Ana Noemi Hevesi is anything but a conventional community thinker. She draws inspiration from places many of us would never think to look. Then she thoughtfully implements her outside inspiration into her work, building and managing one of the world’s largest network of online communities.
Ana builds community at Stack Exchange in New York City, a network of 140+ Q&A communities (one of those is Stack Overflow, the largest Q&A community for programmers in the world) and previously worked with the node.js community and at Shapeways.
She is one of the most interesting thinkers in the community space, often bridging the technical with the relational, the scrappy startup sensibility with the insight of someone who deeply understands human relationships.
It’s rare that we get to learn about next-level community building outside of the examples that many startups provide. Ana will give us a glimpse into how online community has evolved and how we can bridge our experience with longstanding examples of community that we’ve never seen applied in this context before.
How Finding Outside Inspiration Helps Us Do Better Work
One of the things that Ana has noticed time and again in her work is that community builders often struggle to explain their value.
She proposes that – although community management is new in the startup world – rallying people is a well-established tradition spanning across human history. This means we have a wealth of established disciplines to draw from, which we can use to inspire us and make the case to our companies.
“We spend a lot of time explaining ourselves and our roles as community builders” Ana explains, “and we often struggle to be understood.”
“There are many powerful examples of communities outside of the startup world, and we should be building on their successes. The idea is to put us all into a stronger position as a result.”
This is something that she and her team at Stack Exchange put into action in their meetings and daily work — and that Ana will walk us through at CMX Summit.
“I will very often look at patterns of where communications tend to break down over and over in the community,” Ana explains. “I find myself trying to figure out what other communities have done about similar problems so that I might be able to find better solutions.”
“There’s a culture on my team of sharing what you’re thinking about and sharing what you’re learning, and we tend to use outside examples to make ourselves understood. Keeping a philosophical mindset helps us do better work.”
Here are four communities Ana suggests we look to for community inspiration. At CMX Summit, she’ll delve deeply into how looking outside of startups and conventional communities helps us do better work as community professionals.
The Four Unconventional Communities Ana Looks to For Outside Inspiration
1. Burning Man
Burning Man is one of the most impressive offline community stories you can look to for inspiration, Ana says. She returns to it as a guide in her work again and again.
“It’s a community of 50,000 people who gather in the desert for a week, assemble a city from scratch and throw an enormous party, and then disassemble and leave nothing behind.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our online community spaces could work in much the same way?
“At Burning Man, everyone is expected to participate and to express themselves fully, while still taking responsibility for their actions. It’s also a very impressive logistical feat. You need serious community member buy-in to build up and break down something that big on that timeframe. This mirrors what we all do as community professionals.”
And, she says, “It’s a really ambitious task.” All of our work is similarly ambitious, as we wrangle people together and give them the confidence they need to contribute to something larger than themselves. This can create logistical nightmares that keep us up at night. But Burning Man does it year after year, with offshoot events happening in more cities all the time.
“It’s proof that when you give people something they really want to be a part of, they’ll go the ends of the earth.”
At CMX Summit, Ana will delve into exactly how Burning Man does what they do and how you can apply that to your online community.
“Linux is free, open-source software that has really built the foundation of computing – in a distributed way. Linux was built collaboratively over the internet by programmers donating their time, many of whom only knew each other from the internet.”
What’s interesting to Ana is that this is really the root of everything we do online today. “Online community’s roots are in the days of when people using computers and building computers were the same — you couldn’t be part of one community one without being in the other.”
There are countless lessons for us in the way that the modern computer has been built and changed over time, in how Linux developers communicated during the software’s evolution and how the community continues to evolve today.
3. Urban planning
One of the most fascinating ways to look at community is through the lens of city planning. It’s all about “how spaces are built and designed for people to be in them and interact in them,” says Ana. You can look at your own community space as if it were a city: How do people run into one another? Do they feel safe? Is there a central gathering place? Does everyone feel like they have a neighborhood to call their own?
For instance, Central Park is a great example of a community space that transforms an entire city. “Central Park is in the middle of the island of Manhattan,” Ana says. It creates a central gathering point for a city that is otherwise notoriously cold and hectic.
“Or we can take a look at the length of city blocks — if they’re too long, then people will go along certain paths and people will not go down side streets. They can create a cordoned-off neighborhood, but neighborhoods thrive when people serendipitously bump into one another.” Ana thinks constantly about how this applies to her online community work.
Jane Jacobs’s famous book The Death and Life of Great American Cities carves out this conversation further, cementing the idea that the spaces we create can either empower us and bring us safety (a central part of creating a sense of community) or can cut us off from one another.
Ana will provide us with more real-world examples of how community and urban planning can intersect.
4. Alcoholics Anonymous
Alcoholics Anonymous is another international community that Ana looks to for inspiration.
“Talk about a group of people making a concerted effort to make their lives better.” The group has mentors, regular events, and check-ins, all of which tie people to the community for life. “Alcoholics Anonymous is all about hacking habit loops and cementing your progress with the help of your peers. Their model is wildly effective.”
The community has existed for over 80 years and is more relevant in our lives today than it ever has been before. What does AA do that we can learn from? How has the AA message spread around the world and improved the lives of countless people?
And, most importantly, how can your community start to do the same?
Don’t miss Ana Hevesi’s talk at CMX Summit on May 19 in New York City. Get your ticket today!