I am not a community manager, as you may understand it, and that is okay.
My job is to lay out the plans for, build, and improve virtual spaces that people want to thrive in. Then I hand it off to a more relational community manager in the brand community that hired me, and I help them to foster and measure it.
I'm a Community Architect,
and this is how I got here.
It took me a long time to find this role.
Looking back, I realize exactly how far I have come in my community career. I’ve worked hard to find the areas where I am most useful in this industry.
Ironically, it has taken me over 5 years to realize that I do not want to engage with my communities as a typical manager would. My place is not at the helm of some large community, or on a Facebook page engaging with 6-figure marketing gurus.
I want to engage with my communities as a specialist stakeholder. I want to be an analyst, an expert, and an anthropologist. I want to be a reformer, and a teacher for the virtual worlds I have the privilege to be a part of.
The daily work of encouraging conversation doesn’t necessarily energize me. What does energize me is learning the best ways to foster self-disclosure and then teaching community stakeholders to do that well.
So, as a veteran Community Architect, I’d like to save some newcomers who haven’t found their place in this industry a little time—and perhaps some hard-earned lessons–finding what makes your heart sing.
There are so many different ways to contribute to the health of online communities, and do so lucratively. The roles I’ve held in Community didn’t ever feel particularly fulfilling to me on their own, but in combination, what I have learned from these various community roles has given me a rich life.
Below, I’ll answer 3 career questions I hope will guide you to your place;
What's The most rewarding, and what's the most frustrating about Community work?
At the beginning of my career as a community manager, I thought my job was to build a space that people felt comfortable in and then cater to their needs.
I used a cohesive brand identity as walls to herd the cats, and then direct them toward shared purpose as a community. This is arguably true, and achieving this balance is intensely rewarding. Any Community Manager who successfully creates group cohesiveness out of sheer force of effort, will have built both a place where individual people are empowered, and a collective community greater than the sum of its parts.
That sounds incredible. It’s the holy grail of community management.
In reality though, I’ve discovered that a cohesive community identity is more of a desired end result and that community identity is better defined by the community members themselves. It’s not for the community manager to design community culture, but to enable the magnetism that forms it.
It’s in this reality that I see immense frustration, and also reward.
It’s frustrating that community managers are expected to perform based on actions they have no control over; the community’s overall growth, or the volume of questions asked, or the ratio of tickets deflected. Whether users feel comfortable enough to share their story of cancer, or car theft (true stories), or whether they are engaged enough to run their own events.
The blessing of realizing you have no control over this, is that a community manager should be responsible for measuring 2 actions that they take very well: setting precedent, and building momentum.
The brand identity acts as a strong core nucleus. It sets the precedent for action, and then attracts users. As it does, the precedent for the community (goals, values, activities, and other non-tangible aspects of culture) build momentum until the nucleus need not act for a community to grow.
This community approach off-loads the limits of a community to the people. Building a defined is a cultural phenomenon. A true community is a culture. Not an organization defining belonging via lock-gated membership models.
Learning this lesson was not rewarding at all. Coming to terms with how little power I have in this nebulous process was infuriating, but accepting that fact made my voice stronger. Saying “no” to internal stakeholder pressures and using a cohesive, logical narrative was quite satisfying.
What critical information did I need to learn in my career to get here?
Before entering the workforce as a full stack marketer with a focus on community, I got a rather specialty degree in Communication from CSU. I shared my path across 5 social-science departments and 1 course in particular shared my enthusiasm for mixing journalism, communication, psychology, sociology, and government.
This class is also the one I use the most in my career today, because it gave me the most useful framework for understanding community that I have yet come across: The Wicked Problems Mindset.
There are 2 categories of problems. First, there are plain problems. They are not necessarily easy or simple, but if you put enough experts in a room for a dedicated amount of time, they will generate some sort of answer. And then there are Wicked problems. These problems don’t have an answer because they’re caused by inherently unsolvable things: opinions, points of view, value systems, tough choices, and ideologies.
The Center for Public Deliberation, where I became a facilitator and led conversations around wicked tough problems, taught me how to manage those values across differences. I learned to view all virtual community issues as complex, but also how to solve them efficiently. I learned to break down the value differences underlying contention. Suddenly public discourse ceased to look like gridlock and became a fascinating wellspring of information.
With the Wicked Problems mindset, I could spend a little time picking apart a statement that I would otherwise mute and boot a member for, and I could rephrase it until it generated powerful user pain points. The Wicked Problems mindset has all, but spoon-fed me critical community sentiment– improvements, ideas, and feature requests—directly from the mouths of stakeholders.
The Wicked Problems mindset is the very reason behind the community mantra, “Don’t withdraw. Engage.” Knowing how to use this skill for community management is paramount to your success in the field.
What advice would I share to spare some headaches on the 2nd go around?
I’m going to answer this with key mantras I put at the core of my work:
1. Set Precedents, and then build momentum.
Every community management role boils down to this. How you go about setting precedents for something, and building momentum to normalize it will define your place and role in Community. Every single community role does this somehow. Your favorite way to do it, will guide you to your place.
2. Plan big, then progress small
Typically, most people have 2 philosophies for plans. You’re either
- By the book until the moment you have to throw it out the window at the slightest change,
- Or you refuse to make a plan, citing the first problem, and inevitably get derailed because you were too short-sighted to see critical issues.
Both are bad. You simply don’t know what you don’t know, but without a well constructed assumption of how things should have worked, you can’t leverage small mistakes to forge better plans.
So, plan big, and progress small. Make a hypothesis, benchmark, and predict things. Then use small individual mistakes to inform a better, stronger, more robust plan. Be nimble and agile, but note why you change what you do.
3. First, get good, then get better.
You will need to rebuild things. A lot. That’s a good thing. That’s what progressing small means. If you don’t do the good thing you’ve failed to get anywhere. So make a plan that’s good enough. Take 1 step, break it, and come back with a better go. Don’t get obsessed with perfection and metrics.
4. Exclusivity breeds inclusivity. Don’t expand. Diversify
This one comes from my days as a queer support group manager.
I would look at our transgender groups and see a big disparity. There were maybe 4 trans-masculine people and 20 trans-feminine people.
So I had to find more masculine people to foster the group and make us more inclusive right? Wrong.
Trans-masculine experiences are different, and putting them together made the group less useful for both parties. Instead, recognizing that your user’s differences specific nodes of belonging, made better groups.
Instead of expanding to fit trans-masculine people, splitting them into their own group attracted more than a general group ever could.
Exclusivity bred better purpose and diversified our services without any real marketing effort. So don’t expand our product. Diversify it.
Click here to read all my takeaways from queer community building.
5. To become a giant, give someone else your shoulder.
I have spent a LONG time trying to become an influencer.
I have had so much to say and a burning desire to say it. I used to look for a stage for the longest time. The thing is everything I want to say has come from somewhere, and only I have put my pieces together.
I’ve combined with the voices of people I looked up to and they are reaping the rewards of that legacy by letting me stand on their shoulders. This is a core element of community and social currency – empowering others will reward you, and social power is gained by giving it away.
So there it is.
I hope that this has helped you in some way, and I also know that nebulous advice often needs a conversation to hit home, so I’m happy to speak with you!
I’ve built an entire Discord Community to do just that! Please feel free to join us and ask about this blog in the #advice channel of the group!
Here’s the link: https://scms.me/discord