Very Early Notes on the Online Creator to Community Manager Pipeline

I initially wanted to write something about this topic because of some personal ambivalence over a pretty stupid question: whether or not I, as someone writing and selling art online, had an obligation to make a Discord and/or other space for the people interested in my work to congregate. Talking to other writers and artists, people in various Patreon-adjacent Discords, and people who subscribe to other platforms made the stupidity of the question pretty evident: some creators do this stuff, others don't, and it's not really a huge deal. If I didn't feel like I had the time to add community management to my daily tasks, I wasn't being a bad writer or artist.

The more important question, maybe: why did I feel any sense of obligation? Why did I feel guilty for deciding that I didn't have the time or energy to run a forum on top of doing other work? Where was that guilt even directed, when not a one of my Patreon supporters had ever even asked for a Discord?

I want to reiterate that just because this isn't something I feel compelled to do doesn't mean this model is necessarily bad for all creators, or for audiences. I can see the appeal! One of the reasons Discords have become popular for creators is it provides a hack around the whims of the algorithm: rather than hope that Instagram puts your new post front and center, you can tell everyone in the Discord to check it out. It can also be a great way for creators to cultivate sources or get interesting recommendations—Anne Helen Peterson does this regularly and, it seems, pretty effectively—and stave off some of the isolation that comes with creative work. On the audience side, it seems like this trend reflects a desire for more intentional online community than the one experienced in the YouTube comment section or amidst the trash fire of Twitter. There's less context collapse in such an explicitly defined uh, context. It's maybe a more sociable variation on Google Reader: various Discord channels become places for information on or engagement with specific topics.

I think some of this comes back to this conflation of audiences and people who pay money for something as a "community." Commerce and conviviality of course can and do overlap. I have some really treasured relationships with local business owners in my neighborhood on the basis of being a regular customer, and back when I did customer service-type jobs I had plenty of beloved regulars. But there's an unspoken understanding in those sorts of relationships about their boundaries, and boundaries in platform-mediated relationships seem to get fuzzy a lot more often than the one between a cashier and customer IRL.

Talking about an audience or customers as a community isn't 100% wrong per se, but it can become yet another way of pretending that (broadly gestures) all this work isn't actually work but doing what you love, what you would do anyway even if there wasn't money. In 2014, good internet person and my friend Darius Kazemi gave an incredible meta-talk at the XOXO conference titled "How I Won The Lottery" which I encourage you to watch because it explains this uneasy tendency really wonderfully in a show-not-tell sort of way. Part of what Darius satirized in this talk, in addition to the entire structure of the Online Creator Who Makes It Big conference talk, was the constant invocation of the "community" that made the creator's success possible. It's a very heady days of Web 2.0 sentiment that has definitely extended into web3 discourse: you don't do sales or client management, you build community.

But, as Darius' talk exemplifies, it's not just the "community" that makes it possible for a creative endeavor to be financially sustainable for an artist: it's a whole mix of factors, including having the resources to put time and energy into the work of maintaining a community and a significant amount of dumb luck. Most of the people I know running lively, popular Discords have (paid and/or volunteer) moderators helping out. It's a big ask of someone's time and energy to build out community space as part of their creative practice, and it's an ask that can be risky for the person doing that work. Harassment and stalking can totally emerge from "community" members deciding they're not happy with a creator's boundaries or productivity.

I want to think more on this and probably try to convene some discussion with friends who do work online to talk about this dynamic. For now, this is just me thinking things through a bit.