When Your First Day as an Online Community Manager is Your First Day at a Computer

As community professionals, the array of platforms, reading material, conferences, and thought leaders available to us only continues to grow. And if you’ve read or written a job description for a community opportunity recently, you know that there’s often an expectation around technical literacy for everyone in the field.

In a time when a lot of our day-to-day takes place in front of a screen, I felt a little punch in the gut while listening to this episode of Community Signal, when I learned that John Coate, an early community manager, had no knowledge of the tools available when he first started at The WELL. In fact, he says that his first day on the job was the first day that he sat down in front of a computer!

So, why was I surprised? Has our industry placed too much influence on speaking engagements, platform knowledge, and revenue-focused metrics instead of the values and actual community-related experience that should govern our work? As John puts it, “computers are just a way to connect people. Never forget that you’re talking to real people, and it’s good to treat them as if you really are in the same room with them.” Sounds simple, but imagine if platforms like Facebook or Twitter followed this golden rule. We’d have a much different internet today. Patrick and John discuss this exact point and the work that John is doing to get us there. Because not surprisingly, the values that guided his work at The WELL 35 years ago are the same ones we need to call upon today.

John and Patrick also talk about:

  • How tools like Facebook and Twitter have changed the way that we communicate with one another
  • John’s transition from auto mechanic to online community manager
  • The movement to decentralize the internet
  • Metrics based on relationships, sentiment, and factual statements within the community

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Big Quotes

The “online gift economy” that The WELL helped create (8:14): “The WELL, because of its open nature and its desire to experiment, opened up chunks of the operating system for programmers to actually play with and make little utilities for the people as a way of kind of practicing. There was this maker culture going on at the same time. As Howard Rheingold put it once, it was where the tool makers meet with the tool users. In addition to being a place where people can converse, it was also a kind of birthplace of a sort of online gift economy.” -John Coate

Is web rage the new road rage? (15:15): “Just the other day, I was thinking that in a way, [web rage is] not too unlike road rage, where you can yell at somebody in the car that cut you off … knowing that it’s almost certain they’re not going to stop and make you get out of your car and work it out with them physically. It’s safe. … [Online], it is kind of a power spot that you’re sitting in. This becomes part of your identity and you’re confident and you say things and some people can too easily go about that in an ill-considered way, forgetting that if you were face-to-face with somebody in the same room, you would factor that into however you talk to them.” -John Coate

Don’t forget, there are still people new to online gatherings (16:35): “Amazingly enough, there are a lot of people who are still kind of new to online gatherings where groups try to come together in one form or another. The main thing is to remind people that the computers are just a way to connect people. Never forget that you’re talking to real people and it’s good to treat them as if you really are in the same room with them and you’re talking directly to them and do the best you can to sort of simulate mentally some feeling of that if you can pull it off, which is not exactly that simple. I think it takes practice but I think it’s easy enough to imagine, even if you haven’t really done it that much. It did take me a while to learn it frankly.” -John Coate

On creating your own online experience (25:50): “I think it should never be forgotten by anybody that even though the internet is dominated by Facebook, Amazon, all the big guys, all the big organizations, that doesn’t have to dominate your experience. You can still find, I think, almost anything you want out there if you look for it long enough and far enough or if somebody turns you on to something.” -John Coate

About John Coate

John Coate started in online community work at the beginning of 1986 at The WELL in Sausalito, California. As marketing director, he focused on the user base developing relationships with each other as the basis of the community.

In 1994, he co-founded sfgate.com. As general manager until 2001, he and his team pioneered a number of innovations, many of which are now standard features on most news websites. He also spent time at gaming company Sulake and worked as an in-game adult supervisor in their avatar-based world of Habbo Hotels.

Since 2015, Mr. Coate has been working with Edgeryders, teaching online community creation and management of workshops and managing portions of European Commission funded projects around the future of the internet and the rise of populism in Europe. In particular, he hosts and manages the Edgeryders forum, Internet of Humans, as part of the larger next-generation internet initiative known as NGI Forward. Another project, The Reef, studies a deep green co-housing and co-working space.

Edgeryders is an organization and community that acts as a talent pool for social benefit projects. They also work with the Swedish group that operates a large co-working creative space on the waterfront in Stockholm called Blivande.

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Transcript

Your Thoughts

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