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Have you ever written community guidelines, or worked with someone to get them started? I’ve done both, and there is one word that often comes up: “irrelevance.”

Community managers, particularly those connected to a consumer brand do not want irrelevant conversations in their community space. If it’s not about the company, the product or the service, they want no parts of it.

You may not see a problem with that perspective, but I believe that you should.

If you’re really looking to grow and sustain a community, and you really want people to connect, you have to leave some room for them to do that.  Is it really that bad if people go off-topic for a while?

If they’re doing it in your community, that means they feel some level of comfort there, which works in your favor.

It can’t always be about you. That may seem counter intuitive, but I am not speaking from theory, but practice.

People don’t connect on one topic alone. And the fact that other topics come into play from time-to-time proves that the wheels of true connections are in motion and good things are happening.

So, create your guidelines but don’t be so rigid that you miss opportunities for continued growth.

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Guidelines are important, but interpretation is key

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Before you balk at the title of this post, hear me out. I have written in the past about the cloak of anonymity worn by trolls and how it allows them to run rampant on the internet with no real accountability or repercussions for their actions. I know firsthand the issues that can and often do arise as a result. Believe me.

I’ve  been dealing with this for some time working for traditional news organizations and being directly involved with user comments. User comments on news stories can be vicious and vile.  We happen to have moderators at my current company so our comments are a bit more tame. I oversee the team of moderators charged with approving and disapproving comments in real time and they do a great job.

There is some benefit to allowing screen names. Actually there is a need for anonymity in journalism. We need people to provide tips and leak information so corruption can be exposed.

We want the person who knows the bank robber or who saw the hit and run to step forward. Anonymity has often led to justice. It has brought down corporations, resulted in putting criminals behind bars and would-be serial rapists where they belong. Whistle blowers are very important in our society and anonymity allows a certain safety needed for many people to come forward.

The university or state employee  that can post an internal document on a news  site anonymously can make a big difference and be a great service to a community.

So as much as I hate what anonymity can produce online , let’s not forget about why it is still important. You can’t always put your face behind your message and that’s okay.

Transparency is the buzzword of the moment, but not everything belongs out in the open.

Remember, Deep Throat?

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It’s one thing to be late to the party.
But when you finally do show up, and act as though you’re the first one to arrive, well…that may not go over so well.
As an advocate for user comments on news sites I was pleased to read that the Cleveland Plain Dealer is getting proactive and plans to engage with the people who take the time to comment on their news stories.

But the tone in which it was delivered in this post on Cleveland.com made me want to laugh.
The newspaper is acting as though it is doing users a huge favor. To paraphrase, it sounds to me like: “Yeah, we’ve ignored you long enough mostly because we found your input lacking and unworthy so guess what? We are now going to grace you with our presence and actually let our reporters talk to you. Did you hear that, peasant?”

Here is the actual verbiage:

But we’re also doing something we should have done earlier: We’re joining the online conversation. For too long, we at The Plain Dealer posted stories on cleveland.com and then turned away to focus on the next day’s news. Now, we’re encouraging our reporters and editors to pay attention to what you’re saying, to answer your questions and respond to your complaints.

Well, isn’t that nice? You’re going to provide customer service to your customers.

Why am I being hard on them about this? Because I know firsthand how difficult it is to deal with comments on news stories, particularly those that are anonymous and there is no real accountability for actions. I hire, train and supervise a team of moderators for the top local news website in a large market with an insane amount of traffic and user comments.
And we answer their questions and respond to their complaints.

We are in the conversation age and this is what it takes. Period.
I worked at a newspaper for six years and I know all too well the attitudes toward the consumer and their opinions that were once edited but are now everywhere. The loss of control and more importantly, the role of gatekeeper has been paralyzing for many news organizations. (If you want to read some great posts about this phenomenon, read Mark Potts’ Recovering Journalist and Jeff Jarvis’ Buzzmachine.)

You’re not fabulous because you finally decide to talk to your customers online in the year 2009. You’re simply doing the right thing.

The paper has also indicated in the post that this engagement is an experiment. If it goes well, they will continue. I hope they put the resources needed behind it to help it along the way. And though the tone of this post is sarcastic, I do wish them luck.

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This is a cross post from the American Society of Business Publication Editor’s national blog.

Engage or Die: Why your publication must embrace social media

Would I like you to click the link and read the post? Yes, but that is not the point of this particular post. I am bringing it to your attention to highlight a different lesson altogether. It’s one that I believe is greatly overlooked but can be done almost daily, and without a great amount of effort if you’re passionate about a topic.

Let me tell you how I got the opportunity to blog over there.

It all came from a thoughtful comment I left on a post that was recognized by the editor who later contacted me and asked me to write on a specific subject. That was not my goal when I left the comment. I was just doing what I do: Participate in the conversation, add value when I have it to offer and share my passion about online communities, social media, journalism and a few other topics that I pretty much live and breathe.

But the opportunities didn’t stop there. I was also asked to come speak to a group of editors in Washington, DC next month. All from one little comment.

Do you see the amazing value in that?

This is why I always say that we have to communicate like the whole world is watching. Chris Brogan often talks about providing value and readily sharing what you know. I think comments is one of he easiest ways to do that on a large scale.

Have you ever seen entire posts on popular blogs that stem from the comments? That is often where the reading gets good and the conversations reach a whole new level.

There’s power in the comment box. Share what you know, and scour the comments section of your own posts for nuggets of wisdom and ask for more. It’s the ultimate community builder.

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A Korean actress, said to have spent hours reading online comments about herself, was found dead earlier this month. She committed suicide.
Her name is Jin-sil Choi, and this blogger says her death for Koreans, is very similar to Americans waking up tomorrow to learn that Angelina Jolie had died the same way.

She cared about what people thought of her, even if it was in the form of anonymous comments left by people hiding behind that cloak of anonymity that I often write about. In a previous post I mentioned an e-mail I received in which a member of the community I manage called me the “n-word,” followed by the b-word.

I was a bit miffed, but I chose to move on for my own sanity. I also know that I am in a role that sometimes makes people hate me. All community managers are. It comes with the territory. Blogger, Martin Reed wrote recently that the abuse we receive from the public is an indication that we’re actually doing our jobs.

But I don’t think that translates to a famous actress, and I wish that she had not given these comments so much power. It’s disturbing to envision her reading so much negativity in one sitting, and doing it over and over again, if that was indeed the case. It would be akin to reading an entire book of hate mail.

The issue in some circles is whether or not the comments should have been there in the first place, and I do have an opinion about that, but I won’t share it. Not in this post.

My single goal here is to express my sadness and offer condolences to her family and the fans who loved her so. I just hope she read some of their comments along the way.

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This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. Feel free to challenge me, disagree with me, or tell me I’m completely nuts in the comments section of each blog entry.

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