Wikipedia says that, “The origins of the term (online) community manager take their root in the computer games industry with the advent of MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games) back in 1995.” The problem is, that history doesn’t take into consideration the other names by which community managers operated under in the decades previous to online gaming. Even before Al Gore “fathered the internet” and all the writing style guides said that internet should be spelled with a capital “I,” there have been online communities. And, there have been people managing and moderating those communities. (On a side note, the Chicago Manual of Style recently announced that Internet will be lowercase.)
In the days of old, before high speed connections and wifi, back in the dark ages when connecting to the baby internet consisted of tying up the phone line with the screeching of a 2400 baud modem, the role of the community manager was called a Sysop. His (or her) job was to focus on the community and the hardware. A Sysop would only monitor the bulletin boards’ (BBS) discussion forum, perform all of the customer service actions that modern community managers perform, and they were responsible for keeping the machine up and running. As servers grew in complexity & bloatware of an operating system, this job was renamed System Administrator (sysadmin), but the role of monitoring what was going-on inside the growing community that the server ran was left to someone else. This is the birth of the community manager (CM). An online community manager wears many hats, including but not limited to: engagement driver, referee, coach, advocate, customer service representative, cat herder, content producer, analyst, strategist, and communicator. All of these roles overlap and complement each other, but rarely involve migrating to a new piece of hardware or upgrading memory.
The responsibilities of a community manager parallel those of a project manager. For example, CMs define the scope, ideal outcomes, goals, and boundaries of their community. They manage the tools of the community, and also marshal internal (read: business) resources. Many online communities are business centric. Without a business, an online community wouldn’t exist, but this post isn’t about the business side. This is about the interpersonal responsibilities of a community manager. In a previous post, I said, “community managers are ultimately responsible for the health of their community.” Business plans, metrics, and strategies can’t sustain a community, they give the community a structure.
According to Sprout Social, a CM “create[s] their own social persona and actively go out within the online community to connect with potential customers and advocate accordingly.” It’s a good description of how a CM behaves, but I don’t like the fact that the people are referred to as customers. Gaining potential customers is part of the point of the community, but the members of the community aren’t there to get new customers for the company. The members are there for the experience, support, and camaraderie that go along with being in a community. In and of itself, the community isn’t about getting new customers, it is about the people that are already there, and finding new people to be a contributing part of the community. While communities aren’t free, meaningful connections aren’t based solely on economics; they are about relationships. Just as in “real” life, a community is all about the people who exist within it.
Last year, I created a meme based on a quote by CS Lewis to fit my vision of an online community. I said that “community begins when one person shares and another says, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…” From that starting point, a community manager strives to strengthen that sense of connection into an exchange of ideas, and relationships between people.
In a way, it helps to view an online community as a living, breathing entity with a life of its own. The CM is responsible for making sure that there is a structure to maintain the community. They also need to create a safe place so that members feel safe to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, ask questions to learn about their members, and use that knowledge to bring their members together. The communication and flow of ideas among the community members are the glue of the community. The community manager is not the glue that holds an online community together, they are the one that applies the glue.
The next time you’re on a site where conversations between people are taking place, be aware that there is likely a community manager there. It is their job to answer questions, give little nudges here and there, encourage positive behavior, and whatever else needs to be done make the community thrive. Take a moment to appreciate the fact that you’ll never see everything a CM does to make their little corner of the internet into a community but know that they are there.
In future posts, I plan to give more information about community managers. Please follow me so you can find out more. I welcome connections on both LinkedIn and Twitter.