When you’re running a fansite, LiveJournal community, mailing list, ficathon, convention or anything else in fandom where you’re effectively in charge, there are all sorts of communication issues that have to be dealt with. As the person who is running whatever fandom project you’re running, the weight of whatever decision is made falls on you. Whatever risk, be it legal, financial or social, there is with the project is yours to bear. You’re on a different level with the users because you don’t necessarily have the same purposes for being involved. These different levels can cause communication problems.
Did I mention problems? Companies operating in fandom can attest to the communication problems that arise. Wikia, LiveJournal, Quizilla, Lucasfilms Ltd., TokyoPop have all had to deal with the backlash of members of fandom not being happy with the decisions made by those corporations. Fan run groups also have had similar problems in communication with fandom regarding the purpose of their projects, the rules they have, etc and have had to deal with backlashes. Organization for Transformative Works, SkyHawke, FicWad, SugarQuill, Fiction Alley, ficathons or communities that have not allowed slash or gen, mailing lists over policies regarding concrit, the list could go on and on.
So how do you communicate with the community which you’re creating or operating in? There is no simple answer. Over on InsaneJournal and LiveJournal, I’ve discussed this with a few people who have operated fansites and other fan communities. Even amongst my peers, we can’t reach a consensus.
While there are no simple answers, there are questions that can help you determine how you should communicate with them and what about.
- Should you tell users all about the financial situation in regards to your project?
This is a common communication problem for fan projects because they take money to run. Fans can sometimes have entitlement issues which can make those who run projects queasy about because those fans can wank a money situation hard core. Couple that with your own need for money to help fund your site, well… huge problems can develop.
Before communicating with your users or others involved with your project, determine your comfort level and your potential monetary needs. If you’re not willing to be in the spotlight, then consider not talking about money. Deal with everything behind the scenes;try to keep the project scalable so you don’t need to create waves with users by begging for donations or adding advertisements. By making changes and being public about those changes and the monetary reasons behind it, you’re likely to become fandom unpopular and end up on fandom wank. If discussing money in fandom is something you’re not comfortable with, don’t discuss it period and don’t create situations where you might need to. If you need money to run the site, then be honest about it from the get go. Be as specific as you’re comfortable with and provide as much information to users as you think they need in order for you to meet your finacial obligations for the project.
- Should you discuss policy decisions with your users?
Fan fiction archives, mailing lists, LiveJournal communities, wikis, forums have rules. (Or don’t. But most do.) At some point, some one is going to object to those rules existing or run afoul of them. You’ll ban some one for plagiarism. Some one will question why your m/m slash community doesn’t allow f/f slash. People will get upset because you needed to throttle bandwidth and turned off the feature that they cannot live with out. People will demand, absolutely DEMAND an explanation from you in some of these cases.
This situation is difficult. My advice is make a short statement and do not engage outside that. If you must engage, do so privately. By actively and publicly engaging your users over say why you banned a particular author for plagiarism, you’re inviting them into dialog. That dialog is probably one that you cannot control. If the dialog is going on on your community or site and you shut it down after you’ve participated, people are going to come after you with all sorts of lovely accusations of stopping freedom of speech, breaking your own rules and being a hypocrit. It is a situation you cannot win because you probably won’t be able to scream as loud as those complaining as their numbers are probably larger than yours. Just wait it out, be willing to risk losing participants and friends. Don’t capiluate unless you have to because by capitulating, you’re giving people permission to pull that similar stunts. Eventually, those situations will pass.
Before you get there, make sure your ass is covered. About page, Terms of Service pages, contact information, rules pages, help pages on how to use your project, a history of your project, all of those are communication tools. If you want, include an article about why your policies are the way they are… but have it up before you launch. If you don’t accept chan because you are in Australia and that’s child porn, then communicate that with your users so they know who to blame. (The Australian government, not you the fan fiction archivist.) Make sure they are linked in your header, footer or sidebar so people don’t have an excuse for not seeing them. That can head off some of the worst that may come at you.
- Should I communicate with people participating with my project?
This is a question I’ve seen from a few tech oriented people in fandom. They do not see the inherent need to communicate with the users on the sites they run. Or they think that they can get away with just communicating with their administrative help people. I’ve also seen members of fandom lament over the lack of contact they’ve had with administrators at the sites they use. This happens with big sites like FanFiction.Net and smaller groups like mailing lists or LiveJournal communities.
The decision to communicate with people involved with your project comes down to a couple of things. Do you need to continue to promote your project? If yes, then you need to communicate with participants until such a time that marketing begins to take care of itself. If no, then you might be able to get away with it. Do you plan to use the project as an example of your coding skills and is that your primary motivation for building the project? If yes, then you can probably get away with out communicating with participants for your project because the project isn’t about the participants and the community but about the underlying value being the coding. Is your project central to your identity in fandom? If yes, then you probably want to help keep and maintain that identity by protecting your project by communicating with your project’s participants. Can you get some one else to communicate for you? If yes, then the pressure is off you and you can use that other person to handle any problems. Can you afford to lose people because you’re not answering questions? If yes, then you probably don’t need to communicate that often with people.
- What platform should I use to keep in touch with people?
There are so many tools out there for people to communicate with participants in their projects. They include blogs, message boards, IRC, instant messenger programs, report abuse forms, contact forms, services like getsatisfaction.com, social networking services, e-mail, mailing lists, the main page of your site, private messaging through various sites, microblogging services, flyers, the phone, snail mail mailings, etc. Before you start your project, determine how you’re going to do that. Consistency for you and participants related to your project is important. (I know. I’ve learned the hard way and I still make this mistake.) Find a method of communicating that you’re comfortable with. If you can’t stand twitter but your users are all on twitter, then don’t use it as your primary communication tool because you’re less likely to be as responsive as you should be to people’s concerns. Use the tools that you’re most comfortable with to communicate with people. And then advertise what tools people can use to get in touch with you using and under what conditions they should contact you.
How you communicate, what you communicate about and when you communicate are personal decisions and/or business like decisions. No solution is one size fits all. Determine your needs, your objectives and your comfort levels and you should be able to find a solution that works for communicating regarding your project in the fan community.