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Honor Your Elders

Elders (that is, respected, knowledgeable old-timers) play an integral role in all successful communities. Churches have elders, as do tribes, villages, universities, corporations, and families. They’re the community storytellers—the people who’ve seen it all before and can’t wait to tell you about it. They’re the teachers, mentors, advisors, editors, and coaches—people who share their knowledge, pass along community beliefs and traditions, and embody community values through their words and deeds.

Elders are often the people called on to perform important community rituals. Whether the event is a formalized rite of passage like a marriage or funeral or a more casual gathering like a party, it will take on greater significance and weight if an elder is present.

Words of Wisdom

Being an elder isn’t always a clearly defined role—it’s earned through longevity, dedication, and knowledge sharing. On the WELL, long-time members can function as elders even if they’ve never played an official leadership role; their posts show that they’ve seen the community evolve over time. These people are viewed as role models (whether they like it or not), and newer members look to them for guidance about how to behave. And anyone who has played an official leadership role in the past— such as host, mentor, or community manager—could become an elder, if they stick around and continue to share their knowledge with the community.

Although elders will emerge naturally, you can strengthen the social fabric of your community by creating specific ways for them to share their knowledge. For example, an experienced leader who is no longer interested in the day-to-day work of community management could teach new recruits. Or a well-established regular who has grown bored with daily community life could sit on a Member Advisory Board and comment on new community features.

The Founder Speaks

By default, community founders and founding members are considered elders. One of the most powerful actions that a founder can take is to communicate regularly with the community. This gives the members a sense of security—a feeling that someone’s home. For example, Steve Case, the founder of AOL, publishes a monthly letter in which he typically addresses current issues and future enhancements (Figure 4.18). It’s a particularly effective approach because Steve doesn’t wait for a crisis to respond to; he writes the letter every month regardless.

Figure 4.18. A Letter From Steve AOL keyword: Steve Case

Every month, Steve Case publishes a letter to AOL members in which he addresses current community events. Even though these letters have a strong PR spin, they add a human touch to this massive online service and give members the feeling that someone’s home.

Similarly, Mary Furlong, the founder of Third Age, publishes an interactive weekly column called the Community Insider where she discusses current events, shares her philosophy of life, and articulates what it means to be a Third Ager.

Another way for the founder to maintain an ongoing presence the community is to write a regular column addressing members’questions. For example, Tori Kropp, the founder of Stork Site (now a division of Women.com) writes a weekly “Ask Tori” column in which she answers questions about pregnancy and child care (Figure 4.19). This feature includes an archive of Tori’s previous columns, which serves as a valuable and ever-growing content resource for the community.

Figure 4.19. “Ask Tori”—A weekly column from the founder

This weekly column, written by Tori Kropp, RN, the founder of Stork Site (now the pregnancy and baby area of women.com), helps her maintain an ongoing sense of presence and continuity within the community.

(Photo © Eric Millette)

Rituals and Ceremonies

Rituals are a crucial element of community development (as covered further in Chapter 8). they keep your members involved by forming habits, creating memorable experiences, and crystallizing your culture. It’s great when elders participate in community rituals, and even more powerful when they instigate and lead those rituals themselves.

For instance, Lord British regularly goes into Ultima Online, and hands out awards to distinguished players (Figure 4.20). For the citizens of Britannia, having their king acknowledge their achievements is a powerful motivator that gives them a great sense of pride and bragging rights and encourages them to keep playing the game. Similarly, Mary Furlong hosts a monthly conversation called “The Heart of Third Age”, where she shares personal stories and stimulates discussion topics (Figure 4.21). These discussions enhance the ongoing sense of connection that Third Age members have with their founder and reinforce the values and “heart” of the community.

Figure 4.20. A Meeting with Lord British

Lord British is congratulating the Golden Brew Players after a successful performance. This visit from their “King” and the subsequent story that appeared on the Origin web site inspired the members to hone their skills and plan a series of plays in Britannia.

Figure 4.21. Heart of Third Age

Mary Furlong, the founder of Third Age, hosts a regular discussion called “Heart of Third Age,” with a different topic each month. Along with her written column, this ongoing dialogue keeps her presence alive on the site and helps her stay in touch with the members.

Maintaining a Presence

Founders are often too busy to really maintain a presence themselves, but your staff—the paid employees of your community— can help take up the slack. Even when they’re newly hired, staff members will be seen as elders because they have knowledge and access to the inner workings of the community, and because (from the members’point of view) they have the power to determine how the community evolves.

The ways that your community staff interacts (or fails to interact) with the community will have a profound effect on the developing culture; other members will tend to interpret a staff person’s comments as authoritative pronouncements. For this reason, you’ll want to make sure that staff members understand the impact that their words and actions have.

It’s also important to make sure that your staff members’ goals and values are in agreement with the existing (or emerging) community culture. Some Web communities thrive on debate and conflict, while others value civility and mutual support. Staff should be aware of, and prepared to reinforce, the social dynamics and core values of the community.

Role Models

What it comes down to is that community staff members are the ultimate role models, and what they do and say will be emulated. So, if you want your members to keep their profiles up to date, be sure that your staff members do. And if you want your leaders to be helpful, and treat others fairly, then staff members should demonstrate that with their words and deeds.

In practice, some of your staff will be more excited by the prospect of interacting with members than others, and some will be more adept at communicating online. Rather than requiring your staff to participate, look for ways to get the most out of the efforts of those who are interested.

Designer Dragon (a.k.a. Raph Koster, the lead designer on Ultima Online) spends a great deal of time communicating with UO players on the message boards of popular fan sites. UO is a popular yet controversial game, and has engendered many disgruntled players (www.wired.com/wired/archive/6.05/ultima.html). Raph’s continuing accessibility and presence has a huge impact on the mood of the hard-core players and has nipped many a potentially explosive problem in the bud.

Another simple but effective way to make use of your staff’s communication is to hold a regular “town meeting” where members have a chance to express their opinions and concerns directly. The Director of Marketing at Heat hosts a weekly chat in which he talks about new features and solicits input and ideas from the members; some member ideas have actually been implemented.

The Inside Scoop

You can also encourage your staff to share some of their insider information—within reasonable guidelines, of course. Many gaming sites feature “developer diaries,” which offer an ongoing glimpse into the day-to-day struggles and triumphs of developing a computer game (see, for example, www.gamespot.com/features/index.html#diaries or staff.turbinegames.com/sean/plan.htm). Not every developer on the team publishes a diary, just those who are interested and qualified. But reading these diaries makes the community members feel like they’re part of the process.

An increasingly popular feature in Web communities is the presence of staff experts, who are there to provide comfort and credibility. iVillage, for example, features experts in all of its channels (www.ivillage.com/experts), and both WebMD and drkoop.com include a variety of health professionals that lead discussions and answer questions. In fact, Dr. Koop himself is a good example of an elder whose name and image lend credibility and provide a comforting presence.

Lead On

Visitors, novices, regulars, leaders, and elders—they’re all vital contributors to a thriving community. But your leaders are the members who will help you implement your vision and make sure your community fulfills its mission (or not). The next chapter deals with how to set up an effective program to make sure your leaders properly represent your interests.

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