Tales from Community: An Origin Story

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Tales from Community is a new, semi-regular series about my time working in online communities, both paid and unpaid. This first entry is, fittingly, about my first steps into online communities, before I ever imagined a professional future in this field, and some early lessons learned.

I created my first online community over a decade ago in collaboration with a friend. Neither of us knew what we were doing, but we wanted to create a place where the two of us, students from different countries, could share our mutual love for a certain band with others out there. So we started a Yahoo! group. I named it after a hit song, edited some images for our banner, and wrote regular updates for the front page and discussion board. It took off. Suddenly, we began to attract members, and when we had several hundred, we had the largest group on Yahoo! for this band at the time. It was a learning experience, not just in creation, promotion, and community maintenance, but attracting members, keeping them, and managing a community. Given that my co-creator was in the UK, and I was in New York, we also both got a few lessons in remote collaboration.

My next community experience was another collaborative effort. I co-founded a video game guild, a player organization that let us organize group play, in-game events, as well as events outside the game. Our pre-release events helped our members, who were spread around the United States and England, get to know one another before the game’s release. We held events like movie night, where we’d each play our DVDs of a certain movie at the same time (this was just before streaming was a real option) and share the experience over voice chat. I also wrote up daily news updates, using a news CMS. The group was my introduction to Content Management Systems, which I used on the admin side, alongside answering questions, processing member applications, and writing content for our site and group. It was for this group that I learned Photoshop, which I used to create banners and avatars for members.

In-game events included taking new members on a tour around the game maps, unlocking all of the new areas and fast-travel points. I had previously unlocked them myself, then created a spreadsheet with coordinates. It was just after the game’s release, so I created these tours as a membership perk. This was just before internet guides were very popular for online games, especially MMOs, and neither YouTube nor Twitch were around yet to provide video walkthroughs. I gathered data, saw how it could be useful to others within a limited window, then created a way to meet player community needs in a hands-on way, which also served as promo for our organization.

My favorite event that I created and organized, however, has to be a Crimes of Fashion show in The Matrix Online. That game had more clothing options than I think I’ve ever had in my couple of decades of life. And while the leather, long coats, catsuits, boots, and sunglasses present in The Matrix trilogy were also in the game, that game also had a standout number of awful choices. I was inspired to rally our server and throw a massive party in one of the game’s nightclubs that would also be a showcase of player creativity. Whoever could come up with to create the worst outfits possible could model them down the runway and possibly walk away a winner. It was a successful event. We awarded the winners in-game currency and prizes, and turnout showed that there was demand for a fun event of that nature.

These may have been times when I was playing, but the connections made were helpful. The excitement of promoting our groups and seeing those careful promotions result in new members, as well as throwing events, finding the right incentives, arranging for music, sometimes for developer presence, at times competitive, and other times, collaborative or intended for a large group to simply enjoy. Our guild also organized new player events every once in a while, where we’d collectively donate to a pool of starter items (consumables, gear) and in-game currency that we would award just to new characters under level 10 or so to get them started. All of this took place before the rise of social media, through forums, game channels, and friendly word of mouth, but our events thrived, though we also had misses that served as lessons. One in particular, following several successful tournaments we held, was my personal project – a tournament just for the game’s rogue classes. I organized and promoted the tournament, secured the prizes out of our guild pool, and wrote up the rules.

Then I proudly posted the sign-up thread in the game forum. To a few signups and questions, which I answered. Then criticism. And finally, crickets. It was our only event that never got off the ground. Canceling that event, one that I was excited for and disappointed at its outcome, reinforced the need to have the right event, the right message, to the right audience. The server had plenty of rogues, but the tournament organization and structure just didn’t seem to appeal to more than the handful who signed up, not even filling the minimum number we needed. The next event I conceived and planned? The Crimes of Fashion show and competition.

Sometimes you have to get up, dust yourself off, fine tune your plans, learn where the demand is, and get set to create something that connects with others. While my pet project wasn’t successful, I learned what it meant to bounce back with something that the community did embrace.

These early collaborative, promotional, and community-driven events went on to lay the foundation for my future working in online community, a field that continues to grow, change, and develop while never losing sight of the people, and connections between them and the things they love that make it so valuable. While my natural empathy, extroversion, love for connecting people, and openness are all traits that align with the field, as you can see, it all began with a series of learning experiences that I have built upon over time.