Over on Google+, Aaron Seigo in his inimitable way launched a discussion about people who call themselves community managers.. In his words: “the “community manager” role that is increasingly common in the free software world is a fraud and a farce”. As you would expect when casting aspertions on people whose job is to talk to people in public, the post generated a great, and mostly constructive, discussion in the comments – I encourage you to go over there and read some of the highlights, including comments from Richard Esplin, my colleague Jan Wildeboer, Mark Shuttleworth, Michael Hall, Lenz Grimmer and other community luminaries. Well worth the read.
My humble observation here is that the community manager title is useful, but does not affect the person’s relationships with other community members.
First: what about alternative titles? Community liaison, evangelist, gardener, concierge, “cat herder”, ombudsman, Chief Community Officer, community engagement… all have been used as job titles to describe what is essentially the same role. And while I like the metaphors used for some of the titles like the gardener, I don’t think we do ourselves a service by using them. By using some terrible made-up titles, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to let people know what we can do.
Job titles serve a number of roles in the industry: communicating your authority on a subject to people who have not worked with you (for example, in a panel or a job interview), and letting people know what you did in your job in short-hand. Now, tell me, does a “community ombudsman” rank higher than a “chief cat-herder”? Should I trust the opinion of a “Chief Community Officer” more than a “community gardener”? I can’t tell.
For better or worse, “Community manager” is widely used, and more or less understood. A community manager is someone who tries to keep existing community members happy and engaged, and grows the community by recruiting new members. The second order consequences of that can be varied: we can make our community happy by having better products, so some community managers focus a lot on technology (roadmaps, bug tracking, QA, documentation). Or you can make them happier by better communicating technology which is there – so other community managers concentrate on communication, blogging, Twitter, putting a public face on the development process. You can grow your community by recruiting new users and developers through promotion and outreach, or through business development.
While the role of a community manager is pretty well understood, it is a broad enough title to cover evangelist, product manager, marketing director, developer, release engineer and more.
Second: The job title will not matter inside your community. People in your company will give respect and authority according to who your boss is, perhaps, but people in the community will very quickly pigeon-hole you – are you doing good work and removing roadblocks, or are you a corporate mouthpiece, there to explain why unpopular decisions over which you had no control are actually good for the community? Sometimes you need to be both, but whatever you are predominantly, your community will see through it and categorize you appropriately.
What matters to me is that I am working with and in a community, working toward a vision I believe in, and enabling that community to be a nice place to work in where great things happen. Once I’m checking all those boxes, I really don’t care what my job title is, and I don’t think fellow community members and colleagues do either. My vision of community managers is that they are people who make the lives of community members (regardless of employers) a little better every day, often in ways that are invisible, and as long as you’re doing that, I don’t care what’s on your business card.