized forum of like 200 people that know everything there is to know about the car and can tell you what’s possible and what’s not, or what noises they’re making or how to get more out of it. And so I see like forums just being absolutely useful, in terms of like innovation, you know, we’ve all seen like a UBB style forum and there hasn’t been a lot, I mean I’m saying this as sort of an outsider not in the game, but it seems like they’re a predictable format and I think that’s fine and that works. I have seen like what’s the whole stack overflow, stack exchange world, those two guys, Jeff and Joel, they’re doing kind of an amazing weird hybrid of like a very forum-y thing but then some Slashdot-y stuff that’s kind of like Dig, they’re doing something that’s kind of new and then making a million different topics for their forums, and that’s pretty interesting for new stuff, I’m always wary of ranking systems or numbers and judgments, we can talk about that later.

Patrick: Yeah, yeah. I mean I hate to use vocabulary words but I kind of view forums as a little ubiquitous where I once compared them to bread where it’s like we know bread, right, we know bread really well, we know what bread does, we know how it’s made, we know how its constructed, but you can do a lot with bread, you can add things to it as you’re baking it, you can add things to it after it’s out of the oven, you can do a million different things with bread, and I kind of see forums in a similar light where they’re adaptable, they’re very flexible, so there will always be that threaded text space conversation, I mean that’s not something that’s going to change, but the stuff that happens around them and like the things that you referenced with stack overflow, that’s where things change and that’s where we get ideas from, and social networks, and forums are in my view are social networks, and you have Facebook and whatnot, but I think those kinds of sites learn from forums a lot, and in a way forums or other online communities if you want to call it that are learning from what works well on Facebook or what works well on other social sites, so I think the space as a whole really learns from each other really well. And, Sarah, SitePoint Forums is one of the largest web development communities in the world, obviously I’ve been on there for a long time and have been a staff member, it’s very core to the SitePoint experience the SitePoint Forums, are they not?

Sarah: Absolutely. And if I was to say otherwise I would be, um, —

Patrick: In trouble (laughter). So in other words what an awful question, but I know SitePoint obviously has a presence on other sites like Facebook and Twitter and what have you, but the SitePoint Forums are sort of — it’s the home of the community, I mean it’s where — this is really the SitePoint community.

Sarah: Absolutely. And for me the forum, the beauty of a forum is the flexibility, I mean I work hard to maintain a Facebook presence and a Facebook community, but at the end of the day if somebody asks a web related question I tend to send them back to the forums because that’s where the data is, there’s no point in replicating that somewhere else. Some people don’t like forums but they’re in the minority, yeah, they’re the core of our community and I can’t see that changing, although there are people that do view forums as old-school, I mean to me the fact that nothing better or newer and shinier, maybe Q&A systems, but there really isn’t anything that in my view can do the same thing in a better way, there’s just the fact that forums still does well really.

Patrick: So let’s stay on that. We talked a little bit about Facebook and Twitter, and one of the things I wanted to discuss is integrating I guess what I would call structured communities, so I really mean forums when I say that, but hosted communities, communities that you yourself host whether you call it a forum or not. But integrating those structured communities that you have with Facebook and with Twitter and with other social sites that you don’t control, and when and how to do so in a way that doesn’t fundamentally change what your community is all about and, Sarah, with SitePoint I’d like to hear your thoughts on that.

Sarah: Yeah, I am finding a really interesting dynamic at the moment with Facebook and Twitter, not so much primarily with our SitePoint community but with some of the spinoff communities that we’ve developed in the last six months, the really interesting thing I’ve actually pulled the pin on our RubySource Facebook community this week because I’ve discovered that RubySource, Ruby Programmers just aren’t people that use Facebook from what I’ve discovered, and it seems to me that to continue to try and pursue that audience was just sort of making us lose some respect really; how long do you continue to do something that’s just not working. So while I’m finding that for our SitePoint, our general SitePoint audience, the Facebook uptake is huge, you’ve really got to make some tough decisions as to what it is that you do want to target. Twitter I think you’ll always have Twitter followers regardless of what it is that you’re discussing, but as you sort of mentioned before that’s really one-way communication. I guess I would say that Facebook and Twitter are vital for many communities, they are something that I definitely would put a lot of stock in for younger, newer, larger growing communities, but I do think that you only trial something for so long before you decide that if you’re not getting any uptake then stop wasting your time, and I guess that’s what I’ve discovered lately. I find it heartbreaking really, I love Facebook from a business perspective, I don’t really use it on a personal level very much at all, and I always found it to be a personal failing when I couldn’t engage this new community and to pull pin on that felt like something that I’d failed and was doing wrong and I’ve had to sit back and think, no, hell, it’s just there are people that don’t use it, communities that communicate in other ways, and what I need to do in those cases is find out what those other ways are and try and target those, yeah, horses for courses I guess.

Venessa: I think Sarah makes a really great point there which is that ubiquity is only so ubiquitous, to use the vocabulary word again, and it’s a great illustration of how, of what we would probably all know to be a golden rule, which is just because every man and his dog is in a particular channel doesn’t necessarily mean that you and your community should be, so certainly if everybody quote/unquote really is kind of in a space and looking at a space and innovating there then I think that you do have due diligence to see what that’s all about and see if there is a context to your community and your brand and what you’re trying to achieve, but I think that it’s okay if it’s not relevant, and like Sarah I think I’ve applied pressure to myself in that regard and certainly there is I think brand and organizational pressure and expectation that you have to have an absolutely kick-ass Facebook strategy to deploy in concert with all of these other things. And most of the time that’s absolutely true and it will enrich your entire community proposition, or can do so, but I think not necessarily, and I just think that we should be okay if it’s not the case. We had a similar experience at Lonely Planet in the years that I was there where we had a really long-term established community in the Thorn Tree Forums, they’ve been around 15 years, oldest travel community on the Web, a lot of older people involved, not really a Facebook crowd, I mean they looked at all the stuff and approached it curiously but with a degree of cynicism, but they had their space and they were getting their needs met in that space and they weren’t particularly interested in doing anything else, and that’s perfectly fine. However, the business, we knew we wanted to explore what we could achieve from a community perspective in these other channels, so we did so and we found that we built entirely separate discreet audiences in those channels, pretty substantial ones, and there was very little overlap; as Sarah said, we’re finding that core community just didn’t particularly use that other channel. Same here, we found that there was little overlap and we struggled for a while to figure out, thought we were doing something wrong and not seeing where the overlap was and that there was a failing there, and then ultimately recognized that what we needed to focus on was content and experience that was contextual to the channel, so contextual to Facebook, Twitter or forums or whatever else, but then underpinning that, that there was a consistency of brand experience that was part of a cohesive community experience so that if I did happen to use the forums, encounter the brand on Facebook or Twitter, bottom line I could expect similar things, I could expect a certain type of content, a certain type of customer service, a certain type of like-mindedness and people involved, and that was a reasonably consistent experience understanding that each channel is going to be a little bit different, if that makes sense. I think that integration’s really tricky, particularly if you are coming from a place where you’ve got a group of people that have really worked hard. As we mentioned at the beginning, there was a very specific community culture that has established and that’s if it’s authentic then that’s not something you can dismiss with a wave of the hand.

Patrick: So, talking about community culture, on your end, Matt, with MetaFilter, I go to and I don’t see a Facebook icon or a Twitter icon. And I Google for MetaFilter a Twitter feed or Facebook page and I’m not seeing a whole lot, so you kind of outline that it is a community blog, it is what it is, there’s a specific type of community that’s built here. Is this something that you’ve thought about and decided that it wasn’t — it didn’t really fit in with what MeFile was all about or is it just you’ve been too busy; what is your thought process there?

Matt: Well, I guess I start as a web designer and developer, and I think you’ll see this like, I forgot who was saying, that Ruby people would never touch Facebook and I would totally see that. When you can build your own things you realize, oh, Facebook’s just five crappy versions of things I already love, like it’s a lousy Flickr plus a terrible Delicious plus a lame Twitter plus like a basic forum and Friendster kind of thing or LinkedIn —

Patrick: When you put it that way (laughter). I mean we were talking earlier about South by Southwest, there it is, that’s your presentation, there it is, you’ll get votes, Facebook is a crappy version of five things I already love, the session!

Matt: Yeah. So especially when you’ve built it yourself you can build a better photo sharing app yourself if you wanted to, so why would you use a crappy thing where they take your copyrights and friends tag you. So, Twitter and Facebook, we use Twitter as, you know I worked with Evan Williams before on Blogger, who started Twitter, oh, we use Twitter as a notification service, it’s just for the site blog which is our best of the site kind of feed, and Facebook, I don’t know, some random member made a group but there’s no point, like we have a whole sub-site called MetaTalk which is just about talking about MetaFilter, and everyone has their usernames and stuff and they all know each other there, so we just do that and we coordinate meetups on the site and share photos of those meetups, and we sort of built everything we need and Facebook and Twitter kind of offer very little, especially Facebook.

Patrick: Yeah, it’s funny you mentioned that because something I’ve been saying a few times in different presentations as kind of a cute way to make a point, or I guess a stupid way depending on your perspective, is to say that I beat Facebook everyday. And my point is that I run a martial arts community and it’s one of the larger martial arts communities online, it’s a great community, I love it, I love what we have there, and I like to say, “If you want a martial arts community, if you want to talk with other martial artists you’re not going to go to Facebook.” Maybe there is a group there, maybe there is a page there and there are some good discussions going on, like no disrespect on that, I’m sure there’s some great community around the martial artists on Facebook, but if you’re actually looking for a community of martial artists you’re more likely to come to a niche community like mine to discuss that topic, so Facebook isn’t really a threat to that type of community in my view, but people want to try to build a community on Facebook which is great, but at the same time understand the limits I guess of that platform.

Matt: Yeah. Yeah, I mean Facebook makes total sense for like a friend runs a little hair salon in my little town, and like she goes on Facebook it’s awesome, and like that’s the place where she can post news and people in the area can see it show up as a local business or if they search for it they’ll see all this background info that they didn’t know, that works great, but for an existing community like, whatever, we already have our tools (laughter).

Patrick: Don’t even bother contacting them, Facebook; they don’t want you (laughter).

Venessa: I often find that using real world building and structural analogies can be quite helpful for this stuff as well, so one of my favorite examples with all due respect to the architects of Melbourne here in Australia, is that I often use Dockland, the Dockland’s precinct in Melbourne as an example of what not to do when building a community, hopefully they’ll prove me wrong over time, but it’s the classic they went in there and built bright, shiny, pretty structure, hyper-linear and said, great, we’ve built a series of villages, now come populate them, go forth and do wonderful things, and of course it’s still largely empty and very contrived as a social space, it doesn’t really work yet from an urban planning point of view, and I didn’t really talk to anybody that was actually around in the neighborhood and they didn’t really think about what they might need and they sort of ignored the fact that there was a bunch of established communities and villages that might be a bit less bright and shiny around that area. And so to your point, Matt, about community that already exists and is already around serving its needs and stopping to think about how maybe you can partner with existing community in kind of some innovating ways rather than sinking a ba-jillion dollars into giant shiny spaces.

Patrick: So I think for the last topic for this episode I want to talk about community projects, and what I mean is something that a community that you manage has done outside of the community, something they’ve put their collective knowledge or collective authority together to make something happen, and I’ll give you a couple of examples. SitePoint just released a new book that was written entirely by members of the SitePoint community called Thinking Web, Voices of the Community, and on the cover it says it’s by the SitePoint community, not any one person. Sarah, can you tell us a little bit about that process and how it came together?

Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. The idea was from a community member who came to me with the suggestion that we do something in order to harness all of the knowledge that we have because it just — there’s so much, so much skill and talent just lying dormant really, and by nature the people in the community are people that want to share their knowledge and help other people. So we decided being a publisher already that a book would be a great way to go, I was really excited about the project and I’ve got to be completely honest, it didn’t take off quite in the way that I had hoped, people as they always are with this kind of thing were super excited about the idea and everybody wanted to be part of it, and when we launched the introduction of the idea we had hundreds of people that put their hand up for it, but then when push came to shove and I started giving people deadlines they all started disappearing and suddenly their emails apparently didn’t work anymore (laughter), they changed their Twitter handles, not quite, but yeah, it became a real exercise in facing people up and organizing things which wasn’t really what I had hoped, the onus really fell back on me; I had hoped that as well as being a project, a book that would be written by the community for the community, it would also be managed by the community for the community, but, no, it was managed by the community manager for the community. It’s cool, it was fun, I’m really proud of what we’ve come up with, it’s not what I had envisaged that it would be when we started, I had envisaged that we would have a real step-by-step to step somebody through the process of web development from designing your site through to coding, what we actually got was a smaller number of really specialized articles by people that know the topics very, very well, it doesn’t necessarily come together as a cohesive step-by-step type book that I’d hoped, but it’s certainly an awesome read. And what I do like about it is aside from the fact that it was collaborative and has given people that wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to get published that opportunity, it also means that regardless of who you are or what your area of expertise is there is definitely going to be something in this book that you haven’t read before. So it’s been exciting and it’s really cool to see people come together and create something new that they haven’t done before, so, yeah, while it’s not exactly what I had hoped the project, or why the project didn’t run exactly as I’d hoped that it would, we certainly have an end product that I couldn’t more proud of.

Patrick: Just as a quick follow-up to that, the book is available as an e-book for free download, was that something that was decided early on; was it ever thought of as possibly being a product or a book that could be sold or was that just dismissed early on as something that wouldn’t work?

Sarah: I was adamant that that wasn’t going to be what this was about. We decided early on that if people wanted a printed version of the book that we would organize some sort of a print on demand option. As it turned out, there hasn’t been enough of a demand even for that for us to do something formal, so I’ve done some sort of personal research into that which I’m sharing with people if they want it but otherwise, no, it was always intended to be a free download for two reasons, one of them obviously is the legal ramifications of copyright and all of that sort of thing, it was going to get really complicated, aside from the fact that there would have been monetization required for marketing and that sort of thing, we would have had to figure out how we were going to pay the people that took part in it, or not necessarily pay but just all of the implications of that. So the fact that we didn’t know how it was going to end up as well to decide at the beginning that it was going to be something that we were going to sell would have put a whole lot of extra pressure not just on me and the team of people that helped me to organize it but just on the project on the whole, that’s why it was no pressure, it was a fun project, it was something that anybody could take part in. We had strict editing process and we did cut probably 50% of the articles that were originally put forth for publish, but short answer to your question that was never going to be our intention, no.

Patrick: And, Matt, as old as MetaFilter is I’m sure you have some fun stories, right?

Matt: Yeah, yeah. Having a section of the site dedicated to talking about the site I originally designed that just to keep people from jabbering about like fonts that they didn’t like in the middle of a thread about some news event, and just being like shut up, don’t do that; having a place dedicated has been great because then people can talk openly about lots of things. So, we’ve had whole bunches of things, a lot of things spring out of Ask MetaFilter which is like Q&A forum where you never know what, it’s a community of about 10 to 12,000 people, you just never know what people’s backgrounds are, so we’ve had someone, a sort of famous story from the site is someone asking if they could figure out where their grandfather lived during WWII in Europe before the Nazis came and he bailed to America just in time, but he wanted to visit where he lived and in like eight minutes someone who worked at the Holocaust Museum basically had phone books from Austria from that year before the war started and could look up, and in 24 hours basically told him where to go, the exact building, and actually furnished all the documents for his immigration they had in files in Washington DC, it was kind of amazing. And we’ve had like our 10th anniversary we coordinated a 68 party, 67 meetups around the world on all seven continents, I sort of like PayPal’ed every organizer $50 to $100 bucks depending on how many people showed up for a bar tab, and we actually got someone in Antarctica that read the site and they sort of threw a party in Antarctica right at the South Pole and we got a cool picture of them at the South Pole, that was fun. Just last weekend there was this weird story of someone just saying that their grandmother had gone missing and what are some techniques to help track her down, and she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, I think early-onset, and was basically lost overnight in San Francisco, and a member that was just well trained in that sort of stuff I think he was in L.A. and he went up to San Francisco and basically coordinated the family and broke them off into search groups and reported to all the local community like the local media, the newspapers, just did everything by the book like the perfect rescue mission, and in something like four or five hours they found her just by coordinating all these people that had been trying to find her for the last 24 hours. So there’s lots of ways for the community to come together and do good things and work towards some cool goals.

Patrick: That is amazingly wonderful. That’s a great story I have to say, that’s awesome.

Sarah: I think you often think of communities coming together in times of crisis like that, I know that’s my experience too, like they can do wonderful things just out of goodwill and on the lark, but when things are going wrong you can see some pretty extraordinary things happen.

Matt: Yeah, like we launched, I mean the entire idea of a Meetup came out in early 2002 when there was an earthquake in Seattle like in downtown, and everyone on the site was going, like 40 or 50 members in Seattle were just going, “Hey, my wall just came down, ah, I’m shaking,” like everyone was talking and then we realized, oh, my God, I didn’t know 30, 40 people lived in the same city, let’s go meet at a bar Friday night. And that started like the whole idea of meetups and now we have over 300 a year, like pretty much 15, 20 every weekend, somewhere around the world there’s going to be a Meetup of MetaFilter members, it’s sort of become this big part of the site and it just all came from an earthquake and people coming together.

Patrick: Wow. So before we close this episode off, because we’re coming up on an hour, I wanted to ask you Venessa about Swarm Sydney, it’s an upcoming conference for people in the community profession, right?

Venessa: It is indeed, yeah. So this is something I’m co-organizing with Alison Milchak who is the managing director of Quip, which is an Australian community management company. She and I actually founded the Australian Community Round Table a few years ago because we were all sort of, um, we knew there were lots of practitioners in the region of course, and we were all kind of a bit exhausted of seeing all the really exciting conferences and things happening on the other side of the world and not having the money to attend them all, of course wanting to. And they’re wonderful obviously, and we learn a lot from them, but we thought we’d like something in our own backyard because we are a bit far away, so yeah, so we had these series of roundtables and very quickly it became apparent that while they were very helpful there was the appetite for something a little bit bigger, there was never enough time of course to cover all the things everybody wanted to cover, there was always an appetite to bring more people in and make it a bit more open for people from other disciplines as well. So we’ve been organizing this conference, it’s the first Australasian kind of national level community management conference, we think it’s going to be on in November in Sydney, we’ve got lots of domestic community managers involved, myself is one of them, but we’ve got lots of folks from different communities, folks from over at Jama are going to talk a bit about enterprise, community from an internal perspective, we’ve got Jonathan Hutchinson from the ABC Extreme Broadcasting Corporations Pool, User Generated Content Community to come and talk about I guess the creative commons as a community and how that works and some of the complexities involved in managing that, some of our lawyer friends come along and talk about all of the legal stuff we all need to be aware of and deal with in our day-to-day, so information law and user generated content and all of these wonderful things, and the politics of ownership and copyright, and we’re going to have some high-profile international guests as well that we’re very excited about. So, yeah, we’re really thrilled, it’s just the beginnings of an event, it’s definitely a work in progress, but we’re really excited, we really want it to be an event of and for the community and for community managers, and we’re hoping that not just community managers but people that are really interested in what the day-to-day life of that world is about will be able to get a lot of value out of it, it’s definitely meant to be deliberately quite different to sort of all the social marketing conferences around the track some, which you know community management sometimes comes up in those as a point of discussion but it’s never really afforded a chance for a deep dive conversation about all of the mechanics of it, it’s not the forum for it. So, yeah, we want to be able to talk about and have an entire panel about trolls, have an entire panel about how to deal with all those wonderful names that you get called, and a few other interesting things like gender and community management, we see some interesting things happening there and all that sort of stuff. So, yeah, we’re really, really excited and we hope it becomes something cool and of value to the community.

Patrick: Excellent, and the website for that is and my blog is A Whole Lot of Nothing;, I guess just Google my last name, H-A-U-G-H-E-Y, and you’ll find me and everything I do.

Patrick: Right. And what’s your username on Twitter?

Matt: @mathowie, it’s just my name phonetically spelled, mathowie.

Patrick: Sarah, where can we people find you if they don’t already know.

Sarah: very easy that one, and yeah, on Twitter @Sitepointdotcom or @ilovethehawk.

Patrick: That confusing brand (laughter). And Venessa?

Venessa: You can find me at, I’m lead community manager there, that’s my day job, and on Twitter @venessapaech just to be completely annoying (laughter). It’s a dyslexic peach if that helps, and Venessa with an E.

Patrick: Excellent. And I am Patrick O’Keefe of the iFroggy Network. You can find me on Twitter @ifroggy, my usual co-hosts are Brad Williams, Louis Simoneau and Stephan Segraves; you can follow them @williamsba, @rssaddict and @ssegraves. You can follow SitePoint @sitepointdotcom, visit us at to leave comments on this show and to subscribe to receive every show automatically. Email with your questions for us, we’d love to read them out on the show and give you our advice. The SitePoint Podcast is produced by Karn Broad. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you again soon!

Theme music by Mike Mella.

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Patrick O'KeefePatrick O'Keefe
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Patrick O’Keefe is an online community, product, and program leader, with more than 20 years of experience building safe, inclusive platforms and services that drive action, grow revenue, and increase retention. He previously contributed to various SitePoint books, served as a Mentor and Advisor on the SitePoint Forums, and co-hosted the SitePoint Podcast.

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