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Monday, August 1, 2011

Building an Online Community

Guest Post by Dana Blankenhorn

Dana Blankenhorn
I first met Dana Blankenhorn when I left enterprise software and was building an open source company. He was blogging about open source and about two of every three of his posts I had to implement immediately. He was my teacher-from-the-cloud for over a year. He is still the only person I know who is a full-time blogger. I subscribe to his Buzz and sometimes see ten good posts in a day. We are fortunate that Dana will be on our panel at Blah, Blah Blog at the Web Managers Roundtable, on August 9.  

The man who now runs the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, as surely as the Koch and Murdoch billions run their wing of the GOP, got his start 8 years ago with a simple memo.

Markos Moulitsas had been hired by Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's campaign manager, to consult on what to do with all this great traffic and interest their campaign blog was generating. Along with Jerome Armstrong, he suggested that the blog format be scrapped in favor of a Community Network System that could, in my words, “scale the intimacy.”

The suggestion was ignored. Dean lost as a host of leaderless activists descended upon Iowa in orange hats, and tried to stampede 100,000 Iowa Democrats with their enthusiasm. Moulitsas and Armstrong, by contrast, took their own advice. Armstrong's site became MyDD http://mydd.com/

Moulitsas built out his own blog, which went by his nickname. Kos http://www.dailykos

DailyKos is now the heart of a small publishing empire with an outsized reach. Markos is, at heart, an entrepreneur, not a politician, and he has built on business-like lines, expanding into other areas of interest like religion (Street Prophets) and sports (SB Nation), while maintaining firm control over his technology platform and expenses.

He could be a very rich man. But he prefers to be the William F. Buckley of his generation. Instead of sailing he bicycles. And instead of inviting activists to his estate at Sharon, he holds a yearly convention called Netroots Nation that had 2,500 people at it this summer.

Kos' story is important because there are a lot of business, professional and political organizations who have suddenly looked upon his idea of blogging, and online communities, with new eyes. They have seen that the key to political influence lies in activating people to do your work for you. Lacking, like Kos, the money of a Koch or a Murdoch, they think, well maybe we could start a blog.

You could. I blog. I think I do it well. But I've been at it, or something like it, for almost 50 years, since the day my dad got me a typewriter and a record called “How to Learn to Type in an Hour” for Christmas, 1963. I was too young to know you couldn't learn to type in an hour from a record, and within a very short time I was at 60 wpm. I haven't slowed down.

Your mileage will vary.

Blogging is writing. Writing is one part passion and three parts practice. I'm passionate about everything I write, while I'm writing it. I hear the words in my head as though I'm speaking them, and get them out just as fast. (Another hint. I read it out loud before I post it.)

If you're not that fast or that experienced, how then do you use blogging to build an online community?

You need what I call Kos' Clue. You'll find it in the second paragraph of this piece. (I'll wait.)

Scale the intimacy.

There are two parts to this. The first, most important part is intimacy. You have to find a way to develop an intimate relationship with your audience. You have to identify with them, and get them to identify with you.

This is what journalists do. It is at the very heart of all good publishing. Publishing is simply advocating and organizing a place, industry or lifestyle. Advocacy comes first. Identifying with your audience, their needs and requirements. Learning what they are, finding answers to their questions, delivering that to them. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Actually, publishers merely hire people to do this. They call it journalism. What publishers actually do – what you need to do – is organize that place, industry or lifestyle.

The journalist gives you the basic tools for this. The stories they get, and tell, give you the lay of the land. Your job is to build out the database, to find people who respond to the story, get them reading and responding, then tease out from them what it is they want from the marketplace, what you can supply, what others might supply, and offer it to them.

The difference between print and the online media of our time is that today, this whole process is more interactive, and that because of this it can be done more quickly, with links made tighter, than ever before.

Building these links is the job of a community manager. They make sure there are comment threads below every story. They identify thought leaders. They email good stuff to people who need to read it. They respond to feedback. They encourage contributions from among commenters and thought leaders. They filter out the trolls. They manage your lists. They learn who lives with you, who lives near you, who your friends and adversaries are. (If this is a business site, read competitors.)

Then there's the technology platform. This is the real good news. Because while Kos had to build his platform from scratch, you don't have to. While he had to scale it by himself, you don't have to do that, either.

There are now good scaled CMS programs out there like Drupal and Wordpress. These are adding all the social networking capabilities you would find in a site like Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+, and you can easily integrate such social networks with your own to expand more rapidly. Best of all, these are open source applications, which can be hosted in clouds, meaning your infrastructure costs are flexible, and there's already a community of people who can help you, just as you're helping your own community.

One more important point. The IN in Internet stands for intimacy. It's not just between you and them, but among them, that you'll build. That doesn't just mean responding to feedback, both good and bad. To grow from the bottom-up you must act on good feedback and nurture people. As in open source it means you're constantly giving stuff away, anything you can find, anything that might stimulate, and letting yourself be led in part by your community. If this sounds more feminine than masculine, just remember that you're going to be a mother to many sons, more sons than daughters (even the girls), and that your job is to guide, which is the most important job there is.

This is how publishing will evolve. It's also how advocacy will evolve, how organizations will evolve and (in time) how our governance and politics will evolve, a long way from the TV-fed back-and-forth we have now. Toward consensus, or many types of consensus, all contending in the larger community toward a synthesis you'll call the Future.

Check out Blah, Blah Blog at the Web Managers Roundtable, on August 9, and BlogLab, coming August 16.

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