I love automatic trackbacks. I’m always interested in seeing what people are saying… or not saying. One example of the latter, my little reference-laden post about certain parties and their piss poor timing? That little post is one of the most heavily hit features on this entire blog. And yet? Almost no one is discussing it. They’re just passing the link to their friends, in emails or IMs or other means not trackable, saying “READ THIS.” And yet I’ve got almost no email on it, or any crankiness in the comments. I don’t preapprove my comments, and have deleted three comments in the history of this blog, so it’s not like I’m editing out the hate or anything. I have theories about the reasons for this strange aberration, but no evidence.
But as usual, I digress. I followed one of the trackbacks (in the Quid Pro Quo thread) to a blog called Geek Critique, where a fellow named Rob disagreed with some of my text. I nodded a bit while I was reading, seeing where he was coming from. One of his points, though, made me realize that I hadn’t fully explained my reasoning, and so I started to post a reply. The longer I typed, the more I realized that my response was covering a topic that is actually rather central to the way I conceive of true community work.
This came on top of an interesting chat I had with a reporter friend of mine last week. He had been told by another community person that central to good CM work was a sincere affection for the players, and a genuine love for meeting and interacting with the players. My friend, having been primarily media and PR throughout his storied career, kind of thought it was a crock, and I guess he figured he’d tag the most cynical, bitter, jaded old hag of a community weenie for a corroborating snicker.
My poor friend was a bit shocked when I launched into an ode to MMO players. He could not have been more taken aback if I had started to crap unicorns and belch rainbows.
If you get a whole room full of CMs together, the main thing that stands out (besides their insane sailor-like alcohol tolerances, or the fact that all of them know all the words to Tainted Love) is in fact the warm affection for their players. If you find someone in the room who refers to the customers as “suckers,” or regards the customers as marks to be led by the nose at best and scammed at worst, if you detect an underlying contempt, you are not talking to a real community person. You can get away with contempt if you’re in PR or marketing or even journalism, but not in community.
Sure, we tell war stories, about the guy who used his frequent flyer miles to fly from Chicago to Fairfax and demanded a meeting because the CSRs wouldn’t replace the battle axe he accidentally destroyed, not that he freaked me out or anything. And of course we talk about the girl in the elf ears who has shown up at all of our fan gatherings, apparently intent on sleeping with a dev from every MMO studio. We are afraid of her, except for the ones who want to be a notch in her merry widow because she is kind of hot in a dissipated Renn Faire/carnie kind of way.
But we love the players. We ARE the players. Spending the evening in some horrible arcade or LAN party room in a strip mall in East Jesus, Nowhere is not a chore for us. That kind of event energizes the real community professional, because it gets us back in touch with why we do what we do. It is not possible to endlessly give yourself to a community that refers to you as the Iraqi Information Minister without recharging. You need to be in touch with your community when they aren’t balls of psychotic rage. You need to shake hands with the people who choose to give their time and money to YOUR game, who give up chunks of their lives in exchange for entertainment. This isn’t customer service for a gadget. This is customer service for a lifestyle, one with elements of a love affair.
No, not every customer is like that. But the players who skim the surface of your game and log off without a second thought don’t even know who the community manager is, never mind show up to a live event. Your sole obligation to that customer is to not fuck up the game by catering to the rabid 20% with your itemization and balance.
But the ones you meet, the ones who want to hear you speak, and for you to hear them? Those guys you love. Love isn’t enough, of course. I can think of several people in the industry who love gamers, who are gamers themselves, and should have their hands replaced with foam cheese wedges rather than approach a keyboard. Being a community manager takes a hell of a lot more, and a toolset of hard skills that can be learned. Still, if you don’t walk into a gathering with a sense that “these are my people,” you are not a community manager.
So, that takes me back to Rob at Geek Critique, who pointed out that if the blogger is really small time, why invite them to the serious professional events? He was right, by the way, I wasn’t talking about some crazy melee where I could sneak a blogger or two in with the catering staff. I meant the fancy events where custom packages are handed out, where the stakes are as high as the budget.
Full disclosure requires me to state that part of the reason for including the little sites is because it makes sense to hedge your future bets. I invite smaller sites not to make them happy, but because some of them will grow to run giant empires. Sure, nine out of the ten bloggers won’t, but that tenth guy will be the editor in chief of something important in two years… in part because I invited him to the big events and gave him a chance to shine.
That kind of calculation is why community is often mistaken for PR/marketing in a fuzzy hat. And yet despite how it sounds, I’m not inviting the bloggers because they might pay me back, not entirely. Not even mostly. That’s the big difference between PR and community – as a community person, these bloggers are, if not my personal friends, the kind of people who would BE my friends were it not for our professional obligations. And should one of us leave our bizarre job, a real friendship may well develop. Under the titles, the obligations, the handouts, and the swag, we’ve automatically got more in common with each other than any flack/writer pairing has ever had in history.
Community managers are building relationships in a deeper sense than our ancestors in public relations ever imagined – and it makes what we do worth doing in a way I could never have predicted, when I set out to treat players the way I, as a player, wanted to be treated.