Online community managers – we weren’t born last week.

In this guest post, Alison Michalk, explains why her hackles were raised when watching a recent TV segment on online community management.

Over the last few years there’s been such an explosion in the community management industry. Professional groups have gone from a handful of people to 300 members, and the role is consistently listed as one of the fastest growing.

As such you’d be forgiven for thinking that Mark Zuckerberg was responsible for the birth of online community management and that the internet was a wasteland devoid of human interaction pre-2006.

You would of course be subject to the ire of seasoned community managers who have taken to banging our heads against the desk, as social media experts pushed us aside to share their wisdom acquired p.f.b. (post-Facebook).

The problem here is that the world’s most popular, successful, engaged, vibrant and flourishing communities don’t exist on Facebook. They exist in forums. And forums have been around since the 1980s. And Community Managers have been acquiring wisdom, knowledge and experience – and sharing it – since then.

The latest thing to have us collectively *fist shaking* was this week’s ABC’s 7:30 report which featured a six-minute segment tackling the Liberal party website, and in particular it’s lack of moderation of user-generated-content. The show highlighted the lack of understanding about community management – and what many in this industry think is a brand new role.

The 7:30 Report tackled the topic by wheeling out a ‘social media expert’ as well as The Punch’s Editor Dave Penberthy and what followed was some really bizarre comments on community management. One such comment from the expert which featured on twitter with the #abc730 hashtag not the show itself was: “There is no reason why community can’t be self-regulating”.

Dear God.

There are in fact a multitude of reasons, they usually fall into three risk categories: legal, brand/reputation and user risks. The legal liabilities alone are reason not to self-regulate – discrimination, defamation, copyright, contempt of court. Many of which pushed Mumbrella to flick the pre-moderation switch in late 2010.

The next statement: “There is no real best practice out there about what is the best way to approach these things.”

Someone restrain me.

There is. The industry itself has grown so rapidly in the last few years its even fragmented into two distinct Facebook groups, one with more of a social media/advertising focus and another group of more “traditional” community managers. Both groups are very active and have over 200 members.

It’s time to wake up. Recognise that online community management existed long before Facebook. Put your ego aside. Some respect wouldn’t go astray. Maybe you’ll even learn from this folk.

While social networking has delivered a different platform and a huge audience, how people engage and behave online really hasn’t changed.

Alison Michalk is director at online community specialist Quiip


  1. Sarah Stokely
    16 Mar 12
    1:48 pm

  2. I suspect a lot of community managers are about to decloak to say “Yes, and thank you!” to this post.
    Part of the problem to do with lack of recognition is that many of us who work in online community building and management were acting as community managers before the term even existed. I didn’t even realise what I was doing as an online game guild leader and forum moderator was a Thing until I saw Stormy Peters give a talk at about community management back in 2008.
    It’s tough for publishers like News Ltd and Crikey (where I helped set up their blog network and wrote their community engagement guidelines) who often trade in inflammatory content, to expect their audience to be warm, fuzzy and polite. When I was at Crikey we drew a lot of inspiration from the Guardian’s oh so English community guidelines – namely ‘play the ball not the man’. Without clear and enforced guidelines and an active presence of your editorial team modelling good behaviour, your community can quite easily go sour. I avoid reading the comments on most news sites for this reason – which is a real shame. But while there’s money to be made in publishing notorious trollbait like Andrew Bolt, a lot of publishers will prefer to treat their reader community as a hornet’s nest to be provoked for clicks, rather than a place where intelligent debate might have taken place!


  3. Mac
    16 Mar 12
    2:07 pm

  4. Sure, the first of his comments was rubbish – but is the second one “There is no real best practice out there about what is the best way to approach these things” really wrong?

    Once you have many different approaches that are appropriate depending on the particular community then fundamentally there is no single ‘best practise’ approach to take.

    For example – on a news based site (like Mumbrella) it might be ‘best practise’ to pre-moderate and not make comments visible until they have been reviewed.

    But while it might work for Mumbrella it would destroy other communities – look at previous threads here where delayed comments made conversations impossible.

    So for a ‘conversation’ based community (which might typically have 40,000 reasonably active members) pre-moderation is certainly not best practise. If it was implemented it would destroy the value of the community.

    The idea that there is a single ‘best practise’ moderation policy that would apply to all communities (including Facebook, Mumbrella, You-tube comments, etc) is clearly false.

    And there are many tools you can use to moderate. Techniques like disemvowling is very effective for obnoxious comments – but may not be any use in other areas. Techniques like hell-banning or slow-banning might be extremely effective in some communities in avoiding IP address hopping – but not in others. Enforcing Real-Name or encouraging single-identity ? That’s another technique.

    There are such a wide range of techniques to use and a such a wide range of community types – surely we can all agree that there isn’t a single ‘Best Practise’ ?

    (Well – at least professional community moderators who have been doing it since the old Usenet days seem to think so. I’m going to take your advice and listen to them)

  5. Barman
    16 Mar 12
    2:10 pm

  6. Great post but there’s no possessive apostrophe in “its”. i blame the Internerds for the decline in standards.

  7. Mac
    16 Mar 12
    2:40 pm

  8. And a correction to the original article: Community managers have been needed well before forums in the 1980s. You young’uns may not remember, but in the 1970s we had these online communities called ‘Bulletin Boards’.

    And, of course, before that we had non-electronic Bulletin Boards.

    If only people would learn to listen to the wisdom of us old people …..

    (PS: I bet the original article was written by one of these young people with their new-fangled Vinyl records. Wax cylinders are good enough for me …..)

    (PPS: If I recall my history correctly, Marconi had problems with an online troll during his radio demonstrations in 1903 … so the problem goes back longer than all of us.)

  9. Alison Michalk
    16 Mar 12
    2:52 pm

  10. @Sarah – awesome contribution, thank you. You’re right in saying that too many publishers prefer to provoke their readers to elicit responses. I really think mainstream press is still scratching the surface of meaningful participation and contribution.

    @Mac – you’re right. There is no single best practice. But there are learnings, case studies and experienced Community Managers willing to offer advice about what the best approach might be. I was hoping to get across that there is an increasingly established industry from which we can learn – rather than it being a time where we’re fumbling along in the dark. Apologies that it wasn’t articulated as well as it could have been. Communities can usually be categorised in terms of appropriate moderation practices – and yes there are lots of tools we can use as shields & weapons! It does sound like you’re taking advice from some wise people :)

    Incidentally I would argue that pre-moderation is *very* rarely the best approach – and establishing tone & culture would have a much better long-tem effect on the community.

    @Barman – damn I have no sub-editing powers!

  11. Scott Drummond
    16 Mar 12
    2:55 pm

  12. Thank you Alison for this timely and thoughtful piece on community management.

    Mac – to your point about there being no real best practice out there about community management, I don’t think Alison was arguing that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to online community development and management.

    I think the point she’s making is that through decades of practice in this area, there are many established insights into the way individuals and groups interact in online environments. Skilled community managers are tapping into those insights with real results.

    Of course, those insights are not fixed and immovable, but they are certainly valid. Many of them are based on a valuable combination of practitioners experience and theoretical work on the psychological sense of community and belonging. To ignore those insights would seem irresponsible.

    If social has changed anything, it is perhaps the emphasis that brands put on how they design spaces within which people interact and participate. Brand is increasingly something negotiated between customers and businesses, rather than a set of immutable principles or traits systematically and consistently handed down to customers.

    Clearly the reality is that things aren’t simply black or white. Many established brands have built themselves in concert with their customers, and equally many new companies are failing to put their customers’ needs at the centre of their business.

    Perhaps the most important thing about community management is not that it is becoming more and more common, or indeed that it is misunderstood. What’s crucial is that brands realise the increasingly important role that word of mouth and peer-to-peer interaction are playing in marketing, and that they employ savvy professionals to manage the challenging and dynamic spaces where consumers negotiate meaning with brands.

    Community management is not a fad. It’s here to stay and marketers and business owners would do well to look more closely at how community management can help them to better – and more valuably – connect with their customers.

  13. Dan
    16 Mar 12
    4:40 pm

  14. Thanks for the great article and some interesting comments.

    The Department of Internet Studies at Curtin University will be holding an Online Conference on Networks and Communities in May this year. Students will be presenting papers online and inviting feedback, conversation and debate.

    You guys should head on over and join in.

    The site for the conference is . As I said It doesn’t start until May, but you can check out last years conference here

    Hope you can make it.

  15. Cloaked
    17 Mar 12
    1:50 pm

  16. Great article Alison. As an experienced community manager with a thriving forum community I do find it both frustrating and amusing when ‘Social media managers’ lecture me about how to use Facebook to drive engagement (which does nothing for our own website stats), but usually sidestep the moderation issue or hope there is someone else moderating the company FB & Twitter feeds.

    There is more to real, engaged communities than clicking a ‘like’ button.

  17. Alison Michalk
    19 Mar 12
    2:16 pm

  18. @Cloaked thanks. Facebook in many ways is a very restrictive platform for community building – or at least in the way its been defined thus far (that’s another contentious post right there!).

    It’s not to say we can’t learn from people in this space – there are a lot of amazing social media managers/marketers out there who share so much knowledge about insights, ad campaigns, client relationship management and beyond. (Props to Mike Watkins, Andy Cronin, Mandi Bateson to name just a few.)

    It can be a mutually beneficial friendship – my post is aimed at SMEGs not SMMs 😀 As much as @Mac might be joking about early trolling – academic research draws on all of this and there’s a lot of past learnings to draw from, which we can combine with & apply to new tech.

  19. Sue
    21 Mar 12
    1:56 am

  20. Wonderful post Alison and I heartily agree.

    I feel that Social Media is slowly soaking up Community Management and that some people new to the Social Media role don’t have a clue about engaging, building and moderating community. The other day I actually had a marketer (who claims he is a CM) tell me that community was solely about likes/fans/followers and broadcasting to said likes/fans/followers. Made me come over all cold! I feel sorry for the company that employs that person to build community as he (and others like him) obviously haven’t got a clue.

  21. JennyLee
    21 Mar 12
    5:26 am

  22. Forum moderation ! = community management

  23. Justin N
    23 Mar 12
    8:15 pm

  24. Interesting, sure. But just looked up your business and it says you sell ‘community management’…..’we deliver 24 hour management for your business’ etc
    Surely this is one giant ad for your services, no?
    Laurel Papworth is a friend, and a respected colleague. Her comments continued to be of value to many of us and she is one of the early pioneers of community management….yes perhaps this has now morphed into ‘social media expert’ but she has all the skills to speak as a industry representative.

  25. Logic
    23 Mar 12
    8:24 pm

  26. i don’t understand this article

  27. Lord Knows
    26 Mar 12
    12:07 pm

  28. Its a bizarre rant on anyone getting media coverage other than this person’s business Logic!

  29. Scott Drummond
    26 Mar 12
    1:29 pm

  30. Justin N – not sure it’s fair to accuse Alison of self-promotion here. She has done more than most in this part of the industry to grow understanding and awareness of the role of community management.

    She co-founded the Australian Community Managers Roundtable and Swarm, a conference dedicated to community management. Both these initiatives have been all about sharing best practice across the diverse stakeholders in this space – brands, agencies, consultants, NFPs and more – not about self promotion for Quiip.

    If anything, Alison has used her respected position in this growing industry sector to benefit all of those stakeholders.

    Also, no need to jump to Laurel’s defence. She was not the social media expert being quoted in the 7:30 Report or the expert whose comments Alison is disagreeing with in this article. That was Tom Tudehope, ex media adviser to Malcolm Turnbull and now freelance Social Media Consultant. Would be interesting to hear Tom’s take on this article.

    Lord Knows – why don’t you come out from behind the anonymous pseudonym and stand behind your comment. Would make for a far more interesting discussion.

  31. Cameron
    26 Mar 12
    1:35 pm

  32. Community management = the biggest bludge ever. You sit there chatting away all day on a forum. Usually related to a topic you like. You delete the odd controversial post. You ban the occasional problematic member. The rest of the time you talk to people about a topic you typically like. It’s not rocket science. Some would say it’s barely a real job.

  33. Nicky Moore
    26 Mar 12
    10:54 pm

  34. @Cameron Lol you’ve obviously never built and maintained a community before. The job requires a lot more time, dedication and strategic planning than you describe.

    I think we can all agree that “community management” has existed for quite some time but only in self contained locations with niche objectives. The explosion of “social media” coincides with the expansion of e-commerce. Suddenly community influence has become relevant to brands and businesses that previously had no reason to operate online. The “newness” you’re talking about comes from the brand and the types of people they are bringing together online, not the practice or even the platform.

    The approach you “should” take varies depending on the brand or business you represent BUT community management has been around long enough for there to be a set of established rules. Experts know when to fall back on the tried and tested and when to reinvent the wheel.

  35. Cameron
    27 Mar 12
    11:19 am

  36. Actually, I have. I started an online gaming community in 2000 that is still flourishing today, even after I handed on the reins in 2008. It’s had, conservatively about 1000 regulars at any given time over the past decade-plus. Thanks.

  37. What Next
    30 Mar 12
    8:14 pm

  38. I’m with Cameron. He’s described it to a tee. Another con industry being ‘commented’ on by so called ‘professionals’.
    Delete, read, edit. It is a major farce, the new mirage industry.