Accidentally, intentionally building communities.
I didn’t plan for it to happen and I certainly didn’t expect it to happen. This is my story of how I accidentally, intentionally built a community that has been running for 4 years.
The community I now call Fenders started out of a very simple need — to talk to other people to share ideas and knowledge. I had no one to share or talk to, no one to discuss new techniques or ideas, I was relying heavily on CSSTricks.
I didn’t have any networks or connections in the industry, I had no friends to promote my event at theirs, no pre-existing database, or even anyone to ask for help or advice. I didn’t know about other groups, because I didn’t know anyone else in the industry.
Fenders started with 1 person, myself, and I’d never done anything like it before.
My expectation of Fenders was that a handful of people would turn up and we’d talk about making CSS buttons. The first event came and much more than five people were there, I was a bit overwhelmed. It became apparent to me very quickly that running a Meetup was going to take a lot more work than I anticipated; but I pushed on.
A common phrase I hear from people now is how great it is that “Fenders just grew organically” or “the community just came together”. This is meant as a compliment, but I want people to understand, it did not just grow organically, it didn’t just come together. Fenders didn’t happen by just turning up and hoping for the best. It took a lot of energy, time and money from my own pocket.
Running a community isn’t just about turning up and talking to people, the general organisation aside, it’s about keeping across the community vibe and making sure that it’s not being disrupted. It’s about ensuring that people are being kind to each other. People come and go over time, new dynamics form and technology changes. As people become more prominent in the community there are shifts and changes in the way the community feels person to person.
Over the years I’ve managed a lot of changes to the group from dealing with inappropriate behaviour, fielding complaints about other peoples opinions about technology, gender, race, politics. I’ve had to educate people about how to communicate properly online and in person at professional events. I’ve stepped in and redirected conversations that have started to get out of hand. I’ve had to correct people on their choice of language, on how they talk about other people or technologies.
I’ve been intentional about bringing women to the events because in the early days it was often just me and a bunch of men. I’ve made effort to have women speak, to offer opportunities, to promote people and raise them up and give people a chance to shine.
I constantly keep an eye out for potential situations and I try and prevent them before they happen. In hindsight I’m unsure if this is a good or a bad thing, have I asserted too much control over the group and not allowed people to make their own mistakes? Or have I done the right thing? I’m not really sure. I still don’t really know.
The point here is that communities do not just grow organically, at least not in my experience. Whether I intended to at the start or not, I did have an idea of what I wanted Fenders to be. I had a goal for how I thought we should operate and I directed the community that way from the start. I shut down behaviour that didn’t fit that mould and I took people’s complaints on board and tried to deal with them the best I could.
Unfortunately over time this has gotten harder and harder. On discussing this with an ex-colleague he said “all groups have a honeymoon period”. This sentiment resonated with me. In the early days of Fenders people were really supportive, and everything was amazing and frankly, it was easy in comparison to now. The longer it has existed the harder it has become. Expectations increase or change, people become complacent about their behaviour, new people join the group who do not follow your Code of Conduct and people expect to be able to act however they do in their other communities or networks.
There is a constant need for education and direction.
Communities all have their ups and downs, people will come and go. But as long as the community exists you have to be true to your mission and actively keep working towards it.
Our communities, our slack groups, our networks are what we make of them, they are what we allow them to be. When we tolerate bad behaviour, we enable it. Communities change with us, and with the people that are a part of it and the longer it exists the harder it becomes.
A community may have started out accidentally, but whether you intended it to be popular or not doesn’t matter. It is your responsibility to do what you can to make sure it is a good place for people to be. You have to stop being accidental and start being intentional.
Aside: The name Fenders came about because Meetup asked “what should we be called” having no pre-existing network I had never heard the name “FED”, so I just use the cost type code my agency at the time used for representing front end, which was FEND. I added the “ers” because it was referring to lots of people, thus, Fenders.
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