Building Communities (Part 1)
At the end of the last year, I promised that this year was going to be a year about communities. If you're like me, communities are going to be a necessary part of keeping yourself sane this year as we watch the changes to our world in a year that so far seems to promise some pretty titanic shifts. To that end, I'd like to spend a few minutes of your day today talking about building communities, how to run them, and how to deal with conflicts that are bound to arise as they grow. We won't cover everything all at once, and I have no idea how many parts this will end up being. But for now, let's dive in, shall we?
Building Communities - Identifying a Common Need
The first sign that there is a community in need of building is when you notice there is a common need. This could be anything, from a popular new card game coming out to seeing a group of friends constantly struggling to organize parties or get-togethers. Communities can also be a source of solidarity and camaraderie in the face of, say, an oppressive set of political changes sweeping our nation.
Communities can start at really any size. I've seen them begin with as few as 2-3 people and blossom into groups that will pull together crowds of 50+ easily. The trick is to make sure that when you're deciding what your community will encompass that you set some form of limitation (say - "Fans of the Star Wars X-Wing minis game"). Take care not to set too specific of a guideline for your community lest you exclude potential members who might have grown the community larger by their inclusion. Using the above mentioned example: you might not want to immediately form a community around "Star Wars Imperial Players" exclusively unless there's already a thriving community for the game as a whole.
Lastly make sure that your nascent community isn't a duplication of efforts. If you try to start a Star Wars X-Wing community and there's already a thriving community that exists, you could unintentionally sub-divide the community (that isn't necessarily a bad thing - just something you want to be aware of before you try putting your own community together). If there is already an existing community, check with its organizers to see if you can't join them. Often they'll be happy for the assistance!
Identify a Goal (Or "Why are you building this community?" )
Goals help focus and channel a community's efforts towards a specific end. If you don't provide one, other members of the community will end up doing so, and they may push the community in a direction that is different from what you were expecting. Having a goal does not have to be a complicated process. Often times for most gaming communities it is going to be something along the lines of, "Let's get organized so that we have lots of other people to play this game with," or "Let's get organized so that we can have really cool tournaments!"
Decide on a Communication Method
Once you've identified the common need and a goal, you'll want to decide on a method for communication. You'll want whatever method you use to be something that the majority of the group is comfortable using. To that end, we're going to look at a few different ways to organize groups and discuss why you might use them or why you might want to avoid them. None of these options are perfect, but depending on the group and the goal, most of them will work for your uses.
Pros: Easy to Use, Ties to an Existing User Base, allows for "Events" to be created within the group as a good way to organize meet ups.
Cons: "It's Facebook," Privacy Issues, 'the Facebook algorithm' can be misleading
The method that most often jumps out at people when we talk about organizing groups of people together. Facebook is ubiquitous within the lives of most people in this day and age. While you will find holdouts that don't use Facebook for something, unless your group is dedicated to informational privacy most of you probably are already on Facebook. The group functionality here makes it really easy to start up a group, search up an existing group, and add events within the group.
That said, there are some issues with this service. Facebook's algorithm that decides what posts it thinks you want to see can mean that initially posts from new groups go unnoticed, especially if you're not directly friends with one of the posters or lots of the members. Facebook's own privacy standards are rather dubious, so be aware that in using this service to focus your community, your data and information on you is being harvested and monetized at you.
Pros: App-Supported, Easy to use, easy to find new meetups
Cons: Paid Service, Separate Website
Meetup is the second most popular way I've seen for gaming communities to organize themselves. It's a paid service and offers many of the same features as Facebook (without, to my knowledge, any of the privacy issues). It's separate from the social media info-flood that is Facebook, and it's got an app for both IOS and Android that works to remind you of your upcoming events and meetups. It is a paid service, but it doesn't tend to be too expensive unless you get huge. What I've seen from groups that get super large is that they ask for a yearly dues to cover the overhead.
Pros: Usually Free,* Asynchronous Message Communication, IRC / Chatroom Style Engagement, App Available
Cons: Unpaid Message Cap, Potentially Paid Service,*
Slack is a relatively new and rather unique style of chatroom service. Initially targeted at compnaies, it's found a home in community organizing as well. It provides an IRC or Chatroom style of interface with a shared history and as many separate rooms as your group wishes to make. This makes it a very nice way to put larger numbers of people together and let them talk in real time with other folks. The history from each chat will propagate to everyone in the room, so you can ask a question when it occurs to you at 2 AM, and someone can log in at 5 AM and will still see the message.
The limitations of Slack start to become apparent the larger the group. Slack initially imposes a 10,000 message limit, so if the group gets sufficiently large you'll start to notice messages disappearing after some amount of time. The messages aren't lost, just not available unless someone is paying for it (and the payment options are kind of pricey). There's also no personal mute / ban options for single people, and no way to keep someone who's not supposed to be in a channel out of a channel short of making the channel private.
Pros: Email + App Based, Ability to create Events, To Do Lists, and Upload Files
Cons: Discussions/Emails can get Crazy, limited options for email receiving
Basecamp is a project management tool that can be coopted for use as a community organizing tool. From the web interface, it behaves similarly to a web-forum. You can see discussions and respond to different threads. Really this option shines best through the web interface. The app doesn't allow you to track things via discussion topic (you instead see everything in the order it was posted), and receiving email from a very active basecamp is a way to seriously overload your inbox if you have it set to individual emails. Much like Slack, this is a free to use but pay for full use option.
Pros: Mailing list that everyone can use to communicate with everyone, useful for pushing information to base
Cons: Easy to overload on email, no app, not intended to be a primary method for communicating among group members
Groups.io is one of several mailing list style resources (another easy to use one is Mailchimp, although that is intended for a more commercial audience). It's a pretty easy to use, subscribe to, and remove yourself from as needed. There are a ton of features available (calendar, database, files, photos, even a wiki option). This makes the service a powerful tool for pushing information out to the recipients. The risk here is that the messages part of this application are all email-based, so if this becomes the primary method of communication there's some risk of an information or email overload. For that reason, I don't recommend that this be the primary method of group communication (is it an excellent secondary method, however).
In summary - remember that no one option presented above will work for every group. There are probably way more options available than what I've presented here too (Discord and Ryver, for example, share many common traits with Slack). The options I've presented here are the ones I have used personally or have some experience with because a group that hosted events at Phoenix uses them. If none of these look satisfactory to you, I would urge you to go out and explore. Let me know if you find something better!
That's about it for now! I hope this has been helpful for you, and I hope you'll join us next time when we discuss how to host demonstrations as well as how to deal with a growing group, specifically the how's and why's to Codes of Conduct.