7 things hip hop taught me about community

Guest Post from Mark Pollard (@markpollard): Currently, lead digital strategist at Leo Burnett. Moving in new year. Shhh. But more importantly CEO/Chief Editor/Administrator of Stealth Magazine

In the spirit of learning, the official soundtrack to this post

Over the past few years, when I've not been making strategy or changing nappies, chances are I've been doing something connected to hip hop. The good kind. Not the kind you made fun of when we were at school. The kind that makes you think, that challenges your perception of the world and makes you want to become more skillful.

Now, hip hop - as with most sub-cultures - comes with a lot of rules and hierarchy. It can be a difficult community to crack because it grew up being taken advantage of (by film-makers, photographers, record labels, media, advertisers). But the advent of the internet allowed newcomers to circumvent the system, to build new communities that weren't reliant on the rules of the hip hop establishment, and to find new audiences and distribution channels. My magazine, Stealth, was part of that changing guard.

I first published Stealth - the magazine and website - in 1999. Within a few years, the time required to publish an independent magazine (in its heyday it was 108 pages, full colour and came with a CD-Rom) led to the decision to simply turn the website into an online forum. This will change in the future now that print is becoming even more difficult to sustain.

The forum currently averages 20,000 visitors per month (with about 50% of traffic coming from search), hosts over 120,000 posts, and is read by people key to the scene, journalists, academics (one even wrote a paper on the dynamics on our message board - see footnote) and upcomers alike. Adsense covers hosting and I'd spend less than 1 hour per month on maintenance.

Here are a few things I've learnt from running the forum and creating a media vehicle that's purpose was about giving a voice to the under-represented and being an active part of a real-world community.

Work hard for credibility
This is a give and take kind of thing. Hard to earn, easy to lose. It takes time - you can't just launch something and expect people to take you seriously. You need to live and breathe it - not delegate it. You need to take a hit for the community, promote their cause - not just yours, work your arse off... then they'll respect you. Ammunition: knowledge, connections, ability and willingness to make things happen - for other people.

Help the influencers
Not ALL influencers are worth your time. Sometimes the people who seem the most influential are just the loudest and are the worst to deal with. I've often come across people I'd call King of the Kids - grown men who want the approval and following of teenagers (and hang out with them all the time because it makes them feel important). They look influential but don't always have people's best interests at heart, and will always complain. However, the influencers who are worth connecting with will help you help them help you once you've invested energy in them. Get to know them personally - and don't sell to them. They're too smart for that.

Anonymity sucks, authenticity's cool
Don't be an anonymous brand 'doing viral' (and don't 'do viral') and don't allow people to post or contribute to your websites anonymously. Our website has a low number of members (under 2000) compared to the number of visitors (over 120,000 uniques per year) so I temporarily experimented with anonymous posting. It led to really bad karma on the site with people putting each other down. Lord of the Flies stuff. Real relationships are built through authenticity - it's one reason I used to insist writers in Stealth be credited with their real names (unless they were known figures).

Drama wins every time
As with most blogs you read, the posts that get the most views have DRAMA. Any time there was a fight, any time there was sledging between different graffiti crews, these posts would get the most views. Quickly. When Triple J started to play Australian hip hop, I wrote that the hip hop they chose was gimmicky and slightly racist (long story), and within days we'd had thousands of views. This is the sort of stuff that gets emailed around, talked about face to face. If it isn't hurting someone, it's OK to let it happen. If you do it intentionally, all the time, people will bore quickly.

You need to let go
Yes, this point is in every "Thingamajig 2.0" presentation. What I found is that creating a 'leadership' vacuum (ie for the main people to not always be the ones who solve problems, post articles) leads to other people getting more involved, feeling ownership of the community. Over time, you get a feeling for the people who care most about your online community so I would invite them to become moderators and see how else I could work with them (employ them, ask them to write, etc). Letting go is not about being negligent. It's about not being anal and controlling.

People self-regulate
Following on from the previous point, letting go typically sees communities of people self-regulate - especially if a mutual set of values is understood and shared (something a brand can expedite). And if people aren't allowed to be anonymous. If debate is smart and of substance (and doesn't lead to physical threats), then let it happen - and don't feel you need to express a point of view or take sides.

Offline influences online
I'm finding this point true with my recent (and second) flirtation with Twitter. Much as offline brand activity can spike online activity (eg watching a TVC can lead directly to Google), much as meeting your Twitter friends face to face leads to more @ messages and other networking opportunities, if you run a community, get off the computer as much as possible to meet that community. It will make a lot of difference. It's why this post is on Julian's blog right now.

So, really, the main points here are about being 'real' - not hiding behind a corporate veil, and understanding that the online world (for brands as much as people) truly follows many of the same human and tribal truths we know intuitively. Oh, and there's nothing wrong with making mistakes - there's no drama in perfection.

Stealth stuff on the interwebs
Facebook group

We've had a few occasions where the forum has attacked journalists and academics. One of the most interesting started after members of our message board had criticised Ian Maxwell's book, Phat Beats. He came across their criticisms and then wrote a paper ("When Worlds Collide: A Subculture Writes Back") about the online community hierarchy without consulting anyone - it was a bit mean. The paper was then found, posted and criticised until he eventually joined the forum and discussed his thoughts. DRAMA! Read the post here.

Next week: How Julian Cole games you: A cynical take on strategic blogging


Kate Richardson said...

I wouldn't know the hip hop scene from a knitting circle but really interesting post Mark.

The influencer thing rings very true. People are starting to get way too loose with this term. It's got the 'viral' disease where people start to attribute 'influencers' to virtually any social media campaign

Let's reclaim it!

Ben Shepherd said...

What a great post!

Danger - reminscing coming up ...

It's weird - Mark and I used to email/speak a bit back in 2000 when we both worked dot com jobs and both wrote about music. 8 years later we're both in the same industry.

Stealth Mag for me was something I could relate to. I loved magazines (and still do) and I loved hip hop (and still do). I was at my Mum's last night and found in my collection of old Music Media from 95-2001 a copy of the Stealth with prince Paul on the front (from the time A Prince Amongst Thieves was released)

Stealth introduced me to Next Level in sydney - so when I went up for work I'd blow my dot com millionaires money buying graff books and hip hop 12's. It was also a good time I think for local hip hop - Burn Crew design was fresh, Obese was really coming of age (label and store), Rock Da City graff book/CD was out and getting publicity, DMC comps were full of action and drama.

Ah memories. Mark - you probably know this but I've got nothing but big respect for you mate.

Anonymous said...

well written and on point.

I really agree with Kate's point about influencers. There's a whole industry devoted to the identification and courting of this extremely nebulous group. I think one could argue that influence (like beauty) is in the eye of the beholder.

PS: Big L rest in peace, Gangstarr, one of the best yet.

marz said...

Great post Mark.

Age said...

awesome read boys.

Anonymous said...

@Ben Shepherd Thanks for the story and propppppers. That time was a beautiful period in Australian hip hop.

@Ben Phillips @Kate Agree about misuse/misunderstanding of the term but then most labels are imperfect. I don't like it (although I'll reluctantly use it) because it depersonalises interesting people.

@Age @Marcelo Thanks guys! (BTW Marcelo took the cover shot for Def Wish Cast's first album. If you know, you know.)

Scott Drummond said...

Hey Mark,

really enjoyed the post - so much good thinking around community here.

Especially resonant for me were your points on offline influencing online and self regulation.

I think people fixate too much on community as something that happens on websites and social networks. Actually, it's something that is all around us and is pretty much innate.

Engaging people offline also helps them to buy into the community's values and goals, and you then have a better chance of getting them to patronise whatever online space it is that you want them to be a part of.

As for self-regulation, it's vital for almost all community sites to encourage the users to invest in the space and take a certain amount of ownership over issues that arise within the community.

This helps people to feel that it is their community, not someone else's, and it also helps with the long-term scalability of the community management.

On a side note, I'm currently listening to plenty of German hip hop from late 90s and early 00s, so in case you know them - the Stieber Twins, MC Torch and Die Fantastichen Vier.

Tristan said...

Competely second everyone else's comments on this being a good read.... lots of thought provoking ideas there.

Not sure i completely agree with the need for real names to be used in posts and writing though. Sure, real names build authenticity and relationships, but you may end up alienating people by enforcing this.

I would guess that the majority of the hip hop community would happily express their opinions largely and proudly... but this is not for everyone. Some prefer subtlety & anonymity.

Surely, the worthy content and thoughts in a comment/post/article still have the same worth regardless of the name behind it... or lack thereof?

But hey, a SMALL issue in a great article!

Anonymous said...

@Scott Thanks for your thoughts. Definitely agree re: offline/online seamless-ness (except in marketing depts and agencies!!).

@Tristan Wasn't saying 'use real names' everywhere - but the example I was giving was when we allowed people to post with NO name so username would be 'Anonymous'. Most people have an online name/persona or 2 and stay true to them.

AKTIFMAG said...

Stealth is a great mag,full of quality. It really is a benchmark.For some of you guys who probably arn't aware of Stealth, he has been producing a quality product for many years.

From my online persona

Kane Ludic

Julian Cole said...

As I was saying to Mark in an email, this has just given my blog so much credibility, most of my posts are as Zac Martin likes to say 'I hope I dont die tomorrow because this would be a bad post to go out on'.

When I asked Mark to write about Stealth Mag, I knew there would be 3 massive fans (Age, Ben and Aktifmag) it is good to see all you guys enjoyed it too but also to hear from alot of other people as well.

I think forums and bulletin boards are looked over alot in terms of social media marketing, i really see them as the antecedent to social media and alot can be learnt about community, social media and engagement from these environments. It is great to see that Mark was able to distill alot of the major learning into one post, thanks dude.

I think it has brought up a really good discussion around the label 'influencer', the term is used quiet alot with social media marketing especially by me.

To top this hip hop week off, I am now off to watch the Melbourne Graffiti Documentary Rash!

Look forward to what you have to say on my blogging strategy next week! ; )

MrTruffle said...

Interesting post Mark. Why do you think you only have a registered audience of <2000 but with a lot of traffic?

And yeah I think forums had a bad stigma about them but if you have a topic with a fan base and regular visitors a forum is a great community tool. Look at Vogue.com.au that's the only thing holding that site up is the forum.

Anonymous said...

@Aktif - Maaate. Been a while. Heard your with the 3 drunken apes? Thanks for the kind words.

@Julian Thanks for having me. Nice writing again. Has been too long.

@MrTruffle - yes, forums are great but take time to build and manage initially. There'd be a lot of reasons why registrations are low compared to traffic. Firstly, I'm not pushing it - the community has been pretty content and large influxes of people can change the dynamic quickly - often with lower quality contributions.

Some of the reasons would be: the design/interface/user experience isn't great (but hey it was free). Sydney skew. It's probably an older board than some and has a certain collective opinion that won't be for all. No reason to join unless you want to post - plenty of people don't contribute to forums, just happy to read. etc etc.

Ian Lyons said...

Nice one Mr Pollard - here are my take aways from the article for marketers ...

* community doesn't have to be huge, just engaged
* budget enough time to earn credibility
* dig deeper to find the real influencers
* anonymity is the enemy of civility
* work towards a self sustaining / moderating community
* use online to find great reasons to meet in the real world
* assume mistakes will be made - your brand will emerge from how you chose to deal with them

Anonymous said...

Great post Mark, really fascinating to hear your thoughts on community. I think there is a huge amount to be gleaned from the guys who have been doing this for years.

Looking forward to the next one :)