On “giving a shit” leadership in online communities

I had been involved with Stack Exchange (primarily WordPress Development, ex–Answers) for a while now — as user and community–elected moderator. In many regards they have become a stick which I measure and compare other online communities against.

This is often mistaken for protecting/promoting my turf kind of a thing. More so since that is often comparison against mainline WordPress project and rarely positive for it. Personally I see it as trying to convey how remarkably stable and healthy Stack Exchange system of communities is, out of all I had seen, participated in, and moderated over years online. How it sets an example worth paying attention to.

Why? In a nutshell — they give a shit. But what does that mean?

Vision

There is a core idea in foundation of any online community. I would say in broad terms the typical two are social interaction and knowledge collection, often a mix of both.

It can sound simple and funny (how about “Lolcats n Funny Pictures” for example), yet it is anything but unimportant.

The mission statement (even when it is called something much less serious than that) is the baseline social request for participants from community. It defines which people will it attract — those who can relate to it and have an interest in it. It also defines how will those people evaluate a community they have joined and its direction over time.

The best mission statements are first thing you see and those you can feel involved in.

The worst are those hidden somewhere in the corner and not particularly specific about what this community is actually here to accomplish.

The most high–level and general expression of giving a shit in an online community is how well it wields its mission statement and carries it forward.

Rules

The strategic statements are the inspiration, but hardly a thorough manual for day to day operation of a community.

After you have goals and people — rules appear to help them move each other forward.

Rules are small print under the big strategic goals, they describe how will community relationship work with and for its members. What is acceptable and what is not. What will be celebrated and what condemned.

The one critical and typical mistake is not giving a shit about rules. Most often it exhibits as one of the two:

  • rules are unnecessary — it will somehow work out
  • rules are only for you — do as I say, not as I do

The first case is merely deadly risky. For longer running communities (those few that manage to get to that point) it often exhibits as cultural acceptance of community failing its members in “small” ways. Yes, you might have been treated horribly there, bad luck, eh, nothing to be done.

The second case is guaranteed poison gulping. When rules are enforced (or worse — written in first place) in hypocritical fashion, it digs community into a hole which it never ever will recover from in eyes of many (now fleeting) and potential members.

In day to day operation giving a shit is a commitment to create, adjust, and uphold rules to help community thrive.

Power

Once you have people and rules, the practical reality is that some of those people have to participate in enforcing those rules. Moderators are rebar, holding community together, focused, and productive. Often they are faulty and rusty rebar, that ends up tearing community into pieces.

The selection and operation principles of moderators tend to suffer from similar issues as rules. Lack of perceived importance. Lack of fairness.

The negative outcomes are similar too, only much stronger and much more negative.

It is enormous challenge to build processes of moderator selection. It is just as complicated to empower community (not just moderator members of it) to deal with challenges, which require moderation. They are rarely the pleasant part of community participation.

In moderating your community giving a shit is a commitment to wisely delegate the power to people and holding them accountable for it.

Trust

And this all is what I put into somewhat crude definition of leading online community by giving a shit.

It is having the will to lead your community towards shared goals with grace, transparency, and integrity. To trust people and earn their trust by having their back. Always.

2 Comments

  • Great read. It’s too bad there’s only few people ready to give time and share knowledge. Leadership starts with involvement.

    Even with WPSE, when it’s about grabbing some tips everybody’s there but when it’s about participating (e.g elections) you don’t see a lot of people coming around.

    Building communities is very difficult, I can’t even imagine what WPSE would have become without moderation! I like the idea of “accountable” and “trust” but it’s not so easy to implement in reality.

    • Building communities is very difficult, I can’t even imagine what WPSE would have become without moderation!

      Believe me (as WPSE moderator) it works precisely because it doesn’t rely on moderators to do everything (and doesn’t set them up for fast trip to political squabbles). :)

      SE mods are highly de–powerized and accountable, that (and elections) selects for folks that are moderating and not going on power trips.

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