Macro vs. Micro: A Community Management Brainstorm

Community Management is still a very young trade, which is part of the reason why I feel it’s so important for CMs to talk to one another.  Because of this, I am a member of a group called the Community Manager’s Group.  It’s a private forum for CMs to talk about best practices, compare notes, etc.

I asked my colleagues at the CMG to take a look at my last post, since I value their input.  A lot of people had a lot of very helpful feedback, but one particular challenge, from a community manager with a great deal more experience than I, stood out  He said basically: Okay, you’ve identified the problem.  What are you doing to solve it?  Do you have a plan?

My answer, of course, was no—I don’t.  This is part of the reason I wrote the post in the first place: I wanted to get people thinking about what I thought were the right questions, because I’m trying to find some answers—and it seems like I’m not the only one.

We’ve established, I think, that one of the core reasons why people are jerks on the Internet is because the lack of direct human contact is shunting off their ethical decisions to the part of the brain responsible for dealing with “things” rather than the part of the brain responsible for dealing with people.

If this is true, then there are two ways I can see for resolving this issue:

  1. Find some way of making communication on the internet more “real”. I’m not sure such a way exists. Even directly establishing a visual connection with someone isn’t sufficient, if there’s no further relationship—I don’t think anyone would argue that ChatRoulette is more conducive to good community relationships than a well moderated forum, and if that’s not enough I can’t imagine what is.
  2. Create a system where it is selfishly in the user’s best interest to be helpful, friendly, and supportive.

What we have learned is that when we’re dealing with people over the Internet, even morally upstanding people cannot be counted on to make good moral choices in relation to their fellow community members—even when they’re actively trying to take the others’ wishes into account.  It’s just physically more difficult for our brains to work that way.  We can spend a lot of time and energy trying to get those “interpersonal” neurons to fire—or instead, we can focus on trying to get people to make decisions that support the community, even when they’re NOT dealing with the “interpersonal” parts of their brain.

Gaming the System

StarCraft players frequently talk about a player’s “micro” versus their “macro”.  In order to be a good StarCraft player, you need to have good micro-management skills—that is, they need to be able to control every aspect of a particular exchange to make sure they come out ahead.  Players with good micro will do this by effectively managing each unit’s individual abilities, focusing their fire on the weakest targets, etc.  But a good StarCraft player also needs good macro-management skills—that is, the ability to manage their supply chain, base construction, and resources in order to make sure they have the capability to bring a sizable army to bear in any particular exchange.  The best players will be able to manipulate individual units in complicated ways to win difficult fights, while simultaneously managing their resources to keep their base running at peak efficiency.

Similarly, community management can be broken into macro-management and micro-management.  Nearly all of the community managers I know of (including, I fancy, myself) are good micro-managers.  We’re very good at delivering the right message at the right time, to placate angry users or turn the tide of an argument, choosing just the right phrasing to get just the right message across with just the right inflection, and detecting the emotional subtleties behind a user’s request, even when it’s delivered in text form.

Community macro-management, though, is a very different skillset—one with more in common with behavioral psychology than with PR.  For community managers, macro is about creating systems—systems that encourage and reward good community behavior.  You’re engaging in macro when you’re creating the list of rules that all community members have to agree to before posting.  You’re working your macro when you create an achievement system for your forums, like the badges system on the Escapist.

There are some forums where micro is all it takes.  In a small forum, where everyone has the opportunity to get to know one another,  micro is all you need—you can effectively manage the entire community at once.  The effective number seems to be about 150 people (see this article for the reason why, it should be required reading for all community managers).  But once you get much larger than 150 people, you just can’t keep your eye on everyone at the same time.  You need a create a system that helps you keep things under control.

The Community Management Machine

So how is this “macro” community management done?  I’m forced to give the same response I gave to my friend—I don’t know, not yet.  But this, I think, is the question we need to be asking ourselves.  What sort of systems can we build that encourage and reward good community behavior, without depending on the altruistic inclinations of the community members?

This is a question I’d really like to hear from my CM friends about—what has worked for you?  What hasn’t?  What decisions do you wish you hadn’t made?

Published by Malgayne

Community Manager at Google. Formerly at Sourcebits, Spark Plug Games, Zynga, and I like chiptunes and hefeweizen.

One thought on “Macro vs. Micro: A Community Management Brainstorm

  1. I’ll kick this off with some thoughts that have been running through my head recently.

    I think Zynga itself has a lot to offer us in this area. At a speech at GDC (if I remember correctly), Zynga’s senior management attributed a great deal of Zynga’s success to the huge amount of analytical and metric data that they gather. They keep a behavioral psychologist on staff, and they have a team of full-time analysts who do nothing except look at every click that goes into their games, analyze them, and determine what’s succeeding and what’s failing.

    One of the classic problems with community management as a profession is that its very difficult to measure its impact on the bottom line. It’s difficult to measure success for a community manager—after all, it’s the community manager’s job to understand the health of the community, and a community manager’s job to encourage that health. But if the only way of gauging the health and happiness of the community is to ask the community manager, how do you gauge the performance of the community manager?

    Well, what if we pulled as much analytical and metric data as we could?

    Suppose we have a forum where every single post, everywhere, had a “thumbs up” and a “thumbs down” button. Every user could express their approval or disapproval of any post, site announcement, or any action or statement taken by a moderator or community manager. Then you can carry all this data off to the backend, dissect it and spit it out into a bunch of different charts and graphs, and you can objectively measure the health of the community.

    —Would this work? What would it teach us? What are the weaknesses?

    —Would it be wiser to publicly display the number of thumbs up/down on each post (risking that users might be swayed by their peers’ opinions) or hide it from everyone who isn’t an admin (risking that users may give up on expressing their opinions since they can’t see the results)?

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