The Toll of Ageism and Abuse on Community Professionals
On Community Signal, we’ve spoken to several professionals that have left the industry for other pastures. While their reasons are never exactly the same, there’s certainly a trend amongst professionals in the industry, particularly women, who bore the brunt of online abuse.
As Patrick says in this episode, “if you haven’t received abuse then you’re probably not doing everything you can for your community, that’s just a sad reality. I wish that it wasn’t the case. I wish that you could somehow maintain order without making yourself a target.” In a profession where our responsibilities include moderating conversations, deleting posts, and banning people, yes, it’s to be expected that we will make some people unhappy.
But as Patrick and Kellie Parker discuss, it should also be expected that our colleagues and managers understand the realities, toll, and potential dangers of this work and plan for how to support one another through it. The mental and emotional toll of working in community management is real and something that we should all be aware of, no matter what rung of the ladder we’re on.
Kellie shares exactly how the mental and emotional aspects of working in community played out for her, where there must be organizational support, and the responsibility of speaking up for our own health and wellbeing. She now speaks openly and candidly about the sexism that she faced, but back then, she admits that her initial reaction was to “be professional” and power through. For professionals that don’t have institutional support, another coworker to cover for them, or the flexibility to miss a paycheck or take a personal day, the notion of self-care in the face of abuse may not be as easy as it seems. We hope that Kellie’s experience encourages anyone listening to think about how they can better support those that they work with, from an individual perspective and an organizational perspective.
Patrick and Kellie also discuss:
- The sexism faced by women in gaming and community management
- How workplaces can support community managers
- The “magic community wand” and how to work against it
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No matter how credible a threat is, it still impacts you (6:34): “A lot of rape threats or death threats [that I received] were not serious. I knew it was somebody that was mad because I deleted their posts or I banned them. … But there is a compounding nature over time when you get told 10 times a day, ‘I’m going to find your house. I’m going to sneak in your bedroom. I’m going to kill you.’ I know that’s not really what’s going to happen but … there is an emotional cost for that, that is often not addressed.” –Kellie Parker
The toll that community management takes on professionals (14:52): “A lot of people who have not done [community management] and do not understand the job shrug their shoulders and say [abuse is] part of the job. Really, we need to be asking for support. Whether it’s access to licensed counselors, whether it’s rotation in the job. … That portion of the job is not often discussed, and it needs to be. People need to understand that they’re putting their mental health and emotional health on the line for this job.” –Kellie Parker
The emotional health of your community team matters (23:08): “If you’re churning out your community person every 18 months, you should really look internally at why that would be. It can be a number of factors. It doesn’t have to be that they are taking abuse. It can be poor compensation, bad workplace environment, whatever, but if people are burning out of that role over and over again, there’s probably a greater than 50% chance that [abuse] is the reason.” –@patrickokeefe
Institutional knowledge builds stronger communities (25:10): “I want the fans to see me as their inside person at the company, and I want people at the company to see me as their inside person with the fans. If you have new people in that role every six months, every year, every two years; you never get that sustained growth. You never have that institutional knowledge.” –Kellie Parker
Stay adept to your team’s work (35:25): “If you’re in a role where you have to support community professionals, whether you are a director of community, VP of community, or if it just happens to fall under you, you really have to educate yourself on the stresses of this job. If you don’t, then you’re going to lose people and the people that are reporting up to you are not going to be as efficient in their jobs or as happy and satisfied in their jobs.” –@patrickokeefe
When “culture fit” is used as cover for something else (42:53): “I can look around your company, and I can see there is nobody over the age of 30. When you tell me I’m not a culture fit, I know exactly what that means. I am 44 years old. I am female. I am not, by traditional beauty standards, beautiful. That’s what you mean. Especially if it’s for a community manager role where they want someone to be in front of the community and lead them. I’m not what you’re looking for, and you’ll tell me it’s culture fit.” –Kellie Parker
Kellie’s career change from social media and community management to real estate (47:14): “Being a real estate agent is about relationships. It’s building relationships with people, helping people, taking care of people. That’s a lot of [what] my job [was] as a community manager and a social media manager.” –Kellie Parker
About Kellie Parker
After discovering chat site Talk City as a user, Kellie Parker ended up taking a job with parent company LiveWorld in 1999. This began a foray into community work that took her to PCWorld, Macworld, and SEGA, where Kellie spent more than six years. This was followed by senior social media jobs at Seasun and healthcare company, Abbott, before leaving the digital space to become a REALTOR.
- Sponsor: Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community
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- Kellie Parker
- Kellie Parker’s personal Instagram
- Kellie Parker Real Estate on Instagram
- Talk City
- Kellie’s resume includes LiveWorld, PCWorld, Macworld, SEGA, Seasun Games, and Abbott
- Sean Dahlberg on Community Signal
- John Coate on Community Signal
- A tweet from Carrie Melissa Jones on “community as the solution”
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community and Localist, plan, promote, and measure events for your community. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and welcome to Community Signal. Kellie Parker spent more than six years in community at SEGA. Having now left both the community space and the gaming industry, we’re going to talk about the toxicity she faced as a queer woman in gaming, the emotional toll of the content she had to review, ageism, and the non-existent magic community wand. A big thanks to Maggie McGary, Heather Champ, and Serena Snoad who are supporters of our Patreon campaign. Your continued support means a lot to us. If you’d like to join them, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle.
After discovering chat site Talk City as a user, Kellie Parker ended up taking a job with parent company, LiveWorld, in 1999. This began a foray into community work that took her to PCWorld, Macworld, and SEGA where Kellie spent more than six years. This was followed by senior social media jobs at Seasun, and healthcare company, Abbott, before leaving the digital space to become a realtor. Kellie, welcome to the show.
[00:01:20] Kellie Parker: Hi, I’m so glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
[00:01:22] Patrick O’Keefe: I’m so glad to have you. I have to ask this question. Why did you leave the industry?
[00:01:26] Kellie Parker: It was a combination of choice and circumstance. I was working as a senior community manager at SEGA when they closed their San Francisco office and moved it to Los Angeles, so I was out of that job. I took some time off after that job, a little bit of time. I was in treatment for breast cancer, so it was right after I left SEGA that I started chemotherapy. I took a few days, about a week, before I started my next job at Seasun Games.
I worked at Seasun for a while all through chemotherapy and radiation. I worked at Seasun for about a year on apps and games that were not released yet, so there wasn’t a lot of community work to do. It was a lot of behind the scenes work. I got laid off from Seasun Games and took some time off. My husband and I had recently gotten a guardianship of his niece who was two years old at the time. I took a few months to transition into being a mom and learning how to take care of a two-year-old.
After a few months, I got another job at Abbott Diabetes Care in their marketing department. My role was much more social media focused than community. I was there for a while and then I recently, about a year ago, I left that job to pursue a new career in real estate and mortgage loans.
[00:02:48] Patrick O’Keefe: Awesome. Are you free and clear as far as cancer?
[00:02:50] Kellie Parker: Yes, I am. I actually am passing my five year anniversary next month. As of next month, I’m completely off all of my post-cancer medication. I just need to get my mammograms once a year, but yes, I’m completely cancer-free.
[00:03:04] Patrick O’Keefe: That’s awesome. Congratulations.
[00:03:05] Kellie Parker: Thank you.
[00:03:07] Patrick O’Keefe: Being out of the industry, I think sometimes affords you the perspective and the freedom to speak more freely and not that those of us in this space are hampered in any way, some of us quite free. I tend to be quite free. I’ve worked independently most of my life, so I don’t mind saying something unpopular or criticizing someone or whatever, what have you. When we were talking before the show about different topics, there was a lot of really interesting meaty topics that you brought up that are, I’ll say, negative and it is not a strange thing for this show.
I really wanted to talk about them because again, you flagged them and I felt like you had a really, really good perspective on them having spent more than six years at SEGA as a senior community manager. I want to start with toxicity, specifically toxicity in gaming toward women. As a queer woman yourself, can you talk about the abuse that you had to endure?
[00:04:00] Kellie Parker: I think there’s a lot of negativity in community management in general no matter what kind of community you are managing, whatever the subject is. I think in, specifically, gaming has been struggling with this for a long time, even back to Gamergate issue, which was still happening when I was at SEGA. There’s a long history of negativity towards women in the space. I think the industry has done a good job at mitigating some of that but I think there is still a long way to go. As a lot of community managers know, culture change takes a long time and it takes sustained effort. I think the industry has made some strides but they’re not all the way there yet.
[00:04:46] Patrick O’Keefe: I’m just going to quote from you directly what you had in our questionnaire which you said, “I have had literally hundreds of death threats, rape threats, bomb threats, remarks about my beauty or lack thereof, my body,” we can get away with an f-word here or two on this show, “my fuckability or lack thereof. That’s just the things that are aimed at me personally. There’s so much hate targeting women, LGBTQ people, of which I am, people of color.”
Like you said, there is a negativity that comes with managing social spaces. In some ways I would say being an authority figure, telling people they can’t do things, maintaining order. I’ve certainly received my fair share of abuse. I’ve received a couple of death threats. I’ve received just a lot of really nasty comments, but not the same. I’ve never received a rape threat. I’ve never received…I have had some comments on my looks but not the same. It’s not the same degree. It’s not the same stuff. Women in this space face inordinately more abuse in general in society.
In this space, specifically, it does feel like in gaming from the people that I’ve spoken to. Looking back, I know you’ve mentioned some strides. You’ve been out of that gaming space for I think, five years. I think you left SEGA in 2015. I know you’ve made some strides and I think that’s true. I think things are getting better. Looking back, is there anything that you wish that people that you worked with at the time had done?
[00:06:02] Kellie Parker: I wish that it was all taken more seriously, not necessarily that there’s a reason to investigate all of those threats, any threats that I got even throughout my career that I felt were actually semi potentially serious, were investigated and taken care of. It’s not that. I think I wish there had been more focus on the personal, mental and emotional toll that something like that can take.
For example, a lot of rape threats or death threats were not serious. I knew it was somebody that was mad because I deleted their posts or I banned them from the– It’s not anything that is actually a real threat to me, but there is a compounding nature over time when you get told 10 times a day, “I’m going to find your house. I’m going to sneak in your bedroom and I’m going to kill you.”
I know that’s not really what’s going to happen but there is an emotional toll that that takes when you get told that once. When you get told that twice. When you get told that hundreds of times, and it’s part of your job to endure that. It’s part of what you are expected to do. I think there is an emotional toll, an emotional cost for that, that is often not addressed.
As a community manager when I was at SEGA, I tended to stay behind the camera and not show myself a lot. Part of that is because my job is to make our product stand out, not me. I don’t necessarily want to be the face of the brand. I was working on Sonic the Hedgehog. I needed Sonic to be the face of the brand. Part of the reason that I held back a lot even in the live videos that we would do is because invariably I would receive comments about, “Wow, she’s so fat. Wow, she’s so ugly. I would never date her,” and the f-words beyond that.
Even more degrading specifically about my body, specifically about the ways that people interpreted negative. I had short hair at the time. I got a lot of remarks about, “Oh, she’s a lesbian,” and worse words in that same vein. That also takes an emotional toll and there’s nothing that my company, that my co-workers can do except have empathy for me. It’s not that I wish that they had necessarily done anything because a lot of people would just look at me with a sad look like, “Oh, that must really hurt your feelings. I’m sorry, you had to go through that.”
There’s nothing else that they can do, but it actually was a reason that I was not in front of the camera. I played it off like I was fine with it. I do have thick skin. I’ve worked in this industry from the time that it was created, I have very thick skin. Even then, of course, being told repeatedly how ugly you are, how fat you are, combined with death threats, rape threats, all that other thing, it really makes you shrink back into yourself and not want to participate as a person.
It was easier to participate as a disembodied voice speaking on behalf of the company, not as Kellie Parker, community manager. I noticed that some of my male counterparts who did not receive that kind of comments with the intensity I did were much more present and much more able to be in front of the camera, much more confident with that than I was.
[00:09:46] Patrick O’Keefe: What that translates into is someone like yourself being less out there and being less thought of for advancement opportunities, speaking engagements, whatever it is, which leads to I would think in our industry the pay gap and other issues. It’s something we do and you mentioned playing it off. It’s a defense mechanism that we do and we have to do it no matter who we are. It’s like online abuse. If you really take it too much, people take advantage of that so there’s this feeling that we have to play it off. Be in on the thing, just let it roll off of us. I think what happens sometimes is that we almost and I would say, oh, everyone’s guilty of this. At some point or another just out of our own defense mechanism making light of it or something, but we can normalize the abuse of being a community pro. That whatever it is it is simply par for the course just because it is very common.
Honestly, my feeling and I’ve written this before is that if you haven’t received that type of abuse then you’re probably not doing everything you can for your community, that’s just a sad reality. I wish that it wasn’t the case. I wish that you could somehow maintain order without making yourself a target. That’s why a lot of people — I recently had Sean Dahlberg on this show who was in the gaming space previously and he talked about how the gaming community pros would not use their names. It would just be a user name and avatar and let’s just go at it that way. Again, that hurts opportunities. That hurts you as a professional. Back to my point is that we normalize this abuse. There is a line of course of– There’s a spectrum of abuse, but I think we have to be careful not to simply just accept that this is the reality of working online and working in this profession specifically. You can both accept that it happens while also speaking out about it and combating it and making sure it’s not welcome in these spaces and that’s what brings me to action.
The first thing that always comes to mind to me is zero tolerance. If someone does this they’re ejected. We have to eject people like this from these kind of civilized spaces, that’s just my perspective. Once you see someone doing that they’re ejected, they’re not simply allowed to exist in some form and to get away with it and to receive warnings endlessly because they represent a certain dollar sign, but be sort of on the no-tolerance approach to things.
Once you cross that line, you’re gone. Not to say that people can’t come back in a while and apologize, recognize what they did but they need to be ejected in that moment. Beyond that no tolerance stance, is there anything that the people who do this work should be doing? Is there anything we should be pushing for? I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer to that is necessarily, but I’m curious to hear what you think.
[00:12:22] Kellie Parker: I think it’s multilayered. First, yes. Getting some kind of abuse is actually a part of this job. You will have to ban people that need to be banned. They will be angry about it. They will react in anger. That doesn’t matter. Man, woman, child, dog, robot doesn’t matter. People react in anger. There is some base level of that. Part of this job is deleting posts, banning people, and some subsection of those people will have a reaction so that is legitimately part of the job. There is a layer of being female and or queer on top of that that fuels that. Instead of saying you’re an A-hole. They will say you’re a fat A-hole. I’m really trying not to swear. I’m a very sweary person.
[00:13:17] Patrick O’Keefe: No worries.
[00:13:18] Kellie Parker: They will use gendered responses. They will bring in real or perceived queerness into that and use those types of insults at you. It is more but it’s just more fuel for what they are saying to you. There is that and it makes it cut more when you receive it. I think we need to address and push for more recognition and more support when it comes to the mental health aspects of this job and that’s just word insults.
That doesn’t even take into account people who are constant moderating that have to see photos of genitalia all the time and get reports of snuff films, that get reports of animal abuse, that gets report of all of this and literally their job is to look at this, confirm that it is what it is and get rid of it. I have seen so many photos of genitalia in my time. In fact, there was one time on the SEGA forums someone was trying to get angry at me and they were trying to get back at me and they posted the same photo of male genitalia over and over again.
I got to the point where I was like, “Could you please use a different photo so I can at least get some variety in my days. Why is it the same photo all the time?” I have seen so much of that and that’s not even something that is necessarily as soul-crushing as animal abuse, as child abuse, as all those other horrific things. I think a lot of people who have not done this job and do not understand the job, shrug their shoulders and say that’s part of the job. Really, we need to be asking for support in doing that. Whether it’s access to licensed counselors, whether it’s rotation in the job. You’re on this for a short period of time and then you rotate to something else and somebody else rotates in, whatever that is. That portion of the job is not often discussed and it needs to be. People need to understand that they’re putting their mental health and emotional health on the line for this job. The job needs to be done, but does it all need to be done by humans. Does it need to be done by the same human? What support are we giving that human who is doing that job?
[00:15:42] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s take a pause to talk about our great sponsor, Vanilla.
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You mentioned that strides have been made over the last five years or even longer in the gaming case and I think that’s true. I think that’s inevitable, frankly. I would hope that in five, eight years strides would have been made and I think some of the areas you talk about are vital. I think part of the awareness that’s been brought to it, unfortunately, is because of things that Facebook and other large platforms have done where they’ve outsourced moderation as a cost-cutting measure and, “Well, they’re outsourced. They’re third-party vendors, who knows what happens. We’re not responsible for it.”
Where as you alluded to or as you said they have to see the worst of the internet at all hours of the day and it’s their full-time job. I feel like the older thing we had to combat against and it’s better now is the idea that we’re 24/7. Even before that it was sort of our way at the same time. That’s an idea that I feel like has gotten better and people have come to understand that a little better although it’s still there, it’s still prevalent, it’s still a thing. It’s a thing you have to fight against all the time.
Also normalizing the idea that the abuse exists as you said but we don’t have to simply endure it endlessly, and that we do need breaks. We need space. It should occupy only a certain amount of our time and yes, of course, we need where possible access to people to talk to and to help people cope with it when needed. We should have the opportunity to raise our hand and tap out basically and say, “Hey, this is just too much,” and too many people just don’t have that option.
[00:17:42] Kellie Parker: Or they don’t have the opportunity to do that safely. Again, if this is your job, your income is dependent on this, your health care is dependent on this. There are so many things riding that. If you are in any way concerned about raising your hand and saying, “Hi, I need a mental health break. I cannot look at this anymore.” You could potentially lose your job and lose all those other things. It’s entirely possible that there are people who literally white knuckle through it because they need a break. It’s detrimental to their mental and emotional and possibly physical health, but they can’t stop. They literally cannot stop because they will be homeless. They will lose their insurance. Those are the people that truly need the help. It has to come from a company level. They have to understand that and provide support for those people and reassurance that it’s okay, you’re not going to lose your job because you need access to a counselor, because you need to work on a different project for a couple of weeks.
[00:18:53] Patrick O’Keefe: I think you’re absolutely right. I think there’s a lot of people who white knuckle through it all the time for all sorts of reasons, even cases where they may be prideful or it may feel like they don’t want to bother people. I think another issue is the fact that a lot of us are one person, accountable. Even with a company like SEGA who has this large online fandom. I think you told me your team was maybe a couple of people at its largest.
[00:19:18] Kellie Parker: Yes. At its largest, there were four of us including myself.
[00:19:22] Patrick O’Keefe: Gosh, the volume of comments, contributions, posts, people, platforms. It’s a lot and a lot of us are just one person. We don’t have someone even a counterpart for coverage to be away in a meaningful sense where they actually understand the role and can caretake it while we’re gone. That leads to this pressure that because others don’t understand the role that we simply can’t leave unless we really have to because if we don’t then the thing we’re building will simply fall apart.
[00:19:51] Kellie Parker: I have been the only community manager on projects or brands and for companies before and I at one point kept a file which I called the ‘in case I get hit by a bus’ file, which in detail, everything I do. “Here’s how to pull these reports. Here’s how to calculate these metrics. Here’s what to do. Here’s how you ban somebody. Here’s how you do this,” because I was the only person doing it and literally nobody else knew how to do my job. That just as a process person makes me really nervous. I had that in there. Going back to how you talked about being 24/7, that’s absolutely true.
I’m glad to hear that that’s better because I was 24/7 before and with a few breaks. At least expected to be available if something went wrong. Especially working at a multinational company like SEGA, we are positioned where there’s a US office, a London office, and the Japanese headquarters. I would get e-mail 24/7, and I got in the habit of checking my e-mail late at night to see if something had come in from Japan so that I could forward it on to London and waking up early to see if something had come in from the London office because sometimes a well-timed e-mail can actually save you 24 to 48 hours as decisions circle the globe.
I got in that habit of doing that and you’re on all the time or expected to be available all the time. That can also really take a toll without having actual real downtime. A lot of people don’t get real vacations. They’re still checking e-mail. They’re still checking in when they’re on vacations. Very few people get a chance to actually unplug and just not look at anything.
[00:21:42] Patrick O’Keefe: When my job came to an end in January one of the first things I did was delete Slack from my phone, and I haven’t added it back and I feel really good about it. I appreciate our conversation because I feel like it’s leaning in the direction of not expecting people to change, not expecting people to get better or placing the responsibility on the person entering the community, but instead placing the responsibility on the companies that we’ve worked for and on the norms of the industry, which are changeable and are realistic and aren’t expecting a miracle.
It is realistic to build in, redundancy is not the right word, to build in support systems for people. To build in access to mental health, to build in time for breaks, to build in the system where that can work, as opposed to just cutting it down to the bone every time and trying to get by with the lowest possible budget impact. These are realistic solutions. My hope is twofold.
Number one, those of us who can advocate for that will. I try to push my platform in that way, and when I’ve had roles, I try to push up a little bit. Number two is that frankly, the companies who don’t get that will lose out on talent over time. That’s bad because I don’t know if they’ll realize it fully and they’ll make a change, but if you have a lot of turnover in your community roles as a company and you have people leaving, I know you stuck it out at SEGA for six-plus years, but in general, you’ll lose people within a year or two.
If you’re churning out your community person every 18 months, you should really look internally at why that would be. It can be a number of factors. It doesn’t have to be that they are taking abuse. It can be poor compensation, bad workplace environment, whatever, but if people are burning out of that role over and over again, there’s probably a greater than 50% chance that this is the reason.
[00:23:28] Kellie Parker: I agree. I want the community at large to change. I want the general population to change their attitudes, to recognize their own toxicity and not direct it to strangers on the internet. First of all, recognize that there are real people reading these comments, managing these communities, and I want them to change their toxic behavior. That’s a big dream and some people will change. Not everybody will change. I think it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to change or enough people to change in a meaningful way. I want that, but I wouldn’t base action plans for future growth based on that, because that’s not as likely as holding companies responsible for putting people in these jobs but not providing proper support for them. I think moving forward in terms of burnout, there are a lot of people that burn out and it’s actually bad for the company, bad for the community when these people burn out.
Communities thrive with sustained management and familiar faces. Even though I wasn’t always in front of the camera, I became a known quantity at SEGA. There were a lot of fans that knew me. They knew my face. I would be at PAX or at Comicon and people would just come up to me and be like, “Hi, Kellie.” I have no idea who they are, but they know who I am. That builds the community because you have the consistency of management and they start to view you as a community manager as their inside person. That I always said was my role there is to be the translator.
I want the fans to see me as their inside person at the company and I want people at the company to see me as their inside person with the fans. If you have new people in that role every six months, every year, every two years you never get that sustained growth. You never have that institutional knowledge of will this issue happen four years ago and what you’re planning now is going to spark a revolt based on this issue that happened four years ago and I know because I was there.
[00:25:40] Patrick O’Keefe: There’s not enough value placed on institutional knowledge in a sense, is what I call it.
[00:25:46] Kellie Parker: No, there really isn’t and there’s only so much of that that’s transferable. One of the things I learned so much from– I was not allowed to play video games growing up. We had in television a very early game, an Atari 800 that I played text adventure games on, but beyond that, I really had no experience with Nintendo, with early SEGA consoles. I came into my job at SEGA very new, with very little institutional knowledge about the history. One of the people that worked on my team and he took my job when SEGA moved to Los Angeles.
He is a lifelong Sonic fan and he was able to help me as I’m evaluating plans working with the community to say, “Hang on hang on. Don’t say that because you’re going to spark this like two-decade-old thing unintentionally. Don’t do that.” He was able to pass on that institutional knowledge to me that I didn’t have, but there’s only so much of that that you actually can pass on. A lot of it is just experience of having been there. If you are not taking care of your community managers and you do have that turnover, it actually materially affects the community in negative ways.
[00:27:01] Patrick O’Keefe: The pain a blue cartoon hedgehog can cause.
[00:27:05] Kellie Parker: You don’t even know. The things I have seen. The things I have gone through.
[00:27:10] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s stop for a moment to talk about our generous sponsor, Localist.
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You know, it’s funny because on a much smaller scale I’ve managed one community for – it’ll be 20 years in May. Like I said a much smaller community, but I love it and I’ve never felt more credible in a community than I do there because I’ve been here since the doors opened. Whatever it is now I was here the whole time and so if you come into the community and you’re like, “No, this is terrible. This is wrong.” I get that and if it’s a reasonable point, yes, we can definitely adjust our perspective on things.
Also, it’s been this way and people like it and we’re catering to a specific audience so I get the benefit of the doubt more than I would in a lot of other spaces just because I’ve demonstrated the love and care of being there for so long. It’s very true. I wanted to ask you, what you sound like you are probably more the white knuckle variety of person from what I’m getting or maybe I’m wrong. How did you cope in those times? What did you do?
[00:28:36] Kellie Parker: The hardest times were when we did a couple of videos. SEGA really was a family. We really embodied work hard, play hard and we genuinely enjoyed spending time together. A lot of times we would get together on the weekends or if we were out at conventions. When the convention day is over, you’re no longer required to spend time with people. We would all go spend time with each other. We’d all hang out and go to parties and do whatever together. We love to do pranks. There were two videos in particular that ended up going somewhat viral and I hate that term, but they were both accidents.
One was our creative director. We had kind of a standing rule if you go on vacation for more than two weeks, we might do something to your desk when you get back. The community manager that I mentioned earlier that was the big Sonic fan. He went on a month-long vacation, very well deserved and we turned his desk into Green Hill Zone which is the first zone of Sonic 1. We did this by constructing rolling hills out of cardboard. We covered it and astro turf. We made paper rings and just essentially moved all of his stuff off his desk, redecorated his desk to look like Green Hill Zone. We filmed the making of it and again, we weren’t trying to go viral. We were just trying to create something funny and awesome. We had behind the scenes of people like cutting out rings while they’re on conference calls or like things like that and over the course of the month, everybody in the office participated a little bit in helping to make it.
The day that he came back, we scheduled an early meeting for him and he was very jet-lagged, but he came in and saw what we had done and we created a video based on that and we just put it up on our YouTube and it went viral. I was in the video as one of the main community managers that were doing this. We were explaining what we were doing and things like that. I think that video, actually the reactions to that video was one of the hardest things, because not only was I on camera in a almost full body shot.
Because of its viral nature, it went out to people who did not know me, were not part of our community. It got published all over the internet and I’m so glad it did. It’s so many mixed emotions. I’m so glad that what we created really hit a chord with everybody and was so widely published because that was truly not our intention. We were not trying to go viral, but at the same time, it was published. It was on the front page of Reddit for a long time. It was on BuzzFeed. It was everywhere and the comments on the YouTube video were so degrading about me, about my body, about everything like that and I just had to take it. There’s nothing I can do. If you start deleting the comments, first of all, there’s so many of them, it would take forever. Second of all, all you’re doing is egging them on because now you let them know that they got to you. There’s nothing you can do, you just have to take it.
I read all the comments because it’s my job to read the comments. At the same time reading these comments and to their credit, some of the other community managers offered to read the comments, so I didn’t have to but it’s my job to read those comments. This is the white-knuckling. No, rather than say, “You’re right, that’s really hurtful. I prefer not to do that.” I was like, “No, no, no, I got it. It’s fine. I got a thick skin.” I’ve been in this business a long time. It’s something I haven’t heard before, but it was still painful.
It was so much, like I said, mixed emotions. I’m so glad we did this amazing thing, but also, why does it have to be about me and my body? That’s the most prominent example. There were a couple other videos that we did in which I was in that escaped past our community, and that’s really where the venomous comments came from. It was almost always me and not the other people that I was with, whether they were male or female. My body, my appearance, my presence made people feel free to say things like that.
[00:33:01] Patrick O’Keefe: That’s terrible obviously, but I asked you, how do you cope? In that case, is this something you had to come to realization later in your career that it was important and you just blustered by and put on the thick skin and pretended that it didn’t bother you. Was that your coping mechanism then?
[00:33:16] Kellie Parker: Yes. That’s exactly what I did. I pretended that it did not bother me and only a very few people did I feel comfortable opening up to say like, “Yes, actually, of course, it bothers me. Of course, it bothers me. I’m a human being.” None of this was new information to me, but at the same time, I felt that I had to put on my professional face and be a professional about it and say, “No, I’m totally fine. This is part of my job. I accept this as part of my job and we’ll move forward.” I didn’t want to be that vulnerable to my bosses, to my executives. Not that they would have dismissed me. I don’t want to give the impression that they would have been uncaring, but what could they do? They can’t go yell at people on YouTube. They can’t change that. I said I’m going to put on a professional face. This is part of my job. I accept it. We’re going to move forward. It’s hurtful, but you push through it. That’s what I did.
[00:34:18] Patrick O’Keefe: Just listening to that, the one thing, and this is not taking anything away from anyone, but like, if you have people reporting into you who have to see this UGC stream, user-generated content stream, I would just say to be very cognizant of what they have to look at. Even when I’ve led larger teams, I scaled the team to eight in my last role, even in that situation, I was still keeping a foot in the community on a semi regular basis to make sure our set of communities, to see what was going on and make sure and trying to prompt people beneath me on certain things.
Of course, I was dealing with things too, and no one was bothering above me. No one really gave a damn, so grain of salt there. They didn’t really give a damn what I had to endure if there was anything, it’s the ways of being a great boss, I would say because there’s a lot of ways to be a good boss, I would say, but one of the things that separates you is this curiosity.
Having a curiosity about the things that are going wrong for the people that are reporting to you or the things that don’t feel right or the things that are stressing them out. It’s easy to say and harder to do, certainly, so, I’m not passing any judgement on anyone. That’s just one of the things. If you’re in a role where you have to support community professionals beneath you, whether you are a community pro, like a director of community, VP of community, or if it just happens to fall under you and roll up to you and marketing or operations or whatever, you really have to educate yourself on the stresses of this job.
If you don’t, then you’re going to lose people and the people that are reporting up to you are not going to be as efficient in their jobs or as happy and satisfied in their job. I think it’s a tragic story to hear some of the things that you’re sharing, but I’m thankful that you’re sharing them because I think it’s something that people need to hear more and more.
[00:35:57] Kellie Parker: I agree, and I think particularly if you are not a community person, if you’ve not been in a community or social media or even a public-facing role, and you have community professionals under you, it is your responsibility to really understand what they go through because you don’t know, and they might white knuckle it like I did. My boss was a wonderful person and I genuinely enjoyed working with her, and it is not in any way a reflection on her that I did not want to share what I was going through with her but at the same time, she had community people under her and I’m not sure she really understood the depths that I was going through.
I think there’s always a harder gap to bridge when it’s community person to non-community person. I feel like I was much able to understand the community managers that were underneath me on the org chart because I was also one, but eventually, at some point, you get to a level where a community person or a public-facing person is reporting to a person who is not public-facing and that’s a harder gap to bridge, but it’s really important because that’s how the progress gets made.
If the community manager is going to be only one standing up to say, “We need this extra support, we need this help.” Now, you’re just whining about doing your job, but if you can get somebody else on board to say, “No, look, I’m not in this role, but I’ve seen what they’ve seen. I know what they’re going through.” That’s where the progress is made.
I think the responsibility is on those managers and executives, but I think I failed in really keeping it to myself and not sharing upward what I was going through, because how can they be responsible for knowing if I’m not sharing that?
I think I failed in part by keeping it to myself and white-knuckling it, and I understand why. It’s embarrassing, it’s personal. It’s literally about my appearance and my body, but I also need to share that because I can’t expect someone to understand what I’m going through or take action to make it better if I can’t make them aware of the problem.
[00:38:20] Patrick O’Keefe: I think that’s very fair. I think the word use is good too, responsibility. I mean, in some ways, the model is busted because when community is not its own thing, which is 9.5 times out of 10, it rolls up into something and usually that person, maybe they want it, maybe they don’t, but most people are happy to have additional reports and additional authority with some exceptions, of course, because it means their position in the company is becoming more important.
I would say that the model is busted because let’s say you’re in marketing. The reason I don’t like that usually is because what happens is community has to serve marketing, and that’s a one way street of value is if you’re the marketing head, you’re like, “Okay, how can I use community to beef up our efforts?” It’s not a reciprocal thing where then you’re then looking down toward community and saying, “Hey, what is that? What is this thing? What is the problem? What stresses these people out? What are their challenges?”
Man, it’s just sort of, “Well, I’ll just trust them to do it and do their thing, and get out of their way except when the numbers don’t match up and then I’m not happy about something.” That just needs to be flipped on its head.
I want to talk about another subject you brought up, which is ageism, something that we’re cognizant of on this show, and we talked about it recently when I had John Coate on the show.
John Coate was the community manager for The WELL, a pioneering online community in the ’80s, and still consults around community now and works at EdgeRiders. I also have a friend who I’m not going to throw his name out there, but who’s looking for a job and has been looking for a while and is outstanding, very good, very experienced, very smart, and just can’t find a job. I do suspect, as he says, and as he suspects too that he’s dealing with ageism in the community space.
I’m aware of my own limit, even, to my prime and I’m pretty young, but I really think that maybe I have another 10 years, 15 years max at my prime to be able to land top jobs. I’d love to be wrong about that. I’m going to do what I can to make that so, but it’s a very real thing and it’s terrible. We lose a lot of really good community pros to it. With that said, what have been your experiences with that?
[00:40:27] Kellie Parker: My experience has been really similar and it’s funny because I’ve had a full gamut of experience. I have been searching for jobs when nobody knew what community management was. Well before social media and people were like, “What? That’s not even a thing. What are you even talking about?” I have to search for jobs as product manager, as marketing managers, as something else because the experience that I had managing communities, usually forums and IRC chats, because that’s how old I am. It was nothing.
It absolutely didn’t mean a thing. My undergraduate degree is in criminal justice, which also doesn’t mean a thing to someone who’s hiring for a potential marketing role.
I actually went back to school to get my MBA in marketing in order to have something on a resume that was substantial and related to a field that I wanted to get into because I was just having trouble getting jobs. I’ve completely run the gamut from your experience doesn’t matter to, “Wow, look at how much experience you have. We don’t want someone that experienced. We don’t want to pay for someone that experienced.”
This pervasive notion that the internet and particularly social media and community, but more general, the internet is a young man’s domain and you must be young in order to know about it and be good about it. I’ve completely run that gamut. Now, in the past when I’ve looked for social media jobs, community management jobs, they’re out there, but they’re much more junior than me.
Repeatedly companies have interviewed me and I get all the way to the end of the process, and we all agree they need my expertise and that I can help them. “I can help you.
I want to help you. Please hire me so I can help you.” A lot of times they have said, “Look, you’re great.” One person who did not hire me called me the Ferrari option. She’s like, “You’re a Ferrari, but what we can afford is a Honda.”
[00:42:35] Patrick O’Keefe: Oh boy.
[00:42:36] Kellie Parker: She’s like, “I know you can help us, but we don’t have the money to pay you the salary that you’re asking for.” In some cases, they recognize that I rightfully deserve because of my experience. I’ve also had some people say like, “Oh, well.” They’ll play it off as culture fit, is usually what it is but I can look around your company and I can see that there is nobody over the age of 30 in this company.
When you tell me I’m not a culture fit, I know exactly what that means. I am 44 years old. I am female. I am not by traditional beauty standard, beautiful. That’s what you mean. Especially if it’s for a community manager role where they want someone to be in front of the community and lead them. I’m not what you’re looking for, and you’ll tell me it’s culture fit. You’ll tell me that they can’t afford my salary or whatever.
You and I both know the real reasons why. It’s really, really frustrating. I laugh every single time I see this. Unfortunately, I see it so much where people ask for more years of community or social media experience than that particular tool has been around. “I want you to have 20 years’ experience in TikTok,” or something. It’s ridiculous. It literally didn’t exist. I know because I worked in the space when it existed, when it came into being, I was there.
A lot of times people just say they want a lot of experience. They don’t value the role enough to properly compensate for the experience they say they want. They feel that if you are young, you are automatically good at this. I think one of the other things that happens a lot because most people have accounts on these social media platforms, they think anybody can do this job. “I post on my own Facebook, so I can post on a Facebook for a brand. I’m involved in a message board community, and therefore, I can manage a message board community on behalf of a brand.” They don’t understand they are two completely different things, completely different, but the role is often devalued because it’s seen as anybody could do it.
[00:44:50] Patrick O’Keefe: I think that’s well said. It’s interesting. I think that we’re doing ourselves and it’s not even we, it’s they’re doing themselves a great disservice by looking past people who are– Like 44 is not that old, whatever. [chuckles] That’s not even that old, but I totally get it. I’m 35. When I said that 10 to 15 years, that sounds like, hey, [chuckles] I’ll not be too far off. It’s not even that old and I think we’re really missing some great community knowledge.
That’s one of the things I try to do with this show is to bring people a full spectrum of people to kind of demonstrate. There are some young people, younger than me, I’ll say, because I still like to consider myself young, although I’m not [chuckles] who are doing a great job and do great work, but it’s based around what they’ve done and what they’ve built and what they’ve been a part of. I think that’s the case. When you say 20 years of something, there’s really very little that 20 years of anything is going to help you with.
As someone who’s been moderating since 1998, 20 years of moderation experience, I’ve seen a lot. It’s less about the years, at some point, once you get to 5 or 10 and more about what you’ve done in those years. When you say I’ve built a team or I’ve managed communities of this size, or I’ve dealt with this problem, or I had this really highly visible success, or I prove revenue retention above this amount or whatever it is, it’s about the things that you’ve done.
More often than not the people who have been able to stay in this space for so long are people who have done things, and have done real things that they can talk about and tell you about and can do for your company. I don’t know. I think that’s what’s getting lost in this wrapper of appearances and perspective on how hip or current or whatever the person needs to be or appear to fulfill a certain role.
I don’t know. The results bear out, but that’s cold comfort. That doesn’t do any good for my friend who’s looking for a job for like 18 months, two years and can’t find one, even though he’s very qualified, doesn’t do anything– I don’t know if you ever desire to get back into this space or not. I just hope you’re thrilled and happy as a realtor, having a great entrepreneurial business and do it perfect and never want to come back. It doesn’t do anything for these people who are out there looking for jobs and needing jobs and would be happy to take say less than maybe their compensation, but they can’t even find a job that’ll take them because of superficial reasons.
[00:46:58] Kellie Parker: Absolutely. I love my job as a realtor, I recently got into doing mortgages. I love helping people. I think a lot of people look at this career change and are like, “Wait, that doesn’t make any sense.” When I explain, let’s bring this back. Being a real estate agent is about relationships. It building relationships with people, helping people, taking care of people. That’s a lot of my job as a community manager and a social media manager.
Then it’s also about negotiating and analysis and getting good deals for people. Well, that’s a lot of what I did for metrics reports so that makes sense. It’s a lot about marketing. It’s a lot about building my brand and using my budget efficiently. All of those things I did as social media managers, it’s a very regulated space. I worked over a medical device company for years. I am comfortable in regulated spaces. That also makes sense.
It’s different regulation, but that doesn’t bother me either. It actually is a pretty natural extension of what I was doing even though on the surface it appears to be a complete 180. I actually thought about, as I was thinking about, I want to get into business for myself and be my own boss for a while. I actually thought about being a social media or community management freelance consultant. Part of the reason that I didn’t do that is this ageism.
Part of the reason I didn’t do that is that I live in the Bay Area where social media managers tend to be more like a dime a dozen. There’s a lot of people out there and why would you hire me versus somebody else? If you don’t value experience and you are ageist about it, I’m going to have a hard time finding work. That’s why, ultimately, I didn’t do that. There were several points in my career where I thought about becoming freelance and I didn’t and that’s why.
Ultimately, I did consider it, but that’s why I went in the direction that I did. It’s unfortunate because you’re right. We lose so much experience. We lose so much knowledge, not even just institutional knowledge, but just knowledge about the history of where we’ve come from and why the best practices that we have today are what they are. I was there when we made the best practices, there was no playbook for a lot of this.
It was a bunch of us old school, community managers going to a conference, meeting up for coffee, sitting around in a room and saying, “I’m having this problem. What do you guys think we should do about this problem?” Then we would all talk it out. That is what has become the best practices that people follow today. They have no idea why or where it came from. When people that were there get out of that industry or are forced out of that industry, you really lose that perspective. It’s sad. It’s really sad. I feel really bad for your friend who can’t find a job. Unfortunately, I’m not surprised. I wish I was, but I’m not.
[00:49:59] Patrick O’Keefe: I’m just going to say it this way, tell me about the magic community wand.
[00:50:03] Kellie Parker: The mythical magic community wand is a thing that I coined while I was at SEGA. Community was still very new. There was a lot of excitement around it, but nobody really knew what it was or how to manage it. When I first started at SEGA, one of the things that I would hear from marketing managers is we really want to raise awareness of this game a lot. We have zero marketing dollars, so we’ll do community and then everybody will know about it.
The more that I tried to dig deep into, “Okay, what do you mean by do community? What does that entail? What do you want me to do? What are your strategies? Who are you targeting?” There was nothing behind that. I started calling it the magic community wands in that, like, “We’ll do community, we’ll wave this magic community wand and then suddenly everything’s all better and it doesn’t cost any money and it doesn’t really take any art. We just do community. Voila, everybody knows.”
It was a way for us to kindly push back to say, “Well, yes, I can post about it on our Facebook page. You’re right. That does not cost us anything, except whatever dollars we need to put assets together. I can handle the rest, but that only sends it to a portion of our Facebook fans. If you want to do something more and raise more awareness, that does cost money. This is not a magic repair for everything that you need.”
Over time, as more people got familiar with social media and social media became more prevalent, that really started to be understood. Every once in a while, someone would want to pull out the magic community wand again, and, “We’ll just do community. Everything’s all better.” I feel that is less prevalent now that people understand that social media is by and large pay for play, but it still is around. A lot of people see social media and communities as this some sort of magic thing that ultimately produces results.
[00:52:07] Patrick O’Keefe: I like what you said before the show, you said that, “I can’t whisper buy the new SEGA game into Twitter’s ear and solve everything.” [chuckles]
[00:52:14] Kellie Parker: Yes, I can’t.
[00:52:15] Patrick O’Keefe: I felt this pressure before where community was the– gosh, how do you even describe it? The bucket at the bottom– After everything dripped past and we couldn’t do this with this piece of content up here, no one wanted it on our blog or no one wanted it in the newsletter or no one could make it work here or they didn’t want to tweet it, or they didn’t want to do this.
It’d be like, “Well, can we just let them post it in the community?” It was like, “Well, we have guidelines in the community. The same reason that these other people didn’t want it. We don’t really want it either.” There were times I’d have conversations like that over and over again in a previous role where it just sort of devalued the community because if those other areas can have principles then certainly the community should have principles too.
[00:52:59] Kellie Parker: I agree. That’s something that I also experienced, particularly in my early days of SEGA where community was the last dreg. Once PR has gotten what they wanted, everybody else has their allocation, we were expected to take the scraps and be thankful that we got the scraps. One of the things that we were able to do is take what we could and be scrappy and build new things. One of the things that we did at SEGA, we started Free Stuff Friday.
The reason, the whole reason that that came about is the PR department was cleaning out their storage closet one day. They have all these things that they had made for press events that were just leftovers and they were going to throw them away. I thought, “Wait a minute, I can do something with that. These are things that are related to games that people love that no fan has ever had a chance to have. You guys are just going to throw them away. Instead of throwing them away, give them to me.”
We built this whole weekly giveaway, which was mostly on Twitter. Also, we did some on Facebook as well, where we would make a short video to show what we were giving away, tell a little bit about it, and then we would give it away on Twitter. Over time, it became such a thing that people would set aside for us, proactively things for Free Stuff Friday. Or our licensing department would give us the samples that they had received of products as, “You can give these away for Free Stuff Friday.”
Eventually, we were able to build it into something, but it started with just things, literal trash, things that people were going to throw away, that we were able to take and build something. One of things that I said a lot with that is, “Look at what I have done with nothing. Imagine if you gave me something.”
[00:54:44] Patrick O’Keefe: [laughs]
[00:54:45] Kellie Parker: “What could I do if you set aside things for social media and community, instead of just giving me the things that nobody else wanted.” Over time, we really were able to change that where we started to be considered upfront in the process rather than as last thoughts.
Particularly in working with SEGA of Japan, they had to approve all of our Sonic assets and at the beginning, a lot of the feedback that I got was we don’t understand that so you can’t do it. I was able to build that relationship over time to where we started to do funnier, more mean stuff for Sonic and they would say, “We don’t understand that, but we trust you so go ahead and do it.” It’s that kind of consideration. It’s that kind of freedom that is really only built up the whole time.
[00:55:35] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, it’s funny. There are these videos on YouTube of people going into the trash outside of a GameStop, video game store. There’s this whole conversation about how they’re planned videos and made up, but of course, people would go into the garbage at SEGA headquarters if they could. There’s a lot of things in there that they would want. That makes perfect sense. This whole community magic wand thing, it’s something I wanted to talk about because it’s something that a lot of us feel.
Carrie Melissa Jones, who’s a friend of the show, recently tweeted about books that spend a substantial amount of their pages explaining a particular problem, like with AI, or misinformation, or political polarization. Then at the end, after spending like 200 something pages on the problem, they throw out like five pages and throw like community out there as a solution without much elaboration like, “Community is the answer of the future,” which really puts us in a tough spot.
[00:56:26] Kellie Parker: The second book it is, but how? How do you do that and that’s a whole other 200 pages of like, how do we fix that? Yes, a lot of times it’s just seen as just do a thing. Okay. How you do as a big black box, end of story.
[00:56:44] Patrick O’Keefe: Kellie, this has been a really meaty, deep, I think, important conversation and I appreciate you taking the time to have it with us and for being so honest and forthright and candid with us, so thank you so much.
[00:56:56] Kellie Parker: Oh, you’re welcome. I’m really glad that I had the opportunity to share. It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a true community role and it’s always fun to revisit.
[00:57:06] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Kellie Parker who formerly worked in community at SEGA and is now a realtor in Newark, California, outside of San Francisco. You can find her at kellieparker.com and follow her on Instagram @KellieParker and @RealtorKellieParker. Kellie is spelled K-E-L-L-I-E.
For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad, and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. Thanks for listening.
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