I have been a member of or co-run more than a dozen online communities. This blog post started out with the much too long title “Everything I Know about Online Communities I Learned from Ones Who Were Doing It Wrong (and Some Who Are Doing it Right).” I’ve observed a lot and have seen many communities change and evolve over the years as problems arise, membership grows, or a leader leaves and people start speaking up about new needs.
Following are some steps every community — new or long-established — should think about, and hopefully discuss, to ensure their community thrives in the future.
1. Have an onboarding process in place for newcomers. It can be an FAQ page, a wiki or forum entry, an automated email, a folder in a shared Dropbox, or a README doc on Github; whatever you do, make sure that new people have access to the information they will need. Having a list of tasks that new people can help with is a great way to get them started contributing right away. Jobs do this with new employees, and so should communities.
2. Make sure everyone knows where you are communicating. Do you have a Google group, an email list for different committees, wikis, and/or separate Slack and IRC channels? Make sure that all the ways you communicate are made known in one location, that all decisions are presented in a forum where debate can happen, and that all dissenting and agreeing opinions are documented. Be sure to let people know in advance when a debate is going to happen, since everyone it affects should be able to have a chance to be present or provide input in advance. Leaving people out of the loop makes them think you don’t want them in your community.
3. Have community rules known. Better yet, have a Code of Conduct! The default mindset should be to think about the people involved in your community who are the most vulnerable and to be sure that they, too, will feel welcome, comfortable sharing, and valued for their voice and contributions. A good community stands up for the most marginalized members and protects them, not the most privileged. It’s hard to be on the edge of a community when you want to be more involved but see other people who have spoken up get treated badly. Don’t tolerate bullying, hazing, taunts of being “too sensitive” when “it was just a joke” or anything else that belittles a person’s feelings. If the rules are known, and moderators set an example of moving swiftly to deal with problems, the community will eventually monitor itself.
4. Be available for people to come to you with questions. Make organizers’ contact information available — whether via private messages on IRC or email — so no one has to guess or search for it if there is a problem. I’d take it a step further and not let community members’ names remain anonymous, because I’ve seen what can happen when someone hides behind non-public identities. It is not pretty.
5. Don’t put up barriers to entry. If your first thought is, “I wish there were more people in this community, but only the right kind of people,” then you need to seriously rethink what communities offer. Some of the most important things people get out of online communities are mentors, people to riff with, collaborate with, and who share their work and inspire you to want to share and grow because of a common interest. Plus, some of the newest people to a community can become the biggest contributors if given the opportunity.
6. When you notice people’s strengths, praise them. Thank them for what they are contributing. However, don’t treat them like free labor. Ask them what they want to be doing for the community and encourage them to grow.
7. Online communities, especially big ones with contributors all around the world, operate all hours of the day. This makes it hard to step away for the day, but setting personal boundaries is critical to work-life balance. Practice self-care, even if it means putting in fewer hours. Ask others to help with specific tasks or add small things to the onboarding task list mentioned above in #1.
8. Keep a wishlist of everything you one day hope the community can do. Big and small, what are the things that you envision for the future? Refer back to this list regularly — consider having it as a wiki entry for anyone to add to —and see what you can make happen right now. Resources, time, and skill sets change, so utilize that and add new features when you can.