On Community

In light of recent changes, the California Golden Blogs is facing an uncertain future, and there is a distinct possibility that that future involves a platform other than SBNation. This uncertainty has caused me to consider more closely what has worked well about CGB, that perhaps such success may be continued on a possible new platform.

To my mind, CGB succeeded at two distinct but related things: establishing a unique tone that resonated with an audience, and building and supporting an online community around Cal sports.

A Unique Perspective

From the first, the California Golden Blogs approached sports from our own perspective: we were Cal sports fans.

  • First, we were unabashedly fans, and our writing not only made no secret of our bias, but indeed reveled in the fan experience, offering commentary not just on the team and its performance, but on the bands, the cheerleaders, the stadium experience, the university in general, and whatever else we thought was interesting and tangentally related.
  • However, as former Cal students, we were also tried to balance our obvious bias and partisanship with an intellectual and analytical approach to sports (perhaps sometimes taking our nerdiness too far).
  • Finally, with TwistNHook as our spiritual leader, we always tried to avoid taking either ourselves or sports too seriously. We wanted to celebrate our fandom, not write angry screeds about what the quarterback should have done and who needed to be fired, like, yesterday.

In 2008, during an internal discussion regarding whether to bring on another writer to CGB and concerns about their culture fit, I articulated the current CGB ethos:

  • We love Cal. We don't necessarily support everything that goes on with regards to Cal Athletics, but we will approach issues with reason and caution (and humor!). In general, we will be amongst the last to 'go negative'.
  • We want to be funny without being disrespectful. Now, of course, some people can't take a joke, so our basic guideline is to 'not be an asshole'.
  • We want to raise the level of knowledge and discourse among Cal fans. We try to approach criticism of our team and players with more reason and less blind rage.

Building a Community

While I believe our content and our unique point of view helped us build a following in the early years of CGB, that alone was not enough to build a community. For this, I think the move to SBNation played a big part.

To support my analysis, I'd like to dive into the nature of a community, asking such things as "how can we tell whether a community exists?", "who is part of this community?", and finally, "how does one become engaged in a community, and are there different levels of engagement?"

"Does a community exist here?"

Imagine group interactions on a spectrum. At one end, all interactions are one-to-many, between a focal point and one of many followers. You would call this a following, where the individual followers basically don't interact with each other. At the extreme other end, everyone in the group interacts with just a few other people in the group, but no one dominates the proceedings. This is commonly known as a crowd.

A group we would call a community can take different forms, and those forms would sit somewhere along the middle of this spectrum. A community needs an identity, and this requires some kind of leadership, a person or people to bring organization and focus to the group. But the members of the community also need to feel connected to each other, and this means that many -- or even most -- of their interactions within the group need to be with other rank-and-file community members, and not mediated through one of the community leaders.

It was clear from the start that CGB had an identity. The writers announced from the start that they were Cal sports fans writing in an unapologetically biased way about Cal sports, providing both focus for the group as well as in-group/out-group delineation. It was immediately obvious to any potential reader whether they belonged or not.

However, in the early days of the website, almost all interactions were between readers and the authors of each blog post through the comments section. Interactions between readers occurred, but it was still infrequent to see the same commenters interacting with each other multiple times, which is the level needed for readers to have a sense that a larger "community" even exists. Basically, a reader needs to see the same commenter multiple times, in multiple contexts (different posts), in order to infer that the commenter "hangs around here", and when a critical mass of commenters are seen as "hanging around here" can one start to infer that "here" is actually a community.

In building a community, the move to SBN helped immensely, primarily through the different tools offered to readers. The ability to return to a previously-read post and see which comments you had previously seen and which were new made it immensely easier to reengage with previous comment threads, and the live-updating of comments made popular, timely comment sections almost feel like a live conversation. These features dramatically increased both the number of commenters and the number of comments per commenter, making the whole site feel more alive, more like a here that people were "hanging around".

"Who is part of this community?"

The previous section provided some answer to this question -- it's largely a de facto recognition of who the people are that are hanging around the group. But our tools can do a lot to both reveal and encourage this. Comments on posts are a big part of this, but really any interaction that you can track/make visible to others (likes, retweets, follows, etc) helps to both establish the presence of a community and announce someone's membership as part of that community.

Accordingly, when building a community, anything and everything you can do to reduce the friction necessary to participate is a good thing. Note that this does not mean allowing anonymous comments. Anonymous comments can trigger discussions, but anons are not part of a community -- they're not anyone at all! Accordingly, you should make it as easy as possible for someone to provide a unique identity -- Facebook Connect and the like are good for this -- and only then let them comment, like, and generally participate, with as little further barriers as possible.

"How do people increase their level of engagement with a community?"

Most people will start off their engagement with a community as lurkers, reading posts (and perhaps comments), but not interacting in any way. At this early stage, they may feel some affinity for the community, but they are unlilkely to feel a part of it themselves. At some point (perhaps triggered by the impulse to correct Other People Online who are Wrong), they may begin to comment on posts or in response to other's comments. Gradually, as they comment more and others respond to their comments, the sense that they are part of the community grows.

The more that someone visits a community and engages with the content/people there, the more their self-assessment moves from "this is a place that I visit" to "this is a place I identify with". Further, as as other community members positively interact with them in return, two things happen in parallel: they begin to consider that "this is a place that I belong", and others in the community consider "this new person is now a part of this community". The processes of self-identification and peer-recognition are not identical, and they do not always have to happen together, but they often do, as they are driven by the same interactions and their effects feed off each other in a virtuous cycle.

Many community members find their engagement level-set here, but some will go further, contributing to the community to an even greater degree, gradually feeling first ownership and then, in some cases, even demonstrating leadership of a community. On a blog such as CGB, this may take the form of guest posts (FanPosts on SBN), but in general these engaged users start contributing content themselves and, in small ways, drive the conversation of the community. A select few of these contributors may, as their contributions enhance their own prestige/influence within the community, begin to be seen as leaders within a community, and this final level-up may be coincident with a formal conferring of an official role.

Other community members may not take to contributing content, but may instead internalize the culture and norms of the community, and then, feeling some mixture of belonging and ownership towards the community, may begin to the enforce those community norms on other, newer members. Your community does not necessarily need to have formal rules, as any "culture" that arises organically will naturally include some set of generally-understood rules and norms. A sign that your community has a legible set of norms is when community members, unprompted by any community leadership, begin enforcing those norms upon their peers. As a community grows, it often finds that it needs to formalize this norm-enforcement, and it may formally deputize some members who exemplify those norms as Community Moderators.

Finally, I'll mention one other thing that CGB got right during its early days: consistency. Building an online community requires that there be a place that people hang out on, and part of what gets people to hang out somewhere is the sense that, if they go there, there will be something new/interesting to check out since the last time they visited. More than any other of its early peers, CGB figured out the importance of having fresh content every work day, on a regular schedule. Even if the content wasn't always the strongest, it was something new, something to discuss, and it built in the expectation to readers that they should come back and visit every day, just to see what else was new.

Getting it Right

Community building is hard, and it takes both the right kind of instigators (the sort of people who actively want to put themselves out there and create socialization), a lot of hard work, a fair amount of luck, and perhaps most importantly, the flexibility to follow through not just on your original plan, but to adjust and follow where a nascent community tells you it wants to go. In this way, it's not that different from any other startup.

Having succeeded once with CGB, I think we can continue to do so, but it's important to understand that any community is greatly influenced by the tools with which they can interact with each other, and to choose such tools with care and intentionality.

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