When Do You Weed Your Community Garden?

Anyone who has ever grown anything in their home garden knows that at some point or another, the onerous task of weeding will become a part of your reality. The question usually becomes when to take on the task that most of us don’t look forward to.

In recent discussions with colleagues and customers, I’ve revisited my list of traits that a good community manager should have – and I’d like to amend the list to include ‘community gardener.’ The gist of these discussions has been how much influence a community manager should exert and where in the process of the community workflow that needs to happen.

Let’s face it – to have an effective community (one that provides value for both the producers and consumers of content), there is a certain amount of ‘weeding’ that has to happen, whether by the community itself, or by the community manager. This task can either be relatively painless or a pain-filled experience, depending on where in the process it occurs.

In general, I see weeding happening in one of two places (and please excuse the engineering mentality here): on the front end or on the back end. On the front end, this means putting a lightweight governance model in place to prevent a raft of ‘test,’ ‘me too,’ or duplicate content (or in the case of communities I usually run, projects). While possibly stifling the producers, this allows for a better experience for consumers who come to your community looking for content that is valuable to them. The converse is to allow a Wild West mentality of ‘anything goes’ on the front end, and then attempt to weed out the unproductive content on the back end through community voting/affinity, or active pruning by the community itself or by their community manager.

My personal belief is that, for most productive development communities, you should perform this weeding activity on the front end of the process. While this can be seen as a bit too restrictive by people looking to produce good content quickly, I think it tends to work better for early-stage communities where you don’t have a critical mass of valuable content. Perception is huge in communities, especially newly formed ones where you’ll tend to have more consumers than producers. If you’ve chosen to do the weeding on the back end, you run the risk that your community will appear very chaotic and unorganized to those coming to it in an attempt to consume knowledge, code, etc. Given that, in my career, I’ve primarily run communities in enterprise & government settings, I realize the importance of first impressions for people who may not be as intimately involved or passionate about a particular piece of technology. If these people come to a site where the weeding is put off until the back end, the likelihood is they’ll go away with a bad taste in their mouth from this particular community effort, since they’ll primarily see duplicate or ‘I’m testing this’ kinds of content.

Additionally, weeding on the front end lets you identify the issues mentioned above with the content/projects while they are still small. If you wait until the back end of the process, you’re more than likely dealing with a greater quantity of larger weeds, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve always preferred to nip problems and weeds in the bud, as it at least makes the task manageable. Choosing an up-front approach also lets you create a fairly lightweight governance model where you can quickly vet new content and then let producers go on their way to helping you build a great community.

I’ve stated my personal preference here, but I’m curious as to what readers of this blog think. Does anyone out there have ‘war stories’ about how (and where in the process) you weeded your community garden?

Posted in TeamForge
6 comments on “When Do You Weed Your Community Garden?
  1. Rachel Happe says:

    This is a great analogy and also begs a related question that I was thinking about recently while weeding my own garden – the definition of a weed is something that is unwanted. It’s a matter of perception rather than a fixed definition… and that gets to some interesting questions too – what’s a weed and to whom?
    I find that many people starting to build communities take a social media approach – i.e. make it as easy as possible for people to participate early and often. However, to build really robust, productive community sometimes requires that you make participation just a little more of a commitment and you narrow the focus so that it is productive for all of the constituent groups – i.e. weed and landscape at the beginning. Like you said, it is very challenging to change the focus later, particularly if the community has become home base for a group that has a vested interest in something that the sponsoring organization doesn’t find useful.

  2. Guy Martin says:

    Thanks Rachel!
    I briefly thought about including something in this post about the definition of a weed, but, then, no one would have read it because of the length. 🙂
    I think you are right on the money about narrowing the focus enough to make the community productive, and I’ll roll around the idea of putting together another post on ‘What is a Community Weed?’. As always, I appreciate your perspective – thanks for commenting.
    -Guy

  3. Michael Pace says:

    Love the Community / Garden analogy. I use it all the time here, it always really resonates with people. Would getting rid of trolls be like the use of pesticide? 🙂

  4. Guy Martin says:

    Michael,
    Yup, pesticide, snail & slug bait, you name it. 🙂
    -Guy

  5. One of the most lovely discussions of community management I’ve ever read is Karl Fogel’s “Producing Open Source Software.” The book captures his long history of community building, up through his leadership in the Subversion project. While there’s some content there that’s specific to software development, easily half the book is of very general interest.
    Karl makes the point that both kinds of “weeding” are needed. Guy’s points about a light front-end process are represented here, but so also are some key stories about “weeds” that spring up later in the garden’s life cycle. And I know, in my own garden, I certainly have to get out there and pull that oxalis periodically, not just at planting time!
    You also help to control weeds by ensuring that the crop plants are as healthy as possible: tend the garden, and the crops will squeeze out the weeds, rather than the other way around.
    It’s a testimony to the front-end and on-going weed prevention that Karl can only come up with one “back-end weeding” story, from the whole history of the project: a case where a discussion contributor turned toxic — not malicious, but somehow irreformably distracting. The model of pulling this weed, told in the “Difficult People” section, is an amazing lesson for us all, in how to handle such situations, and also in how healthy the community was fundamentally (as measured by the number of community members who were able to contribute to the weeding-out in an effective, inoffensive, yet firm way).

  6. Guy Martin says:

    Thanks Jack,
    As always, excellent insight – I guess I probably came down a bit too heavy-handed in favor of *only* front-end weeding, when in reality, I’m in 100% agreement that every once in a while, you’ll need to weed on the back end as well.
    This blog was prompted by some decisions we are contemplating now in the Forge.mil community as we think about how we are adding a Drupal-based ‘community layer’. The team’s decision (against my current advice & thinking on the subject) is to take what Rachel called the ‘social media approach’ in her comment.
    I can understand the reasoning of ‘easy access’ & ‘lower barrier to entry’, but my take has always sort of reflected what Rachel called a ‘commitment’ to participation. This probably shouldn’t be surprising given my thoughts on anonymous community contribution as well. Getting content at any cost should not (in my opinion) be weighted more heavily than getting *useful* content (as defined by the community charter). I guess I’ve just seen too many newbie users of communities be turned off by cruft that I tend to come down a bit more in the ‘consumer’ side of the camp.
    -Guy

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