A Discussion on Better Utilizing Slack & Discourse

Slack Discussions & Keeping up Member Engagement

This is a conversation on how we best use Slack, Discourse, and other community management tools with our Brigades and within the broader Network.

Bringing a conversation over from Slack:

Sparked by @mzagaja:

As the Omicron wave hits we are being forced to concede that we’re going to be a bit more virtual than we hoped in 2022. Spent some time noodling on virtual things last night and one I wanted to throw down for discussion is the issue of engagement in Slack. I am not sure what other brigades communities are like but our engagement in slack is and has always been dead(ish). Some project channels will light up a bit on hack night but otherwise folks don’t make or engage with public posts. In the before times I didn’t care about this as much but in virtual times I worry that it makes our community appear dead and is less welcoming and engaging to new folks. Harlan suggested that folks might have “stage fright” posting in a Slack with 3300 people in it. Wondering what slack engagement looks like in other Brigades. Do folks post in public channels? How do you get people to engage? Does it even matter? As someone who came from the world of IRC and discussion boards I find this behavior pattern weird but I am also willing to be told I’m old fashioned and people only chat on DMs in 2021.

Advice on Slack Engagement

From @Shaunm44

What I have seen that makes virtual spaces, especially Slack, thrive are fostering conversations that are not always about “the work (or business)”. Slack is a great place to bring people together around common goals and projects, but we also have more in common than just that one initiative.

So, things that have helped has been:

  • asking fun, random questions to spark conversation
  • Slackmojis! :magic: :100-sparkles: :party-sparkles:

Note, as with any language/ tool, we have to be mindful of what we do, the impacts it can have, and recognize language is always shifting. So, what was acceptable one day may change into something harmful in the future.

  • Happy hours
  • Collaborating with other active members via private convo, then encourage them to engage publicly

From @skora

Cleveland’s slack isn’t too active (there’s times where there’s no messages for a week or 2 at a time) throughout our brigade’s existence; and most activity that does happen, occurs in project specific channels as Matt mentioned. I, too, feel atypical, that I’m quite comfortable w/ discussion boards/forums/etc … one thing that I have noticed is that activity does snowball a little (people tend to post when others post).; another is that people maybe belong to multiple slacks and don’t know which emails and passwords belong to which slack they signed up to (this isn’t as much on an issue as it was, if you have the app installed on the phone).

From @GJordanDetamore

In Code for DC our project groups do have some level of conversation outside of project nights, though exactly how much depends on the specific project.
In our general channel, about half the posts are from me. It’s not really a place where much in the way of involved discussions happens.
In the channel that we just for planning project nights, most of the posts are from me, usually some version of “how to these upcoming dates work for folks?”
We also have a jobs channel where people post jobs announcements.

From @JMMaok

North Carolina has long also had its own Slack. With our new Code for the Carolinas identity, we will be looking at the effectiveness of that workspace

Effectiveness of Slack & Discourse

The conversation branched beyond the original prompt, starting to engage with ideas of if/how/when to use Slack, and how we might use other platforms like Discourse, to effectively share conversations:

Related post from @chris
Slack vs Discourse and when to use each

From @elb the idea of the Digital Trinity from TheHum.org:

DigitalTrinity-200317-145600.pdf (159.5 KB)

I wonder if there’s a way to have a centralized Asynchronous forum like Discourse, where the moderation is helped along by staff - but each Brigade could have its own sub-forum to chat about local items. We’re often discussing many of the same things, or seek to look across the Network for expertise. I don’t see many brigade leaders with a ton of extra time who would look at the suggestion of adding a new tool to monitor and moderate and think it’s a viable option. But what if we shared and distributed that burden while maintaining some autonomy for each local area/region?

From @JMMaok

Also, after picking a set of tools, we will all benefit from spending a little formal time learning their features. Even in Slack, features like pin to channel and reply to thread make a huge difference in how useful the workspace is.

From @mzagaja

I think the discourse thing is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. A post like this would go great there. But the lack of existing engagement leads me to believe it would go unnoticed versus Slack. Is there a way to jumpstart it?

Community Stewardship & Moderation

From @elb

one [idea] would be by creating a group of core maintainers who tend the commons and provide the gentle nudges / reminders & seed proactive discussions in Discourse.

From @Shaunm44

The latest comments are making me think of a few additional ideas:

  1. In addition to subgroups on Discourse being by brigades/ state/ region, another is topics. I think that’s there some, but it’s just an additional way to consider the various slices of overlap we have on various projects.

  2. Maybe we can define a committee of “Community Stewards”. I do it voluntarily and purely under my own guidance. It would definitely be up-leveled with pair-thinking from other community stewards.

  3. This brings along its own questions and challenges:

  4. Is it purely volunteer led?

  5. How long should terms be?

  6. Who picks the leads?

  7. Should we divide presence by platform? region? topic? other?

  8. Although I think those sets of questions can ultimately be answered through experimentation

  9. Thinking of “Community Stewards” reminds me of a tangent idea I’ve had - non-tech space within CFA. There’s a lot of energy and expertise on technical areas, but non-technical thinking (organizing, partnerships, communications, funding, etc) feels like an afterthought at best. It would be really great if we could create and maintain dedicated space(s) for these other problems as well.

From @JMMaok

Another good place to start would be getting community buy-in on the model and some norms. Discourse seems to be, at least potentially, public on the web, which is something I think we should be thoughtful about.

From @elb

That’s a great point, Jennifer, on the privacy aspect. We are able to have “locked” forums on Discourse, too. But the entire site is mostly public and indexed on search engines. I wonder if that can be turned off/changed - could check. Knowing that this is veering away from the original conversation topic, but another thing that comes to mind is having a single sign on for Slack and discourse and any other tools. That might also tie in to better defining what it means to be a member of the Network.

From @chris

I think forums def need some active “tummeling” to get off the ground. And slack can be leverage to that end! I think there are a few activities community moderators can engage in to those ends:

  • See an interesting/extensive discussion in slack, take some notes on the ideas/outcomes/conclusions into a discourse post and then write back to the slack thread “Great discussion everyone! I’ve captured some of this in a discourse post so we can continue this long term: ”
  • Create topics in discourse around current things of interest and use slack to promote engaging in them “Hey everyone, we’re really interested in how people are doing ____, please contribute any thoughts to this forum thread: ”
  • In conjunction with the “static” space, use the forum to anchor produced static assets in time where they can be discovered and discussed

A good example of the first one that comes to mind because I did it is this thread: Courtbot History and Evolution
That started as a convo in slack where a bunch of resources got shared, then i cleaned it up into discourse and shared the thread back. If you look at the history for that topic, you can see it’s gone through tons of revisions with contributions from many people. Once I did the labor as a moderator of initially organizing a bunch of valuable info that surfaced in a Slack stream into a structure, people were able to jump in to adding/correcting that already-structured data incrementally. I think the hard part to crowd source is going from unstructured convo to structured knowledge, but once someone takes a first pass at that the barrier to entry drops exponentially for people to correct/amend within the established structure.
(And that example thread for example later got split out into multiple articles within a dedicated category:

to some all that up — there is no “natural force” to push crowds from chaotic disorganized discussion to organized knowledge building. No amount of UX or tooling will make that happen. It has to be someone’s job

From @mzagaja

A single sign in for the community is an interesting idea That’s also been on my mind as I ask people to sign up for like three things to be in Code for Boston.
I think having private spaces in discourse would be valuable, but don’t think it should be private as a default. A large part of the challenge for even our Slack community in Code for Boston is how much discussion is hidden behind walls of folks DMs, even though the wider community would benefit. This compounds and in my mind contributes to the “dead” vibe in Slack that isn’t super welcoming to new folks, and not inclusive of the wider membership.
Love the ideas around community stewards.

From @JMMaok

A place we could start now, building on the enthusiasm in this thread, might be informal learning sessions about the features of Slack and Discourse, broadening our base of people who can bring more informed ideas about how we use them.

From @elb

Some ideas that come up from this thread on the staff side, which @bentrevino and I have been discussing are a formalizing of support for network stewards - similar to what @Shaun suggested above. That could start as simply as identifying who is already doing this work, and connecting each other/ creating space to flag or identify needs, and the ability/authority to make actionable, staff-supported recommendations. For instance, @Matt Zagaja and @Jennifer Miller are both stewards in sharing lessons & sparking conversation topics (like this one!) - @Arthur Smid continually shares interesting info from the broader ecosystem - and I see both @Mary C Norris and @Shaun do informal welcoming duties with new people. I wonder what a good use of time & space could be for those people, and anyone else who might be interested in some community stewardship - formal committee structure? a slack channel?There’s also the piece @chris (former NAC) mentioned of needing some renumeration for the labor of discourse-ifying discussions. And Ben and I discussed how that could fit into our newly expanded staffing capacity yesterday.I’d also want to harken back to the early days of 2020 when we tried to kickstart a documentation-athon & even held a “spring cleaning” event. That related work still needs to happen (like cleaning out old Slack channels) and my hope is that it can happen with staff support in tandem with the need to re-do our organizational messaging & network website presence to reflect ReVisioning (to @Gregory Janesch point about not even being aware of Discourse - adding discourse to the website alongside Slack comes to mind as something we can include in that refresh - as well as onboarding, etc!)

Discourse Tips & Tricks

Adding in some of @chris’ comments on Discourse moderation & how-to’s:

And as you can see above, one really interesting opportunity to be intentional in how Slack<->Discourse overlap is deliberately designing the “unfurl” — when you paste a discourse link into Slack a preview of the thread “unfurls” that includes the first “line” of text up to a point. So there’s an art to making the first line of a post serve as an “ad” for the topic when it gets shared on Slack.
Typically, CfA would just spam the zoom registration link around for these sorts of things. It might seem trivial to “wrap” a discourse thread around something like that, but there are numerous benefits:

  • Getting to design a quality unfurl (twitter unfurls too)
  • You expend tons of energy promoting this link across a wide footprint: twitter, facebook, slacks, etc. If you blow all that on a zoom registration link it’s entirely useless to people who come across it after the event. With a Discourse thread in the middle you can update it it afterwards with the recording or notes
  • People have a path to engage with follow-up questions or ideas
  • It becomes a discoverable part of the community’s cannon, browsable on the forum and searchable from Google.

The thread I linked to above for example only had one reply, so you might consider it a “failure” in terms of engagement. But also 709 people have viewed it since (edited)

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Thanks for pulling this together! For us power users another way to more easily access Discourse is to download the DiscourseHub app for your mobile device. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/discourse-hub/id1173672076

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Thanks, Em! Apparently I had been here before …

Discourse strikes me as a good example of value alignment in our choice of technology.

I think the keys are buy-in, norms, resources, and role modeling.

Discourse does seem to have notification, private thread, and direct message features. If we were using those features, we might feel about Discourse much the way we feel about Slack. That’s a big part of why I lean toward centering buy-in and norms. The public and search-indexed aspect is the big feature difference that needs consideration.

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Thank you for this energized discussion that is in great need of being brought to the forefront!

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