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A potted history of community management (and a bright future) – notes from #Vircomm13

In 1996 in San Francisco John Coate was busy coodinating online communities around hyperlocal content. Three years later, Robin Hamman was putting together the BBC manual for ‘online community management’ to help the company navigate through a new world of ‘hosting’ conversatons on message boards and webchats.

The world of dial up modems, lumberjack shirts and floppy disks feels like a long time ago, but the art of community management remains founded on the same principles which made Coate’s The Well and Hamman’s early insights in comment boards successful – transparency, openness, being responsive and affirming members. As Coate summed up:

“It was real people talking about real things that matter to them – that’s why it all mattered.”

On Thursday community and social media managers from London and beyond gathered at the Virtual Community Summit to look back at how far engaging online communities as a practise had come – and gather thoughts on what might lie ahead.

Coate and Ramman took us through their personal history in community engagement with keynote talks – baring stark similarities despite spanning decades and international waters.

But other panel discussions hinted at darker areas of unknown which are growing up with new young digital natives. Dave Miles from the FOSI explained that while new and brilliant tools and technologies emerge, there is a generational gap in online skills preventing parents from being fully equipped to use these tools to protect their children online against safety risks. Sarah Drinkwater from Google’s Local intiative gave a vision for the future – moving from a time when adults read and consumed content, to 30-somethings who read, recommend and share content, to teenagers today who expect to create, share and collaborate on content.

Sarah Drinkwater’s look at content creation for different generations. Photo: HRW

Today, the role of the community manager seems to now be somewhat all encompassing – including aspects of customer care, marketing, brand development and journalism – maybe it always has done. Community managers continue to debate whether they are social media managers and defining job descriptions, and are struggling to manage management and client expectations – highlighted with Tom Messett’s slew of real examples such as regular emails asking “Hi Tom, can we get some Facebook on this?”  With a knowledge gap when it comes to online engagement (alongside a continuing lack of tools to track ROI from community) as well as advances in technology making sure brands keep on their toes – Tamara Littleton highlighted KLM and Lego as good examples of brand engagement – and come prepared for social crisis management.

Still trying to work out how to get community ROI. Robin Hamman at Vircomm. Photo: HRW

Online communities, as Meg Pickard highlighted, have always had a darker side of bullying (trolls), Godwin’s Law, outrage, Lulz. But new trends and behaviours are emerging – kisses at the end of tweets for example, David Dimbleby style curating and hosting of debates, users becoming accountable for their words and actions and a focus on quality not quantity.

But fundamentally, the principles of community engagement remain the same and focus around relationships and connecting people to make something interesting happen. Here was John Coate’s summarising list of a good community manager:

  • Don’t be authoritarian
  • Try to influence and persuade
  • Be affirming of people – find the best part in someone
  • Expect fervor
  • Leave room for making judgement calls
  • Give people to tools to manage the experience themselves

To see more tweets from VirComm13 take a look at


Written by hrwaldram

February 7, 2013 at 10:26 pm

One Response

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  1. Really nice summation of the day, Hanna. Thanks very much!

    Rebecca Newton

    February 11, 2013 at 2:19 pm

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