For her Nieman Lab fellowship, Melody Kramer interviewed me about my approach to volunteers and community with the Smithsonian Transcription Center.
In her resulting report “Putting the Public into Public Media,” Melody culls insights shared from contexts of many public(inter)facing projects. She puts forth alternative and manageable models for membership. For me, the take-away is to build from a simple but not-so-easy to achieve starting point: ask your public(s) to build with you, have a say in the product they consume, and work with your product to better suit their needs. Together, you can attain more meaningful, deeper, and resilient engagement.
Melody features my approach with the Smithsonian Transcription Center as a case study. In addition, she’s included some of my comments as a footnote. She asked me to detail “how” I build community and engage with our volunteers. Continue reading for my answers to Melody’s question: “How do you foster community?”
“I think I have fostered community by
- being authentic in my engagement (using my voice not hiding behind the Smithsonian, and being enthusiastic because this stuff is pretty cool),
- asking questions that furthered the dialogue (how did you hear about us? what did you think of that? what was most surprising? what would you like to do next?)
- establishing a rhetorical approach that made it clear that we/I was learning at the same time as the volunteers
- establishing a rhetorical approach that suggests there is ALWAYS more to the story and that this is a chance to make discoveries – and then by recognizing or acknowledging those discoveries
- creating the hashtag #volunpeers to allow volunteers to leverage the structure of social media spaces to communicate with one another and with me/us – encouraging them to use it as well to ask for help or indicate a project needs review, etc
- creating collaborative competitions, rather than leaderboarding: #7DayRevChall (7 Day review challenges) allowed people to contribute collectively to a goal, then metric and try to beat the group goal – and using daily updates to share progress. This also allows for skills acquisition and learning best practice for review AND addresses an issue we see frequently – folks love transcribing and pages languish waiting for review. Every 2 months, we draw attention to this
- focusing on the process of transcribing and reviewing often over the volume of the product – and cultivating/encouraging patience from experienced volunteers in regard to “newbies”
- letting volunteers speak to each other directly in spaces in which they already live and are comfortable (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr) – and we have benefitted from volunteers who are welcoming and want to help each other complete projects
- Also by engaging through those 3 social media networks (also instagram some and hopefully reddit soon), volunteers have the ability to “curate” and own their experience and the product they have created. My perception is that creates more in-depth brand engagement, as well – these volunteers list “digital volunteer for @TranscribeSI” or “#volunpeer for @TranscribeSI” in their bios
- listening to the feedback and description of external interests from volunteers and gauging their excitement in subject matter – then actively courting the archives, museums, and libraries that have related material
- Finally, actually integrating their feedback into site design when(ever) possible”
It seems to me that many of these steps start with two words: curiosity and sharing. In practice, these two words create a cycle of behavior – as you’re curious, you investigate. When you discover, you may want to share so others can learn. When others share, your interests are piqued and you become … more curious. Asking questions, discovering connections, solving challenges, and bringing together people – these all emerge as actions grounded in curiosity and sharing. When I understand that a volunteer has had a lightbulb moment with a project, I try to connect them and this experience to the Smithsonian group that has shared the project. Then staff and public alike are experiencing the moment of discovery – and learning from each other in the process. This often happens in our social media spaces, but I also do this one-on-one with feedback e-mails and questions from our volunteers.
Are you a community manager or are you a volunteer for an organization? How do these approaches relate to your experiences?