Building and Moderating an Online Community
We believe that artists need to be able to connect with one another to share information and resources, to collaborate with one another, and to inspire each other. It’s great to be able to connect with your local community, but physical proximity isn’t a possibility for some artists depending on geographical location, physical ability, or discipline. You might be the only harpist in your town, or unable to physically attend meetings or classes in your area.
After so many years of building relationships with artists and arts organizations all over the country as a fiscal sponsor, we are building an online community called the Creative Outpost to help the artists we know find and support one another. We are slowly and mindfully opening it up to more and more people, cultivating this new online space with as much intention as possible.
That means that we are thinking a great deal about how to build an online community that is safe, friendly, enjoyable, and useful to its members.
Associate Director of Community Sophia Park and Associate Director of Programs Colleen Hughes weigh in about their roles as moderators of the Creative Outpost, including how they foster a sense of community and what happens when the members of an online community build a space with a different vibe than the founders or moderators intended.
How do you define the work of a moderator?
Sophia: For me, moderators foster healthy experiences for members of a community. I think the key work of a moderator is to make sure people feel safe to share their stories, experiences, and knowledge with essentially strangers (when someone joins a community for the first time). This also includes helping create relationships that allow room for uncomfortable conversations and growth, if desired by the members of the community.
Colleen: I think moderators foster conversation, engagement, and safety. Their work can range from actively posting, encouraging others to do so, and researching exciting and interesting topics to share with the community to thoughtfully creating, enforcing, and evolving the community engagement guidelines. Ultimately it is the moderators’ work to enforce the spirit and goals of a community, while also being flexible and receptive to the members’ needs.
What are your responsibilities as moderators of the Creative Outpost? How do you think about keeping members safe in an online community?
Sophia: One responsibility I’m thinking about is active listening and showing compassion to your members as you share content, host events, and facilitate conversations. Listening carefully and being compassionate allows room for members to feel safe. Keeping this in mind, I think some of the responsibilities of a community moderator include providing a scaffolding for members to thrive (e.g. help bring in appropriate, exciting content); creating plans for how to keep members safe (e.g. community guidelines); and emphasizing what our values are so that we keep folks in check. This isn’t just for the Creative Outpost, these come from researching best practices for communities from various industries. It’s impossible to be perfect, but I like to keep these in mind.
Colleen: As Sophia mentioned, listening to the members is a large part of keeping community members safe. I also think being flexible is a big part of it as well. Before an online community is launched, the creators and moderators have a vision of their goals for the community and what those goals will look like in practice. However, once folks are invited and actively engaging, things can change and evolve. I think it is the moderator’s responsibility to see what the community members need and change their goals to meet those needs.
How do you encourage participation and a sense of community?
Sophia: I’m definitely working on this still, as I’m not a naturally outgoing person, but I try my best to personally reach out when I think I can help out a member of the community. If someone reaches out to me outside of our Mighty Networks platform, I try to be patient and still reply and perhaps redirect them back. I also think it’s not necessarily all of the moderators who encourage participation and this sense of community. In fact, I think when new members join and they see other members are chatting that’s the biggest push for folks to start talking.
Colleen: I try to lead by example. I try to like or comment on posts as much as I can, although I tend to offer questions back to encourage further conversation or tag other community members who I think might have insight. However, there’s a delicate balance here that I’m still working on, because I don’t want the online community to become simply another customer service support line for our members.
As the community grows, how do you help new members feel like they’re a part of it instead of like party crashers or onlookers?
Sophia: Related to the previous question, I think it’s about giving attention to everyone so that they feel like they belong. I also think for something like the Creative Outpost, because everyone is already a practicing artist and/or arts professional, there’s already this sense of “Oh, we have similar experiences” that allow new members to just be able to hop right in.
Colleen: I think encouraging introductions and interacting with those introductions is a big part of welcoming new people. I know it can be intimidating to post for the first time, but we ask folks to introduce themselves asap, and I think this helps break the ice and encourage folks to hit the ground running.
How do you think about cultivating a community vibe versus letting one naturally emerge? What happens if or when the members start building something different from what you have in mind?
Sophia: I think the best communities have some sprinkling of cultivation by community moderators and the natural push that members create. Especially as communities scale, I think it’s inevitable that the tides will turn in terms of who is directing the general vibe of the community and that’s great! I see us as truly hosts, just folks making space for the artistic community to find each other online.
Colleen: As I mentioned above, I think coming in with strong goals and vision, but holding them lightly, is a big part of our roles as moderators. Inevitably once community members are involved, the community will change and evolve, which is exciting! And I think a successful moderator will rise to those changes.
What challenges do you face as a moderator of an online community? How do you address them?
Sophia: One surprising challenge has been building an online community with folks who don’t have a great working knowledge of the internet and/or how social media platforms function. It’s a challenge I’m not sure how to address at the moment other than being a good example myself and building emails and knowledge bases that could help. This speaks to a larger obstacle, which is that everyone in an online community comes from different backgrounds and places. So the question is, how do you navigate this?
Colleen: Similarly to Sophia, I think one of the biggest challenges has been that folks interact with and interpret the internet in such different ways, and I’m not totally sure how to merge those experiences or if they even should be merged. These differences generally stem from folks’ different identities - age, disability, racial identity, gender, etc. - how do we honor these identities while trying to create a productive and cohesive experience for all the community members?
How does the work of a moderator change as a community grows?
Sophia: For the Creative Outpost, we’re still in the beginning stages of growing the community so we’ll see how the role of a moderator changes for this specific community. The biggest thing I can think of now, which I keep repeating, is that moderators continue to listen to the community members. This can take the form of gathering data and reviewing analytics with a team and/or having a bird’s eye view of what is going on in the community.
Colleen: My hope is that our roles as moderators will change from instigators to supporters. Right now as moderators for the Creative Outpost we are very active in posting and commenting, but as the community grows, my hope is that we will take a bit more of a backseat and engage more as supporters and cheerleaders, and of course ensuring that our community guidelines are honored to ensure the safety of the space.
What advice do you have for other folks interested in starting online communities?
Sophia: I feel like I’m still such a newbie to online communities, I would actually amplify the work of David Spinks, if people are interested in starting online communities. He’s been building online communities for a long time at the intersection of businesses, meaning he’s been growing online communities in an effort to bring the attention in businesses from the product that’s being sold to the people who are buying and becoming fans of said product. He has lots of resources that he gives out via his Twitter account, and definitely learned a lot from that. Also, I recommend that you join online communities that interest you before you get into it! That’s the best way to learn.
Colleen: Prepare as best you can, create all the plans, put together all the guidelines and game plans, and then be ready to throw it all out the window. The goal of an online community is to serve the community, so if they are asking for something that you hadn’t originally planned or thought of, try to meet them where they’re at!
Learn more about why we are building an online community for artists, and let us know if you’re interested in joining the Creative Outpost as we grow!
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.