Why I left Building and Managing Communities for the Software Dev Industry

I spent 1/3 of my life in building and managing online communities and a fair amount of time in the 80s building and managing offline communities as well. If someone had predicted I’d be working for a software development company, I would have put all my AOL stock (aka lunch money) on that bet. I love working in community and feel like the luckiest person on the planet to be a professional in the field. I now feel like lightning struck twice and I have the best of both worlds – being part of teams that build strong, healthy communities and being part of a team that allows communities to remain safe, healthy, fun and strong.

For so many years, community professionals have had very little say in the actual development of their site tools. The 90s shouldn’t count I suppose, as we were all finding our way around everything that is now called “UGC” or “social networking.” Things were much more simple – we had flat chat (text on a scolling screen) and we had boards. Around 1995 Instant Messenging was going mainstream. When people misbehaved, they were banned from the ISP or they were in chat hell (they could see their text but nobody else could – I always loved that tool!).

Now we have a billion applications and everyone’s uploading content by the second and we have MMOGs with 30K simultaneous users and honestly, there’s no way in hell a group of humans alone can manage 10K simultaneous users let alone 30K or more. It can not be done without the aid of excellent software.

Up until the past few years, community professionals have not been heavily involved in the design of the tools they use every day. They were sometimes asked to test the tools, if they were lucky, but rarely were they invited to development specifications meetings. And often the people designing the tools had/have no background in community management or moderation. I recall a past employer, many years ago, who was very big on the tech team designing tools based on what community needed. I was thrilled, of course. One of the folks building one part of the set of tools said to me “I spent an hour last night in a chatroom. I’ve got it. No problem.” Luckily, the rest of the team were pretty savvy and did their homework, asked us questions, included us in the process and therefore, we had good tools. But this is absolutely the exception, or was, rather.

I had done competitive analyses for various clients over the years. Most of the time, larger sites build their own proprietary back-end community tools, and even if they’re not all that great, the team gets used to using them and is resistant to change. “They’re broken, but they’re OUR broken tools!” I felt the same, even though I was frustrated having to use broken tools over the years (and you will have to face this. Community tools are always on the bottom of the “to do” list unless the tech head actually has to USE one of the tools. Funny how fast things get fixed after that. That’s a freebie – make sure your tech folks have to actually USE the tools so they can see how broken they are.)

So, each community staff member has to use a new set of tools for every site. Some folks have only moderated in one or two communities so their point of reference is quite narrow. Getting them to understand what COULD be is quite difficult. Their limited experience with tools also limits their ability to innovate. Others are always trying to build a better mousetrap (raises hand). How can we tweak this, fix that, make this work more efficiently, etc. But the biggest hurdle in proprietary tool building is communicating between teams. You can write specs until the cows come home but if you’re not speaking the same language, you have no idea what you get until it’s all over. And well…trial and error in tech dev is quite expensive.

All of the above, and more war stories I won’t bother sharing at this time, led me to join CrispThinking.com. I had done 15 years of designing , implementing and managing community and community teams. It was not as big of a challenge as it once had been but I still love it. When my colleague and friend Emma Monks at Sulake contacted me to tell me about Crisp software – I first had to eat my words as I’d rolled my eyes when my then CEO asked me to meet with them. I to ld him “Everyone thinks they can build this stuff, none of them know squat about how it is to actually WORK every day in community, with kids, adults, snerts, etc. It’s a waste of our time.” Then I had to contact Andy Lintell of Crisp and ask for a demo. I knew that if Emma said they’d done it, they had in fact “done it.” She’s been in this business as long as I have. We go back to Dalnet days and IRC. We’ve seen a lot and used every tool out there, just about. Ribs, Emma and I had wanted to build this software for years but had no means with which to do it.

Crisp arrived in our London office in 2008 and I was floored at the demo. It was early days yet but I could clearly see these folks knew what they were doing. In January of 2009 I asked Andy and Pete to do a demo for an E-mint.org.uk meeting near Oxford Circus. About 20 or so e-mint folks came. And as I watched that demo for the 3rd time, a light bulb lit up in my head (and in many other heads at the same time). Then another, and another..it was as close to a religious experience as I’d get in this decade (had many of those in the early 90s with the web!).

I left that meeting thinking, if I were ever to leave my job (which I loved) – this is where I’d go. This is the Holy Grail for Community professionals. Less than a few weeks later, I found myself in a position of having to either eat those words or grab the Grail.

It wasn’t an easy decision but the bottom line is, I can now be the person at the table, designing what community folks need to do their jobs well and focus upon building a community rather than putting out match fires everywhere. And as a very wise CEO told me “You can work with many clients, or you can work with one client. It’s really a matter of how much experience you want to get and how much time you want to spend getting that experience.”

And here I am. And we’re building amazing behavior management tools and partnered with the best in the industry. And now I am part of a team that helps multiple clients, which helps multiple communities, which effects multiple people around the globe. I often say we’re the next Operation System of Social Networking and Online Communities. As there is really nobody else out there that does what we do. There are companies that filter and monitor on a basic level, but we’re the only company at this point that analyzes content via relationship AND content – we can manage and monitor behavior for a minute or a year and we have the tools to save site budgets from the heavy costs of moderation. We need humans, always will – but our software (created by humans, for humans) is more efficient and accurate than 100 sets of eyeballs and 100 sets of hands could ever be for 10K or more users. That’s the Holy Grail in my opinion. Prioritizing the problem behavior in order to address it swiftly is the key to being cost effective in this business. And that’s what we do – and we do it well :)

This wasn’t meant to turn into a Crisp ad. Oh well..

About Rebecca Newton

Online Community and Safety professional, musician, I love dogs and kids...and most adults.

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