Unless there is a chance of some interesting conversations, I rarely go out. But last Saturday night I gave my sofa a rest and went to a bar in Lisbon. I had a great conversation with a young couple who run the Portuguese fetich and BDSM online forum and organize the community related events. We had so much in common!
We were talking about running online forums and although they saw their problems as specific to Portugal and to the BDSM world, their stories would resonate with moderators and facilitators from most places in all communities. To paraphrase what they said:
1. Time. It is very-time-consuming moderating discussions and keeping alive a sense of community. Unless you've done it, no-one can imagine how much time it takes. The paradox of things looking visible because it's online when most of the work you do is invisible.
2. Most people go to an online group to see what they can get and not what they can give. The idea of shaping the community, the events and its learning is not a familiar one and people wait to be given rather than looking for ways to give.
3. When you do something people are quick to jump in and complain and to tell you what you are doing wrong. Like she said - you give one of your arms and there will be at least someone saying - why didn't you give both?
4. How you keep going even without positive feedback from members, keep experimenting and keep getting it wrong in order to make it better i.e you keep learning. And you have to keep your eye on the ball and remember the bigger reasons why you are doing it.
5. It's not easy for people to handle the ambiguity of diversity, rather than trying to explain or reject or control it.
6. In short, helping to build a community is an unrecognized act of love and has to be fitted in with competing work and other demands. Contributing to a community is a gift that you rarely get thanked for.
Hearing how they had risen to these challenges, about their persistence and imagination at dealing with people and problems, and seeing their sensitivity and sense of humour through it all and I realised that I could be talking to two of the most experienced and knowledgeable facilitators in Portugal. Their hands-on knowledge of social processes, learning and identity was really fine-tuned - and I was thinking that they would make excellent mentors for other community builders. It would also be great for them if they could join a wider community of facilitators who shared similar challenges and joys.
Now that would be a big leap from content to social processes! I wonder how many people could make it.
And yes, my kids despair of me. "Why, even at a bar in Lisbon, do you always have to bring the conversation back to learning and online communities!" I didn't dare tell them that I considered the evening a success because I think I managed to sell the idea of RSS feeds for their community site. I'm just a sad case of one-tunnel vision!