June 22, 2012

Insert Post Title Here

Today's post was actually going to be a Serious Business one, about feminism and women in tech and female users on Stack Overflow, as a response to various and sundry things.

However, it's Friday, I'm under-caffeinated, and I've got like five things on my to-do list that need to be to-done this afternoon.

So, instead, here's a gif of the Carlton Dance. Watching it cracks me up.

Alfonso Riberio, you fox.

I do love me some animated gifs, as I'm sure you've all noticed. There's a gif for every occasion, dammit. Tumblr and fandom have taught me well. Gifs are best used like salt -- tastefully, in small doses, and only to enhance the flavor of one's food. An overabundance of gifs is like overindulging in ice cream; it's awesome, and then it's terrible.

Remember this rule: you must have a minimum of 250 words per animated gif in order to avoid overwhelming your audience. If you can manage that, you'll be gif-bombing like a boss.

I might have just broken my own rule.

(As an aside, the rule can extend to the use of image macros. Less is more! (Which, as anyone can tell you, is terribly hypocritical of me, hahaha.)

June 21, 2012


It's funny, because I really hate photographs of myself and couldn't figure out why for a long time.

For a while, I thought it was because I hated the angle or the flash or the depth of field that the taker had used. I also liked the self-portraits that I'd taken of myself, which I felt captured me at my most flattering.

At some point, I realized what the truth was: the photographs that others took reflected how they saw me, but the photographs I took reflected how I saw myself, and the disconnect was in between the two. The photos I took of myself reflected my vision of myself, who I saw in the mirror every morning. By contrast, the photos other people took of me reflected the multitude of unflattering and ungraceful angles that life happens to give us. No one looks good from every angle, and we all have our "good side," which we like to tout and display and capture. The problem is that other people don't always realize this, or (even if they do) bother to capture it.

I look cute when I do it myself.

A site with a community is pretty much the same way. I think every community-driven site has an audience it associates with itself. The "trouble" comes when you realize that your actual audience is overwhelmingly not who you think they are.

A good example of this is Twitter. Twitter has a really interesting, intelligent userbase, in certain pockets. There's good, revolutionary political discussion happening in many corners of their service.

However, even a cursory glance at what's trending worldwide reveals who Twitter's actual audience is: a huge portion is urban youth, largely black and Latino. There's also a giant youth fan coalition on Twitter. Apparently, adolescents (also known as "tweens" and young teens) have the perfect attention span for and internet access allowances for Twitter.

Currently trending worldwide: soccer, One Direction love, something inappropriate, Jonas Brothers, etc.

Twitter's embracing or disavowal of this audience is totally secondary; they're there, and people are going highlight and display these audiences regardless of what Twitter wants press coverage to look like. It's the tech news equivalent of having photographs taken by paparazzi as you stumble out of that club at 2am, the flash catching you as you're mid-blink. It makes you look awful and misrepresents you an amazing amount, even if that's how you look to your friends 15% of the time.

Another good example of an audience not necessarily being who you thought they'd be is Tumblr. Tumblr is amazing! Lots of tech startup-y people short-form blogging about stuff they love. Designers putting up samples and inspirational paint chips! But you know who else is on Tumblr? Fandom! Lots and lots of screaming, excitable fans posting gif after gif of Justin Bieber or Ron Swanson or from Adventure Time.

The thing is, Justin might be dancing like this until the universe dies of heat death...

Seriously, he will be doing this until the end of time.

But these periphery-now-majority audiences aren't a bad thing. At the end of the day, Justin Bieber fans might also be politically active and, one day, become community and world leaders in their own right. They'll add value, and likely will add value to your service first, before they move on.

Think about all the screaming NKOTB fans who painstakingly cut out pictures of Jordan Knight out of issues of Seventeen and Tiger Beat. Those people are (probably) well-adjusted human beings now, the days of pink leopard print tapered-leg pants and Doc Martens well behind them. They're volunteers, senators, teachers, civil servants, and more.

My point is, this amazing collection of people makes your product/service way more valuable. Having an audience that doesn't resemble your self-image isn't inherently a bad thing. Surprising? Certainly. A little shocking? Very possible! Harmful? Unlikely; every single person using your site increases your site's reach by nearly an order of magnitude.

That said, it's your responsibility to, as with any person, employ a little creative Photoshop. I'm not saying you should relegate these people to a ghetto (the way Amazon did with GLBT and erotica writers) but fashion your product to allow discrete audiences discrete spaces. Twitter offers me trends it thinks are relevant to me based on my preferences. Tumblr makes it easy for me to stumble upon the content (and gifs, let's be real) that I care about. Filter, carve out niches, and allow these little garden plots of communities to grow; eventually, you'll find that they want more, and you'll be able to say, "Hey, I have that, too."

Take Stack Exchange. We see ourselves as a site mostly for programmers. And, to a degree, that's true. We've got lots of topics covered that are (mostly) relevant to programmer-only audiences. But we're seeing that change. We're gaining ground in the gaming community, and we're seeing more scientists, artists and graphic designers, researchers, and even librarians! Our audience is evolving. While sometimes we get called out for not knowing who we're serving, at the end of the day we do our best (as Community Managers, developers, marketing, sales, whomever) to give each of these groups the tools and toys they need to flourish.

This was adapted from an impromptu talk I gave to a bunch of people from Business Insider when they came to visit a while ago.

June 20, 2012

Everything in Moderation

It's literally no secret I have a large amount of affection for our moderator team. Why shouldn't I? They're the people from our sites that I interact with the most frequently. I think between camping out in the main moderator-only chatroom and appointments that I make, I've met probably half the total moderator staff. There's going to be sites whose mods I never meet, simply because of timezones or schedules or whatever. Some moderators don't like how insane the main mod room can get -- 50+ voices all talking at once is overwhelming for a chat veteran like me, let alone people who aren't accustomed to or in favor of chat software.

It's funny, because I care pretty deeply about what the moderator staff thinks of me. I know it's because I spend a huge amount of time around and with these people. Carrying the big stick is nice and all, but I want to be respected/loved more than feared. I like to believe that the team, as a whole, actually listens to me. I know some of the more, uh, difficult moderators respond to me reasonably well.

I wonder if it's, in part, because I am good about keeping up with the conversation (usually) and usually get things taken care of reasonably quickly. Not that my colleagues don't, but I've got a certain amount of candor that I feel is unique to me. I'm also more the iron hand in the velvet glove, to use a metaphor I always liked. I've got a soft touch and I'm usually pretty friendly and exuberant, but I'm also responsible and responsive. I try to be really good about following up on things and checking in personally.

(Hmm. This is sounding like an indictment of the other community managers. It's not really meant to be; I'm more reflecting on what I feel I do well, independent of my colleagues' strengths.)

More than that, though, I honestly don't mind a lot of the work that goes with being in the trenches. I like shooting the breeze with them, chattering about reddit or the latest MSO drama, or speculating on the election. I don't mind herding the cats when the time comes. I'm happy to handhold or guide or hug or comfort or problem-solve or brainstorm or command or talk-down a mod in any situation.

I honestly enjoy it, because each time feels like I'm helping someone, or making a difference. Sometimes people just want to be heard. Since I work for the company, even if I have trouble escalating something, I provide an outlet where people can feel like their input matters. Certainly, I care. If I'm talking a mod through something, they have 100% of my attention. I close the other tabs, I turn off the music, I walk away from the everything else. A mod who's having an emotional break deserves my full attention, so they get it.

That said, being loyal to mod team as my primary has its downsides. I love my company, so I don't like to hear the bitching about our failings. Beyond the fact that we're pretty aware of them ourselves, a lot of the time we make decisions with a long-term plan in place, and it's pretty beyond the scope of the mods to know what our 1000-yard outlook is. Not to say that mods are little worker drones who shouldn't ask questions. But when we say, "Just trust us," I'd like to believe we've earned enough personal currency to be taken at our word.

I swear, we have good reasons!

It's hard having to be between two very different perspectives. I don't like hearing disdain for mods from employees, either; moderation is a tough job, and there's so much more to it than what's in the mod agreement. I've modded communities online before; it's a big, consuming job even when it shouldn't be. I don't think people who don't understand the work should rag on it -- but that applies both ways. Mods shouldn't hate on the work that some of our people do. Frankly, they're doing it because no one else would/could, and they go out of their way to do it right.

Still, at the end of the day, I really do enjoy getting to work with the mods. They're incredibly talented, interesting people whom I find myself learning from every day. I appreciate their patience with me when I don't understand something, and in turn I try to pay them back by respecting them and the work they do.

Hey since I'm hitting my one-year, maybe it's time for that all-blue party at Rchern's house, after all. :P

June 19, 2012

Where Will I Go (Part Three)

So "tomorrow" on Fridays? Means Monday. And yesterday was just way too busy to update. Mondays are the most rough, in my experience. I always feel like they're my least-productive day, too.

Anyway, upon reflection, there were three really difficult things coming onto the Community Team that I had a lot of trouble overcoming:

  1. The Deep End - I got recruited into the Community Team from the CHAOS group, meaning that when I signed on the dotted line, I was not at all familiar with Stack Exchange, the ways and means, or even the tools. This, especially early on, was cause for a great deal of grief, and it yielded a measure of immobility that an otherwise agile marketing team needed to work around. Beyond that, however, is the simple fact that I honestly didn't know how to use many of the tools that were suddenly at my disposal when I became a community manager. I had no familiarity with the moderator panel, no idea what, as my CEO would say, all the knobs in the cockpit could/would do.

    Beyond that, I often felt totally lost in what I was doing, even though I'd been working at the company and with communities for months. How should I approach guidance? What do I tell a user experiencing a question ban? What steps are necessary when working with a new site? What do we look for in pro-tems? What makes a site a graduation candidate? And, even beyond those kinds of questions: Why is this process like this? Why are some of these rules on SO? By being a veritable outsider, and not a Stack Overflow user to boot, I lacked a huge amount of background knowledge and no clear guidance on what I should know or where I could learn it.

    Equally challenging was feeling so isolated from the team. CHAOS is all located in New York. I had gotten accustomed to seeing my colleagues as needed. This isn't feasible with the Community Team, who are scattered across the U.S. Add to that the differences in our preferred schedule times -- myself, Robert, and GN prefer the daytime workings, whereas Shog and Rchern were most active in the evenings -- and you have a host of issues. At the time, the team only spoke to each other twice a week regularly, and the calls were long and incredibly draining, and I often had no sense of what others were working on.

    All of this together basically felt like I had been thrown into the deep end of the pool after maybe two swimming lessons, and even those lessons were with me in an inner tube kicking, whereas I was thrown into the deep end without even a life jacket. It was really frustrating, especially when I was appointing pro-tems and had no idea how to help them well. I don't like to leave things half done, and not understanding all my tools (especially the ones that weren't linked to from anywhere -- don't even get me started on this) put me at a huge disadvantage.
  2. Radio Silence -- A big frustration I felt constantly was the sheer wall of silence from my colleagues. Especially early on, I had no idea if I was doing things correctly, let alone well. I felt very much like the outsider looking in, and had no clue if I was what the team needed. More than once, I wondered if I was even really needed, or if my colleagues thought this about me:

    He => She, naturally.

    I should give credit where it's due; Robert was amazing about taking calls with me regularly, giving me feedback and guidance and providing an amount of mentorship. But Robert is the team lead; he has other responsibilities and needed to attend to those. It was hard; while it was nice to know that my team lead found my valuable, I was concerned that my colleagues weren't. I once remarked to a coworker how the one thing I hate to feel most is useless, and Community Team's radio silence made me feel exactly that.
  3. Inertia -- The single most frustrating thing about Community Team is how I can get to the end of my week and feel like I've accomplished absolutely nothing, despite putting in a solid 50 hours of support and energy. This is a problem I think every community manager faces. An organization that's sufficiently large will move increasingly slowly; that's the nature of size and bureaucracy and, just, life. But it can be hard to provide discrete support to different communities of varying sizes and really be able to see that posts that seem small by comparison are, relatively speaking, huge for that community. Adding TeX support to a site might seem trivial to me, but for them it's massive. Adding protems is a slow, soft process, but the end result can be massive for a single site.

    The perspective is hard to keep, I think, because it's so easy to lose sight of the trees when you look at the forest. Every individual detail may seem unremarkable on its own, but it's pointilism, it's pixels. The image doesn't make sense zoomed in 800%.

These things are the things that I want to fix, moving forward. I want to make a "Welcome to the Team" handy guide, with links and pictures and explanations for what all the tools are. There needs to be a reference manual for the team, because we deal with so much that not having one is actively harmful for people like me. If we continue to only recruit moderators or ultra-super-top users to come on board, then my complaints/concerns are wholly invalid. But if we choose to move away from that, then suddenly one of us has to be ready to take on a mentor kind of role. It's the responsibility that comes with seniority on a team.

The lack of communication issue, I think, we've fixed by changing our workflow. We have a quick meeting each day, we handle issues both large and small in there. I feel like we all communicate more -- and better! -- now, and I don't feel lost on people's projects. I don't need to know every detail of what people are working on, but knowing how their projects are going and having a rough idea of what the end goal is? That's valuable to me. Plus it means I can better refer people when needed.

As far as feeling like I accomplished nothing, I've got a few ways of mitigating this. First, I take pretty careful notes of what I do each day/week. For another, I've taken to celebrating every small victory. Cherishing the small moments keeps me grounded. I dunno if it would work for everyone, but it helps me stay focused, keeps my eyes on the prize. It's small steps, and every inch forward is one inch closer to the finish line.

I think, as a team, we're going to move towards getting more specialized roles on the team. It's definitely something I want to see happen moving forward. I know, you're all completely unsurprised. The Economics major wants a specialized team? How utterly astonishing.

All joking aside, though, I think a group of five people trying to manage a network of 80+ sites as a group of generalists is....inefficient. Take myself, for example. I'm so bad at bug reports. I have no idea how to even begin to reproduce some of the stuff that ends up in the bug report tag. And I'm not willing to download Opera 10 in order to find out.

Or how about feature-requests. Me, I'm pretty naive; if a community thinks they need some sort of thingum in order to make their site better or more attractive, why not? I'm not saying all sites should have, like, custom magic everything. But adding in plugins and rendering support upon request is, to me, not something I see a lot of downsides to. But I'm also a nontechnical person asked to make potentially technical decisions.

But all of that is fluff. For myself, I love working with our moderator staff, and I think I handle emotional outbursts well. I can take it, and I can funnel the feelings into real reflection. I also want to be the point person for promos and intra-site events. Maybe this is me secretly wanting to be on CHAOS again, or maybe it's just something I love doing. Either way, helping put together an event, and covering the aftermath is something I enjoy doing, and I don't mind taking it upon myself.

I know I've spent a lot of wordcount sitting here and bitching about my job. The truth is, I really do love what I do, and I really do love working here. Those two things are never in dispute. Yes, my work is frustrating and emotionally harrowing and time-consuming and anger-inducing from time to time, but there are moments of real reward. Plus, I get to spend my days internetting with a bunch of really cool people. Basically, I got my dream job.

June 15, 2012

Where Am I Now (Part Two)

I finished out yesterday at the end of my training period, which happened to overlap with my Christmas holiday.

I realized that I hadn't really talked about what our community managers do. So, when I came on board, the team's purpose was to be a group of generalists overseeing the entire network, monitoring meta posts and handling moderator and user issues. Part of this includes running the support email inbox, known as team@, which is where users can email the company directly.

If this feels like probably too many things for one person to handle, you'd be 100% correct. There's a lot of things I enjoy about community team, but the things I find most trying are the stuff that's rote. Our workflow is task-oriented, which was a huge shift from the project-focus that CHAOS had. That single change was almost certainly the most difficult adjustment.

One of the things I didn't realize until much later (when it was flat-out told to me) was that I was something of an experimental case. Up until my onboarding, no non-technical person had been asked to join the Community Team. I was essentially being tested, to see if any non-technical person could actually "make" it on the team. Frankly, knowing this wouldn't have changed anything. I wanted to do well on the team because it was better for the company. I gave it my best because it deserved my best. That's really all.

I won't pretend that hearing I passed wasn't a bit of a boost, though, haha.

Success Kid knows my feelings.

I will say that there have been more than a few upsides to being a community manager. I have a universal diamond, now, and my words/decisions hold a certain amount of real power. The flipside is that I don't feel substantially different in my reach now than when I was with CHAOS. The difference is entirely perceptual; I think people see me differently now that I'm a CM, which is kind of hard to swallow. I'm the same person with the same abilities as before; I just happen to have the moderator demarcation beside my name now. It's like I changed my hairstyle and suddenly got a lot more respect.

That said, over the past several months, I think my own bitching none-too-gentle pushes have forced the team to move into what I feel is a more productive direction. We've changed a lot of things about our workflow to help, and I think this team is more willing to take risks with how we make things happen.

There have definitely been problems. I soon realized that one of my colleagues and I were phosphorous and water -- not exactly the most functional combination. There have also been huge changes internally, personnel changes that have a long-reaching effect on how we run ourselves. I've had a lot of trouble with workaholism, which in turn impacted my personal life. I've also had ethical dilemmas in some of the choices I've made. It's been a really varied six months, honestly.

I love working with our moderator staff, but at the end of the day it can feel really isolating to realize that I'm a non-technical person in the middle of a huge crowd of technical people. Community Team is mostly former developers hired on for an interpersonal role. Our moderator staff is a reflection of our largely-developer audience (and thus, in turn, mostly developers themselves). As a CM, I interact with our dev team fairly regularly.

And yet, people are still people. I've quickly realized that I'm at my best when I'm helping someone through a problem. I like helping our moderator staff. I hate it when they break down due to frustration or stress or sheer dissatisfaction, and I don't mind taking on that emotional burden. Oddly, for someone who is generally really terrible at dealing with "all the crying women," I can manage a mod meltdown without feeling overwhelmed. Weirdly, I became "the one with all the feelings" even though I honestly was never that person ever before. (My friends in college joked that I was "dead inside" for a reason.)


Ultimately, I'm just happy to be the person that the team needs. If the mod staff needs a Team Mom, then I'll be that person. If Community Team needs to prove that non-technical people can come onboard and be okay, I'll be the guinea pig. I'm reasonably versatile and, at the end of the day, I want to make an impact in our work. If that means taking on a role that's unusual, so be it.

Tomorrow I'll talk about some of the things that I need/want from this team moving forward, and where I hope the team will be in a year from now.

June 14, 2012

Where Have I Been (Part One)

I've been here almost a year, and doing my current job about six months now. I'm going to talk a bit about how I ended up going from a promotions team to a community developer kind of role.

When I was first asked to join the Community Management team at Stack Exchange, the team was down two people, barely able to stay on top of all the demands on their time, and still reeling from various circumstances. It was, I realize now, a difficult time for that team. They'd experienced a huge amount of change and upheaval, and in retrospect I should have been more sympathetic to that. Then again, I had my own issues/shakeups to deal with.

When I started with SE, I was originally hired for their guerrilla marketing / internal-to-external promotions team, code-named CHAOS. I still really love promotions work; I like finding potential audiences, "infiltrating" that community, and creating ties between pockets and groups of people online. My last big project for CHAOS was developing the Home Improvement vertical, bringing it more traffic and more attention. I realized pretty quickly that the best way to get that community to grow was to put in a lot of focus time. I'll talk about what this constituted in another entry, but suffice it to say: it was something I really enjoyed doing.

In mid-November, my team lead and my CEO sat me down in the conference room and asked me to step in with the CM team. Both pointed out that my then-current project (focused on reviving chatrooms) was entirely internal focused, and thus made me the best fit for the Community Team. I was actually between projects at the time; DIY/Home Improvement had a nice, core group of users who were dedicated and able to take care of themselves, the site's stats were beautiful and trending in that oh so lovely up-and-to-the-right kind of way, and my plate was suddenly rather empty.

Beyond that, I'm a realist. I blame/credit my business school background. While tech startups tend to snark a bit at all the MBAs, I will say this much: business school gave me a healthy respect for structure. I learned in undergrad that when your CEO asks you to do something, it's not really a request. I could have said no, I know this. But I'm not wired that way. My CEO and my team lead asked me to step in and help out a different arm of the company. It was a challenge, something new to try, and the request came from the top.

So I said yes.

Here's the thing: when I signed on, I was told my substitution would only last a month, through the end of December. In retrospect, I have to laugh at that notion.

Laughter. The best medicine.

Community Management is....it's basically a community developer role in a Web 2.0 kind of world. I hate to just make it sounds like a series of buzzwords gone awry, but that's honestly what it is. It's also a broad-based job. This post, linked everywhere by everyone, is the "canonical" post about what a community manager is. The problem is that this job description is actually 8 different people functioning as an umbrella, as a team. Each tenet is really a twofold job.

I think it's interesting, though, almost because of that. Community management can't be done in isolation, no more so than any role in a company. The response post, I think, pins the mindset of a good community manager, but I don't think it's quite the way one should look at the job. Now, the first post implies that a CM should do all those jobs. That isn't true, either. Good Community Management happens in a team of people who understand what their role should be, exactly like any other well-functioning team.

It took me six weeks just figure out, as my CEO would say, what all the knobs in the cockpit do. Frankly, I'm still not 100% about a lot of things. But that's okay; I'm not shy about asking for help, and I'm not quiet about when I'm struggling...usually. I know what my weaknesses are, and I work to my strengths while trying to mitigate the rest.

For now, I'm still in the "generalist" role, which I like but I find tends to overextend me. That said, the best thing about working for a smaller company is the freedom I get to build my role more in line with what I want/need it to be. But we'll talk more about that tomorrow.

June 13, 2012

Anatomy of a Blog Post

So a random Wednesday in mid-June is totally the same as a Monday in November, right? Right.

Sorry about the delay; I just got swamped. However, lately I've been finding myself composing blog posts in my head. It's gotten to the point where I am sitting, comfortably settled with a novel, and all I can focus on is this hypothetical blog post in my head. So let's get some of these done; maybe I'll finally get back into the groove of this thing. I know I'd certainly like that.

As a kick-off, let's talk about what makes a good blog post. I feel reasonably qualified to talk about this. I've had an ongoing personal blog since 2004, and one of my first assignments at The Job was to read blogs and garner some social media clout (but not Klout, ew) with the top bloggers in the do-it-yourself home improvement field. I remember opening up my Google Reader every morning and skimming through about 15 blogs' posts. So here's what makes a good, read-worthy blog.