The Kinder Community

Behaving as an adult can often get in the way of a seriously productive community.

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Maemo Co-Creation Workshop 2009.  Photo source:

It’s understandable that a native English speaker would view the title of this piece as an appeal for nicer neighbors.

And that’s certainly one acceptable definition.

But it’s also a play on words: “Kinder” in German means “children”, and therein lies my actual subject.

I’ve accepted the challenge of helping pull together a community for electric car start-up Scarlet Motors.  The title proffered is “Community Manager”, but I’m resistant to that label.  In the right environment, with an obvious, strong focus, no contributor needs to be managed.  Nor should any other member try to manage them.

Personally, I prefer the title Community Cultivator, with the understanding that the nature and responsibilities of this role organically evolve as the community does.

When I discussed this article with Scarlet Motors CEO Julien Fourgeaud, he qualified the subject by prefacing self-organizing to community.  As a member of one open source community that did indeed organize itself (, I already had a general sense of what that term implies.  But curious to know the opinion of others, I searched on it.  Over four million results were returned.  But one link in particular caught my eye.

Oliver Quinlan, currently a lecturer at Plymouth University, described empowering a primary school class to explore online collaboration.  He was impressed by their natural tendency to self-organize, and chose to act as observant facilitator rather than manager so as to reduce his interference in their processes.  He watched as segregation appeared in the fledgling community and how, instead of escalating the issue into the sort of bitter battle on which adults thrive, one participant calmly created an alternative where all were welcome.  Certainly, rules arose in this educational bubble as they inevitably do, but Quinlan notes that they were crowd-sourced.

In the article, Quinlan hints at further development of his social experiment but we don’t learn of any outcomes.  We don’t know if the youthful participants abandoned initiative and referendum to craft legislative and enforcement bodies.  We have no idea if juvenile trolls disrupted this Utopian microcosm, as they typically do in popular online communities.

Ironically, when communities fail it’s often the worst attributes of our inner children that bring about collapse.  Name-calling, topic derailing, and other destructive tactics.  This alarming behavior indicates that warnings during growth were ignored.  That the Community Cultivator was asleep at the switch and failed to adapt his/her approach.

No matter what, true communities are not mobs.  That’s emblematic of anarchy.  As misguided a name as Manager may be, there are indeed those times when even a self-organizing community needs parental nudges back toward defined goals.  That said, there is also value in allowing discussions to spawn off-topic tangents as a means of exploring dogmatic alternatives or simply blowing off steam.  It’s incumbent on community cultivators to observe, and only step in when the dialog veers toward counter-productivity.  Often, spinning such a discussion off into a dedicated Off Topic subforum is all the management required.

When began suffering growing pains, I established some simple formulas for community mores.  They are:

  • Different <> Wrong
  • Listen – Judgment = Progress
  • People + Trust = Success
Now, I don’t pose those easy equations as automatic solutions to anything that troubles a struggling community.  Rather, they are basic guidelines that, if kept in mind, form the foundation of a truly healthy organization… regardless of its focus or structure.  One that can better resist the forces that may work against it.

But rules of thumb aren’t everything.  The experiences acquired in achieving adulthood impose upon us an increasing authoritative rigidity and aversion to risk.  That’s only natural, and serves us well when we in turn become responsible for curious children of our own.  But as Oliver Quinlan discovered, if we are to build any sort of community from scratch then it behooves us to struggle out of those straight-laced jackets and rediscover our suppressed inner children.  Embrace the storming stage of brainstorming, and truly live the axiom that “no idea is stupid”.  Otherwise, we just set ourselves up for all-too-common failure.

So let’s be kinder.

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  • Ossoil

    I agree with a lot in this post. I also have hard time accepting the title Community Manager. Partly because it is often associated with a person who is doing just social media/ PR; focused on that. That was not what I did when I was “manager” of one community. Therefore I’ve chosen to use words “community enabler”. It has a slight distinction to “cultivator”, since my roles (so it seems) is to establish/build/push young emerging communities forward and then step down :) That was the case with MeeGo and local hackerspace in Tampere.

    • Randall “texrat” Arnold

      “Enabler” is a good term as well. Maybe I’ll use that going forward. ;)