(This is the second part of a piece on managing long blog projects. The first part is here.)
Popular’s main strength – and I’m very proud of this indeed – are its regular 50-post comment threads that are lucid, civil, wide-ranging, full of healthy disagreement, and add amazing richness to the topic. I hope I don’t come across as arrogant here but this kind of comment box culture is really hard to get. I know of very few blogs (let alone music blogs) which have comment threads as sustained and high-quality as the ones on here.
Obviously, this isn’t all – or even mostly – down to me: a lot of the time I barely comment on a thread once it’s started. The blog has been lucky enough to attract a wonderful mix of commenters over the last six years and I am enormously grateful to them all. Bear that in mind when you read this!
Tap your existing networks: You are probably already having good conversations in various places online – they should be where you go for readers first. Of course it’s not a good idea to make your project simply cliquey but making sure people know about it who already know one another might help you get the initial conversation firing.
Lots of ways to join in: One of the big concepts in web communities is the idea of ‘participation inequality’ – you’re designing for lurkers as much as regular users, and ideally you want to give everyone something to do. This is part of what the mark out of 10 in Popular does. Disagreeing with the mark and saying what you’d have given is a good, easy startpoint for a comment (and useful fallback if you can’t think of anything to say on an entry!). It lets people contribute in a lower key way as well as dig into their own reactions or reply to others.
Don’t gobble the Easter Eggs: There will probably be stuff you could have included in your project which you didn’t originally think of. In the case of Popular, for instance, there are cover versions to discuss, TV appearances to think about, NME singles reviews to consider. Thing is, I don’t deal with any of these. All of them are handled by regular commenters – who started including them in comment threads off their own bat – and they make the blog a lot richer. Remember that your content is – to use a bit of social media speak – the platform. Keep your own stuff simple and there’s more room for people to be creative around it.
Don’t be definitive: As a critic there’s a temptation to aim for definitive – deliver the final word on a particular record. But the existence of a comments thread implies – as if we didn’t know already! – that no word should be final. So from my perspective it’s important for a review to have a good, interesting angle, but not necessarily any more than that – I almost always leave two or three points out of the original write-up if I know someone down the thread will pick up on them. Of course you should write however you’re comfortable with – but every minor point you fit in is one comment less for the thread.
Encourage anticipation: One of the attractions for me of doing Popular was that by going at it chronologically it would leave me no choice over what to write about. Some big blog projects take another route, with the blogger choosing from the bag of available topics as they want. This gives them more freedom but to some extent it takes away the readers’ ability to specifically anticipate and think about particular discussions. On the other hand, the element of surprise is also a really good way of keeping people coming back to the project, so this advice is simply ‘what worked for me’.
I think what all this boils down to is: if you’re running a blog project around a fixed topic, and you want a community to spring up around the blog, you have to remember that the community is springing up around the topic, not just around you. But as I say, there are lots of reasons to do something like this, and community-building isn’t always one of them.
This stuff is what I feel is specific to a blogging project. All the other standard bits of community management wisdom apply too – encourage new posters, try and be clear about your moderation standards, set the tone you want the conversation to have, and so on. I have not always been great at those but we’ve muddled through.
So that’s what I’ve learned via the first half of Popular. Deep thanks once again to everyone who’s been part of it so far!