I have been working in “community work” for over two decades, mostly as a volunteer, rarely as a professional. I have moderated bulletin boards, managed Open Source projects, am active in a sports foundation and was part in creating multiple events. Most of that has been in the context of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), but I also managed music communities for a while. My current main project is the Rust project, so I use it as an example a lot. I would go as far as saying that following and looking at world-spanning networks is an interest of mine and that I have a huge privilege of being both in networks and positions where I can follow that interest. This means that I have formed some opinions which I frequently refer to, but would like to write down from time to time.
This page serves as a frequently expanded document of rough thoughts I have on social and community subjects. Each subsection stands for itself. I will add, remove, edit things constantly.
For what it’s worth: depending on your angle, I don’t expect any of this to be new or innovative. A lot of these things are researched. Many of them are also part of management classics.
It’s kind of a FGO: Frequently Given Opinions.
There’s no “Rust Community”. There’s also no “Metal Community” or “Ruby Community”. You need to speak at least in plurals. “The Berlin Rust Community”? Maybe. The “European Rust Community”? Uff, tall order already. The model of a community as “one thing” leads to a number of common mistakes.
“The community” creates an image of uniformity that does not exist. This quickly leads to individuals not feeling represented or feeling ignored. It is miles away from any reality and therefore impractical. Effective interaction with community requires effort to understand them, everything else will lead to failures of communication. It is a question of a bare minimum of respect, especially when talking about communities you have no connection to.
Whenever you talk about communites, ask yourself “which one exactly?”. Otherwise, I prefer talking about “space” or “ecosystem”.
Unless you have a very definable community (like a bulletin board) at hand, I believe that “Community management” is a problematic model. Especially in a professional context.
For two reasons:
I believe this is the one thing that DevRel got right: you can manage relationships to communities. Which people you talk to. Which ones to boost. Which ones to maybe hire.
This isn’t a random observation: I’ve seen whole environments being killed by e.g. a vendor having strong rules about what “community” is allowed to happen and which not. Which Meetups were allowed to be presented on their blog and which ones not. Partnership contracts that gave you the right to run “community events”.
At the same time, people taking the stance that they manage a (global) community often end up at the receiving end of a firehose of budget and decisions requests. Unsurprisingly, because that’s what they communicated.
It is far more effective to trust and observe and to be flexible about assisting when asked for.
The final problem is that, in a business environment, you might end up reading a management book to improve your skills. Educate yourself in diplomacy and politics instead.
Companies or other organisations talking consistently about “their community” is a flag. And highly likely a red one.
This means that they only see community by their definition. The organisation declares who’s in or out. They make themselves the only important party in this space.
Rough check: if you can replace “our community” by “our clients” or “our users” and no aspect is lost, you are probably seeing this. Especially in press releases.
Understanding this is crucial if you want to run a community-oriented company: you are a part in something, but peoples reasons to flock around you are highly individual. Speak to them more directly, this will help you and recognises them better.
From any individuals perspective, their view of any group of people is most likely “the network of contacts and backchannels”. This can already be seen in a circle of maybe 10 close friends: some are still closer and news travels faster.
Scaling this up to interacting with clusters of thousands of people, missing groups and drifts of 10 or 100 individuals is just normal.
That’s not a problem, but full overview is impossible.
Being aware of this help communicating: make yourself accessible over trying to pull in all the news. Make sure that you can remain reactive to things suddenly happening. I’m not only talking about negative things here. Not being able and ready to react on, support and boost positive things is also huge issue.
Especially in a growing space like the whole Rust environment, this means constant re-tuning and pruning of your information flow and approaches.
Finally, actively turning your eye towards the “outside” helps: “Who’s not here, and why?” is a question I invented to think about the program of my first conference, eurucamp. It challenges your status quo.
This is a subject with a ton of depth, but I only want to give a rough glance. It’s also one where you should read a ton of material if you want to actively go into detecting and managing what is described below.
“There’s no abuse in the X community” is a dangerous statement. It exists, you haven’t been told yet. Even more so, harm is often inflicted due to people ending up in bad feedback loops, e.g. when working together in a team, but can’t find good methods of working together. Some of it is fixable, some not. Treating it as a fact of life that you can’t ignore (although we can work towards a better world!), allows you to prepare your reaction the moment you become aware: acknowledging that all of the above exists gets you past the stage of denial.
My experience of organisations and groups that have understood this is that they are rarely part of open scandals and take no enduring image damage: they often take a direct stance in naming issues they found and are an environment where consequences are taken to detect a repeat early. They usually own issues as happening in their space, responsibly. Safety is also a function of what happens when it isn’t there.
To take a more positive approach, I believe that especially our stance on harm needs some sublety. My experience of running abuse handling on over 100 meetups and 15 conferences is: if harm was unintentional and both sides ready for an apology, it is not uncommon that you become part of moderating the apology and the first step of healing. The experience to apologising to a (maybe unknown) person is also daunting to many, helping a (sincere!) apology to be expressed well is good for all sides. I think that’s a nice thing, come prepared.
Taking a positive stance on the work of abuse handling has helped me a lot.top