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Open your favorite search engine on another browser tab. Enter "Community Manager." Go ahead, I'll wait.

On Google, the first page of results reveals nine general links and three news links: one Wikipedia entry, five pages on community management as a social media function, two links to job postings for social media community managers, and a link to a page about real estate community managers. Of the three news stories, one was a piece on social community management, another on game community management, and the last on real estate community management.

Over on Bing, the same search reveals the same Wikipedia page, four job-search-related community management links, two links to social community management pages, and two real estate community management pages.

Yahoo? No less than eight ad-based search results, and pretty much the same mix and content that Bing had.

And so on.

Discouraging is that none of the results have links to anything to what is often referred to in the free and open source software community as "community manager"--that vague role of organizer, advocate, and general doer-of-things persona found at the vanguard of many FLOSS projects. Nothing about people like me or any of the fine folks you might meet at events like the Community Leadership Summit. Not even Jono Bacon!

You might think this is just a round of self-defeatism, but it's actually indicative of a larger problem within the FLOSS community management community: nobody knows just what it is we do. And because of this, members of this occupation are increasingly (and wrongly) shoved into doing work that not only wastes their time and that of their employers', but also fails to deliver the full value of what a community manager can do.

Knowing The Unknowable

This is ground that's been covered by me before, in a sense. But explaining a community manager's job to the in-laws is actually a little easier than explaining it to someone in the tech industry. Sometimes a lot easier. This is typically because non-technical people don't carry a lot of preconceptions with them about what a community manager might be. "Manager" is usually the most loaded word--people will tend to think you have a team of people whose professional lives you control like minions.

But in a technical environment, the opposite can be true. People will recognize, for the most part, the flexibility of the "manager" term and get hung up on the most loaded word for them: "community." And most often they have an idea of what "community" means to them and their business--and it may not be what it should be. Thus, you have to spend more effort deprogramming someone of their expectations of what a community manager is, pushing through their preconceptions and theories into which they may have invested a lot of effort and even resources.

Let's hit the low-hanging fruit on the misconception tree: communities as a consumable resource. This is the type of community that see its members as the user base or even a developer base. But that user base is a means to an end: potential customers. The developer base is seen as cheap or free labor. Community management in this type of situation is little more than a re-branded customer outreach and is very often where the social media-community manager resides. Their job is all about handling the customers née users. If they work with developers at all, it's usually as a contact point with the in-house engineering team.

I can think of at least three companies right off the top of my head where community is treated as such or is about to be treated that way. I am sure there are more. Look at those search engine results, after all... clearly a lot of other people have set ideas about the responsibilities a community manager is supposed to have, and they have only a tangential relationship with what a FLOSS community manager actually does. Search results reflect this limited perception and very likely shape reality, as well.

It does not help that community managers actually perform tasks that overlap heavily with what these resource-driven community managers are doing. I use social media as a tool to communicate with my community members, too, so it would be very easy to focus on that one thing as the main part of my job. (A community manager friend of mine recently told me that they were frequently tagged by their supervisors as the "meetup person"--as if that were the totality of their job description instead of maybe five percent of their work load.

Setting The Record Straight

This will not be an overnight fix.

Some would argue that the job itself is invalid. Aaron Seigo, for instance, has argued very strongly that "the 'community manager' role that is increasingly common in the free software world is a fraud and a farce." If the community manager is aligned with the corporation sponsoring the CM and not the community itself, then really this is still a resource manager, he argues, and the whole community concept is pointless.

I would push that this is an argument that goes too far in the other direction--and yes, feel free to pop me for pure self-interest. But I will say two things: at Red Hat, the role of community management is often debated and it is not always an easy conversation. Where does the role of community-led upstream end and the business-driven downstream begin? And vice versa?

And several of us have moved to the term "Community Liaison," which we hope more accurately reflects our jobs.

But a rebranding is not a complete fix. The notion of community in the FLOSS world, especially how it interfaces with business, is a very tricky one to solve. What is the best role we can serve, and how do we educate those who would try to "open wash" their projects and products so they know the real benefits of a vibrant community?

In the weeks ahead, I will address this topic more in conference talks and conversations with my colleagues within and without Red Hat. I hope to share the results here, and see if a dialog can be started that addresses the notion of what a community manager is and defines it for everyone.

About the author

Brian Proffitt is a Manager within Red Hat's Open Source Program Office, focusing on content generation, community metrics, and special projects. Brian's experience with community management includes knowledge of community onboarding, community health, and business alignment. Prior to joining Red Hat in 2014, he was a technology journalist with a focus on Linux and open source, and the author of 22 consumer technology books.