The Internet is really only fulfilling when you’re a part of a community. Admit it: one of the main draws of the blogosphere is waiting for your readers to comment, to squeal at your hero’s bravado or to laugh at your jokes. The attraction is there for all of us, really – at Novelr I enjoy nothing more than going through a storm of particularly furious commenting, reading arguments and evaluating alternate viewpoints, sometimes even laughing at the occasional lolcat. There is joy in communication and love in community. We all crave it. Hell, we all want it in our blooks.
So how do you go about creating community? Much has been said in Novelr about the whys of community, but little has been said about the hows. This post is my attempt to rectify this lack: it contains all the observations I have made and some of the things I have done to create communities (at Novelr and elsewhere) over the past three years.
Finding A Suitable Metric
The metrics usually thrown about when we talk about blogs are comments, RSS subscribers and visitors. The truth is that community cannot be measured by any one of these metrics alone. Subscriber count and visitors may indicate the number of long term readers, but if they don’t speak up then they’re merely observers in the community of your blook. Comments, perhaps, are a better indicator of community, but we have to remember that 100 ‘tat was amzng lol!’ comments does not mean you’ve got a great crowd on your hands (maybe an unintelligent one, but that’s a different story).
I measure community with two interlinked gauges. The first is the interaction between readers. When your readers argue, joke (even flame) each other they ensure that your blook/blog isn’t about you anymore – it’s about them. But we have to remember that reader-reader interaction is an inconsistent metric – there will be months where the discussions and arguments will be plentiful, and there will be months when nobody’s posting. This is normal, though entirely unhelpful – if you think community equals activity then you’re going to get one hell of a headache trying to cultivate a constantly high level of it.
The second gauge is interlinked with the first, and can be summarized with a few simple questions: do your readers talk about your site and the community of people around it? If so, what do they say? And how often do they do it? These questions touch on the intangible quality of ‘we’ness – the integral core of any group.
One thing you’d notice is that this second gauge can be found in all strong communities. Matthew Haughey, creator of the Metafilter community blog, points out that people will start talking about the site and the community sooner or later if it’s good enough, so he provides a place to do so on his sites. Conversely, if they stop commenting on the state of the site (or if they stop cracking inside jokes) then your community has more or less disbanded. Not died, certainly, but it has lost its soul.
I consider a site successful in community the instant people start talking to each other, and about each other (us). Now I’m not going to mislead you: getting there is hard, but not impossible; maintaining it once you’ve got it is satisfying, but hard in a completely different way.
Let’s start with the basics. First, enable comments. (No I’m not kidding). I’ve met several people who believe comments to be a poor medium for opinion making – they’d rather have their articles and stories linked back with a comprehensive, well written article.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that having responsive articles may be the ideal – it means people are taking the time to write about your work, for one – but preventing your readers from interacting with you is a great disservice to your site. It also prevents community creation, because there is no such thing as a community through email or personal message – you must have some form of medium through which readers can communicate with you, and see that others are communicating as well.
Okay, I just had to get that out of the way. On to main meat of this article:
1. Talk to them. In your posts. This is a lot simpler for blogs than it is for blooks, because blooks are really all story installments. First off, they can be fit in: I like how Jim Zoetewey puts up italicized author’s notes before his chapters in The Legion Of Nothing, and how Alexandra Erin puts up occasional non-story posts, talking about specific themes and scenes in Tales Of MU. But the truth here is that short sections don’t work well in creating community. Readers learn about you when you talk to them, in much the same way that they learn about your characters as you write about them in your fiction. Talking to your readers is the single most important thing you can do in your blook, but how exactly you can do that I’ll return to in a short bit.
2. Be honest. This sounds weird, but I’m putting this fairly high up in the list because it’s that important. Honesty isn’t some vague concept preachers talk about in pulpits. On the Internet transparency is one of the key things you’ll need to create and maintain a community – it’s the glue that keeps things together. That you will face drama on the Internet is an ugly truth. Because community is about relationships, and relationships are built on trust, it helps when you’re transparent in all your dealings with your readers – treat them fairly, and treat them like you know them personally, even if they’re being an ass. Things will be a lot easier for you.
3. Reply to your comments. As in, almost all of them. I know that comments may be very flattering things (I’ve got 25 per post! I’m famous!), but the point of community is creating worthwhile relationships between reader and writer. And you can’t really do that if you collect comments as trophies. One of the first things I learnt when I started blogging was that readers value replies. They feel treasured if a blogger appears in their own commenting section, sleeves up, hands muddied and hair tousled, engaging in that droll task of Interacting with The Reader. They feel welcomed. Feeling welcome is a wonderful thing in my book.
4. Initiate conversation about the community. Don’t wait for people to start talking about each other – take the first step and refer to them as a group. At Novelr I frequently encourage discussion regarding the state of the blooking community, and I believe this to be one of the main reasons why Novelr has become an unintentional rally point for many blook writers. Start talking about you and your readers as a unit, and they’ll start to see it as one.
5. Moderate disputes. All good blogs need good enemies. The trick is to make sure people make up afterwards. You can’t avoid drama on the Internet, but you can create an ethos of civility: stop issues in your commenting section before they get out of hand, or at least maintain a heavy presence throughout the spat. Display maturity and good judgment, and your community will do the same – I’ve talked about how comments mimic the style and mood of the blog, and this applies here more than it does anywhere else.
The Blooking Context
Earlier I said that talking to your readers is the single most important thing you can do to create community in your blook. And I admit it’s a lot harder to create community on blooks, simply because most readers really have nothing to comment about other than the story (and the chapters in web fiction are often too short to be of any discussive value – Joe beats up the bad guy … so what?). But is it possible? Certainly. There’s a huge community around Tales of MU, for instance, and it’s sprung up around two cores.
The first core is Erin’s personal blog. This is where most of the community creation is done – readers pass from MU to her blog, read a few entries, and then subscribe to both. You’d realize that the community is more apparent in her personal blog than it is on the actual story pages – but also that they exist in both. The second core is her forum. It’s a lot harder to maintain a forum than it is to maintain a blog, but the returns (community wise) are far greater. Again, notice that the community creation is powered by a blog – her personal one – which then helps to funnel readers into the forum.
The lure of Alexandra Erin’s personal blog can be easily explained if we draw upon what we know of the living web. Mark Bernstein writes:
Undressing, literally, figuratively, or emotionally, has always been a powerful force in personal sites and web logs. Pictures don’t matter in the long run; what matters is the trajectory of your relationship with the reader, the gradual growth of intimacy and knowledge between you.
Community is about relationships. When readers care about what you’re creating (or about you) they hang around more often. Erin’s personal blog deals with the day-to-day struggles she faces writing MU – something her readers already love – and it is this that makes them hang around and interact with her as well as each other. She is but another character on the web, apart from the ones she creates in her fiction, and the readers care. They watch her grow. They stick around.
If you want community, write more than just fiction on your blook. Keep a behind-the-scenes blog, if you will, to document your process. It’ll be a lot easier to talk to your readers like that rather than to attempt community creation through the commenting section of your story.
Final thoughts? Let your readers in. Show them that you’re human, that you’re like any other character in your fiction, and that they should care. Talk them, argue with them, make them laugh. Show them the other side of your story – the side where it’s still malleable junk in your head. Tell them the story of how you cat peed on your last draft, or how you dog chewed your masterplan. Ask them questions and respond to their replies. But above all let them in. Community is never too far behind when you do.