The Changing Role of the Professional Association

The design-oriented part of the web industry got itself into a kerfuffle this week when the Usability Professionals’ Association [UPA] announced it was changing its name to User Experience Professionals’ Association [UXPA] and thereby broadening its focus. I don’t really have an opinion on the organization’s rebranding; it’s one of the few associations I haven’t joined and I am not qualified to comment on its work.

But I noticed an interesting strain to the conversation emerging on Twitter in the past day or so, much of it from the leadership courses in Melbourne, industry leaders, some of whom I know personally and most of whom I respect. Their take on it was, The professional association is dead so this is just rearranging the deck chairs.

I enjoy playing iconoclast as much as the next snarky web professional, but these arguments struck me the wrong way. I’d like to explain why, but first, let me lay out my many biases.

I’m a joiner. I’m smack in the middle of Generation X, and while we may be the generation that officially oversees the demise of the bowling leagues, in my personal experience, that’s not been entirely true. I’m a member of the American Marketing Association, ASIS&T, and a number of local networking and professional organizations. In the fall of 2011 I was elected to the board of directors of the Information Architecture Institute, an international organization devoted to nurturing the practice and craft of information architecture.

But in this post, I speak only about my personal observations, and certainly not as an official representative of any of these organizations.

And what I see is this: Professional organizations that are still relevant are the ones creating a space — virtual and in-person — for people to come together and share ideas and connections. No doubt that Twitter, LinkedIn and myriad other instances of social media are disrupting this model to a degree, but I continue to see others gaining value from making personal connections and learning from each other via their associations.

I particularly see the need for professional organizations in developing the craft in newer members of the profession. Sure, we can all point to Twitter superstars who showed up and built a community and developed their expertise in full view, but that’s not a defined pathway that most people can walk. Growing and changing — for almost all of us — require a safe, secure space in which we can fail, get support from friendly colleagues, and reach for greater success than we can imagine on our own. This is where professional associations still matter. Plenty of people in all industries work in organizations where they are the only practitioner of their craft; they need a place to go for support.

Yes, associations going forward are going to look a lot different than they did to our parents’ generation, and than when I started my career 20 years ago. They have to. But please, don’t sit at the pinnacle of your career and declare them irrelevant. Too many are coming behind you, and many of them need a formal vehicle to seek your guidance and that of others who’ve already walked their walk.

Quora: Lessons in community development

My trial-by-fire in online community management came just over 10 years ago, when we launched I’ve thought about that experience a lot in the past few weeks, as Quora has exploded among the tech community. [Find me on Quora here.]

When we were preparing for the real launch of, we spent weeks scouring web forums for people who were talking about small business online. There were lots and lots of them…but there weren’t easy ways to find, organize or communicate with them. So we found most of the people we invited to beta test our site by hand, searching one by one through web forums.

Long before CAN-SPAM or marketing protocols, we were very careful about how we approached prospective testers, because we were long-time web users, even then. We knew that all communities have their own etiquette and customs, and to violate those is to risk death.

At the same time, we spent a lot of time and effort figuring out how to seed the community with content so there’d be SOMETHING there when the first beta testers logged in. It was important to us to be transparent — to be real about who we were, but still to provide value to our soon-to-be customers.

And so it is difficult in some ways for me to watch the birth of Quora, because I feel a lot of it in a personal way. The people complaining on Twitter about getting dozens of emails in an hour when all their friends join. [Oh, for there to have been Twitter when we launched!] The people wandering around saying, “What’s the point of all this? I can’t find anything on there!” And the endless critiques of its design and usability.

Welcome to website launching, 2011-style.

The really interesting part to me is the question-and-answer format, though, because was also a question-and-answer site. It worked a little differently from Quora, but the similarities are many.  [It’s no longer the same format — lives on today as a great wiki for small business owners, managed by “head helper” Rex Hammock.]

What I wonder now, and I don’t remember wondering 10 years ago, is whether the literal format of Q-and-A is really the best way to answer questions.

That may sound silly on the face of it, but much of what many of us are doing online is trying to both ask and answer questions. And now, after almost 20 years of working on the format of information, we’re still offering the questions and answers literally.

I’m cheered by the increasing discussions about structured content and the semantic web. But the depth of structure truly available remains small, compared to what we need. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not sneezing on the vast amounts of location information we’re using now, for instance. Or XML. But most of the value on the web is really still locked in text.

“Locked in” sounds funny when you consider how much you can find with your favorite search engine. But what you can’t do with much of the information is re-purpose it easily.

Quora doesn’t advance us down that road, but I’ll be curious to see how it fares, both as an information source and as a community.

Community management: Keeping all the balls in the air

I was talking with someone yesterday about online community management. I am still grateful to discover that I’m talking with someone who presumes that online communities require management.

I told her that I think of online community management as juggling. You have several simultaneous tasks:

  • Care and feeding of site members [tech support]
  • Content strategy [Even on user-generated content sites, the institutional tone you set is critical]
  • Nurturing people who share

If you let any of those balls drop, you endanger the community.

It’s a pretty broad way of thinking about community management. There are a lot of other items we could add to the list, really — technical structure, communication/marketing, etc. But I’d argue that many of those other items could fall under one of these three big categories.

The Era of Crowdsourcing: Guiding Principles

OK, I’m trying out a new theory this morning. I am sitting waaaay up front. I’m typically your cynical, back-of-the-class type.

I’m in a conversation between Scott Belsky, founder of the Behance creative network, and Jeffrey Kalmikoff of Digg. None of the below are direct quotes, but most of them are close.

Kalmikoff: My love for business is about how it’s a way to take an idea from concept to reality.

K: Crowdsourcing is an umbrella term that broadly describes several ways of sourcing information.

Belsky: Misconception — Crowdsourcing equals access to free labor. It’s given crowdsourcing a dirty name.

There’s crowdsourcing of wisdom [like Wikipedia] and of labor [like Mechanical Turk].

There’s a difference between crowds and communities, especially if you’re depending on it for business purposes. You need sustainability.

With a crowd, there’s a common purpose, some sort of event, but interpersonal isolation.

K: Interpersonal isolation provides a comfort to many people. Many of us are uncomfortable when someone strikes up a conversation in the elevator.

B: With crowds, sourcing exists in sprints. There’s a start and an end — not sustainable. [That’s where you get into the event aspect of being a crowd.]

K: You have to keep up some level of participation to remain involved. High probably of fatigue.

Community is based on identify and cohesiveness from shared conditions. Sustainability exists inherently in the organic, adaptive nature of communities.

K: Businesses can be part of communities, but they don’t define communities. If Harley Davidson went out of business tomorrow, it’s unreasonable to think that all the communities related to Harley Davidson would cease to exist.

B: As a business, you don’t have a community. You are part of a community.

[Me: This is a key point.]

Risks Inherent in Crowdsourcing
* Discount sushi — Something that seemed like a good idea at the time. It filled a need. But it’s not a repeatable source.

* Football team vs. strip club — Imagine the pre-game locker room of a football game. Everyone’s getting amped up, with a common purpose. There’s an incentive for collaboration. OK so now we’re supposed to be imagining backstage at a strip club before the first performance. There’s no incentive to assist others — if you help someone else improve, you make less money yourself.

[Me: Well that’s an interesting metaphor, but the point is well taken about communities vs. crowds.]

* Careless engagement — People aren’t engaged enough. They don’t care. They’ll put out crap to say they’re participating. If careless participation doesn’t harm your personal reputation, it’s a real risk for the community and the business.

* Wasted neurons — At the end of an open call, people have spent a lot of time working on a project, and the vast majority of it isn’t used. You have to weigh your time against the potential rewards.

* No contextual reputation — If you’ve already got a great reputation in your field, the level playing field created by communities isn’t your friend. If you’re the new kid with great ideas, it is helpful.

Questions we should ask of any sourcing model
1. Can it foster community? Is there incentive for conversation, learning, engagement? Or is it transactional? Is there a culture of collaboration?

2. Does it tap collective wisdom?

3. Does it nurture participation? Does work benefit reputation? Are participants building relationships? Are resources valued or wasted? Are terms/facts clear to all?

What you shouldn't learn from the Facebook TOS incident

What not to learn from the Facebook TOS incident.

Earlier this week, Facebook released a new terms of service agreement, which appeared to give Facebook perpetual, non-exclusive copyright to anything you post there.

After a bunch of back and forth in the blogosphere [I do hate that word, but this is really where it was happening], and general demonizing of Facebook itself, and the creation of several “I hate the new Facebook TOS” groups on Facebook itself, the company finally said, umm, we didn’t mean to make y’all mad. Let’s forget this ever happened, mmk?

And their intent seems to be, they’ll fix what they were trying to fix the first time around, with some overhauled terms, one day soon. But that they’re really not trying to steal our stuff.

What not to learn
And all this is very well and good. But I would hate for anyone to take away this lesson from the Great Facebook TOS incident of February 2009:

You can be sloppy and/or abuse your site’s users all you want.

Now, if Facebook didn’t have a history of actually doing that, I’d be more willing to excuse them for this incident. I think they really may just have not realized the loophole their new terms created for abuse of users’ content. But many significant developments on Facebook do seem to happen with this stutter-step approach:

  1. Facebook adds a new feature [the News Feed, Beacon] without properly sharing the benefits with the community.
  2. People have a cow.
  3. Facebook retreats or partially retreats.
  4. People simmer down and continuing sharing what they had for breakfast with everyone they know.

Here’s the bottom line: Facebook gets away with this kind of behavior because — according to Mark Zuckerberg’s recent blog post — if Facebook were a country, it would be the 6th most populous country on earth. China, India, the U.S., Indonesia, Brazil, Facebook. You can’t get the access Facebook gives you anywhere else.

The rest of us aren’t Facebook
In most other online communities — and especially small, private-label, or local communities — the group needs each user far more than the user needs the group. So when we’re managing a community, we have to remember that our efforts had better make sense the first time around. We’d better be transparent. And we’d better do our best to be useful to the community.

It’s just too easy for a community member to walk when we abuse them. No matter what Facebook demonstrates to the contrary.