The Auto-Service economy is coming. And as computers have increased in sophistication, as have other aspects of automation, it appears that the fundamental underpinnings of our lives are being altered.
The Twentieth Century
Consider how life was at the start of the twentieth century in the United States. Many people did not own a refrigerator. Automobiles barely existed. A trip in an airplane (excuse me, aeroplane), was an occasion for diary entries and letter-writing and was practically a media event unto itself. A lot of people lived and died within a small area.
The economy was mainly driven by the production of goods, and by farming. Jobs existed in service industries, of course, but a lot of folks made their livelihoods in factories, steel mills, coal mines, and the like, or they stayed down on the farm.
End of the Twentieth Century
As that century ended, however, the economy had changed to more of a service model. Factory and farming jobs went to machinery and, increasingly, to robotic workers. All of these people needed to have jobs and so they changed over to service industries. In particular, as the population aged and also became wealthier, many of those service jobs migrated to the medical and hospitality industries.
However, given the rise of the internet and customers’ familiarity with tablets (and their impatience with slow, inattentive, or error-prone servers), the service economy seems to be on the cusp of changing over to what I’ll call an auto-service economy.
Humans Replaced By Robots?
Instead of getting a human at the other end of the line when calling customer service, we’re lucky if there’s a phone number at all. As I have told numerous people complaining on Able2know – you’ll never talk to a human when seeking Facebook help. Unless, of course, someone could legitimately answer your call with, “How many I help you, Mr. McCartney?”
The Boston Globe published an article about how to handle this new paradigm shift. Because it happens as we move further and further away from human interaction. We move away from service, and help, and into the realm of mechanized assistance as the norm. In Use tech to your advantage when seeking customer support, perhaps the most helpful tip they provide: mention in a never-ending customer service phone call that you want to ‘escalate‘ the problem. Evidently that’s the magic word which gets you to a supervisor.
But if the supervisor is a robot, well, you’re on your own.
Losing control online? Way back when, back when dinosaurs roamed the Internet, I became involved a bit with Usenet.
It wasn’t much, and it wasn’t much to look at. I was a lot less of a geek then than I am now (yes, really), and so the bare bones look didn’t do much for me. This was, after all, around 1997 or so.
Things have changed. A lot.
In me and, of course, online.
The thing that was compelling about Usenet was the sheer volume and breadth of conversation. People talked about all sorts of junk. There was a huge skewing towards Politics, but it contained discussions about other things as well. And – ha! – some people even attempted a bit of a community.
Fast forward to now.
There are online communities in all sorts of places. Facebook is one. Twitter is another. LinkedIn is another. MySpace limped along and for a while there was a bit of another. The blogosphere is yet another. Forums (my big love) is another one. And many more exist, including, even, the comments sections in news outlets. Communities seem to spring up, no matter what a company does or intends.
And that’s a pretty great thing. Human beings actually want to connect to one another. Now, there are a lot of trolls out there, and people who enjoy poking each other with pointed sticks. It happens – I won’t deny it. But there’s a boatload of good out there as well.
Enter companies. I think the biggest fear for them is a perceived loss of control. Well, it ain’t just perceived folks. Because it’s very real. You just can’t massage the entire message that’s going out about Acme Widgets. And (psst)– you don’t want to.
Because lack of control becomes, I feel, a grand means to creativity. And it is a way to push new ideas up to the surface. And it is – dare I say it? – a pathway to innovation.
Because sticking a bunch of people into a windowless room and telling them to be creative is going to be about as effective as sticking a gun to their heads and commanding that they write a guaranteed hit song.
Communities – in whatever form they take in the Social Media space – can let in fresh blood and new ideas. Yet people actually – amazingly enough – generally want to do this for free. They just like creating. Or they want to put their two cents in. Or they just want to sound off or complain. However, sometimes there’s something in there, and it’s useful. After all, if you’re working for Corvair in the ’60s, you might think your car is dandy. Heh, it wasn’t.
Furthermore, you might think New Coke is a fabulous idea. It wasn’t.
So you get the idea. Let in the community of ideas and innovation. And they will sometimes try to tear the company (or each other) a new one. In addition, keep it as civil as possible without squelching the real creativity. And without driving off shyer or quieter members who might be getting shouted down by the more vocal mob. Furthermore, keep it as on topic as possible without driving off people don’t just like the product or service or company, but also each other – but who still have plenty to offer.
Community Management Tidbits – Wandering off Topic
Wandering off Topic. Even the most literal-minded among us rarely remain perfectly on message all the time. It’s hard to express yourself quite so linearly.
It doesn’t just include how we interact with our fellow human beings.
Most conversations meander; otherwise they become dull. And there are just so many ways one can talk about the fact that there’s a 40% chance of rain over the weekend, even if you’re speaking at a Meteorologists’ Convention. Even very specific programs, such as This Week in Baseball or This Old House jump around. Our human attention spans aren’t what they used to be, but there’s more to it than just that. It’s also about creating a memorable presentation. A little memorable off-topic talking can save an otherwise limited conversation.
Communities Go Off Topic All the Time
The same is true with communities. You make and promote conversations. Because no one is writing scholarly papers. Or advertising copy. Seriously, put down the company’s vision statement and step away.
Picture this: you’ve just started a forum, with a modest group of users. But after only one or two topics, or five or so posts, they leave. Now, there will always be people who join a forum for one small, specific purpose and then depart. In addition, you will always have a healthy percentage (often a good 90%) of lurkers, no matter what you do. They are a part of every community, and they are a sign of health. Don’t worry about them!
But right now your issue is that there’s no traction. Users come in quickly, may or may not get satisfaction, and then disappear. And because they are not engaging with one another, there isn’t enough momentum to create cohesion among them.
Fixing the Problem
Here’s where targeted off-subject conversations can work. Let us assume that your forum is about water softening. It may seem to be an esoteric topic. You probably won’t get people too emotionally engaged. Most will come in looking for a dealer, a part, a catalog or some quick advice.
Wandering Off Topic Helps
But there are targeted, related topics you can try. Your users are virtually all homeowners (some may be landlords or superintendents), so which topics do homeowners typically discuss? There’s mortgages, appliances, pest control, landscaping, and purchases and sales, for starters. The landlords in your community will inevitably have tenancy issues. Expand what you consider to be on topic to some of these areas by adding a few feeler topics like these.
Consider humor as well. Humor can fall flat, and it is easy to misinterpret. In addition, people from different countries, religions and cultures will find disparate things amusing (or offensive). Hence there are risks involved. However, in the water softening forum example, you can offer a topic on, say, a humorous battle or competition where the course is changed (the tide is turned, perhaps) on the presence of softened versus hard water. Absurd humor does seem to work better than other types, so this kind of a topic can offer a little less risk.
Another tactic: begin recognizing great topics, posts and answers. Promote people who draw in more users – you can spot them fairly quickly. This can take the form of badges, up votes, sticky topics and special user titles. Mail them company swag if the budget allows (tee shirts, baseball and trucker caps, note pads, branded flash drives, whatever you’ve got). Give these people a little more leeway than most when they do go off message.
Corporate may want you to stay on message, all the time, but that’s simply not realistic as it ignores normal human interactions. Furthermore, it tends to drive away users as they only hang around for the length of a few topics. But give your users more topic leeway, and they will be more inclined to stay and become customers — a trade-off that any Marketing Department should embrace with ardor.
Superstar users? Some people just seem to be born with it. If you’ve ever spent some time on forums, you immediately know who they are.
Their topics rarely go without a response for long. And their contributions are routinely applauded (either using available site software or via written praise) by the other users. Their absences are lamented (and noticed!). Their returns are celebrated. In addition, people rarely forget their birthdays and membership milestones.
They are the superstar users.
They can be made by the community or they can be nudged along by you, the Community Manager. The community can sometimes choose stars that don’t promote your company’s vision very well. But you can combat this by selecting some superstars of your own.
Converting Users into Superstars
How do you make superstar users? Almost the same way that the community does. However, you may have some added tricks up your sleeve. First of all choose, choose a few likely candidates. Go into your member list and sort by number of posts, from most to least. Select your top 20 posters.
You probably know who they are already. But if you don’t, if you have a posts/day statistic, copy that down. Put all of this into a spreadsheet. Add in the dates each user joined the site and the dates of their most recent posts (which may be the day you compile this information).
If anyone has overwhelmingly negative social signals (vote downs, ignores, complaints or reports against them), if you can put your hands on that information quickly, discard that member from your list and replace him or her with the next one. Ignore sock puppets and second accounts, if you have good proof that two accounts belong to the same person. Again, just move to the person with the 21st-most posts/day, etc.
Now look at your list. Who is the member with the most recent post (gauge that by day, not by hour, so if two posters have a last post date of October first, consider them to be tied even if one posted at 1:00 AM and the other posted at 11:00 PM), with the highest number of posts/day, who has been a member the longest? Rank that person #1 and rank everyone else in order behind him or her. Ties are fine.
Now you’ll need to do a little more research. If you have this data readily available, use it: the section(s) of the site where your 20 users spend the most of their time. This could divide into tags or subforums or categories. It really depends on however your site is divvied up. However, if this information is not readily available, research it by investigating everyone’s last 10 posts. Of course their most recent 10 posts could potentially not be perfectly characteristic of their behavior on the site. So you take that chance. Nothing is set in concrete; you can always revisit this later.
If your #1 user’s last 10 posts are all on message or in the section(s) of the site devoted to your company’s message, that person stays at #1. But if not, weigh them as against their 19 competitors. And if #2 is close to #1 but a lot more on message, switch their rankings. Also use this measurement of being on message (or not) to resolve any ties.
Now look at your list again. #1 should be the user who is most on message, with a lot of posts and recent activity, who has a long history on the site and whose negative social signals (there are usually some, particularly for long-time, popular posters. That’s fine; just try to stay away from universally reviled people). This is the first person you want to approach.
And, how do you approach them? Handle this both indirectly and directly. Indirectly by promoting their posts, topics and replies, with up votes, applause, positive ensuing comments and making their topics sticky – whatever your software allows which provides them with attention and positive reinforcement. Don’t do this all at once – spread it out over time. You’re in a marathon, not a sprint here. Provide the same indirect positive reinforcement to your other candidates, but less as you go down your list.
The direct approach: engage them, both openly on the boards and in private messages (most sites have the means to do this). You should out and out flatter them. Instead, offer encouragement or point out their posts that you find interesting. Or tell them about others’ posts that you feel might interest them. Again, don’t do this all at once. Offer these little tidbits gradually.
Every few months or so, review your list and consider whether to add or drop anyone. If you’ve made friends with these users then of course don’t drop them from your personal life just because they’ve gone off message too much! But certainly curtail your official Community Manager messages to them if there are others who would be more receptive.
Why do you want to do this?
Superstar users can help to bring your site out of a funk. They can (and do) make you aware of spam. Superstar users create and promote good content. They help trolls lose their power. They can help to calm the site down and ease it into and out of transitions. You can count on them.
However, they need to feel valued. And, even more importantly, they need to feel that you don’t just call on them when you want something. Provide positive reinforcement when there is no crisis and you’ll be able to call on them when there is one. And the corollary is true as well: superstar users, if unappreciated, will leave, and other users will follow them out of your forum. Ignore them at your peril.
Book Review – Likeable Social Media by Dave Kerpen
Dave Kerpen has a rather interesting book here.
Likeable Social Media
This book was required reading, as a part of my Community Management class at Quinnipiac University.
And it made for an excellent read.
For Kerpen, a lot of social media success comes from listening to, and then surprising and delighting customers and potential customers. Are your posts what they are interested in? If you received this post, would you bother clicking on it?
Case in point for surprise and delight
In May of 2015, my husband, parents, and I went to a Mexican restaurant in my parents’ town. We have eaten there before, but not so much that they know our names or our usual orders or the like. My husband and I don’t visit my parents too often. And he visits them even less than I am. To the restaurant, even if my parents are repeat customers, my husband and I surely don’t look like repeats.
There was a short wait until we got our food. Without prompting, we received a little appetizer, which mainly consisted of little breaded and fried mashed potatoes, configured a bit like sticks. There were three bits of sauce in different colors. The potatoes and sauce, most likely, were leftover odds and ends. It may have taken the chef all of ten minutes to make the dish. I didn’t see anyone else getting the appetizer. We thanked the server. The appetizer tasted good.
We were served our food, and you’d think that would be the end of it. But it wasn’t. We didn’t order dessert. But we received a plate of flan and four spoons anyway. No one asked us; we just got the flan (it tasted really good). We weren’t charged for either little extra.
These twin activities impressed us, so much so that I’ve even linked back to the restaurant. Win-win!
Surprise and delight your customers. Or, as I’d like to say, where’s their flan?
By no coincidence, Kerpen named his company Likeable Media. From its positive name to its obvious association with Facebook, the book and the company are all about creating positive and meaningful experiences for customers and potential customers. Kerpen begins with listening and with careful, accurate, and specific targeting. E. g. not all women in their 50s have the same interests. He strongly urges marketers to dig deeper. He also encourages them to have empathy for their customers. Is a post interesting? Would it be welcome to the customer base? The first fans should be preexisting customers, with perks for the really rabid fans. Another skill to master: engaging in a true dialog. This means not just accepting praise, but also effectively and expeditiously responding to complaints. It also means owning up to your mistakes when you make them.
Kerpen advocates authenticity, honesty and transparency in dealings, and promoting an exchange by asking questions, which goes right back to listening. From listening, comes the surprise and delight. Did the restaurant hear us complaining about slower than normal service? Possibly. The appetizer and the flan certainly helped to quell those complaints and win us over.
Because he’s talking about social media (and not restaurant service), Kerpen’s flan moment doesn’t just cover coupons and offers. It’s also the sharing of stories as social capital. Some of this includes stories of the company (e. g. how a product was invented that spawned an industry). But it also encompasses the stories of the customers themselves. Imagine being a soft drink company and asking customers who drank your soft drink during their first date to share their love stories?
Finally, rather than hard selling, Kerpen exhorts marketers to simply make it easy to buy. Good products and services will always have customers. Generally, you don’t need to massage demand. But you do need to make it easier for customers to open their wallets.
Facebook, as anyone not living on a desert island knows, is a juggernaut of massive proportions. It is the 800 pound gorilla of the Internet. And it is rapidly changing our interpersonal interactions, both on and offline. So one of those areas is in the area of Internet forums.
Facebook and a forums site like Able2know
Facebook hits all forum sites and not just A2K. For years, I have been seeing drop off on a lot of different sites. It doesn’t seem to matter whether they are large, generalized places like Able2know, or small niche sites devoted to something like Star Trek. In addition, I hear about this same kind of drop off from other community managers, even for things like maternity/new mother sites.
Everybody get in the pool
So there are two generalized kinds of interactions (there are more, of course, but hear me out, okay?). One concerns the shallow end of things. You trade information about weather and generalized health inquiries. It’s political sound bites and the zippy pop song.
The other side of things is deeper. Because here is the in-depth political discussion where you really get to the heart of the issues. It’s the detailed information on a health condition or even how to make a soufflé or plant an herb garden. It is the symphony. And online, just like offline, it is a far rarer bird, for you need time to develop that kind of trust. Furthermore, truly, you have to devote some time in order to have such a conversation in the first place.
Swimming with Facebook
Facebook fulfills the shallow end of online interactions extremely well. It is very, very easy to catch up on a superficial level with High School classmates or the like. The Star Wars groups, for example, ask basic questions like “Who was the best villain?” George Takei has mastered these kinds of interactions (although, in all fairness, he also writes occasional longer notes). Because these constitute the quick hits that people can like and share, all in the space of less than a quarter of a minute. It works very well for mass quantities of information.
Facebook versus Forums – where Facebook Wins
Topics about one’s favorite song go better on Facebook than on forums as they are a quick hit and posting Youtube is simple. It’s colorful and, just as importantly, it’s pretty easy to pick and choose when it comes to interactions there, despite changes in privacy settings. Other basic interactions (remember a/s/l?) are seamless or don’t need to happen at all. Partly this happens due to Facebook’s real names policy. Also, more people tend to use their real photograph and their real (generalized) location and age than not.
Facebook versus Forums – where Forums Win
What Facebook doesn’t do so well is the deeper end of interactions (the extensive political discussions, etc., and/or it does not do them well for a larger group of people or over a significant period of time or for a longer or wider discussion. All of the deep discussions go unsaid. Topics about elections outside the United States (particularly if Americans participate in said topics) are handled poorly, if at all. When it comes to the deeper end of the interactions pool, Facebook is just not a good place for that at all. Another consideration: a lot of people still find that Facebook moves too quickly for them.
Swimming with Forums
For the deep end, you need forums. You need to get to the heart of the matter. And that takes time, a luxury that Facebook often does not afford, as it scrolls by in a blur. Instead of mass quantities, forums can fulfill a very different niche by instead concentrating on quality interactions.
Forums offer, even for people who use their real names and are fairly transparent about their interactions, a chance to use a persona. Because Facebook far too closely parallels to our real lives. There’s just so much posturing you can do about being a famous rock star when your High School cronies are also there, and they remember holding your head when you had your first beer.
The Endless Online Christmas Brag Letter
And Facebook, while it can be a refuge for people to truly show they care for each other (in particular, in the groups, or using notes), is more often a place where people instead get a chance to preen and show off. Like something? Then hit like! Don’t like it? Then either scroll past it or click to hide it, or even report it as spam or as being threatening. And apart from the latter, the person posting the image, anecdote, status, etc. is none the wiser when it comes to your reaction.
But with the forums, even if you do not use your real name, your opinions are still out there, for all to see, whether it’s about global warming or the Designated Hitter rule.
There is room for both types of interactions. Facebook versus forums doesn’t have to pick a winner. The Internet is a mighty big tent.
So you find a new site. You look around. And you think – this looks like a place I might like. Therefore, you take the plunge and you register.
And it doesn’t really matter if it’s Twitter, or Facebook or Able2know. If it’s big enough, it scrolls and leaps by so fast that you can barely get your arms around it. And in the beginning, that can be incredibly exciting.
However, after a while, it’s a bit too much. So if you want to hang around and have a more meaningful interactive experience than complaining about the weather, you end up finding yourself some sort of an enclave. I’ve covered this before, actually.
You find your niche, whatever it is. And you start spending time with people. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, be it playing fantasy sports, or comparing notes as new mothers, or trading rumors about the next season of Doctor Who. What matters is, you’ve found your peeps.
And that’s when it can get kind of complicated.
Transitioning to the In-Person Experience
My husband and I once met a fellow we had know for a few years from online. He was passing through Boston on his way home from Maine. And one thing he mentioned was – my online friends and my offline friends are pretty well-integrated. I like that.
After all, consider some of my closest friends who I didn’t meet online. Most of them either attended school with me at some stage or another, or they worked with me. In some fashion or another, we hit it off. However, the same is true of the cyber world, is it not? You meet someone, and you hit it off with them, and you thereby become friends. No great mystery there. The only remarkable thing is that the lines are being forever blurred between people we met physically first, and people we physically met later, if at all. And we care less and less about how we met our friends, these days.
With cyber friendships – as with all friendships – there can be loss. And we all know that it is going to happen sooner or later. A voice will be stilled, a timeline no longer updated. We may or may not know the correct or full name. We may never have heard that person so much as speak on a video or on the telephone. Yet we feel a sense of loss just the same.
I have found that, as this has happened on Able2know (and it has happened several times now, a function of both the size of the site and its skew in the direction of more elder demographics), people have wanted to rally around. It is not necessarily a formal obituary type of posting or topic. Instead, it can be a topic that’s more like a wake in its layout, verbiage and intent. There is no real template for this. You just go with what works. And recognize that there are people who grieve in their own ways. There may even be hostility (“You were never kind to him until it was too late!”) or one-upmanship (“I got to meet her in person!”).
The If I Die app allows for a final status update once three people (you choose them) confirm to the service that you’ve shuffled the mortal coil off to Buffalo. It almost seems like a video will, where the rich uncle leaves everything to his parakeet and, while the cameras are rolling, also tells the assembled family that they’re all wastrels.
But it’s not just that. It’s also – look at the data that’s out there. What sort of a legacy are we leaving for future generations?
A tour through Facebook reveals an awful lot of appreciation for cute cats who can’t spell, George Takei and political soundbite memes. And if future generations only look at that (which might happen, as it could very well be the only thing that survives long enough and is complete enough), they might just that cyber legacy and feel we are rather shallow people indeed.
Forums Tell a Different Story
However, if they dig into communities, I think they’ll see a rather different picture. A picture of real caring. Of reasoned and impassioned debate. Or of rabid fandom. Of people who help each other by answering questions or offering advice on things like repairing a fan belt on a ’68 Buick or ridding a computer of spyware. And of some fall on the floor humor as well.
So, what footprints and fingerprints will you leave behind for your cyber legacy? And what digital fossils will await future archaeologists’ discovery? What will the people of 3017 think of us? What’s your cyber legacy going to be?
I have been managing Able2know for over fourteen years.
It is a generalized Q & A website and the members are all volunteers. I have learned a few things about handling yourself online during this time.
There are few emergencies online. Take your time. I have found, if I am in a hot hurry to respond, itching to answer, it usually means I am getting obsessive.
When it’s really nutty, step away from the keyboard. I suppose this is a corollary to the first one. Furthermore, I pull back when it gets too crazy-making, or try to figure out what else may be bothering me, e. g. I haven’t worked out yet, something at home is annoying me, etc. Being online, and being annoyed, does not equal that something online caused the annoyance.
All we have are words (emoticons do nearly nothing).
I like to make my words count, and actually mean exactly, 100%, what I write, but not everyone hits that degree of precision in their communications. I’ve learned to cut about a 10% degree of slack.
Not everyone gets you. You might be hysterically funny in person, but bomb online, Netizen. Or you might feel you’re a gifted writer, but you write to the wrong audience. You may be hip for your crowd, but hopelessly out of it in another. This is not, really, a personal thing. You can either waste your time trying to get everyone to love you or you can recognize that you didn’t convert one person and move on from there. Choose the latter; it’ll save your sanity every time.
Keep Chilling Out
Be Zen. E. g. I’ve found the old, “oh, you go first” kind of thing smooths the way a lot. I am not saying to not have your say and let everyone else win all the time. It’s just, ya kinda pick the hill you wanna die on, e. g. what’s really important. Stick to those guns. The others, not so much. E. g. getting into a shouting match and kicked off a site due to your hatred of the Designated Hitter Rule – even on a sports or baseball site – falls in the category of you’re probably overreacting and being really, really silly. I doubt that that is a hill most people would try want to die on. But defending your beliefs, fighting prejudice, etc.? Those are probably better hills.
And the corollary to #5: controversial topics are controversial for a reason. They get under people’s skin and make them squirm. Be nice; don’t do that all the time. So try to engage people in other ways, Netizen. There are plenty of people on Able2know who argue a lot about politics. I am not a fan of arguing politics. But we also get together and play Fantasy Baseball (talk about your Designated Hitter Rule). Or we swap recipes, or pet stories, or the like. But then, when a forum member gets sick or becomes bereaved, people who just argued till they were blue in the face turn around. And they virtually hug and offer tributes, prayers (or positive, healing thoughts) and words of comfort. And this user multidimensionality warms the heart. Over the years, people have gotten better at it. If someone’s really bothering you, it’s possible that, in other contexts, you’d get along. You might want to see if you can find some common ground, and other contexts.
Sing Along with Elsa and Let. It. Go.
Know when to stop, or even let others have the last word. When I am really angry, I usually just withdraw. However, this isn’t a surrender. Instead, I’m tired and life’s too short. You do not become a smaller, or less worthwhile person, and you haven’t lost (whatever that really means, particularly on the Internet, fer chrissakes) if you walk away and wash your hands of things. Netizen, you are entitled to call it quits on an argument or discussion.
Finally, I hope you learn from my insanity and my mistakes. Life’s too short to let it get to you too much!
I was inspired by this post in Angela Connor‘s blog. If you don’t know Angela Connor, I urge you to check her out; her blog is extremely insightful and is still one of my favorites.
Her ideas make a great deal of sense, and I think some of this is why the Blizzard forum experiment in real names for users was such an immediate and egregious flop.
The ‘net, like it or not, is for many people a place of masks. You pretend to be younger and thinner than you are. Or you pretend to be unmarried. You pretend to be a Klingon. Or you’re a teenager and pretend to be an adult. Or you pretend to be another gender or richer or lovelier or more conservative or whatever.
And the masks can be freeing to many. Perhaps they were freeing when the ancient Greeks donned them while performing “Oedipus Rex” for the first time. I think there is more of a place for them than perhaps we’d all care to admit. Because there seems to be a value to being able to spread war paint (or lamp black) on one’s face, or wear a Halloween costume.
And this is not the same as our reality. It is related but not identical. Maybe the librarian who goes out for Halloween dressed as a dance hall girl wants to be known as someone who takes risks (and maybe foolish ones, at that). But when the morning after rolls around, she’s back in the library helping others do research.
This kind of anonymous commenting allows for something like this. Because the sympathetic guy who’s really seething inside gets to call people out. He gets to be a bully and be an all-around racist jerk (I have worse names, but don’t wish to besmirch my blog) behind one screen name. But then he surfs to a different site where he can chat up the ladies with his sensitive New Age guy demeanor, all behind another screen name. And then when the time to log off comes, he goes home and kisses his wife and plays with his children. And this is all one guy.
To comment openly through a full, correct name (usually) medium like Facebook would be to cut off the dance hall girl. And it would stifle the racist jerk, the ladies’ man, and any number of other secret selves in favor of a drab and ordinary world. Even on a news site, which is pretty much the definition of drab unless there’s some sort of a hot story, the jerk, the dancer and the Romeo all want to be free.
But we shouldn’t take their opinions as seriously as the real people. Because, even though those personae live in real people’s skins, it’s the real people who vote, marry, pay taxes, work, make the news and are members of our real society.
The trouble is telling them apart and knowing which one is real.
There isn’t a lot that you can do about this. You can, however, stretch out the individual phases.
The first phase is discovery. It all starts with excitement. The user has found your forum! It seems huge! The user can’t possibly read everything. It’s all too much. It’s heady, and the user may very well tell everyone he or she knows about you. Or, the user might want you all to him or herself. Either can happen.
The next phase is nesting. The user makes friends and starts to get into an enclave or two. Enclaves are little groups within your forum, whether formal or informal. Even if your forum does not have actual designated groups, per se, this still happens. In a single fathers’ community, for example, a user might hang around with other users who became first-time fathers after the age of forty. In a folk music forum, a user might spend time with (and follow around) other users from Ohio.
This is perfectly normal – a carving of familiarity in an alien sea. But it does set up the next phase.
The next phase is boredom. The community has too much sameness and does not seem to be changing quickly or thoroughly enough for a user’s taste. But the user sticks around, however, grudgingly.
The final phase is departure. Whether that comes with a bang (a user suspension) or a whimper (the user simply fails to sign in any more), is immaterial. Or, there is a third type of endgame, where the user posts a topic about their departure. This topic can be fond, hostile or even a ploy to get other users to beg that person to stay.
Does it always have to be this way? Well, this kind of a cycle is more or less inevitable. The trick is to stretch out the first two phases, discovery and nesting, as much as possible, or to have the user cycle back from boredom to nesting again (e. g. to find a different group to hang with). Or, a positive situation would be if the boredom phase were at least short (and put off) so that the departure phase would not be a suspension. And it would be less fraught with meaning. A user taking leave, no matter how popular that user is, will leave behind less of a hole if he or she is a part of a 100,000-person forum versus a 100-user community.
How do you do this? By phases, of course!
The Discovery phase of the circle game has two essential elements: new users and new topics. Increase both with good SEO and with encouraging as much user participation as possible.
The Nesting phase can be encouraged and promoted by keeping your community a safe, warm and welcoming place. Having formal specific groups is not strictly necessary for this, but it can be of help if your users are struggling in this area. And, if you do go with formal groups, ask your users which groups they would like. They might surprise you. And it (almost) doesn’t matter whether a group is terribly active. It will still serve its purpose, to continue to afford your users with a friendly place within the forum, even if it is small. This is a place they can call their own.
The Boredom phase of the circle game can be delayed and/or truncated by keeping the twin flows of new users and new topics going. This means more and better SEO, offering new features and encouraging your users to continue adding new, interesting and diverse topics. Can’t think of new topic fodder? So try taking a stand on a controversial subject, or ask for comments on a related news article. Or look in your archives, and see if an older subject might benefit from a fresh, new take.
Finally, the Departure phase of the circle game can, of course, be put off if the first two phases stretch out. When departure happens, don’t ask most users to stay. Unless you have a very tiny forum, this kind of behavior will be impossible to scale. And it generally doesn’t put off the inevitable for too terribly long. Instead, try to find out from the user just why they are leaving. Except for purely personal, internal circumstances (e. g. the user just started a new job and has no time for your community any more), there may be something you can learn from and improve on. And asking why will also give you an opportunity, not to entreat the user to stay, but to let the user know that he or she is welcome to return at any time.
Your users’ interest in your community will wax and wane. You cannot always do anything about it, but if an effort is made, your users are generally going to appreciate that. And your circle game will go on.