Getting meta: Why the #CommBuild chats have evolved for three years and counting

In July 2010, Amy Sample Ward wrote a blog post called Monthly Chats About Community Building: Are You With Me? Amy saw that members of the nonprofit tech community were itching to dive more deeply and regularly into topics of online community building, but she didn’t want to create a space if there weren’t willing co-facilitators and a good deal of buy-in.

Just two weeks later, having received a ton of thoughtful comments on that original post, her new headline was Join the Monthly Community Building Chats! Here’s a screen shot from that post:

Screen grab from Amy's blog
Screen grab from Amy’s blog

And three years after that, you can still find the #CommBuild chat taking place on Twitter every Tuesday at 10am PST, usually attracting a mix of “usual suspects” and at least a couple of curious newcomers.

How #CommBuild works

Each week whoever wants to participate comes to Twitter, searches for the hashtag #CommBuild, and finds a conversation about topics tied to community management. Whoever’s hosting facilitates the discussion using the @CommBuild account.

The hour usually flies by; the facilitator creates a Storify of the chat for our archives; and we take our lessons learned back to our respective workplaces. Occasionally we connect throughout the week via the NTEN community platform, and of course, there are other spaces for community organizers and online community managers on Facebook, Google Plus, and other sites. But we always know we can return to Twitter and #CommBuild week after week for networking, reflection, professional development, and resource sharing.

Sometimes we even put voices and faces to names (er, Twitter handles), whether through a phone call about the group’s evolution or an in-person meetup at the NTC. Claire Sale, a longtime #CommBuild champion, says this is her favorite part: “Mixing the online/offline builds stronger bonds between people and projects.”
Hosts as participants, community members as leaders

I just started participating in #CommBuild earlier this year, and a tweet from last week’s chat host summed up why I enjoy it so much:

Tweet from @kjantin
Tweet from @kjantin

In this case, Kristin Antin identified a topic she wanted to learn more about, signed up to host, and trusted that whoever showed up to chat would give her new things to consider. Community member Mera Szendro Bok had a similar experience: “It wasn’t my expertise that led me to lead a chat, it was my inquiry.” And the few times I’ve hosted myself, I’ve chosen topics about which I have more questions than answers, followed the straightforward instructions, and trusted that whoever showed up would challenge my assumptions, be friendly and forgiving, and suggest new tools for my kit.

That said, we have occasionally invited specific people to host and offer expertise about a particular tool or lessons learned on a specific campaign, and NTEN’s Membership Director Megan Keane thinks “hosts are flattered to be asked to lead as they are seen as thought leaders that have knowledge to offer.” In this coming Tuesday’s special anniversary chat, we’ll ask the community to help generate a list of potential facilitators who might like to present on specific topics, tools, wins, or fails in the world of online community building.

Whether she’s jumping in and framing a chat more as an open space dialogue or a presentation, longtime participant Laura Norvig says, “I have really felt a combination of being mentored and being welcomed as a peer – getting that little push to push myself. I host sometimes because I have a real-world problem I need feedback on, sometimes because it’s good visibility for my career. And I help recruit other hosts because I want to see #commbuild succeed.”

Documentation, guidelines, and values

To keep all of this moving along, we keep a running list of topics we’d like to learn about on the very same document where we keep our facilitator sign-up form, links to archives, and guidelines for hosting, so that anyone who’s willing can dive in. Amy points out that this document has to be flexible enough to evolve with the group, yet also remain somewhat consistent so that newcomers can jump in and know what’s expected: “I think it helps a community coalesce when there are some specific ‘rules’ out there, even if they are generic.”

As for the underlying values, she points out, “This tweet chat has always operated with many of the same principles as open spaces: whoever showed up were the right people to participate.” And Claire, who helped create and document the guidelines, believes this has enabled us to learn online in a new way: “The CommBuild chats always introduced me to new topics and ways of thinking through threads/conversations that I never imagined even when I was the one planning the chat.”

It can be challenging to recruit new hosts without disrupting the core community and to get participants to step up as chat leaders. But Claire believes that the evolution has been fairly smooth and that new leaders help to reinvigorate the base and encourage forward momentum.

One thing that has remained consistent, though, is #CommBuild’s bent toward the nonprofit sector. “I’ve learned a lot from community managers in the for-profit space. But CommBuild’s practitioners, focused as I am on social benefit, are the ones that I identify with. It is their stories and examples and lessons that really resonate with me,” says BJ Wishinsky, who most recently led a chat called Calling All Calls to Action.

Ways to plug in

Intrigued? Want to be a part of that “forward momentum” Claire talks about?

  • Follow @CommBuild, search the #CommBuild hashtag, or view the Storify archives.
  • Note that the conversation doesn’t begin and end with the weekly chats. The community platform is a way to keep the connections and conversation going, and we’re open to other creative ways people can connect, whether those are video chats, calls, or in-person meetups.
  • Share this post, sign up to host, or invite a friend to check out an upcoming chat with you. Our goal to build out this vibrant network, to hear from and build leadership among many more voices and perspectives.

Huge thanks to all who have shaped this vibrant community over the years, and a big welcome to any newcomers who start to chime in as we kick off another year.

How can we keep building this community? What topics should we cover? Leave a comment here or come share your thoughts on our next #CommBuild chat.

Like all things #CommBuild, this post would not exist without a lot of invested community members. Big thanks to Debra Askanase, Megan Keane, Laura Norvig, Claire Sale, Amy Sample Ward, Mera Szendro Bok, and BJ Wishinsky for their contributions to this post.