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Tradition and renewal in communities

If you don’t mind, I’ll deal with the subject through an inmediate example. These are interesting times at the Macuarium community system. Not quite in the chinese sense of the phrase, but sometimes close.

To put it in a nutshell, we’re very large and growing larger. What started as a Mac support forum is now one of the references for creative pros in many different arenas, from video to coding… and the biggest Mac support resource in Spanish, to boot. We enlist as many as 70 new users per day, 9208 since January 4th. With never less than 50 new threads per day (threads, not plain messages) making it 13683 since Jan 4th. And we live in a tumultuous, changing market, not just because of the underlying practices and technologies, but because we compete head-on (or at least elbow-in-your-ribs) with scores of other resources, new upstarts sprouting every day in blog and forum shape.

We’re winning, overall, but not easily. Indeed we’re undergoing a spurt of renewed growth and vitality that threatens to make us into a serious business against our determined will.

The conversations

Most of the new growth comes from increased forum traffic (visits, comments, and time online). And this comes from the most serious overhaul of content distribution we’ve had in ten years. Not the first, mind you, but definitely the most sweeping. This has been done in our classical participative manner, letting the cat among the chickens (i.e. I jump the idea on the moderator team and egg them on until we have thrashed some sort of sense out of the structure, usually getting some of my pet ideas implemented in the confusion). We’ve redefined forum contents, changed forum groups, launched new subcommunities, squished others, and the ball has not stopped rolling yet: a forum on “Productivity and business software” is soon to emerge from a complicated birth, and the “Education and research” community is in for the shake of its life.

The pilots

As mentioned, our moderators are actively involved in the redesign (however pushed, they do have a real say: we actually believe in the saying “the land for those who plow it”, or “la tierra para el que la trabaja”). But they’re a very changed group from the team that ran Macuarium before last summer.

First, there has been a cull. Many non-effective moderators have been appreciatively brought to retirement;  some others less ceremoniously shown the door. A couple of stragglers still remain in less demanding nooks in which we have not had time to build new teams, but the time of passive facilitation is over… again. Indeed these sweepings are a regular feature, like pruning, needed to keep the team alive.

Second, there has been renewal of the classics. Amond the most effective members of the facilitation team, some have been on board over six years. It occasionally happens that life, family, demanding jobs or changing hobbies make it neccesary to stop moderating indefinitely or completely. In the past year, as we implemented an over-delayed drive and recruited many new moderators and trained them enough to ease the pressure, several of the most referential collaborators have asked to be let off the wheel. This has changed the team in many ways, by forcing the new team to grow a spine, by removing routines and ingrained perspectives, and generally by making work that much harder for the remaining team… and solutions that much more innovative. Indeed, the remaining veterans and the new team have grown beautifully into the shoes of their predecessors, which were (with no doubts) the best team we have ever had.

Third, we have changed the philosophy. We used to have just one type of moderator, and the jobs was quite exacting. A moderator usually was part of the facilitation team of more than one forum, which was (as all of them) chronically understaffed. He was expected to make very frequent and delicate judgement calls, and also to keep abreast of the debate in the moderation forums about practice, cases, and people. It was (it is) and intensive job, only to be borne by enthusiasts with a gritty will and a talen for self-organization. But now we’re incorporating a new, simpler layer of collaboration, concerned only with “traffic management” (sending threads to the right forum, closing unwonted repetitions, stopping quarrels). No complicated public relations hot-seat. No coordination forum in which to build a common practice, evolving by the week. Just a clear manual, appropriate tools, a single forum, and the direct one-on-one tuition of a full moderator. We’ve onboarded nine of them already, and the results are spectacular to date.

Tradition, good and bad

The scale of changes is a bit overwhelming at times, especially since I’m bent on holding nothing sacred. I sorely miss some people and their criteria, and I find it disconcerting that some things we used to do as a matter of course are currently not even thought of as worth doing… but I’m sticking to goals, not mediums, however it smarts at firts. I want renewal, not just replacement. I want some things achieved, and I’m very happy to see how the way to get there changes with the input of so many minds. Of course, there’s also some ways I definitely want to use (let’s say, the “core values and ideas” of the project) and we’re sticking to them. Indeed the new team is as faithful to them as the old, and has not had time to get attached to intermediate products or rules, so we’re running very close to our mission course. Our set of rules is quite basic, and while we’ve had to repeat them to clear them from accumulated debris, nothing yet has required changes beyond very light tinkering.

That said, the change process is not as smooth as it may seem. I’ve had “but this was the way this old-revered-hand used to do things, why should we change it?” actually put forth as an argument to stop a redesign. But also, changing the work loads and the responsibilities disquiets the team, even if it’s done by as close to unanimous agreement as we can (and we don’t always reach that, I still have to make a lot of calls), and a volunteer needs to fully own to what he (or she) is doing. Most people simply don’t like change, whatever it is. Changes in the team can dishearten the survivors, who often hold the departees as a role model and a respected friend; changes in the ways can disconfit, and if they come against a moderator’s criteria, can be quite chilling. On the other hand, keeping the redesign ball rolling (not too fast, never quite stopping) is hard work. Managing that is not being easy.

Community members, on the other hand, have less “muscle memory” (as a moderator put it). They do react and speak out and occasionally force a rethink of the changes, but up to now the communication has been fluid and the results have been very satisfactory. The new flows are more intuitive and the new team structure is easy to grasp (indeed the worst difficulty are people apparently trying to stand up and make merits to be drafted in the new junior moderation rank).

And don’t get me started about the frustration of trying to pull all this without half-adequate funding, or a sensible amount of time, or a managing partner with any flexibility in some matters I regard as neccesary :-). Or -worst of all- a growing depletion of technical support. For in the end, an online community requires a resource (a server, a software, bandwidth, processing power, someone who can wield them) to thrive on. But whatever else, I’m very happy to report that our new team is doing impressive work, enough to keep me definitely on my toes.

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