On karate and communities: why expertise only goes so far
There’s a terrific post over at the Managing Communities blog by KarateForums.com founder Patrick O’Keefe, discussing what it’s like to manage an online community when you’re not an expert on the topic in question. O’Keefe — also the founder of the Managing Communities blog itself and several other forums — is not a martial artist but has still managed to run such a specialist community for over a decade.
According to him:
“How successful you can be, as a forum administrator and community manager, is rarely tied directly to how much of the topic you know or understand … the difference between participating in a community and managing one is that, when you participate, all you do is talk about the topic that you enjoy. When you manage, a very small portion of what you do in your role as administrator is talking about the topic.”
The word “manage” is very important in this context — making sure everything runs smoothly is often the most difficult and time consuming part of starting and maintaining an online community.
During my earlier projects, I found that every hour I spent writing content was an hour I wasn’t spending moderating posts, fielding freelance pitches, cross-promoting on various blogs, engaging with Twitter, tweaking functionality, selling ad space or any trillion other things. While there is some disconnect between a community built around, for instance, a particular blog’s comment section and a discussion board such as KarateForums — particularly because the former inherently revolves around content provided by the site’s senior management and the latter type of site is inherently dependent upon user-generated content — the point is especially meaningful when considered in the context of user-generated news sites: the more involvement the user base of a community has in the overall creation of content, the more the site’s managerial workload veers towards moderation and curation — and away from content creation itself.
Additionally, O’Keefe goes so far as to argue that lacking knowledge about the topic in question can even be helpful in avoiding criticism surrounding bias. How can one be biased about a topic when one doesn’t come anywhere near understanding its intricacies, and is merely there to facilitate discussion? This doesn’t mean, however, that you should have no interest in your chosen topic and be merely a moderation drone that cleans out spam and banhammers trolls while the rest of the community goes about its daily interactions — indeed, doing so is a great way to become rather bored and overworked really quickly.
There are four points O’Keefe ends on that spell out why his involvement with KarateForums has been successful, despite his lack of specialist knowledge:
- He enjoys online communities and all that comes with them, whether that be moderating them, upgrading them, promoting them or being a part of them.
I think it goes without saying that if you’ve never been consumed by a particular type of community before — whether that be a discussion board, a blog, a social networking site, a chat room or an anonymous image board — you probably shouldn’t try to start such a community until you have. While it’s great to take a topic that really interests you and jump straight into doing something online with it because you’re passionate and others haven’t yet — and trust me, I have — remember that so much of community management is, in fact, management, and you might quickly be overwhelmed with the amount of trivial and not-so-fun work that it entails.
- He surrounds himself with people knowledgeable about the topics being discussed.
In this case, it’s seasoned martial artists who can provide the expert insight O’Keefe himself lacks. Instead of approaching it like somebody who knows the right answer and wants to demonstrate this knowledge, he can approach the conversation as somebody who simply wants to listen. Such a moderator can then look to the members of the community who have proven they care and are knowledgeable for guidance.
- He believes in and is passionate about his community.
It’s one thing to be passionate about karate; indeed, there are people the world over who are. What makes O’Keefe’s involvement meaningful is that he’s passionate about Karate Forums. Your community is not simply a collection of technologies, topics, ideas and people — your community is a community, a complex organism with many parts all working in unison. That alone should excite you.
- He’s interested in the topics presented by his community.
But that all said, it’s also important to be interested in the content your users create. The Internet is very much a place where honesty and sincerity are valued quite highly — if you simply don’t care and are only starting a community as some kind of intellectual exercise or to sell Google ads or whatever, your users will quickly sense that and likely move elsewhere.
While the idea of jumping into an area you’re not particularly knowledgeable about may be somewhat daunting, it’s important to realize your role is less about being the ultimate expert and more about providing a coherent, informative and hassle-free experience for your visitors. Doing so will not only ensure your members keep returning, but also serve to attract the actual experts who will set your community apart from the rest.