Community Management in the Digital Age

public sphere

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public sphereWhen philosophers of the past like Jürgen Habermas and Gerard Hauser explored their theories of the public sphere, where ideas were discussed and political action was born, they could have never imagined how their theories would take shape in 2012.

Habermas’ theory alluded to a place where anyone, with any set of beliefs, could provide immeasurable value to the sphere by challenging ideas and making the community stronger by changing, confirming or forming new beliefs.

Hauser, on the other hand, developed the theory of the rhetorical public sphere where a level of discrimination was needed to include only members with shared values.

The Digital Age has morphed their models of a public sphere into what we now know as online communities. Be it a community for consumers of a top cola brand or a wedding planning blog, community managers are the glue that hold these groups together.

Oftentimes when we think of exclusivity or discrimination, they carry negative overtones. In the world of community management, those words mean maintaining a functional and successful online community. In these new models of the public sphere it is far more valuable to have members that support your values than to simply build numbers.

People generally find online communities through the miracle of search. It then becomes the job of the community manager to monitor members and decide which ones may not be a good fit for the success of the community.

Let’s talk weddings and community management. Believe it or not, there is a dark underbelly to wedding planning. Often times, brides fall into two camps: Wedding Industrial Complex (WIC) brides and “indie” brides—I’m not making this up, people. Whatever camp a bride falls into, it suddenly becomes a political statement as to how she plans her wedding and spends her wedding budget. There is clearly no all-inclusive online community where these brides will find shared values and feel validated in their choices.

In this instance, the all-inclusive public sphere is shattered and several new communities take root. The new public sphere takes shape by finding and striking a difference in values.

Meg Keene, owner and community manager of the indie wedding planning blog, A Practical Wedding, created her own public sphere, first as a way to vent about her personal wedding planning experiences.

“When I started my website, I was trying to strike a teeny, tiny blow at a giant corporate system,” said Keene. “It grew more than I thought it would. I now have a well-read website, am regularly quoted in national publications, and have a best-selling wedding book. Thank you, Internet.”

Keene found that her online community grew organically through that miracle of search as people who were looking for a sphere found one that shared her values. Her community attracted like-minded members and, over time, the discussions they were having online spanned everything from politics in feminism to how a husband and wife divvy up chores.

Even if a community becomes popular, it is still the role of the community manager to curate members that fit.

“Readers are always surprised when we tell a cranky commenter who clearly doesn’t believe in the site’s values, that it might be time for them to stop reading the site,” said Keene. “Don’t we need all the readers we can get? Well no, no we don’t. When you’re building a web presence with a particular set of values, your goal is to attract readers that share those values. It’s more valuable to have five readers who really get you, and would go to the ends of the earth for your message, than to have 500 readers who don’t really know who you are.”

Keene quickly learned that to build a community and keep members returning, it was a matter of quality over quantity. While the community manager shapes the sphere, they are faced with the discriminatory task of selecting and excluding members from the community.

“As a community manager, your job is to nicely chase away people that don’t fit (or moderate their comments), to make things more hospitable for the people that do fit,” Keene said.

It may sound like a harsh move to block some from a sphere or online community, but what good is a community at odds, and what could members possibly gain from such a community?

As a community manager, how do you choose to manage your spheres?

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