What Can Internet Communities Do For You?

An internet community begins quietly, in a group hosted by Yahoo or Google, in the comments of a blog, or in a single thread of a multi-thread board. Such simple beginnings can blossom into lifelong bonds between posters.

“It’s a pretty heady feeling to know that what one started as a newsletter to give a little bit back to Nora has evolved into a community of readers who have become great friends,” says  Sue Noyes, the webmaster for Nora Roberts’ ADWOFF website, which began in 1997 as a print newsletter and is going strong today.

Internet communities, however, have serious drawbacks. They are time sinks. There can be emotional drama that saps mental energy. And, a more insidious problem, a community can become so comfortable that active members forget about the silent lurkers and say something that wildly inappropriate in front of an audience of hundreds or even thousands of people.

Making a community work for you is well worth the effort, it can provide much needed human interaction for the often solitary life of a writer.

But finding the right community is key, whether you join one or create one yourself.

“Their strength is that people cluster around an idea or a belief, so they find soul mates on that issue,” said New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Crusie, author of Bet Me and, most recently, Wild Ride with Bob Mayer. “And of course writer communities are especially supportive–the well-moderated ones are–because everybody understands how hard it is, which very few non-writers do.”

The quickest way to find a community is to join an already active one. It can be about anything that you’re passionate about: reading, history, knitting, woodworking, comic books, etc.

If you desire a writing community, look for those that discuss the aspects of writing that interest you the most. Some communities focus on craft, others on writing life, some are for published writers, others for those looking to be published. Draw up a list of what you want from a community before you join and lurk to get to know the place better before jumping in.

Do not join for the express purpose of selling your books.

Repeat: do not join a community for the express purpose of selling your books. There are promotional places for that, and those are fine. But you’re looking for a place to call home, not an office. In the end, your book doesn’t sell your book. You sell your book. If you become a respected member of a community, people will be interested in your books as a result. But not if you join for the purpose of exploiting them.

If instead, you want to create a community, that will require effort and a good dose of luck. The reward, as Sue Noyes said, is seeing your creation grow into something wonderful. Be aware, however, that the owner of a community can only control it so far. Be especially aware of this if you’re a writer creating a community centered around your books.

Having been a moderator for four different on-line communities over the past six years, I’ve noticed some patterns repeat themselves. These elements crop up in every one: communities take on the personality of the most frequent posters, they need cultivating, and they will change. If you’re aware of these up front, it heads off problems once the community starts growing.

If the owner of a new community is a writer, the community will take on the writer’s personality and posting style. The writer’s books will attract readers who love his or her work and the writer’s posts in the community will cement that.

The community I’ve moderated the longest is the Cherries, which started with the JenniferCrusieFans group on Yahoo. Though it was founded by a reader, Ms. Crusie has been an active participant from the beginning. The Cherries are an eclectic group with diverse interests that reflects Ms. Crusie’s own varied interests.

In the beginning, her posts ranged from analyzing classic books and television shows, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to the creative process, writing craft, music, and anything else that happened to catch her attention. And she attracted readers interested in the same things, with similar senses of humor as well.

Communities can also happen when you’re not trying to consciously create them. Sarah Wendell, the co-owner of “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” said she did not begin the blog knowing that a community would result.

“Honestly, we did not start SBTB with an expectation of conduct in mind, or even an expectation of readership. Candy and I didn’t know if anyone would read-we were sort of befuddled when our site caught attention and people kept coming back. We honestly had no idea there were that many readers of romance who were smart, funny, erudite and tired of taking shit for their love of the game.”

Just like with JCF, the posters at SBTB took on the personality of the owner, in this case the snarky tone of Sarah and Candy’s blog entries.

Communities don’t survive if no one is involved in them. That seems simplistic but people don’t always talk amongst themselves unless prodded. There has to be a spark. Many times, this is due to luck-the right poster comes along at the right time. Other times, it’s the founder themselves, especially if they are a best-selling writer, like Jennifer Crusie or Nora Roberts.

Because of Ms. Crusie’s frequent posts on JCF, many other posters were moved to respond and soon the list was averaging over a thousand posts a month. She cultivated the list and it became a garden. Or, in this case, a cherry orchard.

Sue Noyes agreed. “The biggest strength (of ADWOFF) is probably two-fold–Nora’s participation–without it, we’d be just another community online, and our willingness to allow members to explore just about any topic under the sun and connect with one another. We been doing this for more than 10 years now. So we have the Nora connection, and because of the trust in Nora, in Nora putting her stamp on ADWOFF (so to speak), we have women (and, again, some men) from all over the world connecting with one another–becoming great friends, sharing in each other’s lives, meeting each other in real life, etc.”

The Smart Bitches tend their community with frequent blog entries. Sarah said, “I think consistency is key, and that goes for both the tone of the articles and the tenor of the responses from visitors.”

A single writer’s books will only generate discussion so far. After a while, the community will say everything that’s been said about the books and want to move onto other subjects, as the members of ADWOFF have.

Depending on comfort level, a community owner can add discussions on pop culture (books/TV/movies), allow posters to get personal, or add subjects outside of writing, anything from knitting to history to current events to comic books.

Once the community is talking, it builds itself. Posts will get more personal. Inside jokes will start. The very name ‘cherries’ came about because of an inside joke about how the cover of “Welcome to Temptation” was changed from a cherry on the hardcover to an apple on the paperback. This became a joke about ‘losing your cherry’ and the community jumped on it and dubbed themselves ‘cherries.’

The downside of this bonding is that the community can grow like a wild fire and get out of control. Which brings me to my last point: communities will change and grow.

For example, Ms. Crusie also loves to teach. She especially loves to teach writing and that meant the writing process was frequently discussed, to the point where it overwhelmed non-writers. Noticing the problem, Ms. Crusie moved the writer discussions to a separate Yahoo group and, later, to the Cherry Forums.

That move of the writers to another loop changed the JCF community, as new readers became more active posters. It wasn’t good or bad but it was different.

If you do not plan for change, the community can die a violent death that reflects badly on the writer’s reputation.

Communities don’t stay the same because membership changes. Not all the same posters will stay involved to the same extent they originally did. New posters will invigorate the group but they can also make original posters long for the “good old days.” The trick is tending the community as before, making sure old member concerns are addressed without making the new members feel like fifth wheels.

Many communities will need strong moderators to handle change, especially as more members join. They can control insulting posters or to clamp down on disagreements before they turn into flame wars.

Moderators need specific rules to enforce. If you have moderators, guidelines for community behavior are also needed. Different groups need different guidelines. Those are going to depend on the goals of the owner and the moderators. Keep in mind that if you own the community or even actively participate,  people are going to judge you partially on how that community is run. Moderators don’t have to be nasty to be effective. Humor is a great tool and diffuses hard feelings.

Ms. Crusie highly recommends moderators. “I’ve seen too many communities on the web turn into shrieking morasses because there’s no strong leadership, nobody to stop  the people who are on power trips or who want to intimidate others into agreement.” She said the success of the different Cherry communities is due to the “outstanding” moderation the lists and the forums get. I also think it’s due to the fact that not one single person is in charge of the moderators. We act as a group and this prevents us from making mistakes when we’re annoyed or frustrated.

Sarah Wendell at SBTB said, “I do read every comment and I do close entries that have become too long, too fractious and too difficult to follow, particularly if they attract trolls.”

Sue Noyes said, “Yes, we do have moderators. Several were friends I made when I started ADWOFF way back in 1997. The majority I brought on board as moderators because I either met them and became friends with them–and I liked how they interacted with the community, or they were active members who were always helping out, so I gave them the “official” mod hat.

How do you know if your community needs moderators? If flame wars become a problem, if discussions tend to the political and religious, or you have a problem with spammers, or even if you want to keep discussion lively, then you need moderators.

Moderators can be reactive-cleaning up after problems by steering discussions in other directions and, on rare occasions, having to clamp down on or turf out some posters.

Moderators can also be pro-active, tending the community by keeping discussion lively and gently steering discussion away from problem areas. They can also step in when the owner of the group needs to have their attention elsewhere, either due to deadlines or family obligations. This goes back to tending the community.

One thing most moderators don’t do is pre-approve posters. The Smart Bitches don’t see blog comments before they post or edit them after they’re posted. The Cherry Forums require a registration but no comments are pre-approved. JCF requires approval of the first post of a new member to keep out spammers, but after that posts go through automatically.

The communities with moderated comments tend to be ones determined to stay strictly on-topic or ones dealing with volatile subjects.

If you want moderators for your community, how do you find them? Easy. The same way that Sue Noyes did.

Make a list of five to ten posters who are *already*  leading discussions and watching out for the community as a whole. They’re going to be the ones who have a natural knack from steering discussion away from a touchy subject, who keep track of what community members are doing, and who make sure everyone feels involved and wanted.

These posters are your moderators.

Remember, change can be good for your community. Make sure your moderators know that. New members can re-invigorate it by bringing new perspectives and insights or just by being fun. Sometimes when a community dies a quiet, natural death, smaller subgroups split off and form new communities that are equally supportive. The private writing/critique group that branched off from JCF is still growing strong, despite several membership turnovers.

If the community is tied to a certain series of books, change usually happens when the newest book is released.

If you are a writer with a community and you’re attempting something new with your writing, keep your community aware of it. Make them feel part of the process. Don’t let the new direction be a shock to them. Be open and honest about why you’ve chosen that direction.

If some of the community doesn’t like the new book, let them talk about it unless it becomes personally insulting. The end result will be that while the members might not like the new book, they will still like the community and they will still be supportive of your writing.

If the author chooses not to address the change in their newest books or in their writing style, the community can completely melt down into bitter factions. I know of at least two that went down in flames like this, though neither of them were romance-based communities. It was not pretty.

Overall, becoming a member of a strong community can become toxic but the benefits, if a community is properly tended, outweigh the drawbacks.

I’ve found my best writing friends through internet communities, especially the Cherries. And I met one of my first e-friends through a community for a book series I no longer read.

Although that group eventually faded, we kept in touch off-list on a regular basis. She would sent me postcards from her travels around the world. I would pick out just the right stationary to write back to her. She would continually send me publishing updates for my submissions file. For my birthday one year, she sent me a pin that said “Write Hard, Die Free.”

She passed away earlier this year, at the age of 52. Yet even in her passing, she left me a present: the internet community centered on her Livejournal. In the last few months, I’ve connected with all her friends, who’ve helped me cope with grief and have now become my friends.

Obviously, like any relationship, internet communities are not without risk, especially for writers wary of their on-line reputation. But I have found that they are well worth the effort.