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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The “online gift economy” that The WELL helped create (8:14): “The WELL, because of its open nature and 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 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 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.
- Sponsor: Discourse, civilized discussion for teams, customers, fans, and communities
- John Coate’s website
- The WELL, where John was employee #2 and an early community manager
- A friend of the show, Chrispian Burks, is recovering from a heart attack. If you’re able, please consider donating towards his recovery costs. Patrick is offering a 30-minute consultation call to anyone that donates $100 or more.
- SFGate, where John served as general manager
- Game company Sulake and Habbo Hotels
- Edgeryders and its forum, Internet of Humans
- NGI (Next Generation Internet) Forward
- The Farm, where John Coate and Matthew McClure first met
- Whole Earth Catalog
- Howard Rheingold, an early, active member of the WELL and a past guest on the show
- Bruce Sterling on the State of the World 2020
- Discourse, the platform on which Edgeryders hosts its community
- Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act
- Karateforums.com turns 19 this year!
- Secure Scuttlebutt, a peer-to-peer communication protocol
- Sarah Hawk, VP of community at Discourse
- Patrick’s book, Managing Online Forums
- The Virtual Community by Howard Rheingold
- Derek Powazek, author of Design for Community
- Game designer, entrepreneur, and startup coach Amy Jo Kim
- Rebecca Newton, founder of Virtual Community Summit
- Community Signal episode discussing cultural anthropology
- IMDb Shuts Down its Discussion Boards
[0:00] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, a podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Discourse, civilized discussion for teams, customers, fans, and communities. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[0:24] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you for listening to Community Signal. Our guest for this, the 150th episode of the show, is John Coate who joined pioneering online community, the WELL, in 1986 as the marketing director, employee number two.
Title aside, the work he did really made him a community manager right at the dawn of online communities. We are going to talk about the WELL, ageism in this profession, ethnography in online communities, and more.
If you are a regular listener of the show, please consider supporting us on Patreon at communitysignal.com/innercircle. You will be joining long term supporters we really appreciate like Maggie McGary, Serena Snoad and Rachel Medanic.
Also, if you have any community strategy questions and would like to support a good cause, a close friend of mine is in need after suffering a big heart attack. If you give him a $100 and tell me about it, we will schedule a 30-minute call and I will answer anything you want. Visit chrispian.com/help for the details. That’s C-H-R-I-S-P-I-A-N.com/help. The link will be in the show notes, too.
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 in gaming company Sulake and worked as 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.
Mr. Coate, welcome to the show.
[00:02:28] John Coate: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
[00:02:31] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a pleasure to have you. I want to talk about a bunch of different things. Not just the WELL but in reading your pre-show questionnaire , there was something that was kind of a funny thing, a funny story. You said that the day you went to work for the WELL, at the beginning of 1986, was the first day that you ever sat down in front of a computer. What a thing? What a moment? And then that moment set you down on this online community path. I would love to hear that story.
[00:02:54] John Coate: Yes, that is true, because I was hired to work at the WELL back at the very beginning of 1986 when it was a one-person operation headed by a close friend, Matthew McClure. I knew him because he and I had lived communally together for a number of years in Tennessee at a big commune called the Farm.
Matthew had worked for the Whole Earth Catalog before then, before the Farm and when we along with other people decided to move on from living in Tennessee at that big place and come back to California. He went to work for the Whole Earth Catalog organization which later spun off the WELL.
I got jobs in auto mechanic in Marin County, and was fixing cars, supporting my small children. I didn’t know anything about computers. I guess I was a pretty well spoken guy with an interesting set of experiences.
I was also feeling bad that I was underachieving as much as I was. In 1985, I was at a party with Matthew and I was complaining about my lot in life. He said, “Well, I need some help. Why don’t you come work for me?” I’m like, “Really? Where will that be? When will that mean?” He said, “The WELL. This is computer communications.” “I don’t know anything about computers.”
He said, “Well, you know things about communication and you’ve been trained to fix European automobiles. You shouldn’t have any trouble learning how to use a computer.” I said, “Well, okay.” It was a window that opened and I jumped through it.
I can’t overstate how I felt at the time. I’m working in a car shop. That’s hard work standing on concrete all day long and all that entails. There was an opening and I just jumped through it. It’s true I didn’t know a thing about computers.
I showed up very shortly at the Whole Earth office and there was a Mac 128, a first edition Macintosh. I sat down in a room with another guy who was an editor for the Whole Earth and started working, there I was, it is amazing.
[00:05:31] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s so funny because we joke these days about sort of in 2020 about community roles that have requirements for experience and they don’t list community experience. They might list marketing experience or something like that and so they don’t tend to be online community jobs, in title only right?
Back then you were taking this role as marketing director, which we now we look back at his community manager as sort of the dawn of online communities, and having used a computer was not a requirement for that job because frankly how many people had?
In general I think that given the timing I imagine that a lot of the people who visited The WELL, not just in ’85, ’86 but also in the ’80’s as a whole, were just sort of figuring out computers for themselves and that it had sort of a very experimental vibe because of that.
[00:06:15] John Coate: No question many were and there were a lot of different kinds of computers at that time too, there was CPM, Commodore 64 and TRS-80 and Amiga. All of these different kinds of operating systems and stuff, it was highly experimental and it wasn’t easy to use either. A lot of what was going on was people giving each other advice about how to deal with it.
The mutual support aspect was definitely important and so the people using it were certainly computer professionals, programmers, writers, teachers, people who had a reason to have a networked computer.
It should also be pointed out very important that the well ran on the Unix operating system, and the Unix operating system, which was you know created in Bell Labs, specifically as a communicating, networking operating system, also that would be dynamic in that it could be improved by the people using it. It wasn’t fixed, it was actually rather open source in certain ways.
Also, at that time, Unix wouldn’t run on a PC and there was no Linux yet. People who wanted to play with that operating system, which was, if you wanted to get into network engineering, it was pretty necessary. This was one of the few ways that you could do it if you didn’t already work at a university or a company or some place that had either a mainframe or one of these mini computers, as they call them now, except they were the size of refrigerators.
That was a very important aspect of it, and also The WELL, because of its sort of 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.
[00:08:53] Patrick O’Keefe: The WELL has rolled along to this daym still would people actively contributing in 2020, it turned 35 this year, which is you know amazing, and I saw that on Edgeryders in January, you had posted a link to a conversation that Bruce Sterling and John Kowski were having, and so The WELL, it appears still is a place that holds your interest in 2020. Why do you think that is?
[00:09:14] John Coate: For me, my interest of course, I have a historic affinity for it and it’s still my email address, but it’s still a gathering place for interesting, well-spoken people. I mean that’s a perfect case in point.
Bruce Sterling is such a fascinating guy but he’s also a super expert at writing for the medium. You know that’s writing but it’s more casual than a document per se, that sort of talking by writing. It’s now pretty common that people are good at it doing it but it’s been interesting to see how that develops.
Also I would add that I think social media and especially Twitter, has definitely had an influence in that increasingly with the world’s shrinking attention span, you’ve got to be able to get to your point as quickly as possible and make it clearly. I think the overall situation is perhaps a little less wordy too than it used to be.
[00:10:23] Patrick O’Keefe: Do you think that’s a positive influence?
[00:10:25] John Coate: I do, sure, because you can just belabor a point. You can make a point and then you can, “Oh maybe I didn’t state it right enough,” then you go on and remake it with some little variation. Everybody needs an editor, but most people don’t have one.
[00:10:46] Patrick O’Keefe: I’d definitely say Twitter’s increased my brevity, in the sense that not only that in the individual tweet sense, but also in the threaded sense. People post these threads of tweets, and you want to have a cohesive series of thoughts, but also you want to have thoughts that individually can be shared. Even if it’s a thread of five to 10 tweets, you also want each of those tweets to stand on their own to a certain extent and have enough meaning where they can be individually understood. It’s interesting to see that improve.
[00:11:16] John Coate: Twitter, it only functions a little as a conversational medium. Just like Facebook, Facebook for example, which I use quite a bit because I have so many friends who do use it. Also Facebook is a very good way to share pictures, their picture uploading and all of that, the way that all works is really well done and smart.
The way I see conversation in Facebook, it reminds me of more the dynamics of when you’re at a party where little groups, little circles of people, one, two, three, four, whatever, will come together and talk about something. Everybody or most people will make one or two remarks, maybe more, but just a few things get said, a few points get made. Then that little cluster of people breaks up and reforms in some other way and new comments get made.
It’s not a symposium or anything like that, but of course it’s become the dominant way for people to converse or a dominant way and you got to work with it. It’s not perfect, but it’s not even that good for a long conversation. Good for short stuff.
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You mentioned Facebook and as I was reading the pre-show questionnaire, there was a few things that I pieced together on a similar thread. Maybe it’s off the mark but I’ll say it anyway. You help manage portions of European Commission funded projects around the future of the internet and the rise of populism in Europe. You also host the internet of humans section within the Edgeryders community, where you discuss what the internet should do for humanity.
In the questionnaire you mentioned that one of the challenges you’re thinking about, and I think you just alluded to it, is how to find a way to, “Not have Facebook suck a certain kind of attention from everyone at the expense of other sites that could build stronger community spirit, while actually being ethical and honest.”
I can’t help but feel like, those three things are related. That Facebook doesn’t always operate in an ethical, honest way. That they’ve aided the rise of populism and that Facebook as a platform isn’t doing what it should for humanity. Am I on the right track there?
[00:14:07] John Coate: Oh yes. I agree on all three points. Of course, it’s not that it doesn’t have certain kinds of virtues. Amongst friends, it’s all of those things, but it can just influence people’s habits in funny kinds of ways. It’s a little too easy if you don’t know the people well to drop in and make comments, more like you might see in YouTube or somewhere like that, the little micro-flamage type things.
Rather than what you might see in a site where people are trying to have longer conversations, trying to keep it civilized to the point where people aren’t just having these drive by comments that are sort of ripping on the other person. ‘You idiot’ type things, platforms like Discourse, I see a lot more people sort of trying to maintain a basis of civilization.
Just the other day, I was thinking that in a way, it’s not too unlike road rage, where you can yell at somebody in the car that cut you off, or, they’re not going fast enough, or they do something and you think, ‘You idiot’ or you even take more extreme measures, 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.
I think that one of the things that I’ve seen over the years is when it feels safe when you’re online, of course a lot of people do it on their phone. Now we’re sitting in a cafe or whatever, but for the most part, even if you’re not in your home, or your office, it is kind of a power spot that you’re sitting in wherever it is.
This becomes part of your identity and you’re confident and you say things and some people I think, 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.
In fact, that’s a lot of when I give advice to people, particularly, 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 and even if you haven’t really done it that much, I don’t know if that makes sense.
It did take me a while to learn it frankly. When I look back at some of the stuff that I used to write when I was first starting out, I thought it was pretty inarticulate. I was still pretty much very hippie back then and was full of all kinds of new agey jargon that I never use anymore, stuff like that.
Anyway, I’m not excluding myself from the fact that it takes practice to be good at figuring out what your point is, and making it in a way that is not only understandable, but conveys a certain kind of empathy and kindness along with it.
[00:17:58] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s funny you mentioned road rage. I live in Hollywood and just last week, I walk a lot in the area, pretty much every day and I was walking around the corner. I don’t know why, who would know these corners, but it’s the corner of Selma and Ivar in Hollywood. I was crossing the street and there was a car in the crosswalk and I walk, which is fine. I walk behind the car, not in the crosswalk and I continue along the crosswalk, had the right of way, had the signal, then a guy drove from the other intersection and took a hard right into the crosswalk and accelerated through the crosswalk and it was no big deal. No one was in any danger. I put my hand up, he stopped. Not a dramatic stop. It wasn’t that bad.
As I was walking on the sidewalk next to the road, and he was driving, he lowered his window and he yelled out, “I’ll hit you next time.” I said, “Why’d you accelerate through a crosswalk?” and he didn’t say anything. He said [mumbles] and I said, “Just follow the signal,” and then he drove for like a half a second next to me and then sped off his way and took a right.
I don’t know, is that a death threat? It’s not really, it’s just someone who was angry at the time, but I was like, “Wow, that’s a lot like even pedestrian rage sometimes,” I guess.
[00:19:08] John Coate: Well, we live in hairy times. I mean, everybody knows that tensions are everywhere and I think it’s always good to be mindful of this stuff, but particularly now, and I’m not claiming that I’m any better at remembering that than anybody else but I do wish to remember it.
[00:19:31] Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned influencing behavior and sort of Facebook and a larger social media’s role in that and I think that’s always an interesting kind of topic, because I see that in a couple of ways. I think one of the ways that you just alluded to was just sort of behavioral and how people act in these spaces and then they assume they can act that way in other spaces, right?
Facebook, Twitter, even YouTube, I would say, and then going back, whatever, MySpace, Friendster but encourages a certain amount of me to that, right? It’s my profile. You follow me. You friend me. You opt into me, essentially this is my space. I say what I want. I basically don’t have any rules except for they have policies of whatever twitter.com enforces, whatever facebook.com enforces.
That encourages a certain, I don’t want to say it’s all bad, but self-centeredness is the bad way of it, I guess. Then people come to more community spaces and behave that way and then are mad when they can’t have the me, me, me be the conversation.
That’s one side of it, and then the other side of it is the legal side, because as we talk, Section 230 is a big conversation point in the US in both political parties, really. We both taking turns that suggesting maybe they will change it or do something with it. The reason that that’s happening really is because of larger platforms and what they are doing, not doing, or what politicians feel they’re doing or not doing.
Things something like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube has this impact on everyone. Then the reality is, as you know, obviously 99.9% of online communities and social spaces are smaller. It’s just like one person or a small team trying to make something nice for the most part for people, host some sort of platform and laws like Section 230 protect them just the same as they protect Facebook.
Facebook has this fallout, and it’s social media as a whole, but these big companies have this fallout that hits us. Obviously, it wasn’t always like that. I started moderating forums in ’98 and even then it was different. It wasn’t like this. I don’t know that I have a question there. I think it’s just the wider concern for me and for, I think a lot of people who do this work is Facebook, is we were there because our friends are, like you said, but the impact it could have on the work that we do is potentially damaging and I feel like it’s only a matter of time before they cause some, or maybe they already have caused some substantially negative effect that impacts these smaller communities, which is most of us.
[00:21:52] John Coate: Yes, I do agree with you there. I think that the thing that Facebook will never really do is divulge what’s really behind the curtain in any given context or interaction or set of interactions because their business model needs you to not know all that stuff.
I think that they would rather not censor things I think, but they get put in that position. They’re having to always make, what they call, community standards, but it all has to be calibrated against something that the rest of us can’t really know completely about. They create this board of arbitration, some Supreme court of what can and can’t be said on Facebook and stuff like that.
To me, that is an endless round of wrangling that will never end, but to me, it would be fixable if they would just allow we, the users, to have more direct control over our experience.
Now that, of course, conflicts directly with the nature of their data gathering model. It would only, I think, really work if you actually paid them directly and subscribed to a service, but there’s just too much money in spying on your customers now compared to that. Besides if you start taking money from directly from people, then we become the customers, all that stuff.
To me, the conversations around this, I’ve read a gazillion news stories about it and I’m sure you, and almost all of our listeners have, there’s a certain BS at the core of it all, I think, because they’re never really going to give you that much control over your experience.
[00:23:58] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. It makes me wonder, I think Facebook is this behemoth, but it hasn’t existed for that long. I think one of the interesting things, and it’s extremely anecdotal and it’s not really proof of anything, and I think Facebook will be here for quite a while. I think they’re going to find ways to innovate and integrate themselves and they’re already doing it into all areas of our lives.
Well, I think there was a comedy skit somewhere about you need a Facebook account to vote. I don’t know if it’ll get that bad, but, I think they’re going for it. The WELL’s been around for 35 years. I have a community I started in 2001 called KarateForums.com and it’s still around. It’s 18 years old. It turns 19 on May 21st.
One of the fun things of being involved with a community for so long is that you have people who leave, and they leave for all sorts of reasons, but some of those reasons include that they were mad about something. They didn’t like the policy. They wanted to do something and they left.
When you’re around that long, you have people who come back. I’ve had people who came back to karateforums.com after like 10 years, it’s a crazy thing. They came back and they’re like, “Hey, I’m so glad this is still here. I’m glad this is still around because I did use Facebook, I was on Twitter, I did that stuff, and I’ve just burned out of it.”
It’s always funny to me to see those people come back because they’ve seen the wider web or whatever exploded and they’re choosing to come back here, and they’re also in a different stage of life in a lot of cases, which is funny and interesting.
Just one of those things that is really fascinating to see that, I don’t know if it’s a phenomenon, but just to see that happen with the online landscape, because 35 years isn’t all that long, obviously, in the context of humanity. You see people just ebbing and flowing and learning and saying, “Oh, I did like that thing that I had before.” It’s just a fun thing to witness as we see these platforms evolve.
[00:25:48] John Coate: Oh, no question. 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.
One of the things that I’m learning about involved in this European Commission project, looking at what could the internet become if it was more human-centered and things, and what I’m finding is an increasing group of people who are focusing on de-centralization of products, of services, and of networks. I’ve run into a lot of people, for example, who use this protocol and set of networks they call Scuttlebutt, you heard about that?
[00:26:51] Patrick O’Keefe: No, I haven’t. I don’t think so.
[00:26:52] John Coate: In some ways, it reminds me of the old store and forward networks. In a way, it’s primitive where you control almost absolutely who can and can’t and will and won’t see whatever it is you have to say so that you’re maintaining a smaller but highly controlled network. Meaning you can open it up to the public if you want, but it is a set of protocols that tries to operate outside of the watchful eye of your ISP and your phone company and all of these things.
It’s not just used by Europeans, I know people in Canada and New Zealand all around who use it, and again, they’re trying to have a DIY experience for themselves to see what they can build for themselves that works for them outside of the auspices of giant institutions.
Part of why you never hear about it is because it’s a word of mouth thing. I didn’t know anything about it either, but it turns out there’s quite a few people who do this. What the European Commission is finding, at least when they run into fringier, if you will, people who have ideas about how communication online ought to work is a growing trend toward decentralizing things away from concentrating everything in large, big sites.
I think that’s a pretty interesting trend. Certainly in Europe, of course, the big focus is on privacy and personal privacy and how that’s going to work, and especially now that’s growing in terms of what they call Smart Cities, AI, huge amounts of surveillance going on and what happens to your data, all that kind of stuff. It’s really the whole big ball’s getting a lot fuzzier, that’s for sure.
[00:29:07] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s always interesting to hear about what’s happening in other countries. It makes me think about what we’re dealing with now with coronavirus and how different countries are approaching it differently, and how there’s countries where it’s like, “Stay inside for two weeks,” and people do it. People for all sorts of reasons, maybe it’s not the most, it’s an oppressive government, whatever it is, but they listen.
I was thinking about here in the US, if by some chance this administration got its act together, I hope everything goes very well. It goes as good as possible. The smart people actually make the decisions. Oh gosh, fingers crossed, but if our governments said to us, “Hey, stay inside for two weeks, this thing will go away.” A lot of people would say, “I’m not doing that. That’s not freedom.” Go outside just to spite them.
I was thinking about like how Americans are so unique in certain ways and how it’s like, “Well, just it’s okay. We can’t do that. Sorry. We can’t stay inside for two weeks because we’re Americans and that’s just not freedom. The government’s got to tell me to do that, we’ll cut off our nose to spite our face.” I don’t know, it’s funny and it’s sad at the same time, but I don’t know, it just came to mind.
[00:30:06] John Coate: We’re all either renegades or descendants of renegades of some sort. Also, in my lifetime, I grew up in a world where there was fairly high trust in government and I watched that trust in government deteriorate and continue to deteriorate over the course of decades.
That process began when I was a teenager in the mid-1960s and has, to me, continued almost unabated to now where the people who don’t trust the government the most run the government and are making it as untrustworthy as they possibly can.
In this country, if the government tells you to do something, I don’t know. I guess if I’m in a national park and the park ranger tells me to do something, then I’m probably going to do it, but otherwise, I think we all question. I think that something was lost in the process.
I don’t know, it’s going to take a long time to rebuild that trust in government, everything is skewed toward now, we must always trust the private sector in the marketplace for everything except some social problems are so big, I don’t see how the marketplace really exactly fixes it.
On the other hand, if you’re China, they tell you to do something. I guess if you don’t do it, they’re not going to do anything, but if you speak out against it, then you go to jail. There’s got to be a middle ground in there somewhere.
[00:31:44] Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned Discourse before for the Edgeryder’s forum, you use Discourse. Howard Rheingold has also said a lot of really nice things about Discourse, and I should say Discourse is currently a sponsor of Community Signal, but I’d be asking this question even if they weren’t. I’ve known the VP of community over there, Sarah Hawk for a decade now. I have followed her career progression and think the world of her.
What I find interesting about this is that they have managed to win over real veterans of the space. People who have been around for a long time have seen a lot of platforms come and go. I’ve read a lot of praise from people like that. I was curious, what is it for you about Discourse? What are they doing right?
[00:32:21] John Coate: Not everything, there are certain things that I would like to have work there where I would have to hack the source myself to make it happen, which of course, I cannot do.
[00:32:33] Patrick O’Keefe: I should say we can criticize Discourse, they know the rules of the podcast.
[00:32:36] John Coate: I know Sarah too, I think she’s great, but I would say that it has two critical virtues. One, it’s pretty easy to understand as a first-timer without sacrificing all of its sophistication because usually to a first time user, you got to dumb things down or simplify things, I guess would be a kinder way to say it, so that they don’t get too confused because when you are engaging in online conversation for the first time and particularly when it is text and writing based, it can be difficult to see the benefit of it right away.
Being easy to use I think is extremely critical while offering reasonable sophistication and gets me to the second part that is to me, so important and a deal-breaker. It does a good job of remembering what you’ve seen right down to the remark level, and it gives you multiple ways of reminding you where you are in a given conversation so that you can easily go back to it and pick up the thread without having to do too much work. Without that, it is so hard to get people to do this kind of stuff, but with it, it’s just not that hard.
We figure that when we put it out there for people to use, yes, there’s some people that don’t get it or they need a little help, but it’s not much and you don’t need a big fat manual to use it really basically and you can bounce around a little bit and soon enough, it makes enough sense.
Above all else, it does a good job of keeping your place. If you have too many topics, you can get confused when you look at the screens and a lot of things like there’s certain display aspects of it that I would improve. Again, remembering what you’ve seen, they do a really good job of that.
[00:34:46] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s always interesting to hear what features stand out the most and it’s not always, but it’s quite often the smaller things like that seems like a small thing. Obviously, it’s not a small thing because it impacts every thread you look at. It impacts almost all the time on the site, but people would think of that as a small thing. How do you pitch that as a feature? How do you sell that in the sales manual? It’s not calendar, it’s not new blogs or something. It’s like I can remember a time when other forums software and community softwares, the way they would expand out was to say, “Okay, we’re adding– Be a social network, basically. It was like, you disable those features. That’s just not what you wanted.
[00:35:22] John Coate: Right. A lot of the early web-based systems would remember what you saw by just changing color based on whether you’d linked on it, and so you would get these nested lists and stuff you’d have to go look. To me, speed is still the sexiest thing.
Speed, get you to what you want as fast as you can get there. You’re going to win every time no matter what. Speed. If it saves you time and makes it so you don’t have to go, “Now where was I?” Because, come on, where our brains are already jammed with all information and stuff. You know, “What? You’re giving me one more thing to remember how to find.” It’s like, “Oh, man,” and Google won’t do it for you. To me, it’s not a simple thing, it is the thing because, otherwise, you just have to labor too much and then that makes it not fun.
[00:36:22] Patrick O’Keefe: You had mentioned before the show that you’ve been delighted by renewed interest in your ideas about the internet and community from younger generations living in Europe and North Africa, and that the past few years have been a lot of fun for you because of that. I love to hear that thing.
It brought the topic of ageism to mind. I have a friend who is older than me and has been doing community work for longer than me like I said, ’98, so imagine before that. Not quite as long as you but a long time, and he really understands the profession and has had a tough time finding work.
He has a good resume, from my perspective, my view and when I think about him, one thing that comes to mind is ageism, and, of course, it exists in general, everywhere in all facets of life, but for this profession, given its adjacency to tech and to startups and to the mentalities and things that those things breed, I guess, I feel like the pressure could be even greater, which is a shame.
If you were to ask me to narrow down the three to five, let’s say, greatest community professionals that I know that I respect the most, I feel like it would all be people older than me. I’m not that young. I’m not my 20s. I’ve been doing this for a while, but everyone that I would put on the list will be older than me. More often than not, I find myself referring to those people, so I thought we might talk a little bit about ageism. When I say that, what comes to mind for you immediately?
[00:37:42] John Coate: For me, I wouldn’t call it ageist per se but even though LinkedIn tells me how many searches I’ve appeared in pretty frequently, I don’t think there’s at least living in the San Francisco region, that there’s a lot of mutual interest between me and companies making products.
Also, I’ve been a manager. I have managed large projects before and I think when you get older, when the boss is 10, 20 years younger than you are, right or wrong, I think it’s a little bit natural to think, “Oh man, I don’t know if I want this guy saying,” Well, that’s not how we did it.” That kind of stuff.
When I was a young manager, in addition to doing The WELL, I started or co-started the SFGate website back in 1994, and that was attached to not just the San Francisco Chronicle, but the San Francisco Examiner and the newspaper agency because it was a joint operating agreement. Talking about thousands of people, many of whom had already been there for many decades and then suddenly, here I am in there trying to create an electronic medium for them to operate in, and a lot of what I wound up doing was negotiating that same territory between new ideas and old habits.
I think that there is a natural aversion to that. Now, what I have found working with Europeans, and this has been my experience in general before, is that at least the Europeans that I have met and hung out with and interacted with over the decades like to have a mix of ages because wisdom and energy aren’t always found in the same person.
If you don’t sell your ideas, maybe too hard, I found that there’s a lot of people who are younger than my own kids who really enjoy me being around and they like to hear the perspective of what did and didn’t work. They not only feel unthreatened but they welcome it, they like it. I find it to be a very welcoming environment for me. Around here, most interest I get is from the computer museum or do I want to give a free talk down at Stanford or something.
[00:40:15] Patrick O’Keefe: [laughs] Yes. That’s really interesting to hear. I think, again, I’m in my 30s, so even I was, and I’m looking around at different opportunities and figuring out what I’m going to do next since I left my last role in January. I see job descriptions that are like, “If you can keep up with the founder.” Even now, even at my age at 30s sound like, “I don’t like how that sounds. I don’t like what it sounds like. I don’t like the implication there, that this is like that,” because to me that just screams like, “Oh, you want me to work 80 hours a week.” I get what you’re saying there. I don’t need to keep up with the founder. I do a very good job of what I do but I also want to achieve a certain balance.
Even now because I’ll be getting married probably this year and maybe having kids. Doing these things, it’s like, “You know, I want to work somewhere where there’s a healthy balance because no one’s more driven than I am during normal hours of working.” Yes, I want to have a life beyond that. I want to watch, for example, my parents age and not spend time with them. I don’t want to lose my connection with my brothers and my friends.
Anyway, it’s just sort of a funny thing now even at my age, but also by giving a free talk at Stanford, I’m sure you have seen this happen so many times. It feels like, I know people who are in their 20s who express this thing I’m about to say, which is that ideas come back over and over again.
I’m sure that you’ve seen things that you thought while managing The WELL in the ’80s and the concepts of community, they change. They do, but they don’t change that much. A lot of things come back over and over again.
I wrote a book that was published in 2008, by then there was plenty of books before me. Not just like more– I don’t know how we put it. More The Virtual Community type of books but also about management specifically things like Derek Powazek, Design for Community in 2003, 2004. Amy Jo Kim’s work, books in the ’90s, there was a lot of books that came.
I’m sure that my book included– I know that my book actually included things that they had talked about in theirs. It’s like, and now that I see that myself too. I see things that I wrote about and talked about come back and it’s a new idea for someone. There’s this, I don’t know, I think that there’s two sides, right? It’s like the devil and the angel on your shoulder. It’s like the devil is like, “Oh my gosh, like you talked about that 15 years ago. How can they think it’s new?” The angels like, “Well, you know they’re discovering it for themselves. That’s just part of the process. You were there before.”
It’s such a funny thing to witness, not, no, no, funny isn’t the right word, but it’s interesting to witness when you’ve been doing this for so long because the ideas that you would share with them as someone who’s super experienced are probably ideas that they would think are good coming from them or if they just discovered them. That’s why a free talk at Stanford, they want you to share the ideas but it’s almost like the market wants the idea to come from someone else, which is an odd thing, I think. I don’t know.
[00:43:10] John Coate: I think that in terms of online community management work, it depends a lot on the nature of the job itself too, because a lot of online community work is essentially what I would call a form of crowd sourced product support. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. It just is a fact that you’re working for a company that sells a product or a service and they want their customers to get value in it. It can be a really great way for customers to help each other figure this kind of stuff out. You see it all over the place. I haven’t been an auto-mechanic for a long time but I still work on my own cars sometimes. I go to these car sites for advice from other people who work on their cars and there’s just goldmines of that kind of stuff.
In other kinds of work, a great deal more empathy you could say would be called for. Suppose you got hired by an organization that was a set of support groups for cancer patients, for example, or for people who had some other issue that they needed to deal with. Or the parents of troubled children, I don’t know. Anything like that where you had to have high amounts of empathy which could not be faked. You would have to be able to convey either through relaying your own experiences. Something more than, ” I hear what you say,” or “Gee, that’s really interesting.” Somehow, you got to get across to people that you could at least walk a few steps in their shoes before you make your own pronouncements.
I think it also depends on the job and so the more life experience I had the more I would look for people who needed that life experience as being sort of built into the core rather than by contrast being really fast, if you had support issues, for example.
A long time ago, when was it early 2000s, I almost got hired by Craigslist to run their support because Craig was kind of getting out of it like that, and so it was between me and this other guy, they hired the other guy who was much younger and much faster, because the speed was more critical to that work and so I couldn’t fault their decision. Long way of saying I think that it depends on the job, but the majority of paying jobs in online community do seem to be related to product and service support, from what I can tell. I don’t know. Do you think that?
[00:46:15] Patrick O’Keefe: I think there’s a lot of jobs that kind of skew that way in one way or another. I think it’s it might be, because I don’t even know that it’s accurate to say this, but it’s perception, I think, that a lot of how people think about valuing community the first point of ROI, I guess, that people see or that people have talked about often times is something like call deflection, which is like how many calls can you prevent to a call center as opposed to having someone self service in our online community, like someone answers them or maybe someone from the company?
I would say that’s one of the bigger corporate accepted metrics that was accepted at an earlier date than some other things. A lot of the work kind of gets settled that way. I don’t want to say this not a cost savings, it is, but it’s kind of a, it’s a short-sighted way to only value community.
It’s such a hard metric because unless you’ve unified your data properly, how the heck do you know if someone sent a tweet versus made a call versus posted in the forum? Do you have all those accounts linked up so that you know, who did what when, do you know they’re not just shopping to different support channels. Unless you do, it’s like you’re estimating, you’re estimating call deflection.
Unfortunately yes, I think a lot of people have got pigeonholed into that role. I mean for me like, I’ve worked to support products, but I’ve never necessarily worked in a role that was customer service, customer support in definition.
The roles that I have been more interested tend to skew towards more roles where you’re creating a place for people to build relationships. It can be around a product but more relationship-based community and that’s what I am I guess most passionate about, where there are people who dedicate themselves to those support base communities and are infinitely more qualified than I am, to lead them just because of their experience. Yes, I think it’s definitely a discipline within a discipline, if you will.
[00:48:07] John Coate: No question. You know, I first met you in 2013 because we were at this conference that Rebecca Newton had put together in London and you know one takeaway I have from that conference was how many people had come there who were in what I would call high empathy online community jobs related to health, there was a bunch of healthcare people there. There were also people who are more like enthusiasts. There was a bunch of audio nuts there for example and stuff.
I really liked it from that point of view because it had such a wide spectrum, it wasn’t just the people trying to make sure that the mission of the marketing department was carried out well, but involved all of these other things, so anyway, I enjoyed that.
[00:49:03] Patrick O’Keefe: The last thing I wanted to bring up with something that you told me before the show as far as how Edgeryders sees value in its online community. You told me that the organization has developed a unique method of ethnographically analyzing the conversations that occur in your community so that the best ideas get preserved and passed on, and that you do this through a combination of individual trained ethnographers, coding online conversations and then analyzing the conversations for the value of their content.
In this way you say that you capture online conversation as part of a record designed to influence policy. That sounds interesting to me and I don’t know anything about it or where it starts so I just love to hear about that process.
[00:49:43] John Coate: Yes, I mean it’s pretty labor-intensive right now but the idea is that you set up an online platform to talk about something, some issue, in our particular case we did one a few years ago that was Europeans figuring out new models for local communities to care for each other rather than just relying on the government. We call that open care.
Now, we have another contract that’s related to figuring a more humanist internet, for example. Next Generation Internet. We have another one that’s discussing the rise of populism. These are very different subjects.
What you would do is you try to bring people in as many as you can. Some with expertise, some just with self-appointed expertise, or ideas or whatever. You bring people in to an online conversation, you just get them talking, sharing, and hopefully, even thinking about collaborating, like in the case of the internet, a more human-centered internet. We have people coming together who have different ideas for projects that they would like to try, looking for collaborators, kicking around ideas, all this kind of stuff.
We also then have one or two persons who are highly trained in this kind of work, who basically go through this stuff and it’s a form of tagging, but it’s not tagging the way we think of it. It is coding the conversation with certain keywords that they discern, describe the meaning of it most accurately.
[00:51:37] Patrick O’Keefe: Is it just sentiment analysis or does it go a little deeper than that?
[00:51:40] John Coate: It’s sentiment analysis plus whatever factual material would come out but it also, the other part of it, it also looks at who’s talking to whom and what the relationships are. Then later, these things get statistically graphed so you can see what gets talked about the most, then who talks about what and how those things relate in these visuals.
The ethnographic summary really is designed as a way to get these online conversations in front of people who otherwise would not take the time but would be well advised to consider them.
Our premise is also that, while we call ourselves Edgeryders is that we see ourselves as a go-between of larger institutions who want to know things and Europeans, they like to study things. I think they recognize, or I hope they do, that if the establishment and status quo is so great, why do we have so many problems, and that we are in touch with people who are outside of the usual establishment realm a lot of the time but are doing very interesting things.
We like to say that the R&D of society takes place at the edges. That’s a little bit of our value proposition. The ethnography is a way to bring interesting things front and center to people who might not have considered it because they just simply wouldn’t take the time to do it. We’re developing it as a technology and it is labor-intensive but it is a way to do it.
[00:53:37] Patrick O’Keefe: It reminds me of some conversations we’ve had on this show about anthropology, how online communities are relevant to, I guess, society and how society has evolved at least in the last, I don’t know, 40 years. How we don’t necessarily think of it that way at the time. If not influential to the whole, also influential in specific areas.
Easy example, when IMDb shut down their message boards after 20 years and just erase them from the internet with two weeks notice. If within a slice of culture, a slice of a slice, let’s say, movie criticism and film, that’s incredibly meaningful in a historical context. Looking forward to the future and people looking back at how people dissected movies at this point in time. What did film look like?
Now we look at silent films and things of that nature. It’s possible that in the future people will look back at the internet, how it impacted movies, film and that part of culture, that online community might be possibly the most meaningful part or one of the more meaningful parts of that wave of internet criticism and influence and they just poof, gone. With no notice after 20 years of community. I think it’s fascinating to think about ways that we can make these conversations, I don’t know, to say more than conversation sounds derogatory but obviously, they’re who we are and they’re who our civilization is right now.
[00:55:04] John Coate: Absolutely and what a shame, what a loss, to just say, “Well, okay, there’s no value here,” or, “We can’t afford it.” I mean, gosh, they probably could have bundled that all up in a TAR file that they could stick on a thumb drive. I mean, goodness gracious. Those things are a loss and I think it’s an interesting direction of trying to put value in online conversation by establishing that value, how well we do it, how much we influence policy. I don’t know. I hope.
Sometimes I think these reports and stuff wind up like the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the forklift truck takes a box into a warehouse with a million boxes in it and just sticks it somewhere, even though it’s the Ark of the Covenant. I don’t know.
It’s an interesting quest. We’re trying to develop better technology around, showing graphically how conversations work and the dynamics of it. We work with these people at the University of Bordeaux on some sort of custom graphing programs and stuff to bring this kind of stuff out.
Again, the idea is just to remind policymakers that there’s a lot of value out there in conversation above, or in addition to people who write carefully researched papers and things like that, particularly because there are some people working on interesting projects and they don’t have time to write a paper about it, but if you can grab them for an hour or something, they’d be willing to talk about it. Especially if it looks like you might want to think about collaborating with them, a lot of people out there looking for collaborators right now.
[00:56:59] Patrick O’Keefe: Well, I hope it doesn’t get the warehouse treatment. We’ll have to check back in at a later date to see if that actually happened but in the meanwhile, it’s been a pleasure to chat with you. I’m really grateful for your time and it’s been an honor to have you on. Thanks for joining us.
[00:57:13] John Coate: Thank you, Patrick. I very much enjoyed it.
[00:57:16] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with John Coate board member for Edgeryders. For more about their work visit edgeryders.eu that’s E-D-G-E-R-Y-D-E-R-S.eu. To connect with Mr. Coate, go to johncoate.com, Coate is spelled C-O-A-T-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. 150 episodes down, thanks for listening.
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