A few months ago, one of Detroit’s local news anchors (Stephen Clark from WXYZ Channel 7), started using Twitter during the news broadcast. People started tweeting back to him during the newscast and he would refer to on-air stories using Twitter in real-time and give viewers and fans shout-outs. This engaged a new audience and people started getting excited about local television news again. After it got more and more popular, he made it official, called it the #Backchannel, and started taking ideas for news stories from Twitter tips. Now, during a typical 11 o’clock news broadcast, several Detroit-area Twitter users can be seen trying to get Stephen’s attention via #backchannel tweets. He does his part; he talks and engages and sometimes, hey, people’s news stories make it up onto the big screen. All in all, it’s pretty cool.
We talked about community and Twitter and all this stuff at Tweetea the other night, and I presented the argument: Who is the community manager for #backchannel and how does one manage a community that only exists via a hashtag on Twitter?
Now, there’s really no debate that #backchannel is a community. When a group of people identify themselves by a common trait, you have a community. Recently, I went to a big party in Detroit with nearly 500 people, and Stephen Clark happened to be there. He took a mic and made a shoutout: “Who are my Backchannel friends in the audience?” and several dozen people started cheering. That’s a community. Those people, even if they’ve never met before then, were all together under a common #banner.
The problem for Stephen is that right now, he’s the de facto community manager for this group, but the group only exists as a hashtag. Any online community manager needs certain technological tools to be able to effectively manage a community. At the bare minimum, one needs to be able to deal with trolls, spammers, and shills. One needs to be able to keep the message on target, and keep the group engaged to keep their interest going, and one needs to be able to have some sort of say in the flow of information.
Twitter does not give Stephen any control at all over the hashtag. If I wanted to, I could “take over” the #backchannel hashtag right now by calling up a flash mob, or spamming it with links to porn, or using it to spam my business. Stephen could do nothing about that, other than asking nicely (which, we all know, doesn’t work on those with bad intentions.)
There was a bit of a #backchannel snafu the other night, and Stephen had to address the issue “off the channel”, on his blog. A local Twitter user made a valid, but somewhat disparaging remark about the use of the backchannel, and Stephen had two choices: He could either engage this person on Twitter, in 140 character chunks (not very easy, and also bad Twitter etiquette to carry on a protracted conversation with one person over many tweets), or answer her on his blog (which he did). The backchannel community could technically use Stephen’s blog as a central location for discussion about the issue, but nobody really wants to use someone’s personal blog as the hub of a community.
Online communities need solid technology platforms to grow. You can either grow your own (Facebook, Yelp) or use solid software as a framework (Vanilla, which is what Icrontic will be transitioning to). Discussions are a critical part of the online experience, and as more and more people choose to throw in with various online communities, the need for community managers and the tools to empower them is growing more and more every day. The way things are right now, Twitter and its hashtag system are not the right tools for the job.