Interview with Sue Thomas of trAce Online Writing Community

by Nancy White

Sue Thomas is host of the trAce Online Writing Community based in the UK. For more on trAce, see Sue's article on how she formed the community.

NW: How would you describe the benefits of having a host or facilitator for a community?


NW: How do you describe the role(s) of the online community facilitator?

ST: To be visible but non-intrusive. It's probably necessary too to be somewhat detached, and a little disengaged from the passionate cut and thrust so as to be seen to be largely neutral but only in the context of devotion to the group rather than to individuals. To intercede on occasions listed above.

NW: Do you have a particular approach or style of online facilitation that you use? If it varies, why?

ST: It's worth mentioning that we don't just use CommunityWare - we also have a low volume mailing list and we hold live meetings at LinguaMOO.

I try to be friendly, approachable and efficient, but always with a clear idea of what a trAce community should be like. It varies when I am overworked (!) but also when I see what I consider to be inappropriate behaviour. I tend on those occasions to veer between a laissez-faire attitude or extreme authoritarianism! That is my problem in life, too, and one which i think probably makes me a bad choice as a community facilitator of any kind :) I have to work hard to overcome this shortcoming.

NW: What are some important things to pay attention to when you are training and managing other online facilitators?

ST: I want them to develop a sense of ownership and autonomy. In order to do this they need my help and support to find out how the community works, what the identity of trAce is, and what kinds of people they are dealing with. Usually this is already known, as they are probably already involved. There is also the question of choosing people who already spend a lot of time online - people who don't can't do the job properly - it's like only being available for work a couple of days a week! And then there is the question of money - payment is a difficult one and something I have not yet fully resolved.

NW: What is the worst thing that has happened to you as a facilitator online?

ST: Not being able to decide whether or not to exclude a problem person from a list serve. It's also frustrating at live moo-based events when you see someone having difficulties with the interface and being limited in how one might help them.

NW: The best?

ST: Oh, the experiences of seeing people connect with each other, and the spread of ideas and information.

NW: How do you approach/handle conflicts in your community?

ST: Uncertainly! On our original mailing list there was no official host or moderator, and we had some trouble with strange and angry people. I did intervene, but badly - sometimes personally to the troublemakers but more often I tried to do it direct and openly to the list - sadly I think that showed me in a bad light. I expected everyone to want this man thrown off but in fact quite a few believed we should live and let live. I was unsure. But not now. This guy has tried to join CommunityWare a few times and I always boot him. I have learned my lesson. Also, I will not try to operate openly via the list anymore - I will be more discreet.

NW: How do you approach/handle low activity in your community?

ST: We regularly advertise the currents of conversation on our homepage to try to attract people to come to CommunityWare but quite frankly so many users have problems with the interface that it is hard to encourage them to persevere. We are about to try something different - a series of commissioned monthly opinion pieces with a listbot discussion list. This has nothing to do with CommunityWare - we're trying to offer an alternative to CommunityWare. When traffic is low i also encourage the hosts to think of ways to bring people in.

NW: Who are some of your online facilitator role models?

ST: I don't have much experience of this. I have read most of Howard Rheingold's book and have just bought Cliff Figallo's book thought I haven't had time to read it yet. Most of my practical online experience has been in MOOs rather than in list-based communities, and I have a strong sense of etiquette derived from that. I try to learn from you and other people on the Hosts list.

NW: What do you think is your strength as an online facilitator?

ST: My strength, if any, is in the fact that for better or worse I am recognised as the community leader so people look to me for decisions if they become necessary. I prefer, however, that decisions be taken democratically, so I am trying to learn how to ensure that this happens. However, there is already a clear sense that Barbara and Christy have both imbued their conferences with their own personalities and I am delighted that this has happened - so the strength I most value is an ability to empower the hosts.

NW: If you had to choose one or two golden rules for online facilitators, what would they be?

ST: 1. Unless they are really obviously offensive and need urgent action, take a few hours to think it through before you respond to 'problem' posts. Try to avoid knee jerk reactions. But when you act, be clear and firm.

2. Learn from other hosts by lurking or participating on other lists. (I don't have time to do this as much as I would like)

NW: What resources or references have you tapped to help you be a better online facilitator?

ST: As I said above - some books, some practical experience, plus a reading of some theories of community. I also draw on my own imagination and ideas to think of new ways to handle problems and stimulate interaction.

NW: Why do you facilitate online communities?

ST: I want to make it possible for writers to work together online and this involves facilitating their communications. I see it as part of my managerial role with trAce. I also get personal enjoyment from reading and participating.

NW: What do you see in the future for online communities?

ST: They are bound to escape text and become fully audio-visual - although i do think there will always be a place for the old-fashioned mailing list. The current upsurge in communities will not last but I think it will settle to a level whereby most net users are members of at least one community, whether it be work, educational, social or family based. Online communities are just such a natural environment for people to gather around.

NW: What will your role be in that future?

ST: I hope that trAce will find funding to continue beyond September 2000 when our funding runs out, and that i will still be involved in our online community. I may well be less active - I'm not sure how many years I can sustain logging on several times a day as i do now, but expect to continue to be a regular user.