For more than a decade, I’ve had the good fortune to manage a diverse collection of communities which gave me unique experience as a community manager. I started my community consultancy, Civitas, so that I could maximize the impact of my expertise. My clients see immediate improvements in their communities after bringing me on. Not only that, I obsessively document and share my findings so that other people can succeed when interacting with the community.

1. Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange

I was a Community Product Manager for six and a half years. I directly oversaw two dozen communities and served as a liaison with product development teams.

Community goals

Stack Overflow was founded so that programmers could get answers to technical questions. It was built with the input of the developer community and expanded beyond programming to 180 Stack Exchange communities addressing questions about virtually every form of human knowledge.

Biggest achievements

An achievement that comes to mind is designing a badge for asking questions. This seems easy enough: if someone asks X questions, give them the badge. Stack Overflow gets thousands of questions a day and the community of answerers didn’t want people to ask more questions just to earn a badge. So I looked more closely at the underlying problem we were trying to solve.

What the company was looking for was more ways for users to engage with the community. Asking questions was viewed internally as an easy way for new users to get involved. A closer look revealed that questions could be a negative experience for new users who didn’t understand the culture of Stack Overflow. Instead of optimizing for question volume, I investigated ways to make asking questions a better experience.

So while I did create a series of badges for asking questions, I also:

It’s sometimes easy to conflate implementing a potential solution with actually solving a problem. The simple idea (add a badge for asking questions) would have been counterproductive in this case.

Biggest challenge

Stack Overflow is the world’s largest Q&A site with 24 million users. Some of the Stack Exchange sites I managed had fewer than a thousand users. Our software and most of the community rules we used applied to all of our sites: small and gigantic. We were able to do this by empowering members of each community to apply the concepts and principles of the network in a way that worked for the people on their site.

For instance we had a Puzzling site that dedicated itself to riddles, logic puzzles and mathematical games. I worked with the founding members to adjust the software to facilitate the community they were creating. The normal ways of doing things on a Q&A site don’t necessarily work for a site for puzzles so I guided them to find their own way of using the software. Recently they celebrated their 10th Anniversary, so it seems to have worked out.

Biggest missed opportunity

I was on the product team that built a product called Stack Overflow Documentation. It was designed to produce crowd-sourced documentation for programming languages and frameworks using many of the principles that made Stack Overflow Q&A successful. My announcement about the end of the project goes into detail about why it wasn’t continued. Ultimately the company’s short-term needs prevented it from taking on a long-term project.

2. College Confidential

I was Head of Communityfor 2 and a half years. I was responsible for everything that happened in the community. I managed another community manager (who replaced me in November) and worked closely with technical staff, the director of sales, the director of content and the director of marketing.

Community goals

Since 2001 College Confidential has helped college-bound students and their parents manage the complicated process of applying to college.

Biggest achievements

Given two decades of existence, College Confidential had fallen into a number of traps common to mature internet communities. It had gained a reputation as a toxic place for students. For instance, the prevailing wisdom was that regulars on the site would ridicule students for applying to schools they had no chance of getting into. Some of this reputation was earned, some of it was exaggerated and some was based on misunderstandings. In any case, it had an adverse effect on the site because students were warned against visiting our community.

I was able to turn this reputation around. For my full analysis, see my case study about College Confidential. In summary, I made several intentional changes which worked together to give new users a better experience and highlight the altruism of our members. As a result, the site’s reputation experienced a dramatic reversal and traffic during the most recent admissions cycle increased for the first time in several years.

Biggest challenge

Ownership changes meant the business model was constantly in flux while I was at College Confidential. Originally it was owned by a non-profit which sold it to a startup. Then the startup was bought by a private student loan lender. Each owner came with their own priorities that I needed to communicate to members of the community.

In the sense of helping these owners accomplish their goals, I can’t say I was particularly successful. The best I could do was stay flexible and respond to changes in a way that balanced the health of the community with the imperative to represent the current owner. Business leaders tend to underestimate the time needed to pivot a community.

From the perspective of preserving the community, I was successful by maintaining open and honest lines of communication with members. There’s a natural reluctance to change, especially in response to outside forces. I was able to communicate changes in a way that inspired confidence that the community’s concerns were a priority and would continue to be addressed.

Biggest missed opportunity

I started planning for a subscription/premium membership feature which would add a reliable revenue stream while giving community members a way to demonstrate their affiliation with the community. We also had plans for offering premium features such as reduced ads, early/exclusive access to events and a private space for subscribers.

Like many productive initiatives, I believe it would have solved several problems at once. College Confidential’s traffic is highly cyclical: starting in November when students get serious about their applications and ending in March when they learn which schools have accepted them. For new users (generally students and their parents), a small investment in a year-long subscription would be an incentive to visit the community after admission decisions are released in March. This is especially important for the current owner, since student loan applications spike over the summer.

3. Biblical Hermeneutics

I was a founding member and volunteer moderator. I took on the role of building the community in my spare time.

  • A year and a half as a founding member
  • 6 and a half as a community manager.

Community goals

The company’s goal for Stack Exchange communities was to extend the Stack Overflow Q&A model to other fields of knowledge.

My goal was to have a place where I could answer questions about the Bible since I’d spent so much of my life studying it as a hobby. I also wanted to learn from other people in other faith traditions about their interpretations of the texts.

Biggest achievements

As a founding member, I worked on ways to grow the community from a handful of people interested in the topic. That involved missteps and wasted effort since I was learning how to be a community manager. (Not that I knew it at the time.) I didn’t just want to increase the membership, but also build a site that had an academic interest in the texts of the Bible. It has become a thriving community that still follows the principles I laid out in the beginning.

Biggest challenge

After a few years it became clear that Christian answers tended to dominate the site. Our Jewish members became uncomfortable with that situation. In essence they didn’t want to contribute to a site that might be seen as promoting a religion. As I worked with the community on the issue, it became clear there were irreconcilable differences and some valuable members (Jewish and Christian) quit the site.

In the end, I think we could not have avoided the conflict. While I didn’t actually find a solution that worked for everyone, we did arrive at a conclusion that allowed the site to continue without giving up the primary goal of hosting academic answers. The network hosts sites for discussing Judaism and Christianity, so users whose goals lined up with those topics had a place to go as well.

Missed opportunity

The Stack Exchange software includes many tools for managing questions. Answers, on the other hand, largely get evaluated by user voting. For a site that aims for pluralism, this can be a problem. Inevitably one viewpoint dominates over the others. This is a social problem that I believe can be mitigated with better tooling. I would have liked to develop answer labels that could be used for sorting and filtering. On the Biblical Hermeneutics site, that would allow people to view Jewish or Christian answers, if appropriately labeled.

Answer labels would have helped with a problem common on technical sites: answers are overtaken by software updates. People who are using previous versions do benefit from older answers, but most people would want to look at answers specific to the latest version of the software. Labels would allow answers to be categorized according to the versions they apply to.