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The Human Factor: Moderators in a Creative Online Community

by Mary Arnold

March 20, 2012

Column

by Mary Arnold

March 20, 2012

“Guidelines create the promise of frequent submissions for the audience and quick and abundant feedback for the content providers. Content providers also have the opportunity stand apart from their peers if their work is selected as the best in the category. The result is a successful community.”

One of my favorite pastimes on the Internet is to visit creative communities in LiveJournal or Dreamwidth to look at the creative work people produce when the only reward for their creativity is the feedback of other members of their community.

In these communities, fans produce picture collages that depict important themes in their favorite movies or television shows, song lists that represent the mood of a difficult fictional relationship, video tributes to their favorite moments, poems, icons, analysis, Podcasts, short stories, and even novel-length fiction, all released one entry at a time. It’s a staggering amount of, often, high-quality work.

In the 10 to 20 different communities I visit frequently, one thing is consistent. Regardless of how well the online community has been defined, members of closely moderated communities submit more work, and get more feedback than members of communities with no active moderator.

The Moderator’s role

In online communities, many people think of moderators as the enforcers who work to keep spammers out, give penalties to community members who get out of hand, or determine when a conversation has strayed from the purpose of the community. It’s a necessary role, one that helps create a welcoming place for people to interact with one another.

The best moderators, though, also realize that online communities need members to contribute frequently in order to thrive. In a community devoted to showcasing creative content, that requirement can be a liability, because of the amount of time it takes to develop the content. Although some members may be able to produce a lot of content frequently and naturally, many others will need time to think about what to produce and the right medium to use.

That’s where the moderator fits in. A good moderator can set parameters around issues that might get in the way of developing content, and set the stage for the creative expression of the community, without setting such strict rules that they dampen the enthusiasm or creativity of the group.  Here are two techniques that seem to generate the most response:

Themes and prompts

In one successful community, a team of moderators holds a survey every month with the entire community, giving the members a couple of days to submit possible themes for members to write about in the following month. The moderators then develop the themes into prompts writers can use to develop their content. At the beginning of any given week, the moderators post a new prompt, and members have a week to respond with creative work.

Many community members never post creative content, but members who don’t post their own work tend to offer feedback generously. When offering feedback on a particular story, they will often incorporate comments on how the author chose to use the prompt of the week.

Although this particular community gears towards creative writing, it’s easy to imagine the strategy working in another context, such as an organizational or department blog. The team could brainstorm on the theme of the month and post responses to specific questions based on their personal experiences on a particular topic. With part of the process already completed, the resulting blog entries could develop more quickly.

Contests

Another creative community I frequent opens for new content only twice a year, during which time the community hosts a contest for the best creative content. The moderators set up a number of different categories for different length stories, as well as submission guidelines for other creative media. Members then sign up to contribute their content on a particular day during the run of the contest. After the contest starts, at least one contributor will provide creative content every day for a month, when the contest closes. At the close of the contest, readers and viewers complete a poll to select the work they found most compelling.

In this case, the guidelines create the promise of frequent submissions for the audience and quick and abundant feedback for the content providers. Content providers also have the opportunity to stand apart from their peers if the members select their work as the best in the category. The result is a successful community.

If you’re a Moderator

The guidelines you set as a moderator can serve as a template, freeing members of the community to think about the topic at hand, instead of the specifics of how to talk about it. If an online community is part of your learning strategy, providing a strong moderator presence is one way to help the community thrive.


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