Community Building: Managing an Online Community

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The massive Magic scene in the GTA is chock-full of skilled players. Some of us are teachers, lawyers, PhD candidates, TTC workers, and grade school kids. The community spans generations. Its members have vastly different backgrounds, yet we’re all able to get along and play together.

Building a successful group of players, such as the one in Toronto, is time consuming and there are hiccups, but it can be done anywhere. Creating your Magic Mecca requires concentrated effort from players and stores working in tandem. When this occurs the game flourishes, more events are held, and players and stores prosper. Not every idea may work out perfectly, and there can be drama and infighting, but in the end it’s worth it because you’re left with a group of people that care.

Evidence of this can be seen in the Toronto community. When its members were called upon to help a local charity, they held a Modern tournament and raised over $1000 on a single weeknight. When a local player had their Commander deck stolen, the community caught wind of this and stores kept watch for the cards. Eventually the thief was identified, but not all the cards were returned; in response, the community came together and donated the rest of the missing cards. When a tournament-goer misplaced his fully-foiled Tron deck, fearing it was stolen, he contacted the local community pages, and before the end of the day the deck was returned intact. These heartwarming stories demonstrate a healthy, supportive community. But getting there wasn’t easy.

I’d just finished another arduous six-round FNM and was standing outside talking to another local player. We were lamenting a certain problem in Toronto: while we had a massive player base within the city, it was not well connected. Players could buy and sell cards over eBay or Kijiji but there wasn’t a local space, besides stores, where they could enjoy themselves. Further adding to the issue was that the only big events in Toronto were the occasional GPTs or PTQs. We talked at some length on that January night. The biggest takeaway from our conversation was that we wanted to see our community united and we wanted to do more. To that end, we began looking at mediums through which to bring the players together and provide them with a voice. We considered a forum but we were concerned that anonymity would end up being a hindrance. We wanted a space in which players could communicate with one another and know whom they were speaking to. As a result we turned to social media. Facebook groups seemed to be our best bet. There would be little to no anonymity, we would know if the members were actually local to the area, and it would allow us to easily tie the community together on a platform that everyone was used to. Joining our community would be easy and we wouldn’t have to manage signups, email chains, or the fees associated with creating a new forum.


A Medium

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Organizing your community takes a lot of effort. As we have seen in the GTA, it’s more than worth it. The players here now have a plethora of events, including a big one which evolved out of the SOMS events, every single month. The time you put into giving your community structure benefits players and local game stores alike. You need to find a way to gather everyone, or the majority, on a single medium.

Facebook is a perfect tool for this. It allows you to quickly build a group and invite your local players. But understand that when it comes to the foundations of your community meeting place a Facebook group might not be your answer. Toronto is a city of millions with many stores. If you live in a small town, perhaps a WordPress blog where one to three local stores could provide a weekly update is all you need. Consider the needs of your community when building it up. Let’s say the town is small but everyone is spread out. In this scenario, collecting emails and forming a chain of messages between people will allow you to keep everyone up to date. When the number exceeds fifty people, though, you may need to go bigger. One particular inventive method I saw was in a small shop where they had one entire wall converted into a whiteboard. Messages such as, “meet us on Wednesday at Six for EDH”, “Tom’s looking for a Ravager, call him at . . . or meet here on . . . ” were scrawled across the wall. The store was somewhat isolated geographically and allowed players to meet there to sell cards as they did not have a large inventory. There are many ways to bring people together but for the purpose of this article I will focus on my path to bringing a community together.

It’s important that the group you create is run by someone, or a group of people, who care about the rest of the community. As I mentioned before, you could have other methods of reaching all the players, so the key is to look at your community objectively and pick the method that will enable you to engage the majority. Once we know how to engage the community we can formulate a goal. I like to choose a medium first as it lets me know which tools I can use in community development. Of course, after I look at my goal, the medium may need to change. Allowing for fluidity will keep you in the proper mindset to foster growth in your community.


Community leaders

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As your group of linked players grows you will likely need help managing it. As my community expanded I reached out to stores for assistance. The community and I wanted to see larger tournaments, so store owners were my natural point of contact. As your goals begin to expand, so, too, should the group of people helping you accomplish them. Store owners make sense to have on your side as they provide people with cards, tournaments, and an entry point into the game. Owners are also heavily invested in the community and will therefore be more amenable to assisting in its growth.

A healthy administrative team needs more than just small business owners to do well; it also requires level headed friendly players. Think of your team as an HR department; when selecting leaders, choose the people the community most enjoys dealing with, as these will be the people helping solve any issues that may occur. Don’t pick leaders purely based on their popularity in the community. Your team needs to be one that is in touch with as many people as possible, not a clique looking to elevate itself. Diversity is key.

Goals and Ground Rules

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Once you have chosen your medium you need a goal. We know we want a group, but to what end? Perhaps you simply want a place for people from the area to virtually get together and discuss whatever comes to mind. Facebook would be great for this, but so would a forum. Maybe you want to just notify people of a weekly grouping of events. If that’s the case, as I said before, an email chain works out well. Come up with the goal and build towards it with the tools you previously selected. Remember, though, that the goal(s) and tool(s) may need to change to meet the demands of the people you’re connecting with. If they do, don’t get hung up; regroup your thoughts and come at it from a new angle. Say the email service you were using to contact your player base begins charging a fee; talking to a store about sponsorship or converting to a free blog might solve your issue. There are thousands of ways to keep people up to speed on happenings; be flexible.

While you need to be versatile in your modes of connection, you will still want to lay out some ground rules for the community to abide by. Doing this from the start will allow you to formulate a general structure for member behavior. The rules should be simple, require little to no explanation, and be set in place to further the goal of the community. Let’s say that in your community it is frowned upon to meet up and sell cards at or near a store. A rule to keep the stores happy and the players out of trouble would therefore be, “when making deals keep local game store locations out of it.” More general rules could be, “do not make rude, racist, or generally uncivil comments to other members.” That one might seem like common sense, but tempers can quickly flare resulting in hurt feelings. Having rules of conduct will allow you to step in and remedy the situation, often via mediation.

Running into Walls
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“We don’t need your help.” I was excited that my group on Facebook had over 100 members. I wanted to host a tournament that celebrated the players, so I reached out to a local store. “We. Do. Not. Need. Your. Help.” This was my LGS, I wanted to bring the idea to them first. I had vended at a couple of events for them and felt we had a positive relationship. Why wouldn’t they want to work with me? What I proposed was that we, and other stores, work together to create a tournament series that worked for the players: one that treated the players well and sought to break even at absolute best. When I received that response, I felt I may have asked too much. I was shocked at first and then I was mad. The rejection drove me to stand up for the players and make this tournament series happen. I took my idea to other local vendors, stores, and judges. Kelly, the Godfather of Ontario Organized Play, got on board. He has since helped create numerous tournament experiences that left the players feeling great. It’s been an honor to work beside him.

Our first events were called the Southern Ontario Magic Games. These tournaments were built upon the back of the Southern Ontario Magic Society, the Facebook group that I created to bring my community together. The online presence gave us the reach we needed to hold our first event. We struggled to find a venue at a rate we could afford, but through a collaborator’s contact we were able to make it happen. The first event did not break 100 players. I was a little dismayed as I thought we’d given the community what they wanted. I figured it would have been packed. Perhaps I simply didn’t sell it enough at the time. We persevered, though; each time more and more enthusiastic players walked into our tournament hall. The community had been slow to react at first, but by the end of the summer we were breaking 100 players in attendance. To further our efforts we posted decklists, meta breakdowns, and generally stepped up our game in regards to coverage. What we did was avoid stagnation. When you’re building your community, the worst thing you can do is shrug and say, “I’ve done enough.” Keep the interest high and continue to involve people in new projects. There is always another level to battle towards. Sure, there are barriers, but coffee coupled with the backing of your friends and the local players will push you to new levels.

Keeping it all together
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Apart from instances of theft, serious profanity, and the occasional flame war, once the ground rules are established and people have become familiar with one another the community tends to enforce the rules on their own. When there is a post that breaks the rules, admins are either notified or members mention it to the poster. Once you’ve got the foundations in place all you need to do is listen to the community and do your best to work with them. In a lot of ways it comes to a point where the admin team is similar to a customer service or human resource department. They field complaints, promote events, and talk to or remove members who break the rules.

When a large negative event occurs, it is important for the admins to act as arbiters. Member should do their best to keep all discussions civil, but admin also must do their best to enforce this. When a discussion breaks down to swearing and shouting little is ever solved and a rift within the community can form. By keeping things civil and taking negative discussions to their sources these rifts can be effectively repaired and managed. I’ll use a hypothetical situation in order to better help us understand how to handle these events. One member starts by claiming that a store changed their prize pool at the last moment. Another member chimes in to defend the store. Then another declares the store is awful. This continues with the supporters and critics taking their turns trading verbal punches until an admin is notified. If it’s been a busy day, it could be hours before this is seen by an admin. When it is, though, we can do a few things to remedy it. The absolute best thing to do is to directly message all the people who have complained and get them in touch with the store. This allows the players to take their criticism to the source and gives the store the chance to fix their standing in the community.

Let’s say the store is unreachable; they’re closed for a day or two. In this situation we can screenshot the thread for general reference and delete it. This should only be done after contacting the original poster and explaining that the initial complaint, while valid, has devolved into an anger filled situation. Explain to them that you have the thread saved and will be able to send it to the store as soon as possible. We’re still attempting to be the medium between players and stores here; the only difference is that we have used a little censorship as a quick triage. The community will likely remain upset and might rail against the deletion. Whenever a thread is deleted, it helps to make a short post explaining why it was removed. In this scenario, the explanation should include the caveat that you will be doing your best to contact the store and show them the issue. Whatever you do as an admin, keep in mind that the community will evolve over time and use feedback from your members to adjust the rules of the group accordingly. The people within the community are your best source for solutions. After all, it’s all about working together.

Conclusion
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The subject of community is broad. I would touch on the subject more, but there’s only so much a single article can cover. In summary:

  1. Come up with a goal to meet a need within the community.
  2. Create a common area in which the community can pursue that goal.
  3. Set rules and regulations for that area.
  4. Work beside the right people.
  5. Be flexible in the pursuit of the goal.
  6. Listen to the community and continue to improve.

I love my community. Visiting other groups of players has shown me how to improve the Toronto player base, but it has also highlighted all the positives of the players in the GTA. Wherever you are, I wish you the best of luck in bringing your players together. If you want to ask me any questions, I’d be happy to answer them. Remember to stay flexible, and never stop toiling away to build a better place for your fellows.

Until next time,
Peter

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