I'm also tempted to call this post "The Case of Community Management", as I've been reading Sherlock Holmes lately (great stuff), and there is a mystery around why the practice of community management is such a non-entity in most academic and industry contexts. Really folks, there are ... well probably hundreds now, of dedicated, skilled people regularly shaping the interactions of their communities, guiding, encouraging, noodging... etc. Why is it that this is so unrecognized? I suspect (gasp!) what might be termed cultural influences, and yes, that's a whole other post.
This post is theoretically about what those hundreds of dedicated community managers are actually doing, and why you should want it (mostly).
In one of Rob Kozinets' recent posts (I met him as Rob, as one of the folks other than my wife who were doing research on aspects of Burning Man, and we became camp mates and pals. Just let me make it clear here, Rob is the best: a smart, capable, great individual I am pleased to know.) anyway, the post is here http://kozinets.net/archives/120 and talks about industry again getting jazzed up about community, or having a community, or something like that, and how that opens the door to uncontrolled, potentially negative, comments that one finds in communities without moderation. etribes, I believe is what Rob is calling them, new communities, founded on internet freedom and apt to show emergent characteristics. Hence, young business person, think carefully before you trust your brands to their hands (as it were).
So the problem is that there's this profession called community management, that exists, at least in part, because uncontrolled communities often get, well, out of control. Which often, not always, becomes not much fun for anyone except those who are sort of out of control to begin with.
I should probably restart this post, but the general notion is that any more or less distinct social gathering "space" becomes a more or less distinct culture. I've heard the term mini-culture used, which has both positive and negative implications, but the gist is that each is an opportunity for a new social identity, a new social organization, and for the members of the community to take a variety of roles: leadership, mediation, creation, humor, etc., all of the fun ways one can play with interacting with one's peers in a social setting. Indeed, it's my contention that it's this freedom to play, to experiment and grow, that is a large part of the interest in interacting in these communities... we have a chance to try things, to experiment with our social identity in ways that often aren't as available in our daily lives.
So far so good... the problem is that cultures are often led by strong individuals, or small groups of individuals, and often without regard to anything but their status, or success, or amusement. Or something... whatever motivates people to intentionally disrupt, or castigate, the fun of others (see "trolls", "griefers" etc.). Possibly it's just another form of social experimentation, but the net result for the rest of the community is an experience that's not fun: not welcoming, helpful, connetive, informative, etc etc. The point being that if communities are free-forming, they often become driven by the "worst" elements (at least from the perspective of the larger community). The internet is littered with examples of this, but you don't want to go there because they generally flame newcomers.
So this is where the community manager steps in. There are two aspects of this I'd like to talk about today: what you're doing in the community as a CM, and what you're doing in the company that's paying for the whole thing.
The first thing to mention is that community managers are members of their communities, at least ideally. This gets into the whole set of questions about how real this so-called community is, which I'll skip for now, let's just take it as a given that it mostly acts real. As a community, the CM is in a position of leadership... but it's a tenuous one at best: the affiliation with the host site can be seen as unwanted authority and unwelcome at best. In addition, as in any culture, the best leaders are the ones that tap into the interests, aspirations, and values of their constituent community. Which means the CM is going to be able to influence the community, but only if there's a general bond of trust and if the influences are generally seen as positive.
Now, if that's the case, if the CM has established a positive relationship of this kind with the community, then a number of positive benefits accrue... two of them being: the ability to put messages into the community with a generally positive response, and the creation of a generally positive culture, which then becomes more or less self sustaining... once the community's having a good time being appreciative of a game or brand or whatever, people who are unappreciative of disruptive are apt to not be tolerated. The CM won't need to step in, the community will do it, appropriately enforcing what are seen as core tenets of a positive social experience.
The other part of this is how valuable this can be to the host company or whoever: having a voice that's viewed favorably by the community, as well as a personification that represents the "brand" in building a long-term positive relationship is immensely valuable. It doesn't arise out of thin air, it's the product of a skilled individual creating a positive relationship with the community: maintaining it, nurturing it, etc. I tend to like the analogy of the adult supervisor at the edge of the playground: letting the kids (users, community members) have fun, but being there to step in if guidance or policing is needed. A capable community manager can deal with the kind of unpleasant situations Rob talks about in his post (and the first step: mutual respect between community and host).
At one point, in a job interview, I was asked if I saw community management as PR or marketing... I forget what I answered, probably marketing, but it's neither, really. Or rather, both can learn: community management offers the opportunity to create long-term mutually beneficial relationships with one's consumers, enabling a host of benefits that are outside the reach of traditional marketing or PR.