Community management

What makes for a good community? Layout? Competitions? Moderation? Social sharing features?

Having done this line of work for over ten years (a career I find myself in entirely by accident), I’d say there is only one relevant answer: People. Or more specifically, interesting people – ‘Characters’, if you will. It’s easy enough to say, but I think it holds true: – the strength of a community is only as strong as the personalities that populate it.

Twitter is a prime example of a social community where interesting characters dominate, and are rewarded by followers. You could argue that one of the key hooks of Twitter over Facebook (at least several years ago) was the idea of being able to ‘follow’ and to a lesser extent ‘interact’ with public personalities.  Whether they have anything relevant to say, is another matter; but from my experience, interesting people are attractive and draw followers wherever they go.

For example, several years ago, when I was administrating the Alan Wake forums, I remember a particularly charismatic individual who arrived complete with her own set of followers.  I got the impression that she moved around the internet like a celestial body, collecting them as she travelled from forum to forum.  At the time I joked that these people orbited around her like moons, caught in the sheer gravitational force of her personality.  Where she went, they followed, and when she departed, so did they.  Thinking about it though, I believe the solar system analogy is a good one, as it stresses the fact that when someone leaves, moves position, or when someone else enters the community, it affects the people around them.

Most importantly, interesting characters encourage other people to participate in your community and become active members themselves.  Obtuse, obnoxious characters are the opposite — they repel and drive people away (and this includes staff/management — there’s nothing more toxic to a social community than an obnoxious person with supreme power).  So, when managing a community, my approach has always been to identify the dominant characters that inhabit it, to understand why they chose to spend their time there, and to facilitate their needs wherever reasonable.

With this in mind, you have to be sensitive to when they’re unhappy and considering leaving, because their influence will affect the entire system.   Some people are very vocal when they’re unhappy — anger and frustration are very clear symptoms that their expectations are not being met in some way.  Anger, in particular, can be seen as direct emotional response to not getting what you want; and therefore it’s good to get into the practise of finding out exactly what people want.  You can learn a great deal by starting with yourself — whenever I get pissed off and caught in the heat of an argument (and working for Last.fm, this happens more frequently than I’d prefer) I confront myself with the following:  You are angry because you’re not getting what you want.  So, what do you want? 

However, not everyone speaks up — prolonged absence is a good warning sign that they’re moving on, but you may be powerless to prevent this.  Certainly, in a large, multi-tiered community, it can be difficult to track the comings and goings of individual users, and you may not realise they’ve gone until, many weeks after, someone asks “Hey, whatever happened to…?”

There has been lot written on the topic of motivation, and the idea that people leave their job because they are either attracted to something new, or they have become dissatisfied (repelled) by the existing one interests me.  However, the exact workings of this depend very much on circumstance and personality, which are difficult to understand and predict.  In a general sense, I think you have to just accept that people come and go for a variety of reasons, and you have no real direct control over whether any individual stays or goes.

In my experience, most people don’t leave online communities in a grand departure, they just fade away.  In this respect, I would say that the best you can hope for is to keep the spirit of the community alive, by creating a warm, inviting, vibrant community, with enough strong characters to attract newcomers and keep things lively.  So, nurture your prima donnas — allow them to express themselves, celebrate community tropes and in-jokes, and give them what they need to be creative and do what they do best. Don’t go out of your way to stifle their fun when they’re having a good time. Learn to make exceptions for the greater good — because it’s their community as well.

I want to close this by stressing that when I talk about communities, I’m not just referring to online interactions, but any circumstance where people regularly meet as a collective group – work, school, clubs, and so on.  Companies are made up of people, and by definition each one has its own community — a culture formed from norms, values, roles, and ‘characters’.  I have used the word ‘characters’ to describe influential members of a community or organisation; some might describe these people as ‘leaders’, although I don’t think they necessarily are in the traditional sense.  Certainly these people can be charismatic and inspirational; but ‘characters’ I feel, captures the more intangible, quirky, and endearing aspects of their personality.  It’s also worth repeating that some dominant personalities in a group can be obnoxious and utterly repulsive; so perhaps a more academic definition would describe influential people in terms of ‘attractors‘ and ‘repulsors‘ — or some nonsense.

Regardless of how you describe them, it has been stated many times in managerial literature that the strength of any organisation is defined by the people that work there.  I would extend this by arguing that the strength of an organisation hinges on the strength of its community.  If people are what defines an organisation, then community is the glue that bonds that organisation together.   When these people leave, the company loses more than just their knowledge and work output (physical body) — it loses its community spirit (gravitational effect).  Their absence will affect all those that remain.

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Personal note:

Working for a tech company for several years, I’ve had the privilege to work with people who are as eccentric as they are intelligent — brilliant minds with quirky humour and fascinating interests (one used to run a nightclass on lockpicking, for example).    Like any community, brilliant minds need a social space to flourish — one that not only accepts their culture but encourages it.   Some of my fondest memories at Last.fm include being shot at by a motion triggered Nerf gun; model helicopters flying past my desk; and toy sonic screwdrivers re-engineered to function as working presentation remotes.  These are kind things that make a company fun to work for, in spite of everything else they might throw at you.

Ultimately though, it always comes back to the people you work with – the people you spend time with.  Sadly, quite a lot of my friends have left over the last 6 months, and my fear is that as each person moves on, we lose a bit of our community spirit.  At the same time, I think those that remain have been brought closer together, which can only be a good thing.

Music

I don’t believe in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music, as such;  assuming an artist or performer is competent at what they do.  I’m not a musician, so I don’t feel qualified to judge.  There is simply music I like, and music I don’t like.  And it’s not a fixed constant – what I like today, I might not like tomorrow.

When it comes to artistry, I think there’s a place in the world for both art and entertainment.  I see popular music as as a doorway to discovering even more music — a foothold, if you like, to higher ground.  I don’t begrudge the entertainers of the world, because the best ones are damn good at what they do — they encourage us to dance, sing, and feel grateful for being alive.  However, I’m wary of those who try to pass superficial entertainment off as something deeper than it actually is.  Nevertheless, I think the best artists somehow manage to find a happy middle ground between art and entertainment (or accessibility), without compromising their integrity.

When it comes to personal tastes, I prefer to characterise music taste in terms of breadth and depth.  There’s music you know well, and music you’ve yet to discover.  Patterns you understand, patterns that are currently beyond your comprehension.

We  are really lucky to live in an age where technology can let people discover and explore music.   Let’s not throw that away.

Social Disconnect.

So last week I discovered that for the last month or more, Facebook, in its infinite wisdom, had set all my posts to only be published on my parents wall.  Brilliant. :D  Anyway, with the election nonsense going on, I’ve decided to unplug from facebook, g+, and twitter for a while until the dust settles.  I’m going to spend the time working on my blog here, and various projects I’ve left to stagnate.  I can still be contacted by email, if you remember that old technology, and I’ll still reply to direct messages (though I’m not expecting any, tbh).  When discussing this, one of my friends at work pointed out that the fact I wasn’t willing to delete my account outright implies that I’m addicted.  They’re probably right.

“10 of your friends like this stupid meme you posted? That’s great! Everyone loves sarcasm! Post some more of that and you’ll be become super-popular!”

The addictive nature of social networking sites is interesting to study though.  The way people mindlessly post and share content, looking for likes, retweets, +1s reminds me of how slot machines work with their pre-determined variable ratio reinforcement schedules.   I’ve written about the topic of reinforcement before because it’s as fascinating as it is scary.  Outside of gambling, RPG games like Final Fantasy, Diablo, and MMOs use VR reinforcement schedules to hook people into spending large amounts of their free time (tens or hundreds of hours) performing mindless, repetitive tasks – rewarding them with level ups, and item drops.  In gaming, we call this ‘grinding’.  It’s intentionally tedious, and many games nowadays encourage “micro-transactions” (i.e. spending real money) to skip all of that stuff.  Social games have this down to mathematical precision — if you want some insight into exactly how horrifying they are, I’d encourage you to read Tim Rogers’ review of The Sims Social and companion piece who killed video games? (a ghost story)

Social networks reinforce mundane, repetitive user actions such as refreshing the page, liking an item, or re-sharing it, by rewarding them with attention.  Anyone who has spent a lengthy amount of time online will eventually come to the conclusion that attention is gold dust on the Internet.  It doesn’t really matter if it’s sincere or not.  The internet is, we believe, a level playing field, and everyone is fighting for their share of attention online; you, me, your family, mine, your favourite band, your least favourite politician, fucking marmite, television celebrities, pundits, hacks, religious figures, anonymous hackers… I mean, hell, if Charlie Sheen can successfully reboot his career by having a mental breakdown on twitter, there’s hope for us all.  Right?

Facebook and Twitter give you a platform to project your trivial insignificant nonsense to the world, and this is reinforced by positive attention.  On a forum, if you post half the junk you do on facebook, you’d get branded as a troll or an ‘attention whore’ and ostracised by the community.  But not on Facebook right?  They’re your friends!  You’ll notice that Facebook has never implemented a ‘dislike’ button — negative reinforcement would drive people off the site, which would probably upset advertisers.

Due to the transitory nature of the wall and twitter feed, it’s quantity, not quality, that is emphasised.  Furthermore, you’ll start to notice that Facebook is now filtering content from your friends and pages you’re following, presumably based on popularity (likes/trends), so that you only see a percentage of what you’ve subscribed to.  Page owners – bands, magazines, and what not – are now desperately pleading with users to adjust their settings because they now have to pay Facebook to guarantee that their updates will appear on your wall.  What this means is that your Facebook wall is becoming an increasingly competitive space — already over-saturated with companies and corporations trying to advertise their special brand of bullshit on your wall.

So every day people and organisations just post random garbage to social networks, in a scatter-shot fashion, trying to out-shout each other.  I was actually employed to do this for 6 months, and frankly, I strongly suspect that over half of them don’t even know why they’re doing it, except for a pressing need to have “an active Facebook presence”.

Why?

“Because everyone is on Facebook”

That’s one of the things about social networks that’s really innovative — everyone is there.  You don’t need to leave the site or bookmark stuff any more, because they bring the best content from the web directly to you.  News, current affairs, interests, hobbies, music, games.  I mean, does anyone use email for contacting their friends any more?  Or, like me, do you almost exclusively use social networks to contact your friends and family?  It’s more convenient isn’t it? You may have noticed a couple of years ago they stopped emailing you every time you get a message or notification — it’s redundant when most people “check their facebook” multiple times a day.  It also encourages people to keep visiting the site.

Yesteryear sites like Yahoo, MSN, AOL, as well as your favourite ISP, tried and failed to pull this off.  All of them had (and still have) redundant content on their home pages — the latest news, fashion, and gossip, as well as their own webmail to boot.  But they all lacked the magic ingredient of social networks — instead of creating a universal, personalised hub for your friends and interests, they all created their own branded ‘portals’, each with distinctively bland, irrelevant, re-hashed ‘original’ content.

Convenience is the key ingredient to making convergence work, and social networks are massively convenient because they pull your friends and interests into an easily digestible, personalised news feed.  Social networking is better than static communication like emails, because they’re dynamic, engaging, and there’s an social vibrance or flow to them.  Breaking news stories spread quickly and gossip trends to the top — almost every time you refresh the page, or scroll down far enough, you’ll likely encounter something that piques your interest.  But that’s also why I find them problematic.  They’re designed to draw you into an unconscious routine of checking your notifications, posting or reposting content, and then refreshing page periodically to see if people have responded to your update.  Like a slot machine.

When I first joined Facebook, I saw it as an online community or forum “with just my friends”.  Now it feels like a crowded, uncomfortable, stale white and blue conference room with a bunch people I vaguely know from my past, intermingled with corporate PR reps and indie musicians wandering around like lost children trying to find their way.  Everyone wears a name tag containing a brief description of who they are, what they do, their sexual orientation, status, interests, beliefs, and their birthday, lest you forget.  On their backs they are required to wear a thing called their “Timeline”, which highlights the key events in their life, or lack thereof.  Mostly it chronicles your failed relationships.  The room is so crowded that you can only really speak to the people in your immediate vicinity,  but megaphones are available for a small fee so you can reach your friends at the back of the room.  In one corner is the games room, but it’s starting to look like one those dodgy stalls at the fairground, or one of those gambling arcades at a motorway services stop — you know the kind, with lots of bright colours and music to attract kids, but designed callously to rob you blind.  Except it’s not your kids getting hooked on this, it’s your mum.

I have nearly 200 ‘friends’ now and yet I can’t remember the last time I actually had a conversation with any of them outside of my circle of face-to-face friends.  We don’t need to, because they can just read my status updates and I can read theirs.  We communicate through automated validation.  Real friendship, which I’ve learnt to value through losing it, has been replaced with something superficial and alienating.  In a way, the more I think about it, the more I realise that I’ve actually lost touch with some of my closest friends.  Facebook has connected me to everyone, and by doing so, I feel connected with no one.

I’m not going to talk about privacy, that’s been done to death, you know the risks when you use sites like this, and the internet at large.  My primary concern is productivity.  Every time I’m writing an asinine comment on facebook or a witty “That thing” observation on twitter, I can’t shake the feeling I could be doing something more worthwhile with my time.  Yet, at the same time, I just can’t bring myself to delete my account.

And so, I guess we’re stuck with each other.

RIP: Psygnosis

Sony’s ‘Liverpool Studio’ better known as Psygnosis, one Britain’s most prolific develop-publishers back in the day, has been closed:

http://kotaku.com/5936821/sony-closes-one-of-the-oldest-video-game-developers-in-the-world

About 5 years ago, when I was researching for my dissertation, I remember reading a LOT of articles on Gamasutra about how selling your studio to a big name publisher guaranteed the studio security and resources.  Since then, I’ve lost track of how many studios have been absorbed into bigger companies, lost their identity, produced mediocre products, and were subsequently closed due to internal restructuring.

Don’t judge others, lest you be judged yourself.

Why I don’t believe in organised religion can largely be summed up in this video:

Hell, and the idea of obedience in fear of eternal punishment, are such barbarically human concepts, that they couldn’t possibly come from an all knowing, all loving God (and unsurprisingly they stem from social oppression – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0054914).

Compassion, not vengeance, is something I’d expect from a prospective deity; and that’s about understanding, acceptance, and ultimately unconditional forgiveness. That means you have the capacity, wisdom, and strength of character to forgive everyone on the planet (past and present), regardless of who they are or what they’ve done, for just being human (capable of making mistakes, waging war, being weak, cowardly, selfish, petty, cruel, violent, fearful, ignorant, bigoted, psychopathic, and generally flawed). It means you understand and accept that everyone is simply just trying to struggle through life, learning what they can, seeking fulfilment, meaning, acceptance, and love where they find it, and generally trying their damnedest to make the best of the short time they have.  Some people may find it difficult to forgive everyone, as it is entirely inclusive, but hey, they’re only human.  God, on the other hand, should be setting a higher example, because for me, the purpose of God, on a moral level, is to exemplify virtues like wisdom, learning, charity, and compassion – not judge people for being disobedient subjects.

Hypothetical question: what are the moral implications of forgiving the Christian God for the eternal torture of human souls? The same God that demands absolute obedience through ignorance and threat of violence? (not because he knows best, or they had it coming; but because you understand that he’s a flawed, human construct also struggling to survive against increasing irrelevance). Or put another way: if you can absolutely and unconditionally forgive God for being a cruel and vengeful deity (as well as all the pain, suffering, war and murder that has been caused in his name) and yet — he won’t forgive you for your ‘sins’ — morally where does that put you? (besides hell, of course)

Arguably, all this shouldn’t be considered as more than a philosophical thought exercise, however wars are still fought and justified in the name of God.  Therefore, our leaders should be held to the same standard – for if God doesn’t stand up to moral reasoning, then where does that put those who act in his name and enforce his word?  The word ‘Evil’, when used earnestly, comes from a fundamental lack of understanding human behaviour and motivation, and I think you should be very wary when an elected authority judges another person or group as “Evil”.  Behaviour could be generically described as ‘evil’ as a blanket term for lack of moral responsibility; but people absolutely can’t, because that’s an exercise in denial and dehumanisation.  Dehumanisation, perhaps, is the one true sin of mankind — to disregard another person’s worth, and treat them as less equal, less deserving, less than human — for whatever reason.  Moreover, as soon as they dehumanise them, they are drawing a line in the sand between “them” and “us”… and that, sadly, is how wars are started – as some six millennia of violence will attest to.

Bad guys

Kratos - Man about town

Kratos - Man about town

It turns out I write more on forums than I do blogging, so I’m considering posting the more interesting ones here.

Today’s topic: Homicidal maniacs in video games – why do we love them so?

I think what’s interesting with the GTA games (along with stuff like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Dusk Till Dawn, etc), is that the lead characters still have a strong moral code. Sure the player can go on a killing spree; but in the game story, none of the player characters are sadistic or psychopathic — they’ve been thrown into a situation that forces them to fight, and the people they attack are usually other criminals or corrupt cops and politicians. On a moral front, the game justifies it by saying something akin to “I may be a bastard, but I’m not a ****ing bastard“. The same is true with John Marston as well — he’s a criminal, but he’s seeking redemption, so in terms of the story it’s okay (even if you got that dastardly achievement).

It’s the same with Alan Wake and Max Payne — they’re both dicks (especially in MP2), but they’re in impossible situations, and under tremendous physical and psychological pressure. But above all, they’re not bad people — they might be flawed, but they have redeeming features. Which means you can identify with them and their cause — at least in the game fiction.

Kratos I’m not sure about — even Riddick, under all the fatalist bravado, shows some levels of remorse. But Kratos is actually psychopathic (I read an article that convincingly suggested that Lara Croft was too). I haven’t played the sequels, but in the first one he has absolutely no regard for anyone’s life, feelings, or goals, except his own. He’s not even aware of them. The game makes it really difficult to like him, except for the fact that, 99% of the time he’s fighting monsters, and in combat he’s a badass.

Perhaps Kratos can be forgiven because he’s so morally shallow, that it’s actually quite comic to watch, in an absurd way. It’s like you’re waiting to see just how far he’ll go. The same can be said about Mortal Kombat — it’s pure comic-book fantasy and so over-the-top, that it just about gets away with it. As others have said – I think humour helps.

But these games aren’t really sadistic, either — which is where I draw the line. When I was younger I liked the Postal 2 demo; but growing up, I realised it was just sick. Of course kids are going to dig it — again, it’s so absurdly divorced from reality, that you can’t quite take it seriously (e.g. using a cat as a silencer). But at the same time, there’s some real underline malice and bigotry in that game too. Well, I’m not going to preach — you have to make up your own mind on these matters; but personally, as someone looking for a career in the games industry, I wouldn’t proudly put that kind of thing forward as an example what this medium is capable of.

There’s also quite a good article on IGDA which considers GTA3 from various different morally philosophical viewpoints.

http://www.igda.org/articles/rreynolds_ethics