Deploy: taking position on battlefield Europe

2019: we are in trouble…

The 2019 European elections are going to be more relevant than usual. I will almost certainly lose them – and, if you are reading this, chances are you will, too.

I am a proud European. I take joy and pride in being a member of a polity engineered to prevent war by deep integration between historical enemies; the largest-ever polity based on rules, human rights and renouncing violence as a way to solve conflicts. Its emphasis on culture and diversity and tolerance, its focus on the individual’s well-being (as opposed to the “nation’s destiny” or other buzzwords beloved by autocrats and oligarchs) is humanity’s best shot at building a society where we can all flourish and take care of each other, best exemplified for me by Iain Banks’ Culture novels. The European edifice is likely the single most important positive contribution we, who live here, are ever going to be able to make. I am never going to give up on it.

But with all that, Europe is still broken, and needs fixing. It has a structural democratic deficit, and it cannot be fixed without making the EU institutions directly accountable to its citizens, which means sidestepping member states. It has a culture of over-representation of certain stakeholders at the expense of others. And don’t get me started on the Euro, which cannot work without a fiscal union and a banking union, and we all know it, and we all have known it since its introduction was first seriously discussed, in the early 1990s (just ask Paul Krugman).

None of this is new. Here’s what is new, though: so far, we could just wait around. Maybe Europe will fix itself, we thought. Maybe we will have better ideas in five or ten years. The technocrats reassured us: yes, we are aware of the problems, but we are fixing them. Things used to get better, slowly but surely, every year. Look, more countries are joining! Look, we’ve abolished roaming charges for mobile phones! We have made it easier for you to study abroad!

But not anymore. Europe is in trouble. With Eurosceptic, populist parties coming to power in many EU countries, the technocrats can no longer guarantee the slow-but-sure progress of the European dream. Paradoxically, this is a sign of the EU’s success: it is now too important to have major flaws. We need to fix it, or we risk losing it altogether.

Here’s the thing, though. The next European elections are coming up in May 2019, and the populists look set to dominate the political debate. They have shadowy spin doctors like Cambridge Analytica, dark money from the American rights, troll armies roaming your social media (and Facebook, which looks more and more like a global social problem). In a few years, every party will have those; but right now, the far right has the advantage.

What I would like to do, and why

This is bad news, but it has a major silver lining: we can simply assume that, no matter what we do or don’t do, the 2019 European elections are lost to people like me. What this means: 

  1. There is nothing to be gained from compromise “to build a broader anti-populist coalition”. No sense in giving up on our principles and ambitions if we are going to be defeated anyway. We will not ease up on human rights of migrants, or decarbonization, or anything at all just  “because the people won’t understand”. This is about what is right, not what is sellable.
  2. There is nothing to be gained from slogan hustling and simplification. It’s not like I enjoy the intricacies of managing high-debt economies or integrating refugees flows. Some problems are complex. We refuse to dumb them down into nonsense; honor knowledge, domain expertise and technical skills in whoever possesses them and uses them to look for collective solutions; and wear words like “intellectual” or “technician” like badges of honor.
  3. There is nothing to be gained from engaging in shouting matches with trolls, bots and assorted idiots on Facebook. Why would we? We already know we are off sync with the Zeitgeist, we would not convince anyone.

All this, friends, means we are free. Once you take away compromise, dumbing down for “communication” and social media nonsense, what’s left is time to work, with people we love and respect, and a wonderful peace. We can use this peace to, finally, build stuff.

What stuff? I have no doubt people will come up all sort of things to do, and they will be brilliant. Alberto believes in teaching ordinary people to lobby the EU. Costanza wants to help activists access the little-know political channels to effect change at the European level. Debbie mounted a European Citizen Initiative to make your EU citizenship independent of your country’s decision to leave the EU. Me, I want to figure out a vision of Europe that is both beautiful and just, and achievable in the medium term (let’s say ten years). A Europe that, at some point in the future, might inspire people to get out and build it together. A Europe that presents itself as alternative to the petty version seen in action during the post-2008 financial crisis, which I associate to former German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble and former Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem.

It should be strongly idealistic and ambitious, but not a mere book of dreams. It is essential that we see a path from here to there. I have come to the conclusion that “there is no other way” is almost always false: policy makers armed with good will, technical skills and determination can achieve substantial change. You can probably think of a brave mayor or minister who inspired you and gave you hope with bold, compassionate action. I am currently intrigued by Abiy Ahmed, the serving Ethiopian prime minister. During his time in office, he ended a 30-plus year war with Eritrea; pardoned and released over 7,000 political prisoners; re-organized security forces to ensure respect of human rights; started liberalization of several sectors; and announced constitutional reform to move past the country’s present system of ethnic federalism, seen as divisive. He’s done all this in six months, even finding the time to broker peace talks between the South Sudanese government and rebellion. If he can do all this, why can’t we?

How this would work, and how you can be part of it

I would like to do this as follows.

  1. A European policy road map. A “book of dreams” is not good enough. To be truly inspiring, a vision for Europe should be actionable. And this, in government, means a policy road map: trade, research, finance, environment, migration… what gets done, and how that makes the world and our lives better. This provides for concreteness of the final output.
  2. A wiki. Open to contributions without permission by anyone who respects the (strict) rules for contributing. This allows our work to take advantage whatever people are willing to contribute: if there are a lot of people passionate about environmental policies, those policies will be very detailed and cross-checked. If only a few people care about research policy, that policy will be relatively coarse-grained.
  3. Apolitical and open sourced. The vision for Europe is based on values, not on political affiliation. Any party or individual leader can adopt, in part or as a whole, as part of their agenda, without our permission. This is reflected in the license used for the content.
  4. Structured as a citizens’ Multiannual Financial Framework. The MFF is a framework for the EU’s annual budget. It covers a period of seven years, and is approved by the European Parliament. So, it’s both long term and directly connected to the European elections. Reporting our vision to the MFF makes sure we do not propose unrealistic measures.
  5. Based on a thorough, granular understanding of the legal and administrative structure underpinning EU policy. Lofty goals are important, but they are not enough. Effective policy makers need mastery of the nuts and bolts of how the state’s (or, in this case, the union’s) machinery works. Great policy makers are hackers, squeezing extra performance out of the system in pursuit of their goals. I aspire to the level of mastery demonstrated by Yanis Varoufakis, Stuart Holland and James Galbraith in their Modest proposal for resolving the Eurozone crisis. What I like about it is that its solutions do not require major system reform, but can be implemented within the given legal framework: it is elegant and economical.

Granted, this is hard work. But it has several advantages:

  1. We do what we do best. If you are a policy nerd, the normal channels of public discourse do not give you much of an opportunity to contribute, because they tend to dumb down and oversimplify matters, in the interests of inclusivity (or in those of commercial communication). This way, we build a channel for people like you to deploy on Battlefield Europe, in a position where you can really shine.
  2. Good crowd, good fun. If you are like me, you are wary of speaking out in public, especially on social media. Discussing with people who do not respect or enjoy facts-grounded rational arguments is as pleasant or productive as playing chess with a pigeon. But we lay down the rules, and run our wiki out of our own server. No pigeons in this space. People can disagree (in fact they should), but not on fundamental values and especially not on standards for  collaboration. We reserve the right to kick anyone right out if they are in breach: we are court, judge and executioner.
  3. Reuses what works. Some countries, many of which European, have had amazing policy successes. Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs and Finland’s radical education reform come to mind.  Some of these successes, I’ll bet, can be “dragged and dropped” from one country to another. Others can’t, but still Europe could play a role in encouraging member states to adapt them to their needs.
  4. Builds a global network of hands-on policy experts. Doing this stuff will inevitably call for bringing in the people with the deepest thinking and broadest experience on the relevant topics. I already quoted Varoufakis’s remarkable work on debt restructuring from a Greek perspective; other of my personal favorites are former Romanian health minister Vlad Voicolescu,  innovation economist Mariana Mazzucato and Italy’s former regional cohesion minister Fabrizio Barca (full disclosure: I consider him a personal friend). Chances are you have your own favorites, and you are welcome to involve them. By contributing to a common vision for Europe, these people will have a shared experience of collaboration; this will be, I think, the most important legacy of the initiative I am proposing here. This global, diverse group of people will be a sort of avatar of the élites I dream of for Europe: not shadowy foreigners, but normal, intelligent, generous, imperfect people who are also Greeks, or Danes, or Czechs, just like the rest of us, and who are happy to work together across state borders.

I think I have a pretty good idea of how these things can be achieved (read: attempted with integrity, knowing they can still fail even if you do everything right). I am thinking of putting together a small (minimum 3-4 people) group to coordinate all this. “Coordinate” means setting up and running the online space, welcoming people, smoothing feathers as needed, and generally assuming responsibility for moving it forwards.  I will, however, not do it alone, as I have a life and political commitment can only be a small part of it. Would you consider being a part of this group? If so, let’s get together privately and manage expectations before we launch ourselves into it. No commitment implied for now.

EDIT – After seeking counsel from some wise friends, I have decided NOT to lead this at the present time. I would still be up for participating in it, or for making it a part of some larger, more structured effort.

Photo credit: Giampaolo Macorig on Flickr.com

 

 

Place-based innovation as a form of democratic participation: the Edgeryders experience so far

This is a text that I wrote to underpin my address at a recent workshop on citizen engagement organized by Climate-KIC. I share it here with the consent of Climate-KIC itself – thank you!

Good morning everyone. Today I would like to talk about participation as it discharges as place-based innovation. I will start by describing how many people in the west, especially young, have relocated from familiar forms of democratic participation like engagement in politics, to less familiar, more direct ones. I will then propose that a lot of these forms are place-based, and will describe some of our own experiences in this respect. Next, I’d like to propose a few thoughts as to what’s magical about places, and why they might represent a fantastic opportunity for citizen engagement. To conclude, I will reflect briefly about the role of government in all this.

1. Social innovation as a form of democratic participation

As an open government veteran myself, I sometimes feel a little uneasy with the opengov battlecries of the 2000s. Substantial effort has been allocated to advancing the three pillars of transparency, participation and collaboration; undeniable progress was made. Yet, it is not clear that this has resulted in a more cohesive, effectively governed society. If anything, in the late 2000s and 2010s we have witnessed a retreat from traditional democratic politics of many active minorities, that have flocked instead to direct action in forms old and new. There has been a wave of very concrete initiatives: social innovation, intentional communities, crypto- and local currencies, community-based health care.

Some examples:

The retreat from politics is rational from the point of view of these people, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. In an open society, you can fight for a change of paradigm building things according to that paradigm, and making them work. In Edgeryders, we say “social innovation is the new democratic participation”. Instead of advocating for employers to give employees full freedom on whether to show up for work or not, I can myself start a company that does this. This will solve my own problem _instantly_, and serve as a proof of concept of my idea, so it can help convince other employers to do the same. In the end, if the concept is winning, it will be adopted by most employers, with no need to go through the dance of lobbying for regulation, political debates, supporting candidates that support the idea etc. etc.

2. Walking the talk: from Edgeryders to place-based innovation and back

This idea was enticing, and I like most people who are carrying it forward. So, in 2013 I was a part of a small group of folks who re-used an online community from a recently mothballed Council of Europe project, and started a company on top of it: Edgeryders. I am not going to talk about Edgeryders per se here – if you want to know more, talk to me during a break. The point I want to make here is this. Even a small, inexperienced, but sustainable company is a quantum leap from traditional activism or participation, because it allows people to be shaping society with no inner conflict. Activism entails a cost that must be balanced against other needs (income, security, professional realization…), whereas, if you align financial incentives with the “change you want to see in the world”, your path becomes clear and peaceful.

So what happened to us once the company started to find its legs? We went where our community was taking us. And our community was taking us, increasingly, to places. We are seeing a lot of place-based social innovation. Time and again, from Portugal to Egypt, from Germany to Georgia, people colonize spaces and rethink them. I would like to say a few words about what people are doing; then move on to why we think this is happening; and then briefly reflect on what kind of economy this implies.

What we are seeing, roughly, is two things. One is an intense desire to claim, extend, deepen and beautify public spaces. Squares, industrial buildings, parks. Powered by cheap and open knowledge and technology, citizens are becoming more and more ambitious, as mentioned before. But an important driver seems to be the very human need for sociality and community, for simply meeting each other.

The other one is a strong utopian drive. We see a strong aspiration to a full redesign of everyday life starting from first principles, to making one’s own rules. It’s a sort of “intentional communities redux”. There are many advantages to this sort of move, which I will discuss in a minute, but also one major disadvantage: these things tend to happen where land is cheap, and cheap land is associated to to a rural lifestyle and limited network externalities. This constrains the growth potential of these intentional communities.

Feeling the call of this kind of work, we started trying to dream up projects that would give people in our community the opportunity to be involved in place-based innovation, and try to sell them to our clients. We had the first breakthrough in 2014, with the unMonastery in Matera; we prototyped a “non-religious monastic order for living and working together, in the service of a local community”. The idea was for the Fondazione Matera 2019 to have a place where residencies for social innovation could happen. The unMonastery attracted a lot of attention, and the ECOC adjudicating panel remarked on it when assigning Matera the title. More importantly, by the end of the 6-months prototype people were showing up at our door, attracted by the low costs of living and the utopian streak.

As soon as Matera won the title, the foundation running the candidacy fell prey to re-organisation and political squabbling. Activities were dropped. Momentum dissipated. Eventually a group of former unMonasterians found their way to starting their own organization and moving to the Athens area, where they continue to develop the concept at a much slower pace. This made us very wary of doing this kind of work within funded project cycles.

But the concept stayed with us. We started making temporary homes in regions where we do some work, and are interested in staying. The first such place was in Kathmandu in 2015. Two people from Edgeryders lived there during six months, and there was an extra room that would be given to people in the community that were curious about what we were doing, no strings attached. It was a cheap way to attract talent and ideas, and at the same time to enable people in the community to try the experience of living in Nepal in a cheap and companionable way. The Nepal project finished, but it triggered a new business idea that two people in Edgeryders (one Nepali, one German) are now developing: a co-living space + co-working + coffee roastery + coffee shop in Kathmandu.

In early 2018 we did the same thing, on a larger scale, in Northern Africa. We rented a villa in Sidi Kaouki, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, and launched a program for people in the MENA region to develop open source projects together. Our vision is to collectively build the expertise and some tech to live and work in communal contexts, where we can enjoy a more sociable and free life and lighten the yoke of the mortgage/rent. One project being developed is an open source optical coffee sorter, to be used in Nepal to secure a fair and cheap supply of local coffee for the roastery. We plan to use it ourselves, and possible make a little side business where we would build more machines and give them to coffee farmers as a partial in-kind payment for the produce. We hope to help open hardware culture to get a foothold in rural Nepal, where there is still some breathing space from advanced capitalism (no John Deere tractors that won’t start until you download the proprietary firmware).

This time we decoupled the operation from project funding, and financed it from ER reserves. We see it as an investment in the region; looking to expand the community and skill it up by entering into relationships with Arab hackers/open source technologists/social innovators. We have a large client in the region, the World Bank, so investing makes sense.

The Sidi Kaouki house turned out to be “too artificial” to be sustainable. The two main people animating the space were Matthias , a German, and Hazem , an Egyptian. Also, local authorities were quite suspicious of these weird foreigners. We then shifted to supporting a community member from Tunisia, a young woman called Yosser , who dreamed of a space in her own city, Medenine. The space, Ourghema, opened for business in May 2018. We are committed to supporting it any way we can.

The OurGhema team

In 2017, we took it much closer to home – in our home, in fact. Edgeryders is based out of a compound in Brussels we call The Reef, after coral reefs offering a scaffolding for many species to interact within an ecosystem with no central control. The Reef consists of two duplex lofts joined by a courtyard. It is both the company’s office and the home of three of the company founders, myself included. A fourth person also lives there, who is not involved in the company; and we have an additional room, that we use both for personal guests and to host people that do work with the company, for example for developing a project. Cheap accommodation and communal living give our work extra efficiency, reduces commuting to zero and brings down our living costs.

It also improves our ability to be good citizens of planet Earth, because, within our value system, good signals get amplified by the collective, and bad ones get dampened. So, when Noemi decided she would try to reduce the amount of plastic waste she produced, we all followed suit. Without even noticing too much, we started trading small advice as to where to shop in bulk, and how to best carry purchases. Our waste production went down quite dramatically. I estimate plastic is down by at least 50%, but surprisingly I think overall production is down maybe 30-40%, despite organic waste production being up about 20%. Another thing we do is motivate each other into eating well, exercising and staying healthy. Packaged food has all but disappeared. Everyone is doing yoga, or Pilates, or running (the joke is “we are going full hippy”). When opening the workshop, Angelica mentioned “needing every individual”, and “communities of change agents”. Are we one such community? I guess we are, but most of the time in a kind of relaxed, unassuming, back-of-your-mind way.

The Reef has been running for about 18 months now, and we are looking to expand it. Our colleague Maria Coenen is working on it now: the new Reef will be much more ambitious in terms of design for co-living; it will ideally include a space for hosting external businesses that we can be a client of (yoga studio, gym), and be home to 8-12 people. We dream of making it carbon-neutral, or close. Of course, this is now 100% decoupled from any kind of project work. As long we are not dead, it can stand.

3. Winning the challenge: what’s it about spaces?

What’s with this fascination for spaces? Why are they so conducive to tinkering and innovation? To a first approximation, our conclusion is: this hanging out in the shadow of some shared purpose (which can be very vague, as was the case of the unMonastery), this living together makes it much easier to lift our gaze from the day-by-day and encourage each other to take on bigger challenges. How can we make a coffee sorter for 500 USD (commercial machines cost 20-30K), like in Sidi Kaouki? How can we reduce to near zero the production of plastic waste, like in the Reef? How can we help each other prevent health problems by changing our lifestyle, rather than get into stressful, pathogenic jobs to pay expensive health care, like at Woodbine Health Autonomy Center? Can we reduce our building’s carbon emissions by 90% in three years? How? Maybe we turn off the heating and work on wearables, so as to “heat bodies, not air”? This kind of task struggles to find its way into our individual lives, but almost always someone will start something similar in a shared space.

But not we need an explanation for the explanation. Why does this happen?
I would like to offer two partial explanations. One is what some of my colleagues like to call “dense networks”. Spaces act as network lattices, connecting people who traverse them with high-bandwidth links. New conversations kick off. Mutual learning happens. In a book called Where good ideas come from, Steven Johnson proposes a “connectivist” approach to innovation. We innovate by connecting ideas, not by protecting them. Moreover, the pattern of connectedness should be massively redundant and emergent, not managed from the top; “like water”, not “like programs of collaboration between university and business around these three buzzwords that happen to be flavour of the month”.

Johnson is deeply influenced by theoretical biology: he thinks about innovation as a kind of evolution. He talks about coral reefs a lot. Coral reefs string together thousands of species in a complex ecological web that results in incredibly abundant and diverse life in the most nutrient-poor waters on the planet. He can see many equivalents in the social world, including the Internet and, yes, certain shared spaces.

His model is perhaps not a great fit for “big science” research, with programs that develop over decades and cost tens of billions. It works best for incremental innovation, tinkering, recombining. The kind of stuff we – and the communities that we feel part of – do. Don’t think these are just a handful of wild-eyed fringe nerds: empirical research by Eric von Hippel and others agrees that innovation is a mass sport. 2-6% of people in Western countries engage in product innovation. On a global scale, that’s hundreds of millions of people. Anything that accelerates this work is bound to have an incredible impact.

The second explanation is that shared spaces encourage thinking in terms of producing public goods (or, to use Marianna Mazzucato’s more comprehensive definition, public value). When people are sharing a space, there is a strong and visible incentive to produce public goods, because they do not go scarce. This makes it easy to mobilize the group towards producing them, because the whole awkward, even painful discussion about who gets what from the value produced in common is sidestepped. Everyone can have everything! This is true of open source knowledge, of course, but also, in habitats like the unMonastery, of the kitchen. Once built, or beautified, a beautiful kitchen just keeps making everyone’s life better, with no rivalry in its enjoyment. Shared spaces steer us towards producing an economy of abundance, rather than scarcity. If this hits a critical mass, it can trigger a positive feedback loop: shared spaces encourage producing public goods, which produce abundance, which draw more people towards shared spaces, so that more public goods are produced etc. Those of you who are into economic theory will be reminded of Elinor Ostrom, and, more recently, Mariana Mazzucato.

Note: public goods imply an answer to the question that Anthony mentioned: who are we engaging? By definition, public goods benefit everybody. But in general they only need relatively small minorities to produce them. So, an economic model based on public goods calls for an engagement model open and inclusive, but high threshold. Everybody is welcome to contribute, but contribution tends to be relatively specialized. Few people answer the call. As I write this, Wikipedia has 500 million monthly visitors, but only 100K editors, including those who only edit pages of celebrities. 12,000 of them are eligible to vote in the Wikimedia Stewards election.

4. What role for government?

I want to leave you with a short reflection on what is the role of government institution. In a sense, this takes us back to citizen participation, where we started from 10 minutes ago. Start by noting that this way of doing thing is very participatory and inclusive. This is because the 2-6% of innovators that von Hippel has discovered can work far more effectively if an additional 5-10% of their fellow citizens come forward to be beta testers and early adopters of their innovations. In a teeming “coral reef of social innovation” there is really work to do for everyone.

In our experience, spaces are a fantastic opportunity for public institutions to push the kind of public goods innovation that they see as in line with public interest. It’s policy judo, hence very efficient: using what some people want to do anyway as wind in society’s sails. However, working with these communities requires strong, confident government partners. Value judgments must be made; stable partnerships must be built, and their terms honored. To the extent that finance is needed (not always, not for everything), finance needs to be patient, well beyond the political cycle. Active, innovative communities around shared spaces work best with what Mazzucato calls the entrepreneurial state: public sector actors with vision and purpose, serving the public in a long term perspective, focused on generating public value and not on “leveling the playing fields” and “getting out of the way of private business”.

Strong cooperation with public institution has also the added value of “bringing back into the fold” the more radical utopian fringes of these communities. They – or rather, us – can and should be made to feel like they are part of a large distributed effort to take care of each other, and steward our planet, and our heritage as humans. This is an avenue to citizen participation that we, at Edgeryders, see as emergent. I propose to all you present today that it deserves some of your attention. We certainly want to be part of it in the decades to come.

The practices of online community management: the results are in

Online communities are all around us. I myself spend a lot of time on Edgeryders and Spaghetti Open Data, and there are countless others. Most of these communities are managed in one form or other – in fact, both online communities and their management predate the Internet itself. But what do online community manager actually do? How do they spend their time? There is quite a lot of lore and anecdotes out there, but it is hard to have an idea of how representative they are.

As part of a larger work (my Ph.D. thesis), I decided to try to answer this in a more systematic way. Here is what I did.

Methodology and questionnaire

I started by scanning the academic and business literature on online community management looking for practical advice. From it, I extracted a list of practices. The list is this:

  1. Invite users to join [Young 2013, Iriberri 2009, Kraut 2011].
  2. Welcome new users when they sign up [Kraut 2011, Kim 2000, Ganley 2009, own experience].
  3. Engage with users, to encourage them to be more active and make them feel welcome [Young 2013, Ludford 2004, Williams 2000, Kim 2000, Kraut 2011, own experience].
  4. Mediate conflict (Kim 2000, Kraut 2011].
  5. Tweak and optimize the user experience (if you consider this to be part of community management) [Kraut 2011, Kim 2000].
  6. Encourage interaction between members (Ganley 2009, Williams 2000, Kraut 2011, own experience).
  7. Organize real-world meetings (Kim 2000, own experience).
  8. Acknowledge members for their contribution (Kraut 2011, Ludford 2004).
  9. Support volunteers (Kim 2000, Young 2013, Williams 2000, Kraut 2011).

Then, I prepared a questionnaire that had one question for each practice of the list. The academic references (given in full at the end of this post) were not included in the questionnaire, to avoid influencing respondents. For each practice in the list, respondents were asked to answer (by multiple choice) the following question:

To manage your online community, which of these courses of actions do you take, and how often?

Next, I included a question to allow respondents to point to practices not in the list. Answers were given in free-form text.

Do you want to add any other activity that uses up significant chunks of your community management time?

Finally, I added two more questions for context. Answers were given by multiple choice.

How old is the community you manage? If you manage more than one, refer to the oldest.

How large is the community you manage? If you manage more than one, refer to the largest.

I created a post on this blog that contained some context information and linked to the questionnaire itself on Google Forms. Post and questionnaire went live on March 13th 2018. I created a shortlink via bit.ly pointing to the information page, and disseminated via my own Twitter and Facebook accounts. I also posted it on e-mint, a long-running Yahoo! group populated by professional online community managers, and on CMX Hub, a community of community managers on Facebook.

I have collected results on March 31st 2018. At that date, my shortlink had collected 210 clicks. bit.ly reports that 101 came from Facebook; 78 from e-mail or direct; 25 from Twitter. Geographically, most visitors came from the United States (82), Italy (49), the UK (23). These visits resulted in 83 completed questionnaires. This is an amazing result! I am very grateful to everyone who responded and spread the interest for my little initiative. In particular, I suspect that the benevolence of my friend John Coate and the e-minters played a large part in this success.

Results and data

Inviting people to join is practiced by almost all respondents. 68 out of 83 have answered “often” or “occasionally”.

Once users sign up, most respondents send out a welcome message. 47 do it “often”, and a further 9 do it “occasionally”.

Engagement with users is overwhelmingly practiced. Only 5 out the 83 respondents do it “rarely” or “never”.

Conflict mediation is also an important activity. 33 respondents report practicing it “often”, and an additional 22 “occasionally”. Only 28 of them report peaceful communities, where conflict mediation is practiced only rarely or never by community managers. This was a surprise for me. I guess I gravitate towards in unusually peaceful online hangouts!

Almost every respondent engages in design or co-design of interfaces. Clearly community managers think doing so is part of their role.

Almost every one of them is also preoccupied with getting people to talk more to each other.

About nine respondents out of ten allocate at least some time to organizing offline community events, but only 12 of them reported doing it “often”.

Thanking and acknowledging active members is perhaps the most widespread activity, with over 90% of respondents engaging in it “often” or “occasionally”.

Finally, about half of the informants support volunteers “often” or “occasionally”. About a third never does it.

Most of the informants referred to rather established communities with over five years of history. Only 8 of them reported managing new community, created less than a year before taking the questionnaire.

The respondents were quite well distributed by size of the communities they manage. Interestingly, the relative majority manage large ones, with over 100,000 accounts each.

You can download the dataset from zenodo.org: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.1210789. The data are open, published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.  This means you are welcome to use them for your own research, as long as you cite me as the dataset author.

Full references for the list of practices

Ganley, Dale, and Cliff Lampe. “The ties that bind: Social network principles in online communities.” Decision Support Systems 47.3 (2009): 266-274.

Iriberri, Alicia, and Gondy Leroy. “A life-cycle perspective on online community success.” ACM Computing Surveys (CSUR) 41.2 (2009): 11.

Kim, Amy Jo. Community building on the web: Secret strategies for successful online communities. Peachpit Press, 2000.

Kraut, Robert E., et al. Building successful online communities: Evidence-based social design. Mit Press, 2012.

Ludford, Pamela J., et al. “Think different: increasing online community participation using uniqueness and group dissimilarity.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems. ACM, 2004.

Panzarasa, Pietro, Tore Opsahl, and Kathleen M. Carley. “Patterns and dynamics of users’ behavior and interaction: Network analysis of an online community.” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 60.5 (2009): 911-932.

Williams, Ruth L., and Joseph Cothrel. “Four smart ways to run online communities.” MIT Sloan Management Review 41.4 (2000): 81.

Young, Colleen. “Community management that works: how to build and sustain a thriving online health community.” Journal of medical Internet research 15.6 (2013).