At the Crossroads of Media, Culture and Technology

3 Things the Seahawks Taught Me About Online Community

How do you turn this kind of real world enthusiasm into online community? SB Nation has the secrets. (Photo from Flickr by Raffi Asdourian)

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

Start with the right technology and engagement will follow. Build sloppy infrastructure and you might end up doing this. (Photo from Seattle Municipal Archives)

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

It’s almost as hard referee civility online as it is on the football field. (User generated GIF from FieldGulls.com)

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. “

SB Nation by the numbers. Click to enlarge. (Courtesy Vox Media)

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.

Props.

And Go ‘Hawks!

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This post is categorized in: Business, Journalism, Sports

3 Responses to 3 Things the Seahawks Taught Me About Online Community

  1. Michael Bean says:

    Great write up Alex and thanks for reaching out. As for production value, only so much we can hold the hands of guys like Kenneth, especially when we’re making 15-20 of those recap videos each Sunday. Here’s more indicative barometer of our production quality! It’s a positional breakdown of Redskins-Seahawks matchup this weekend. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9xez6rmvtg

  2. Soggyblogger says:

    While I agree FG’s is great, and the technology is great, and the editorial inclusion in the community is great, but the community itself is twitterish. Only twitter-like but with extreme censorship.

    As much as I love fieldgulls for what it is – what it is is a Kool Aid drinkers only site, and am a Kool Aid drinker of extreme proportions. I have not been banned, though once one of the editors raised his figurative eyebrows at me, and I got back into line with all the lotus eaters. So to get a real debate I must return to the Seattle Times Seahawks Forum or Seattle P-I Seahawks Forum.

    If Seagulls were to have a virtual room set aside for uncensored debate it might achieve the lofty status you suggest. One of a true community.

    Instead it is like a oligarchy’s court. The editors are by an large benevolent dictators, and all the courtesans and attendants to the court go around with nothing but positive remarks about anything and everything with the exception of bad plays by the Seahawks.

    To listen to the comments section, the next voting for Nobel prize for literature will consist of at least three entries from seagulls writers. Don’t get me wrong. The writing is very very good. I enjoy it immensely, but it is the writing which is good. Not the community as you suggest. Unless you like a community of sheep, and kindly shepherds.

  3. Alex Stonehill says:

    Thanks for posting the other video Michael. It is lovely. Maybe I just haven’t dug deep enough in SB Nation’s video content because I’m hooked on the written posts and comments.

    Soggyblogger: I can see how the cheerleading and stiff regulations on FG might not be for everyone. To take your dictatorship metaphor further, so much of the internet is total cannibalistic anarchy that a little benevolent dictatorship keeping things under control doesn’t seem quite so bad.

    (BTW, points for using a political metaphor in a post about a site that prohibits politics — no wonder you got in trouble over there!)

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