A lot of people have jumped on the Seahawks bandwagon in the last few weeks.
But as a diehard fan, I’ve been paying my dues for years trying to convince Seattle’s dual hipster/geek hegemony that football is somehow cool:
“No, it’s like, ironic because they really suck, and football is super working class, right?” (for the hipsters).
“Once you get into all of the different schemes and plays, it’s actually very intellectually stimulating” (for the geeks).
It hasn’t worked. I’ve been shunned, laughed at, and worst of all, lectured about the superiority of ‘real’ football (aka soccer).
So what am I to do with no friends I can share my obsession with?
At the tail end of last season I discovered Field Gulls, a blog devoted entirely to the Seahawks that’s part of the SB Nation network. SB stands for Sports Blog. And yes, they know Field Gulls is a dumb name – the tagline is “the studpidest name in smart football analysis”
I came to get my fix coverage and analysis of the Hawks when the 3 or 4 times a week Seattle Times articles were no longer feeding the monkey.
But my first love is journalism and what really blew me away about Field Gulls is not the analysis, or the reporting.
It’s the community.
Genuine online community engagement is the holy grail. Every content website wants it: Return traffic. Interaction.
Most don’t have it at all. Others pander to get it. Others get it and it’s a toxic wasteland that wilts our very faith in humanity. And here’s SB Nation with a virtual town square of social interaction, and all of it intelligent, witty, and thoroughly civil.
How do they do it?
Well, lucky for us, MCDM alum Michael Bean, has been an editor at SB Nation’s Pittsburg Steelers blog Behind the Steel Curtain since just after the network was launched in 2004 (yes, I finally forgave him for liking the Steelers). He recently moved out to NYC to take a job as a producer for their new video venture SB Nation Studios.
I asked him to help me identify a few keys to SB nation’s success building community online. Here’s what we came up with:
The Right Technology
The SB Nation blogs were started in 2004 by Oakland A’s blogger Tyler Bleszinski with the help of Daily Kos mastermind Markos Moulitsas. The goal was to bring the same community-centric approach to sports blogs that Kos had brought to progressive politics.
“It’s really the technology that allows for the unique community engagement,” Bean says.
The key advancement that he points to is actually pretty simple: auto-refreshing comments.
“In newspapers you submit comment and take off. That’s not a conversation, that’s just people barking,” he says. “Auto refreshing comments made it basically like a live chat.”
Take a bunch of sports fans watching their favorite team at home on their couch, and give them a live game thread to talk about the game in real-time, and suddenly you’ve got an online community sharing what we MCDMers might call a multi-screen experience.
“It makes you feel like you’re watching the game with a couple hundred friends at the bar,” says Bean. “People want to have those social experiences.”
On Field Gulls the average game thread gets upwards of 3000 comments. But that comment-juice also carries over to other posts, which typically have comment numbers in the triple digits.
Inclusion (with Leadership)
Another concept SB Nation borrowed from Daily KOS is the blurred line between readers and writers.
Each blog has an editor and a few paid writers, but there are also ample opportunities for other readers to publish what are called Fanposts.
“Everyone’s got something to say. The fan post is a way to open up the floor and make it so it’s not just one dude on their soapbox,” says Bean.
The Fanposts aren’t moderated, but they are curated so the best writers are rewarded with more prominent placement on the site.
This also means free user generated content for SB Nation, and what Bean describes as a “farm system” for the next cohort of paid writers. Write engaging material and build up cachet in the online community, and the next thing you know you might be a paid staffer.
This might also explain why the leadership feels so accessible and genuine. Unlike your classic newspaper journalist, SB Nation staffers write with personal voice and are active in comment threads. It feels like they’re a part of the reader community because in most cases that’s where they came from.
Rules of engagement
Keeping editors active in the comment threads means that they’re present to police the conversation, but having well laid out community guidelines for what’s acceptable and what’s not means that policing doesn’t feel arbitrary.
Each individual blog sets it’s own rules, but they all share a few restrictions in common:
“No religion, no politics allowed. When you strip that from the equation that eliminates a lot of the vitriol that happens in the first place.”
The Field Gulls rules go much further than that, holding high standards for spelling and grammar (even in comments), and banning trolling and bigotry.
Miraculously, they seem to have pulled it off. Part of the reason I spend so much time on Field Gulls is it’s one of the most pleasant neighborhoods I’ve ever found on the internet.
Bean describes a ‘tipping point’ where the majority of people are living up to a high standard and they start to police themselves.
The secret may be that commenters aren’t just passing through. In fact, there’s a two-day waiting period between registering for the site and actually being able to post.
“On SB nation you have a little buy in. You’re gonna be back tomorrow, you respect the other commenters, you respect the authors,” Bean explains. “People don’t want to be that guy. They feel they’re actually a part of something and they don’t want to tarnish that reputation. “
Now granted, Field Gulls hasn’t mastered everything. They did a site redesign a few months ago that murdered their mobile usability for a while. And some of the video production values are pretty low. (Sorry guys – I tell you cuz I love you. Let me know if you need a paid consultant!)
But if you can lock down the community engagement like they have, everything else will fall into place from there. Longevity. Advertisers. Influence. Even revenue.
Bean told me that the SB Nation parent company, Vox Media turned the corner to profitability this year. In the online journalism world I come from, that’s a pretty big deal.
And Go ‘Hawks!