Ed Mitchell: Platform neutral

Half web producer, half group facilitator. Groups support: online and in the physical world.

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Three types of online facilitation

January 19th, 2008 · 14 Comments · Facilitation, Strategy, Technology

This post compliments my earlier post about the three types of community where I described three ways of looking at communities from the point of view of centricity and the login. It is meant to give you an idea about the challenges and opportunities offered to facilitators and community managers in an increasingly distributed online environment.

As usual it is not meant to be a statement of absolute truth – more a lens through which to think about things, and the three types of activity are not mutually exclusive. And I expect there are spelling mistakes and some weird tangents – I’m a facilitator type not an editor, so bear with me, it’s a long one. So make a cup of tea, deep breath, here we go…

Centralised facilitation:
Centralised facilitation

The focus is entirely within the community boundary, usually one on technical platform. The emphasis is on the ‘Community’ and most of the members activity takes place in view of all the other members (apart from member-member messaging on some platforms). ‘Traditional’ measurements are drawn from the one platform being used – number of posts, replies, documents up/downloaded, page views etc. These have been well established in many places and a more formal view on them can be seen in Communities of Practice work like Miguel Cornejo Castro or Patricia Wolf.

Participation-wise, generally, Jakob Nielsen’s 90, 9, 1 participation rule applies. Have a look at the copyright notice as well – you might find that the people providing the technology claim a right to your words in more ways than one; best to check.

The social activity is around encouraging conversation and optimising knowledge exchange, networking and services integrated to the organisation. The facilitator (let’s call this person you for this post) encourages members to behave the same way, in accordance to a standard set of rules and processes, and hopes that if a member gets ‘over-excited’ and risks offending others that the others will intervene before any moderation needs to take place.

It is best to include the members in discussions around the rules and processes if possible – it is their community. They may not be interested, but if you don’t offer them a chance, when you are in a tough moderation situation with an irrate member banging on about free speech, human rights or Geneva Convention, you need to know that you are applying the rules which belong to the wider community, not just some mysterious sponsor.

Likewise the processes – should you find yourself banning someone, the communications may be private (or not – all your communications must assume that they will be shared with others), but the process must be clear and fair. Banning people is rare and sad – usually it is someone who you feel could be wonderful if only they could ‘behave’, but that very desire of yours is mis-guided; the behaviours that make them most exciting are the things that could well see them banned.

There is a pressure for everyone to behave in the same way; this type of community risks wanting to be like the Land of the Houyhnhnms from Gulliver’s travels (where everyone gets on and is the same (ie: so boring he ran away), and, given the commons nature of the space, the facilitator can expect to be drawn into resolving arguments should they come, and will be expected to resolve them on the basis of the rules and the ‘general peace’.

Other facilitation risks include members ‘over-posting’ and swamping others with their posts – this behaviour can come from trolls and champions alike – sometimes members can feel over-managed and punch ups can occur (I can be both, I know it). Facilitators can expect to be sharing the space with members who have been there longer than them, or know more about the topic than them; this can lead to the members feeling a greater right to the space, more ownership rights if you like – which needs to be navigated with caution; they have a point.

It is tempting to focus on a need to endlessly want more posts, more comments, more more more; and should this not happen a facilitator can feel sad. But why is this? I suspect it comes from a financial driver behind the community (publishing sites will be driven by ad sales based on eyeballs), or the community’s hosts desire to feel that they are sparking great conversations (our community has the best conversations).

The key is quality, not quantity. And need – people will come to places with a need when it arises and ask in places they trust. The trick is to keep the community alive in the meantime but it can feel a bit desperate sometimes if the facilitator just wants ‘posts’ for posts’ sake.

Don’t expect all the members to be vocal; all people are different. A facilitator is likely to be relatively extraverted and is tempted to expect the same of others. Resist this urge; it’s vain and rather arrogant.

In fact, many of the community members will be introverted and won’t want to rush in and tell everyone their views on everything. They might be wonderful at finding information for others while conversations are in motion, or simply enjoy being ‘passive’ readers. Whatever you do, resist the urge to call them ‘lurkers'; the word sucks.

Please don’t start banging on about ‘converting the lurkers’ – if you do, it’s a sure sign that the community’s model is dominating which will make many people feel oppressed.

Great things can happen in these spaces. Brilliant conversations, serendipidous discoveries, projects start around topical conversations, members form alliances and lobby for cool activities. When I was editor of KnowledgeBoard we moved from a focus on posts measurement and centralised facilitation to exploring the fringes: having physical events and exploring new facilitation techniques, a community book (now in it’s third cycle) where members willingly wrote chapters for no cash etc.

But this model is not so trendy any more. With the advent of blogs and other personal tools, people don’t need to converge in centralised communities owned and maintained by publishers or associations or other bodies; they can build their own. Likewise, Social networking, focused around the individual rather than the community, has taken off and given individuals far more control over their public/private divide (although most social networking sites are still ‘walled gardens’).

Also, there has been a cultural move away from identifying oneself as part of a ‘community’ – it’s all about networks and enlightened self-interest at the moment. This will swing back in a while; a middle ground will be found once the community spaces have made their boundaries more porous and learnt to allow a bit more individualism, third party applications, and more gaming/social networking practices in.

De-centralised facilitation:

De-centralised facilitation

We live in a world of multi-membership, multi-platform opportunities which are challenging the membership model every day. Why are they members? What information and services can you provide that members cannot find elsewhere, provided by publishers, event providers, domain experts or simply their peers with blogs or on free bulletin boards? who says that your community is the best place for your type of knowledge anyway? Is it?

De-centralised facilitation is a recognition that members cannot give 100% of their attention to any one centralised community in this environment, and going to where they reside.

It is a dropping of the organisational ego in some ways; an understanding that we cannot command the attention of our increasingly information challenged members.

A phrase was coined describing this phenonenom: “Constant partial attention syndrome” (good slashdot discussion about it here). It is the reality. The centralised expectation of ‘build and they will come’ is no longer the truth, and the traditional community facilitation model has evolved.

This form of facilitation is complimentary to the centralised facilitation. Community facilitators and champions are out and about beyond the formal membership boundaries (and the login), advocating for the organisation and providing members and non-members with a representative in their spaces. Facilitators will find themselves across flickr, youtube, myspace, facebook, bebo, multiply, xing etc. They have no control in these spaces, only the opportunity to participate and advocate, guide and direct conversations. Each of these new spaces has different types of behaviours and ways of communicating; you will need to learn these.

You have a choice about this too – do you (as community facilitator) go out and do your stuff in each one, or do you recruit champions in each one, and run a champions network to support them? Suddenly you are a volunteer manager…

This takes place on blogs talking about the domain material or the organisation, social networks with related groups and other message boards. This is not to say that the centralised hub is dead; NO no no. But it is a smaller hub.

The centralised hub is still the only place you can guarantee a specific controlled environment in which formal discussions, membership services, engagement activities can take place, and this should be clearly defined as a difference and benefit to the more de-centralised activities. People should not expect formal organisation processes outside of the hub.

Measurement in this model is emerging. There are no management tools that cover all these different spaces yet, but there will be. When I worked with Amnesty in 2007, we worked across a few different spaces and had to measure by hand, but with recent announcements about being able to port data out of facebook, it is highly likely a new tool will emerge to aggregate data from different spaces into one dashboard (anyone want to help me build one?). But before the tool should come many questions: is the number of members in a facebook group more significant than the number of friends in myspace? Is a group in facebook more valuable than a list in Multiply? etc.

So, most facilitators should expect to be doing both centralised and de-centralised facilitation – here’s a picture to express that:

Facilitating inside and outside the login:

Facilitation: inside and out

Distributed facilitation:

Distributed facilitation

Now we’re cooking with psychaedelic rocket fuel. As with the previous two models, there is a ‘hub’ but now it is tiny and not the centre of the community’s universe. But ‘Community’ does exist; at the very least in that people wish to share stuff with eachother for benefit beyond their immediate self-interest.

The community’s universe is everywhere and anywhere; it is a passing thought in my brain as I upload a photo to flickr and add it to the community’s group therein, a flicker of selflessness as I bookmark an interesting website and add a tag to share it with others using the same keyword etc.

Although I am not logged into and fully focused in the central space, I am thinking of the community, and the community has made it possible for me to share things with it on my terms, in my spaces, in my preferred method.

I don’t have to conform to any centralised behaviours and won’t be cheered on by a gung-ho facilitator. All of my stuff is my stuff – the community does not have any rights over it beyond my choice of copyright.

But this doesn’t mean the concept of community is not useful and powerful. As our lives are flooded with reams of irrelevant information and unreliable information sources, the role of the editor (in a new form) is going to become more needed, not less. People are busy predicting the death of the newspaper, but not the editor. This competence will grow in the facilitator’s requirements.

The playing field is now much flatter than it was 10 years ago. As facilitators we don’t have the big stick of ‘Community’ with the underlying threat of banishment, we only have the lure of benefits by thematic knowledge sharing and networking built around our community being interesting.

The community can now be banned by the individual, not the other way around. Nice. I like to know we are all being kept on our toes.

The ‘community’ is now a ‘community defined by keyword’ rather than a log into a walled garden. The key is in aggregating all this activity from multiple locations into one space and making sense of it there (see the editor role), and providing a central space from which to present the group’s identity and advocate on its behalf, without ever demanding the group go there. Debates may take place in a shared space, some of them may be private. Maybe multiple debates will take place in different locations; a distributed democracy. Who knows?

Facilitation in this model is widely distributed and doesn’t revolve around trying to make people converge, conform and behave. In fact, it is almost the inverse; it is about finding people from far flung corners, identifying them as valuable, and seeking their permission to share their knowledge and experience with you and others. On their terms.

You will be researching, establishing and supporting groups in different social networks. Understanding that each different social network has different behaviours, language, traditions and measurables. You will be measuring activity in these social networks suitably and making sense of it in the organisation’s HQ.

You will be finding the members’ opinions by reaching out to them instead of sending a survey from your survey engine to a clearly defined mailing list. You will be working with champions who have already established groups in different social networks, and do actually have more knowledge than you and experience than you, and can negotiate on their own terms.

You will be facilitating information sharing between members across the groups with technical tools, and embracing the fact that knowledge assets (pictures, videos, documents, bookmarks) are the individual’s property and they can do what they want with them. If you are representing an organisation, as well as externally facilitating, you will be establishing effective and sustainable knowledge and information infrastructures around your organisation based on these shifting sands outside.

It is your privilege that they choose to share with you. You have to understand that your best chance of engagement is by going to where they are and speaking in their language and listening as well as counting how many times they say things in your controlled environment, fitting the figures into a spreadsheet, comparing it to last year’s ‘growth’ and calling that engagement and community.

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