Every time a colleague tells me her museum has just hired a "community person," a part of me cringes. I whole-heartedly support the goals that motivate the hire--to connect with visitors online and onsite in more meaningful relationships--but I worry about focusing such a broad mandate into the tiny point of a single individual.
When community managers are the sole masters of their own dominions, two problems arise. First, their efforts are not fully integrated into the overall work and focus of other staff, which can lead to conflicts between institutional and community needs. And second, the communities they manage often become unhealthily centered on the managers' personalities and abilities, causing problems if those community managers ever choose to leave.
I've been this community manager and know these problems first-hand. When I was at The Tech Museum developing and leading the Tech Virtual community, I tried to involve a wide range of staff members in the online exhibit development community, so that we could spread out the interactions and relationships built between amateurs and experts. But The Tech's management decided that spending time in the online community space was a "waste of time" for staff whose role was not explicitly focused on that community, and the engineers and fabricators who had enthusiastically engaged early on were forbidden to continue. Left on my own, I put on my best cheerleader face and cultivated a couple volunteers to help manage a growing community of amateur exhibit designers. The project was a chaotic experiment in several ways, and because things kept changing, the community had to keep relying on me as their sole source of information about how things would move forward. We started to form unhealthy relationships in which I was the cheerleader, coach, and point person to all community members. While my energy and enthusiasm as a community leader held the group together, once I left at the end of my project, the community fell apart. While subsequent museum staff have kept the project going, the community had connected with me as the focal point, and there has not been a new person who has been able to comparably rally the community to high levels of activity.
I don't tell this story with pride; I tell it with shame. It was partially my fault that the Tech Virtual community did not thrive beyond my tenure. I was a good community manager, but the system we set up to perform that management and cultivate the community was ill-considered. It's a warning sign when community members make comments like, "it was only boundless encouragement from Avi (Nina's Second Life avatar) that prevented me from giving up more than once." This is a person who was one community manager away from leaving the group. It may be easiest to quickly rally a community around one dynamic or charismatic person, but that doesn't make for a healthy, sustaining project.
Why does this happen in the first place? There are two good reasons that organizations tend to focus community activities around a single individual: it consolidates resources spent on a particular strategy, and it simplifies the interaction for community members. Let's look at each of these briefly.
Institutions are accustomed to associating individual staff members with specific projects and associated resources. But community managers, like floor staff managers, are responsible for interacting with a vast and varied group of people who engage with the institution. In one way, they are like development officers who cultivate small, targeted sets of individuals via personal relationships. But they are more importantly the face and voice of the institution to everyone online, a floor staff army of one. This is a problem. If you only had one person who worked the floor of your museum, and he was incredibly charismatic and quirky, you'd appreciate that his personality puts a unique and specific stamp on the onsite experience, one that attracts some visitors and repels others. The same is true for online communities. The more voices there are in the mix, the more the community management team can effectively welcome community members of all kinds. The Science Buzz blog, which is managed by a team of exhibit developers, science writers, and floor staff at the Science Museum of Minnesota, is a good example of diversified community management that models the inclusion of a range of voices and opinions. The Buzz staff even argue with each other in blog comments, modeling a kind of healthy scientific debate that would be impossible for a single community manager to hold (unless she is schizophrenic, which is not a recommended solution to this problem).
But this leads to the concern that diffusing the community "voice" among multiple staff members can generate confusion and frustration for visitors. This is a valid concern, especially on social sites that are not tightly aggregated. On Buzz, for example, every author is part of the same overall blog, so it is not hard to conceptually manage the idea of multiple institutional authors. But on Twitter or Flickr or across multiple blogs, it can be very hard for visitors to understand who exactly they are connecting with. Many museums are attacking this problem by hosting a central "community" or "social" page on their websites (see COSI's or the Brooklyn Museum's) that aggregates all of the Web 2.0 activities managed by museum staff so that visitors can understand at a glance what is available and who directs it.
Many organizations focus on a single individual as the point person for community engagement for clarity. If you do this, make sure that this individual is devoted to the institutional mission and not their own empire-building. If your community is focused around one person, you must plan for succession and think about what will happen if that individual leaves. Even the most well-intentioned community managers may not be able to transfer their unique personality and style to new staff. Imagine the most popular person in a friend group moving away and anointing a new, unknown person to take her place in the social network--it's nearly impossible.
The best community managers are people who effectively manage networks, not celebrity. They help other staff members understand opportunities for connecting with communities of interest, and they provide support and training so that many individuals across the institution can work with their communities in ways that are sensitive to staff abilities and resources. One of the community managers I most admire is Beck Tench at the Museum of Life and Science. During her tenure as director of web experience, Beck has helped staff across the museum start their own projects on several social websites. With the horticulture team, she set up the Flickr Plant Project, in which the scientists upload a single image of a flower with some information per week and then encourage communities of flower-lovers to share their own photos, stories, and questions about the same plant. The animal keepers run their own blog about the crazy hijinks of their furry team. Online social engagement is also intelligently tied into the efforts of the membership, marketing, and exhibit design teams, without Beck having to be the face of each project to the intended audience. Beck even organizes weekly happy hours for staff to promote community internally. And while she tracks and supports all of these projects, Beck's not the queen of any of them from the visitor perspective.
The ideal community manager is more like a matchmaker than a ringmaster. He points visitors to the networks of greatest interest to them and helps staff connect with communities that they want to serve. She is energetic and passionate about serving the needs of the institution's community. It's fine to have a community manager who is the "go to" person, the face of all of the projects, as long as that person is ultimately pointing visitors to other venues for engagement. After all, you don't want everyone who visits your institution to have a relationship with just one person. You want visitors to connect with the stories, experiences, and staff that are most resonant to them. A good community manager can make that happen.