AOC Managing Communities

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'''Primary Author: Dawn Foster'''<br>
'''Primary Author: Dawn Foster'''<br>
Some of us are lucky enough to have a full time job managing communities, while even more people manage communities for fun in their spare time. The community manager role is part cheerleader, part cat herder, part enforcer, and much more. This chapter covers some of the basic elements of community management: motivation, community manager role, skills required to manage a community, and enforcing good behavior.
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Managing communities can be one of the most difficult and the most rewarding roles whether you do it for fun or as an occupation. While this chapter covers the basic elements of motivation, norms, appropriate behaviors, roles, and skills required, managing communities is a complex role requiring mainly good judgment and common sense.

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Back to Chapters for AOC
Primary Author: Dawn Foster

Some of us are lucky enough to have a full time job managing communities, while even more people manage communities for fun in their spare time. The community manager role is part cheerleader, part cat herder, part enforcer, and much more. This chapter covers some of the basic elements of community management: motivation, community manager role, skills required to manage a community, and enforcing good behavior.



Eric Raymond wrote that "Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch."[1] In open source communities, many projects are started to fill the developer's need, so the developer has a personal stake in the product's quality. Linus started Linux to fulfill his personal need for a Unix-like operating system that would run on lower cost hardware. Other developers frequently contribute to open source projects to fill a need of their own to have a particular project ported to a favorite hardware platform or to add an additional feature that would make the product more closely meet their needs.

This idea can also be applied to other non-technical online communities. People join and participate in social networking communities, like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter to fill a social need and have an online location to hang out with friends, coordinate social events, share new (or old) music, and discuss their ideas and experiences. Others join business-oriented networking sites, like LinkedIn, to make better connections with people in related industries and to network online with like-minded people. Some people join online news and information communities, like Digg and Newsvine, to share and discuss information with others.

People can join online communities to fill a particular need, and those needs can take many forms and motivate people in different ways. Keep in mind that motivation is incredibly complex. A single individual may be motivated to join and contribute to online communities for many different reasons, which when combined form a powerful set of motivators. This section will describe several different ways that people are motivated to participate in online communities, but keep in mind that most people will be influenced by some combination of these motivations.

Career Advancement and Knowledge

Intellectual and Skills Building

The desire to learn new skills and to share knowledge may be what motivates most people who join and participate in open source projects. The Free/Libre and Open Source Software: Survey and Study from 2002 and similar subsequent surveys found that the most common reason that people joined open source communities was to learn and develop new skills with 79% of survey respondents listing this as a reason join. When asked why they stay in an open source community, learning and developing new skills was still the most common reason (70%) followed closely by sharing knowledge and skills (67%) [2]. Most open source developers seem to be motivated to join and continue contributing to open source projects to learn and develop new skills, and as they continue to participate in open source projects, the desire to share their information and knowledge becomes a more important motivator over time.

In addition to building skills and sharing knowledge, many open source developers just like a good challenge, and they are interested in solving tough problems. Eric Raymond describes the problem solving motivation in the context of hackers (keep in mind that in this case hackers are people who love to write software and figure out how things work; they are not people who break into computers or engage in other destructive behaviors.)

Hackers solve problems and build things, and they believe in freedom and voluntary mutual help. To be accepted as a hacker, you have to behave as though you have this kind of attitude yourself. And to behave as though you have the attitude, you have to really believe the attitude.

1) The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved. Being a hacker is lots of fun, but it's a kind of fun that takes lots of effort. The effort takes motivation. Successful athletes get their motivation from a kind of physical delight in making their bodies perform, in pushing themselves past their own physical limits. Similarly, to be a hacker you have to get a basic thrill from solving problems, sharpening your skills, and exercising your intelligence.
If you aren't the kind of person that feels this way naturally, you'll need to become one in order to make it as a hacker. Otherwise you'll find your hacking energy is sapped by distractions like sex, money, and social approval.
(You also have to develop a kind of faith in your own learning capacity — a belief that even though you may not know all of what you need to solve a problem, if you tackle just a piece of it and learn from that, you'll learn enough to solve the next piece — and so on, until you're done.) (Eric Raymond) [3]

The Make community is an interesting example outside of open source software of an online community formed around problem solving, learning new skills, and sharing knowledge with others. The foundation is the quarterly publication, a combination magazine / book, called Make, which provides detailed instructions for how to make or modify almost anything imaginable. Project examples include electronic insects, a soccer-playing robot, a robot made from an old computer mouse, a cigar box guitar, a toaster tea popper to pull your teabag out of the cup at exactly the right time, a cell phone-based anonymous megaphone, and much more. These range from low-tech and simple with only a few parts and no soldering required, while others require extensive electronic and computer skills with circuit boards, wiring, and programming. Regardless of the skills required for a specific project, this is a community of serious tinkerers.

The Make community is way more than just a magazine. People use the Make forums to post questions about how to make or modify some object, and other users help out by providing tips and suggestions for how it might be made; however, there are also more philosophical discussions on the forums about whether or not certain types of machines violate the laws of physics and whether they could ever be made. The forums are also used to arrange off-line meetups of groups of makers within a local community. The mother of all meetups for this community is the yearly Maker Faire, which drew 20,000 people in April 2006 for a weekend of demos, entertainment, and fun with like-minded people. Make also has a group blog with several contributors and frequent podcasts.

Blogging is another activity that can allow a person to fulfill their need for intellectual pursuits and to build skills online in a manner slightly less technical than the above open source and maker examples while still being community oriented. This is the primary reason that I blog. Blogging about a topic forces you to think about the topic and analyze it in more detail than you might have if you only spent time thinking about it. This analysis and the writing that follows help to fulfill the intellectual need to learn new things and share them with others. By allowing comments on the blog, you bring in an element of community. The community provides valuable feedback on your ideas (good and bad), and people point out errors and suggest corrections. As part of the blogger community, other blogs and increasingly mainstream media link to your blog providing additional feedback on your ideas, or people do not link to a particular entry (maybe it was not as brilliant as you thought it was).

Teachers have always known that one of the best ways to thoroughly understand a topic is by teaching it to other people. Explaining a topic to other community members is a powerful motivator to learn more about it. Community participation gives people an opportunity to learn and share information with other community members. Trying to explain the topic in more detail can help the person doing the explaining learn just as much as the community members receiving the information.


Although many people contribute to communities without any additional compensation, some community members are motivated by economic concerns. Getting paid to contribute to a community can happen under a few different methods: regular job duties, advertising supported, or freelance work.

It has become increasingly common for people to participate in a community as part of their regular job duties. We have been seeing this trend within the open source community for a number of years as companies sponsor open source developers by hiring them and putting them on a salary to support a project. The Linux community provides a number of good examples. The Linux Foundation, a non profit organization dedicated increasing the adoption of Linux, sponsors Linus Torvalds and other key Linux kernel developers providing them with a relatively unbiased source of income allowing them to focus on their contribution to the Linux kernel with fewer distractions. Companies like IBM, Intel, and Red Hat along with many others also hire Linux kernel developers and maintainers benefiting the company in a number of ways. Many companies rely on Linux, and it is in their best interest to maintain a healthy and thriving community around the project thus increasing the chances that the community and the Linux kernel will survive and prosper. Supporting the developers helps to ensure that good developers stay focused on the project rather than having their attention divided by having some non-Linux related full time job required to provide financial support. By drawing a salary from a major company, the developer can focus full-time on community contribution without worrying about finding money for the next house payment. By having community members on staff, the company can also increase the likelihood of getting support for their most recent products. For example, when IBM and Intel release new hardware platforms, they usually need some changes to the Linux kernel to support the new platforms, and with developers on staff who are both intimately familiar with the Linux kernel and the company's hardware, they are in a much better position to help the community prepare the Linux kernel to run on the next generation of hardware.

Community manager positions are becoming more common as online communities become increasingly popular. Companies use community managers to help facilitate community discussions on forums, to seed wikis with initial information to help people get started, to answer people's questions or resolve any technical issues that may arise within the community, and to be the liaison between the community and the company supporting it. I have been making a living for more than a year as a community manager.
Some communities are also experimenting with paying people on a freelance basis for contributions to a community:

  • Various companies and individuals, including Novell and Mark Shuttleworth, have offered bounties paid to open source developers for completing some task as specified by the organization or person paying for the bounty.
  • Google offers students a stipend to work on open source projects as part of the Summer of Code program.

The status and recognition from community activities and speaking engagements can also be used as a self-marketing tool leading to career advancement. The traditional hiring process usually relies on a resume, interviews, and references to select the best candidate; however, this is a less than ideal way to find the best person for a job. For example, someone with a brilliantly spun resume and a gift for conversation may not be able to dive into the details required to complete real projects, while the person with a lousy resume and poor communication skills may be the best computer programmer for the job. In contrast to the traditional hiring process, online communities provide examples of real work. Many open source companies focus their hiring process on people who already contribute to the community, which gives them an opportunity to evaluate their contributions and interactions with their peers in a real life situation allowing them to select the best contributors rather than selecting a person who may or may not be an ideal candidate. At Jive, where I currently work, we have hired several developers out of our open source communities. Similarly, reading a person's blog can also provide quite a bit of insight into how a person thinks, their depth of expertise on a topic, and how they respond to criticism via comments. A blog and participation in other online communities can provide more information about a potential candidate than the resume or interview process. Status and recognition have always been a recruiting tool for companies, but with the proliferation of online communities, more people are motivated to participate to boost their status and recognition.

Economic motivations can also create issues and conflict of interests in some cases. Sometimes the goals of the person paying the bills through developer salaries, freelance work or advertising can conflict with the community goals. A company may push a staff developer or bounty hunter to contribute a piece of code or a feature that the community does not want. An advertising sponsor can try to influence the community to favor one company over another. In same cases this influence can be blatant and at other times subconscious. It is natural for people to want to repay the kindness of others even when we do not consciously realize that we are not being completely objective. These conflicts of interest demonstrate the negative side of economic motivations within communities.


Our actions within online communities can generate status and recognition that fuel the ego; some people seek this out, and it becomes a motivation for participation in online communities, while others find that status and recognition come with their actions whether or not this was a motivation for participating. Linus Torvalds is probably the best example out of the open source community of a person who became an accidental celebrity. Linus started the Linux operating system out of his personal desire to have a Unix-like operating system running on less expensive hardware. His original goal was for Linux to be “just a hobby, won't be big and professional”[4], and he shared his ideas with a community of other like-minded individuals. These are not the actions of a man wanting to be famous for his creation; however, as Linux grew in popularity over time, Linus gained recognition and elite status within the Linux and open source communities.

In the previous Intellectual and Skills Building section, we described how some bloggers are motivated by intellectual needs and skills building. Taking this idea one step further, a blogger focused on intellectual motivation and the desire to build skills may also gain status and recognition for her writing. She may be consciously motivated by status and recognition or it may reinforce her desire to contribute to the blogging community even when it is not sought out. For some bloggers, status and recognition may be the primary motivation for blogging. Blogging can be a way to show the world that you are an expert in a particular topic and gain celebrity status for your expertise within the broader community.

Gaining status and recognition for your expertise in an online community can also have a number of interesting side effects, which can further increase community status and recognition. If you have name recognition through blogging, open source contributions, or other community activities, getting selected for speaking engagements at conferences becomes more likely. Assuming that two people submit identical speaking proposals for an event, the conference organizer will most likely select the proposal from the person with community name recognition. The name recognition suggests to the organizer that the person is already recognized for their expertise; therefore, it is likely that this person will have a higher quality session. The person with name recognition will also be a bigger draw for attendees than an unknown speaker; for example, more people would be interested in attending a session led by Mitchell Baker, Chief Lizard Wrangler and President of Mozilla, than a session led by John Doe, a passionate, but rather unknown Firefox contributor and evangelist.

Community Building


Many open source developers are passionate about open source and have a strong ethical foundation and moral reasons that drive their contributiopns to open source projects. Richard Stallman, the founder and driving force behind the free software movement, of which open source software is a part, based this movement on the belief that software should be free (as in freedom, not necessarily price) and open for others to modify and share with others. Richard Stallman views his decision to begin the free software movement as taking the moral high ground to make the world and the software development community a better place where developers can share their code freely rather than restricting access using proprietary licenses and non-disclosure agreements. The following quote comes from a discussion about why there was a need to create the free software movement in the early 1980s when software began moving from a freely shared academic model of cooperation to a proprietary corporate model of protecting intellectual property.

The modern computers of the era, such as the VAX or the 68020 had their own operating systems, but none of them were free software: you had to sign a nondisclosure agreement even to get an executable copy.
This meant that the first step in using a computer was to promise not to help your neighbor. A cooperating community was forbidden. The rule made by the owners of proprietary software was, "if you share with your neighbor, you are a pirate. If you want any changes, beg us to make them."
The idea that the proprietary software social system—the system that says you are not allowed to share or change software—is anti-social, that it is unethical, that it is simply wrong may come as a surprise to some readers. But what else could we say about a system based on dividing the public and keeping users helpless? (Richard Stallman)[5]

This is almost a religious passion for the open source / free software community based on a strong belief that software should be open. Other open source developers are less motivated by these philosophical arguments and more motivated by their passion and love of the activity of programming. Many developers love to program and are motivated to contribute to projects that they are passionate about, rather than the projects that their employer or university thinks are important. In many cases, open source developers write code all day at work or the university, and then they come home and write open source code for projects that they find interesting. br>

The reasons for contributing to other online communities are not that different. The blogger community is a great example of people participating because of a passion about a topic. People blog about topics they are passionate about. Lawrence Lessig blogs about legal matters associated with free software, digital rights management, and other restrictions on how people can use and share information. Michael Arrington is passionate about web 2.0, and his TechCrunch blog is becoming the place to find the latest web 2.0 companies. Seth Godin blogs about marketing and the spread of ideas. Others blog about sports, food, knitting, politics, sex, religion, terrorism, technology, art, music, life, news, books, travel, romance, television, friends, family, and every other topic that someone, somewhere might consider interesting.

Other web 2.0 sites are springing up to form communities around topics that capture people's passions. Flickr is just one example. People with a passion for photography are motivated to share their photos on Flickr with a community of people who have the same passion. Users are encouraged to comment on the work of others, and many of the photographs are under various creative commons licensing allowing liberal use of the work by other people. My Flickr photos are mostly vacation pictures to share with family and friends online; however, some people share really amazing, professional quality photography on Flickr.


Some people are motivated to participate in online communities for social reasons. There are niche social networking sites for everything from dog / cat / fuzzy pet owners to car / film / book / music lovers to shoppers to parents. Online communities can be a great method of connecting with people in a social environment, having fun, and maybe even wasting time in a way that helps energize and refresh our workaholic, play-starved brains (Second Life and Facebook). Other people are motivated to participate to increase their social network in a business setting (LinkedIn).

Most social software is not about achieving some goal or increasing productivity. Some people may get productivity gains out of using some social networking tools, but I would argue that this is a side effect more than a motivation for participating in many communities. Young people do not use MySpace solely as a substitute for productivity tools like email and IM; they use it as an online mall or coffee shop where they can connect with friends, get to know friends of friends, leave inside jokes as public comments to demonstrate that they are in someone's social circle, organize events, and more. These online activities create a network of peers and identification within their community of friends. When all of your friends are on MySpace, you miss out by not joining, which is a strong form of peer pressure and social motivation. Second Life is another great example of a community built around social diversion. People in Second Life create avatars to represent their online self, meet new people, and engage in all kinds of interesting activities.

Many groups of people are driven to community participation to fulfill a specific personal need. Support communities are increasingly moving online for medical conditions and other concerns affecting only a small number of people. People can reach out and discuss a touchy medical condition and get social support from others facing the same problems online in an anonymous manner. For some rare conditions, a person might be the only one with that condition for 100 miles, but online they may be able to reach out to hundreds or thousands of other people for support in a social, online environment.

For others, the social motivation for participating is less about pure fun and diversion and more about networking and increasing business relationships. Many of us participate in the LinkedIn community to build our business network online. We can search for jobs, get connected to other people with similar business interests, get introduced to someone we may want to partner with, or reconnect with old colleagues. This is the online version of attending an industry conference or trade show to meet people and connect with others that you already know within the industry.

People participating in a community are seeking positive social encounters, and it is worth mentioning that any community should strive to increase the positive experiences and decrease the negative ones. Community members can certainly be driven away from a community by negative experiences like abusive comments or discussions that turn very nasty. I will cover this idea in more detail later in the section on community norms.

An interesting side effect of having so many of our social interactions in online communities means that for many of us, our online and offline interactions began to merge. We need the offline interactions in addition to the online community; however, the online interactions can drive new offline relationships. Many of us who blog “meet” people online as a result of comments back and forth in the blogosphere, but we take the opportunity to meet these bloggers in the offline space when we get an opportunity at a conference or other venue. After I began exchanging blog comments with Josh Bancroft, we both realized that we worked at the same Intel campus, and getting together offline resulted in him joining the Art of Community Lightning Talks session at OSCON 2006. In many cases, open source conferences like ApacheCon and DebConf give people an opportunity to meet other community members. In open source projects, it is not uncommon for people to participate in a community even working very closely with particular people for years before ever meeting them in the physical world. Even Second Life has a conference where people can meet the real life people behind the avatars.

Both online and offline interactions have their place, but it is interesting to see how the two are merging in our social interactions to the point where we do not even consciously think about how we use them both. The social motivation to participate in online communities become an extension of our human social needs in the offline world.

Gift Cultures

Open Source software is occasionally referred to as a gift economy where the contributions of code, documentation, and other content can be thought of as gifts from one person to the community. [6] Eric Raymond points out that “in gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away.”[7] This is in contrast to the exchange economy that governs most of the rest of our interactions. In an exchange economy, one party offers something of value in exchange for goods or services; the “something of value” often refers to currency, but it can also include bartered goods. Even when the motivation to contribute to an online community is economic as described previously in this chapter, the gift culture analogy still holds true in most cases because the code is being given to the open source community. The developer receives compensation from some third party company in the form of employment or other contract work; however, the developer and the company sponsor are still contributing freely to the community.

Within open source communities, the idea of contributions as gifts is fairly common; however, many other online communities also operate as gift giving cultures. Contributors to Digg and Newsvine freely submit stories, comment on stories submitted by others, and vote on stories they feel should be on the front page without expecting anything in exchange for their efforts. Most bloggers (with the exception of the few who actually make money from sponsorships, advertising, or some other payment model) can also be part of the gift culture by submitting content freely to anyone wanting to read their thoughts, ideas, or advice on a particular topic. The community of readers also offer comments as a part of the gift culture. Jean Russell commented on an early draft of this section to say that "If it doesn't have a gift economy, then it is NOT a community."

In some ways, the gift giving motivation is just a different way of looking at some of the other motivations previously described in this chapter. The gift culture may be most closely associated with the motivation to achieve status and recognition, since social status within a gift culture is determined by what you give. Passion about a topic tends to drive people to contribute freely without the expectation of receiving anything in return, and the gift giving acts a way to share their passion with others. Acquiring new skills and then freely sharing that knowledge is also a form of giving. Gift giving can relate to the career advancement motivation, since people become well known for their contributions to the community. The act of gift giving can also be a social activity where people come together and freely share ideas and information in an online social environment.

Community Management

Seth Godin recently called the Online Community Organizer role a Job of the Future. [8]. This brings me to a common question: “What exactly does a community manager do?” I see the online community manager role as having several key elements: ongoing facilitation, content creation, evangelism, and community evolution. There are certainly many more tasks, but I suspect that 90% of the work falls into one of these four very broad categories.

Community Manager Roles

Ongoing Facilitation: This is probably the activity that most people think of first when talking about community management. A community manager is an active participant within the community to answer questions, deal with trolls or other abuses, explain how things work, monitor the content closely, role model appropriate behavior, and much more. It also involves a lot of cat herding and helping people connect with each other. On Jivespace and Ignite Realtime, I frequently pull Jive engineers into the discussion to answer questions in an area where additional technical expertise is needed. It can also mean walking a very fine line between the community and the company by representing the company in community discussions and representing the needs of the community when working inside the company.

Content Creation: In any community, content needs to stay fresh and current regardless of whether you are talking about code releases or other content. People will wander away from a community that looks stale or inactive. I have been focused on recording new podcasts and blogging regularly in addition to making sure that questions get answered (also part of facilitation). This also involves working with others to create content by encouraging them to blog about their areas of expertise relevant to the community.

Evangelism: Getting the word out about your community can take a number of forms depending on the type of community. In general this can be served by talking to people (customers and other interested parties), blogging, speaking at conferences, and being actively involved in related communities.

Community Evolution: This may be the most overlooked area for many communities. It is important to continue to keep the community engaged by evolving along with the technology. New features, contests, group activities and more should be planned from the beginning. Keeping the community software updated and evolving into new areas are part of growing the community and keeping it fresh over time.

As a community manager, you should be thinking about how to make sure that all four of these items get an appropriate amount of attention. Responding to questions and writing an occasional blog may by not enough if you want your community to flourish. Community management can be a tough, but rewarding job, requiring a diverse set of skills to be successful.


Seth Godin's description of this role is a good starting point for thinking about the skills required to accomplish the above four requirements for the job of community manager:

“It would help if that person understood technology, at least well enough to know what it could do. They would need to be able to write. But they also have to be able to seduce stragglers into joining the group in the first place, so they have to be able to understand a marketplace, do outbound selling and non-electronic communications. They have to be able to balance huge amounts of inbound correspondence without making people feel left out, and they have to be able to walk the fine line between rejecting trolls and alienating the good guys.

Since there’s no rule book, it would help to be willing to try new things, to be self-starting and obsessed with measurement as well.” [9]

I have put a little more detail behind this description breaking the role into several slightly overlapping skills.

Patience. The community manager should not be the one responding to all of the questions. She needs to hold back and let others within the community participate. This is especially true when someone in the community is being particularly difficult. It can be easy to fire off an angry response that might be regretted later, but waiting until the emotions cool a bit can make the response more thoughtful and constructive. This includes patience with newbie community members. She may have heard the question a million times from other newbies, but this is probably the first time this particular person has asked the question. Taking a little time to welcome new community members while pointing them to a list of helpful resources (nicely) can go a long way toward helping to grow your community.

Networking. The best community managers are the ones who seem to know everyone and have a large group of colleagues who can help in various ways. These people do not typically acquire large networks by accident; they have good networking skills and are constantly meeting new people and growing their network.

Communication. Community managers should be great communicators. In some communities where the interactions are primarily online, good writing skills are essential. Public speaking skills can also be required for those community managers who also spend time organizing community events, evangelizing, and speaking at conferences on topics related to the community. The ability to take complex ideas and synthesize them into a concise summary is also a key part of the communication required.

Facilitation. I spend a fair amount of time making sure that the right people are involved and engaged in the community. No one person can (or should) respond to every question or comment, so the community manager is frequently in the position of facilitating the discussions.

Technical Skills. Having at least a basic understanding of the technologies used in your community are important. This varies widely depending on the community. In my case, the ability to administer the Clearspace installation, maintaining and writing web pages, bug tracking software, svn, etc. have been really helpful. I find that my background as a sys admin has been really helpful in this job. Not all community managers need to be highly technical. It certainly helps to be able to do some things yourself, but in my case, I do what I can and rely on our hosting provider, our web developers, and other developers at Jive to help with the tricky stuff.

Marketing. For those of us managing developer communities, marketing may seem like a dirty word, but yes, marketing skills are a requirement. The community manager needs to be able to promote community activities, solicit new members, and in general get the word out about the community.

Self Motivation. In most cases, no one will be looking over the community manager’s shoulder telling him what to do. He needs to be self motivated to do whatever it takes to keep the community active and healthy without much direction from others.

Workaholic Tendencies. I do not mean that the community manager must work all the time; however, most communities do not exist in the 9-5 work hour schedule. People from all time zones participate at all hours of the day. Community managers probably want to at least check in on the community outside of business hours and respond to any hot topics or heated debates. This ties into the self motivation skills described above.

Organization. Community managers should also be organized. Keeping track of loose ends, making sure that questions are answered, being able to organize events, etc. all require good organizational skills and attention to detail. This is probably the toughest one for me. Although I tend to be highly organized, I tend not to be particularly attentive to details. I’m working on it.

The skills required also vary a bit depending on the type of community being managed. For example, managing a developer community might require more technical skills than managing an online social community. Most community managers probably need all of these skills, but at varying levels depending on the situation.

Norms and Behavior

Norms and behavioral conventions guide participation in online communities in the same way that they guide our behavior in other social situations. In most cases, people would not throw food and eat with their hands at fancy dinner parties, or use noisemakers during a math test. Throwing food and eating with your hands might be fine at a casual picnic among close friends, and noisemakers are completely appropriate at a New Year's Eve party; however, the appropriateness of these behaviors depend on the situation. During most math tests, students are expected to work quietly, not cheat, and listen to instructions. A student could choose to bring noisemakers; however, it would likely result in unpleasant consequences: a failing grade, a trip to the Principal's office, or detention. Online communities have similar rules for behavior and consequences associated with not adhering to the norms of the group, and the task of setting and enforcing these rules mostly likely falls to the community manager. While each community has slightly different expectations for behavior, there are a number of common elements.

Play Nice

Flickr is explicit about playing nice within their community. Flickr's first community guideline is “Play nice: We're a community of many types of people, who all have the right to feel comfortable and who may not think what you think, believe what you believe or see what you see. So, be polite and respectful in your interactions with other members.”[10] YouTube has a similar guideline: “Respect the YouTube Community: We're not asking for the kind of respect reserved for nuns, the elderly, and brain surgeons. We mean don't abuse the site. Every cool new community feature on YouTube involves a certain level of trust. We trust you to be responsible, and millions of users respect that trust, so please be one of them.”[11] Within Second Life, intolerance, harassment, assault, and disturbing the peace can result in suspension or expulsion from Second Life.[12]

Online communities, like communities in real life, should be a place where the members can participate in a comfortable environment. Harassment and intolerance based on race, gender, religion, and other characteristics is generally discouraged. At the minimum, a member who harasses another community member will usually find themselves on the receiving end of unpleasant feedback from other members in defense of the harassed member. In some cases, a formal penalty including removal from the community may be enforced.

Responding nicely to questions (yes, even the stupid questions) is also a good practice within the community. Community newbies are going to ask questions that have already been asked a million times. Experienced members need to remember that this is the first time for the newbie no matter how tired the existing members are of hearing the same questions. An irate response about the lack of intelligence on the part of the newbie is almost a guarantee that the community will not get many new members, while a patient response pointing the newbie to the archives or FAQ takes the same amount of time as the flame response while encouraging that new member to continue participating. If you want to encourage community growth, being nice to new members is a great first step, since when they stick around for a while the new members turn into experienced members who can help in some productive manner.

Keep it Legal

Adhering to local laws helps to ensure that a community can continue to exist without inference by government officials. No community wants to be the next Napster, shut down due to legal concerns complete with expensive legal defense and eventual bankruptcy.[13] As an attempt to avoid Napster's fate, YouTube asks members to “Respect copyright. Only upload videos that you made or that you have obtained the rights to use. This means don't upload videos you didn't make, or use content in your videos that someone else owns the copyright to, such as music tracks, snippets of copyrighted programs, or videos made by other users, without their permission.”[14] YouTube is also proactive about removing content that infringes on copyrights held by others.

Copyright violations may be one of the most common legal issues within online communities, but with laws differing across various geographical regions, the issue quickly becomes complex. Sites like Digg cover this issue within their terms of service the agreement not to use Digg “for any illegal or unauthorized purpose. If you are an international user, you agree to comply with all local laws regarding online conduct and acceptable content.” [15] Linden Lab makes this slightly more explicit in their Terms of Service for Second Life:

“The rights and obligations of the parties under this Agreement shall not be governed by the U.N. Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods; rather such rights and obligations shall be governed by and construed under the laws of the State of California, including its Uniform Commercial Code, without reference to conflict of laws principles. The Service is controlled and operated by Linden Lab from its offices within the State of California, United States of America. Linden Lab makes no representation that any aspect of the Service is appropriate or available for use in jurisdictions outside of the United States. Those who choose to access the Service from other locations are responsible for compliance with applicable local laws. The Linden Software is subject to all applicable export restrictions. You must comply with all export and import laws and restrictions and regulations of any United States or foreign agency or authority relating to the Linden Software and its use.”[16]

Do Not Spam or Attack

Members should not post spam messages or sell the community member lists to spammers. This sounds obvious, but it is not always as straightforward as you might think. For some community members, participating in a community can mean drawing a fine line between being helpful and being a spammer. In some open source communities, particularly those focused on enterprise software, the community members may also have commercial interests in the form of consulting services or add-on products offered for an additional fee. When another community member is having a problem that your product or service could solve, is it OK to suggest it? Maybe yes, maybe no. It depends on the community. It also depends on how frequently you suggest your own products. What if you are recommending your products frequently? Once or twice may be fine with a community, but after recommending your products a few more times, you may find yourself ostracized or even banned from posting any new content to the community. In one open source community, a group of people who forked the original project frequently monitor the parent project, and when users have questions the fork members often suggest that they ask the question on the fork project forums attempting to recruit new community members at the expense of the original community. I refer you back to the Play Nice section of this chapter. Be polite and respectful of other community members or you may find yourself banned from the community.

Keeping an eye on spam is another fun community management task. Taking steps like requiring captchas and email validation for registration to keep the blatant spammers out in the first place can help, but no tool will keep out every spammer. They will find new and creative ways to spam the community, so community managers have to be proactive and diligent about deleting spam and banning spam accounts. In the communities I manage, someone generally catches spam forum posts pretty quickly, and we can do a quick cleanup. I recently had a spammer who was sending a classic Nigerian bank scam via private message to individual users. He got to quite a few of our users before he hit one of our administrators. Like I said, they will get creative.

Many Web 2.0 communities add explicit community guidelines or terms of service designed to discourage users from taking any actions that would disrupt the community experience for other members in the form of attacks on the community or on the infrastructure running the community. Digg, for example, specifies that

you will not use any robot, spider, scraper or other automated means to access the Site for any purpose without our express written permission. Additionally, you agree that you will not: (i) take any action that imposes, or may impose in our sole discretion an unreasonable or disproportionately large load on our infrastructure; (ii) interfere or attempt to interfere with the proper working of the Site or any activities conducted on the Site; or (iii) bypass any measures we may use to prevent or restrict access to the Site.[17]

Second Life also has an explicit policy and punishment for global attacks:

Objects, scripts, or actions which broadly interfere with or disrupt the Second Life community, the Second Life servers or other systems related to Second Life will not be tolerated in any form. We will hold you responsible for any actions you take, or that are taken by objects or scripts that belong to you. Sandboxes are available for testing objects and scripts that have components that may be unmanageable or whose behavior you may not be able to predict. If you chose to use a script that substantially disrupts the operation of Second Life, disciplinary actions will result in a minimum two-week suspension, the possible loss of in-world inventory, and a review of your account for probable expulsion from Second Life.[18]

Nudity, Obscenity, Language, and Other Inappropriate Behavior

Community standards related to nudity, obscenity, language, violence, and other inappropriate behavior vary within each community, and guidelines may not be explicitly stated.

Some communities explicitly ban certain items: "YouTube is not for pornography or sexually explicit content. If this describes your video, even if it's a video of yourself, don't post it on YouTube."[19] Other communities are specific about where certain activities / content is or is not acceptable:

  • In Flickr, do not "Upload photos that include frontal nudity, genitalia and/or "intimate moments" between consenting partners in public areas of Flickr. If you do we'll make your photostream private and remind you of this Guideline. If you don't heed our warning and continue to make similar content public, we'll terminate your account without warning. This applies to your Buddy Icon as well."[20]
  • In Second Life, "Content, communication, or behavior which involves intense language or expletives, nudity or sexual content, the depiction of sex or violence, or anything else broadly offensive must be contained within private land in areas rated Mature (M). Names of Residents, objects, places and groups are broadly viewable in Second Life directories and on the Second Life website, and must adhere to PG guidelines." [21]

The community guidelines or terms of service are the best places to get a definitive answer about what is or is not acceptable within a community. In absence of any explicit rules, spending some time lurking in a community to see how other members behave can help you understand how to behave within a specific community. Within most communities, I would take a conservative approach and assume that nudity, obscenity, and questionable language are not permitted; however, like most activities involving human beings there is a huge gray area in between the black and white areas. The gray area is created by diverse interpretations of what is or is not acceptable varying by culture, local customs, individual preferences, and more. Something accepted by most people in the United States and Germany might not be acceptable to someone from the Middle East, and something acceptable to a Buddhist might not be acceptable to a Catholic and vise versa. Acceptable behavior in a community of nudists is probably different from acceptable behavior in a community of nuns. This relates back to the age old question: is a beautiful painting of a nude model obscene? It depends on your perspective.

Site-Specific Norms

Some communities, particularly web 2.0 sites, tend to have community guidelines specific to the type of community:

  • Because Digg is based on accurate voting on new stories, they have several guidelines related to voting (Digg counts) that prohibit "artificially inflating or altering the 'digg count', blog count, comments, or any other Digg service, including by way of creating separate user accounts for the purpose of artificially altering Digg's services; giving or receiving money or other remuneration in exchange for votes; or participating in any other organized effort that in any way artificially alters the results of Digg's services."[22]
  • Flickr's focus on photography, rather than graphics in general, leads to this guideline: "Your account will be terminated if you use it to host graphic elements of web page designs, icons, smilies, buddy icons, forum avatars, badges and other non-photographic elements on external websites. [23]
  • Second Life even has a clause banning Avatar assault within safe areas: "Most areas in Second Life are identified as Safe. Assault in Second Life means: shooting, pushing, or shoving another Resident in a Safe Area (see Global Standards below); creating or using scripted objects which singularly or persistently target another Resident in a manner which prevents their enjoyment of Second Life." [24]

Dealing with Problems

Handling trolls can be one of the most difficult issues for community managers. In general, trolls refer to those people who bait other members to get them into heated debates on controversial topics. Trolls are people who love a good fight and won't give up no matter how the behavior impacts the community. A troll can usually be found in the beginning stages of any lengthy flame war. "Don't feed the trolls" is a common mantra that most open source communities and usenet groups have followed for years. Essentially, this means that you (and your community members) have to ignore the trolls. Responding and arguing with trolls only feeds their disruptive behavior. This may also need to be a point of education for new members who may be easily drawn into these arguments and debates thus feeding the troll without realizing the impact of that action. When the troll doesn't find an audience, they will most likely drift away.

Almost every community (online or off) will probably have an issue with one or more of their own members at some point in time. Methods of dealing with these members vary widely depending on the specific problem and the type of community. On one end of the spectrum, the member can be banned from the community. While banishment is a drastic step, it might be an appropriate step for threatening or harassing other members; hate speech based on race, gender, ethnicity, etc. or other potentially damaging behaviors. In most cases, the first step is to talk to the member creating the problems to help them understand that the behavior is inappropriate giving the person a chance to self-correct.


Managing communities can be one of the most difficult and the most rewarding roles whether you do it for fun or as an occupation. While this chapter covers the basic elements of motivation, norms, appropriate behaviors, roles, and skills required, managing communities is a complex role requiring mainly good judgment and common sense.


  1. The Cathedral and the Bazaar page 23 of the 2001 revised edition.
  2. The Free/Libre and Open Source Software: Survey and Study. June 2002.
  3. This quote comes from the "How to Become a Hacker" essay in Appendix A of [The Cathedral and the Bazaar page 197 of the 2001 revised edition.
  4. comp.os.minix newsgroup post from August 25, 1991
  5. This quote comes from Richard Stallman's chapter in the 1999 book, Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution by Chris DiBona, Sam Ockman, and Mark Stone page 54.
  6. Magnus Bergquist & Jan Ljungberg describe this concept in an Information Systems Journal article from 2001 titled “The power of gifts: organizing social relationships in open source communities”.
  7. The Cathedral and the Bazaar page 81 of the 2001 revised edition.
  8. Seth Godin recently called the Online Community Organizer role a Job of the Future
  9. Quote from Seth Godin’s Blog
  10. Flickr Community Guidelines
  11. YouTube Community Guidelines
  12. Second Life Community Standards
  13. Napster was eventually resurrected as a legal music site after being acquired by Roxio. For more on the shutdown of Napster visit Wikipedia
  14. YouTube Community Guidelines
  15. Digg Terms of Service
  16. Second Life Terms of Service
  17. Digg Terms of Service
  18. Second Life Terms of Service
  19. YouTube Community Guidelines
  20. Flickr Community Guidelines
  21. Second Life Community Standards
  22. Digg Terms of Service
  23. Flickr Community Guidelines
  24. Second Life Community Standards
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