How Two Experts Build Strong Web Communities

By: Ron Hogan

Your association may have plenty of followers and commenters, but you haven't necessarily built a community. The leaders of two large and vibrant destinations for online discussion and debate share what they've learned about keeping visitors engaged and civil. (Titled "A Site That Entices" in print version.)

When it comes to "online community" and "user-generated content," Teresa Nielsen Hayden jokes that many organizations expect the first to emerge fully formed within two weeks of launch, and the second always boils down to "people will write stuff for free." But a truly organic community takes time and needs a firm hand to guide its growth, much as a garden needs to be tended to prevent overrunning. No matter what your organization's focus might be, the same principles apply.

Nielsen Hayden is the cofounder of the website Making Light and, more recently, the community manager for Boing Boing, which is one of the most popular websites in existence, attracting more than 10 million page views per month. In 1998, as she was becoming more involved in web communities, aspiring writer John Scalzi launched his personal website, Whatever, which has since grown to attract nearly 40,000 people daily. Back then, he recalls, online community building was constrained by technical limitations. "You had to hand roll your own HTML code, and basically comments were confined to people being able to write in a 'guest book,' but that was independent of the individual [blog] entries," he recalls.

In 2003, Scalzi installed Movable Type, one of the first dedicated blogging platforms for individual websites. Within two months, his traffic doubled. (He's published two "greatest hits" collections from the blog, as well as six novels.) "People who had been reading all the time were able to start responding, to start making comments, and there's a different investment in what people feel like when they're reading something and when they're participating in it," he says.

Nielsen Hayden had installed comments on Making Light shortly before Scalzi, who remembers shaking his head at the site's welcome announcement: "Our readers are the best thing about this weblog. If you're not reading the comments, you're missing half the fun." "When you really get a community growing up around [a website], it is so much more than the blog entries themselves or the content itself," she says. "It's that gestalt of people talking back and forth to each other, the expectations they have of the website, and the sense they have of it." She's coined the term "site-geist" to describe that environment: "Even people who aren't really conscious of it will still have it, and they'll assimilate the implications of even small changes to the site rapidly. They do it without thinking about it. One of the interesting things of moderating a community is being mindful of that."

The two recently answered questions during a phone conversation that offers plenty of insight into how to cultivate a genuine community around your online presence by staying in control without being overbearing.

Ron Hogan: How important was adding comments to the development of your communities?

John Scalzi: It began to make people feel like they could give an immediate response and become part of a conversation rather than just a display of, "Now I will tell you what I think." ... I came into blogging and the online world from a journalism background where there is, or there was, a highly asymmetrical sense of, "We are telling you stuff, and you subscribe, and you pay attention," and there wasn't that much of a back and forth. But when I instituted comments, it was like Saul on the road to Damascus; the scales fell off of my eyes.

What happens is that if you're writing an intelligent blog, if you're writing something at a level of complexity where Making Light is and where I strive to be as well, the sort of audience you're going to get, the sort of regulars you're going to get, are people who are also engaged and intelligent and bright, who can amplify what it is you're discussing, or alternatively argue with you at a highly intelligent level, which also builds the community, because they're building additional knowledge, understanding, and context.

Teresa, how did your experience with the developing community at Making Light scale when you arrived at Boing Boing?

"The difference between moderating and controlling is that moderating inclines where controlling dictates." —John Scalzi

Teresa Nielsen Hayden: Boing Boing had a rudimentary comments section in the beginning, but none of the editors had the time or the inclination to moderate, and it had gotten really septic, especially once their traffic levels started to get impressive. And that meant they were providing an unguarded audience for all kinds of trolls out there, so they shut comments down.

I came in years after that. Boing Boing had a huge audience of people who had been reading it for a long time and felt a sense of ownership, yet they hadn't been talking to each other for years, so there was a whole lot of settling out that had to happen there as they found out what the rest of the readership was like. Some of them were very much surprised by that.

How did you start?

Nielsen Hayden: I was heavy handed in my moderation at times, more than I would be comfortable with under other circumstances. But I knew I was going to have to do it. I knew within the first few days, and I told the Boingers as much. A community gels after a little while, and in a situation like that, you have to work hard to make sure that when it does gel, it's something like what you had in mind.

You know the theory that one of the things you have to do to keep communities from falling into crime is to fix the broken windows? The same thing happens on a website. When people first come into it, they look around and they see what's happening there, and if they have any sensitivity at all, they will moderate their behavior to suit what's going on. If you let things get started in such a way that it looks like an uncivilized frontier, then people will feel justified in behaving badly. That will drive off exactly the people you'd rather have around, while it encourages more bad behavior.

Online Extra: Sorry Situations

If you want to create an online community where members can feel free to speak their minds, even when they disagree with you, without degenerating into flame wars, you need to own your mistakes along with your successes. Scalzi remembers one debate that popped up on Whatever after several rounds of heated argument on other websites. "I said, 'This entire discussion has been pointless and stupid, and you're all idiots,'" he laughs, "and eventually people reminded me that there had been good points to that discussion, where it had actually been useful rather than simply people spewing at each other. When that happened, I posted an apology to my site and admitted that I needed to retract. People were amazed. 'You, a person on the web, and a science fiction writer, actually apologized!' Well, you know, when I'm wrong, it makes sense to apologize, doesn't it?"

Scalzi: That's why I find that some of the worst places for comments tend to be old-line media sites. In my opinion, the old-line media is really still stuck on the idea that it's asymmetrical and that when people respond, it's in the old "letters to the editor" sense. For a long time, they didn't get and they still don't get that instantaneous communication, if left unchecked or unmoderated, will quickly go down to a lowest common denominator of people yelling at each other. If you go to a newspaper site and look at the comments on any kind of article there, it's usually toxic spew followed by toxic spew.

The other thing that's there, and why Boing Boing was very smart to hire Teresa, is that the moderators are not doing a good job of actually moderating. They're going through occasionally and taking out the most toxic of comments, the ones that have the bad language and stuff like that, and not doing the things that moderators need to do with communities, which is set tone. It's not just about bad words; it's about how people are responding to each other.

Nielsen Hayden: Just about every site on the web that has a large, lively community has fairly strong moderation. If you want to have threads that people actually want to read, then you really do have to curb the excesses sometimes. [But] if the experience of being a full-time moderator has taught me anything, it's that moderators are a type. You can teach people a whole lot about how to do it, but you can't just hand the job off to a bunch of random people and say, "Here, keep order in Dodge City."

What happens once readers become community members and acquire a sense of ownership about the website?

Scalzi: You have the people in charge setting the tone and saying, "This is the way it's going to be," and then you have other people from within the community policing that tone because they value what they get there. There are so many places on the web [where] you can't have a conversation that when you find one where you can, you want to hug it to your chest and defend it. I find that [when] I'm off having a life away from the computer and somebody starts being completely idiotic or that the regulars know I won't like, they'll alert me.

The good thing about that is that it makes my job easier; the flipside is that there are times when I have to step in because somebody will tell somebody else, "You're saying something you shouldn't say here—you need to leave!" And I gently point out that I don't recall appointing that person captain of people who get to tell other people when to leave. So you do have to balance that fine line, but by and large the fact that people are so enthusiastic about the site means that they will help you reach your goals.

Nielsen Hayden: It's one of the touchiest things you have to do when you have a regular somebody who obviously loves the site, and they've put their foot wrong on something like that and you have to go in and correct them. You don't want to make them feel bad about it.

Scalzi: The difference between moderating and controlling is that moderating inclines where controlling dictates. At the end of the day, you are responsible for everything that goes on your site, and sometimes you do need to step in and tell people, "OK, now you need to stop talking about this," or whatever. But when at all possible, what you want is to incline people to a state where they get what they really want to do, which is to have a conversation, and you get what you really want to do, which is to have your site work.

It seems that one sign of a truly robust online community is that disagreements occur all the time, but they're conducted respectfully.

Scalzi: You don't want to be at a point where what you end up having is only the people who will end up agreeing with you. That's going to get very boring and megalomaniacal. It's much more interesting to have conversations with people who say, "You know, I like what you write, but your politics are crazy." And as long as they can do it politely and have a good time with everybody else, that's perfectly fine. You do have to come in with the idea that you don't mind people telling you you're wrong ... and that's something that's difficult for people to learn. You have to train yourself. You have to moderate yourself as well as the community.

Nielsen Hayden: The difference between a savvy corporate site and a not-so-savvy one is how astonished they are the first time somebody shows up to tell them their new product sucks.

Scalzi: There's the old joke that the internet sees censorship as damage and routes around it. Your community will also see censorship as an attack and draw attention to it. If you start, they will immediately go, "What's wrong with you? Why are you doing this? We have rights!" and so forth, and it will blow up in your face.

The thing that you didn't want to spend any time talking about ...

Nielsen Hayden: ... becomes the biggest thing going on at your site. It's an index of how much your readers have invested in it. 

Ron Hogan is director of e-marketing strategy at the book publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and the curator of the literary website Beatrice. He can be reached at

Online Extra: More on Community

Scalzi: Community is a great and wonderful thing, but you don't own the community. The community often feels like it owns you. Not in the negative sense of "Now you must dance for us, monkey! Dance, dance!" But if you've opened up your house and invited people in, if you suddenly start closing doors, people will ask, "Why did you close that door? We were always able to go into that room before." What has changed? What does this mean for our community? Even if they aren't using those exact words that's always the tone and dynamic of the responses.

How do you find time to manage the community and still do the cool things that inspired it to spring up around your website in the first place?

Nielsen-Hayden: Online community is not a cost-free perpetual motion machine. You have to put into it.

Scalzi: You absolutely have to put in the work. It's often a contributing reason for why people close up blogs. You'll see people say that it's become too much work and they don't have the time, when what they're saying is they don't have the time to manage the community that is springing up around their work. I've been fortunate in that, since I don't have a day job, it doesn't take away too much from other things that I do to have some sort of management. [Because of the community's size], I would be nuts in one sense to stop doing Whatever, but there is a cost attached to that in making the commitment in time and energy that make it something that continues to be useful to me.

And it doesn't stop with the first community, does it?

Scalzi: This dynamic is going to be replicated again and again and again. Twitters are not blogs, they're not the same sort of community building, but you have people like Wil Wheaton or Neil Gaiman who have millions of followers, or people with hundreds of thousands of followers, and there is a community of Twitter followers around them. I have nearly 10,000 Twitter followers, not all of whom are contiguous with people who read my blog, and that's another community as well. The same large-scale dynamic is going on, even if it manifests itself in slightly different ways, and you still have some sort of management going on. These things will continue to happen any time that online communities have an opportunity to build.

Ron Hogan