How much information should community managers share?

by Martin Reed on 2 May 2008 in Articles

Admins of online communities

It is important that you share information about yourself if you expect your members to do the same. Unfortunately, as an administrator or moderator you are not the same as other members, so how much information should you share?

What is your community’s personality?

In real life, we reveal varying amounts of information about ourselves according to our audience. We may be willing to share sensitive medical information with our family, but would probably try to avoid this in a job interview. You need to understand the personality of your online community before determining whether sharing certain information is a good idea.

What information should you share?

An online community with a jokey atmosphere may not like to hear about your previous bouts of depression; you may well be commended for sharing such a sensitive part of your past, but such a serious topic would not be suitable for such a community. You may however, chose to share information about the time you fainted before getting that vaccination a few years ago as this personal anecdote fits in with the spirit of the community.

Is the information appropriate to share?

It is not a good idea to share everything with your community. Some things about you should be kept personal. If your community is against animal testing, you probably shouldn’t reveal your past as an employee of Huntingdon Life Sciences. You should also think about how people will react to the information you wish to share; does your community frown on the youth of today? If so, you may not wish to share the fact you are only 17 years old!

Only share what you are comfortable with

When I started Just Chat, I chose to reveal very little personal information about myself. At the same time, I wanted to come across as friendly and approachable. I was happy to share my personality and small anecdotes from time to time, but I didn’t want my community to focus around me – I wanted to take more of a back seat, and allow the community to evolve its own personality.

I was uncomfortable with sharing too much information about myself; I chose not to share my age, because at the time I started Just Chat I was only 19 years of age and thought that this may result in some members deciding they did not need to respect me or the community. Sure, if they decided to be disrespectful I could simply remove their posts or account. However, I chose to avoid the situation by not revealing this information about myself.

Share, but don’t share too much

You will struggle to develop a successful online community if you do not share information about yourself. It is important though, that you know what is appropriate to share, and what isn’t. This depends on the personality of your community and your objectives. Don’t feel forced to share information you are uncomfortable with, but make sure that you do share something from time to time.

When we share, we build relationships and trust. If you share, your community will follow your lead, resulting in a far more interactive and engaging community. Remember – you need to be involved in your community, but you don’t want to overwhelm it. Your online community shouldn’t be full of content that involves you talking about yourself. It should however, involve you and see you sharing some personal information from time to time.

You can be personal without revealing too much information about yourself – it’s all down to you deciding what you want to share, and how appropriate it is for your community.

Hermits can still be successful administrators of online communities

It is entirely possible to develop a successful online community with your members knowing almost nothing about you. Hardly any of the members at Just Chat know my age, what I look like or where in the country I am from – I have chosen to keep that to myself. At the same time though, I like to think that my members consider me approachable and personable. I achieve this by getting involved in the community, sharing what I am comfortable with and displaying an interest in my members.

You shouldn’t be anonymous – people want to see that you are a real, human being. At the same time, you need to decide just how much information you want to reveal about yourself. Remember – once the information is out, you can’t retract it so think carefully before hitting the submit button!

Your thoughts

How much information do you think administrators of online communities should share? Should they be forthcoming with any and all information their members request? Should they remain invisible and impartial or should they be the driving personality behind the community? How much information do you share? Share your thoughts, opinions and experiences by leaving a comment below.

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Smiley May 3, 2008 at 6:22 am

Thank you for the article Martin, it has been of great help, as you always are. It’s much appreciated.

I was uncomfortable with sharing too much information about myself; I chose not to share my age, because at the time I started Just Chat I was only 19 years of age and thought that this may result in some members deciding they did not need to respect me or the community.

Yes, this is the main trouble I’m having right now. People already know my age, and it won’t be forgotten for a long time. But now I’ve started to take more of a back seat, and although still trying to be friendly, I’m trying to be less personal.

Anyway, this article is bookmarked. When ever I’m having a crisis of decision concerning any user’s questions or how personal to get – I have the perfect article to refer to.

I’m off to have a very good think about how I’m going to post in the future.

Personal opinions etc I’ve started holding back on. If there’s a discussion I’m interested in, instead of waving in with my opinions, I simply summarize both sides of the argument and encourage the discussion to carry on.. without actually giving my own opinion.

Some of the older regs are too dependent on me, some don’t even chat in the chats unless I’m there, that’s what i’m trying to get out of. Be more distant.. but still be approachable at the same time.

It’s a hard balance eh?

Amish Made Furniture May 3, 2008 at 12:32 pm

Pilots have a great phrase for this. Seat of the pant flying. That is how I would look at how much information I need to share. You cannot be rigid about it. You simply play it by the ear as the administrator or the moderator. Take a look at some communities on the blogsphere, some mighty fine people who wear their hearts on their sleeves and share everything possible about themselves are there. They have extremely useful blogs with loyal following and quite good traffic.

Ryan May 4, 2008 at 2:00 am

You’re right with the trust comment. It seems the more you’re willing to share with your members the more trust you can build between you and them. For a site where trust is an issue – tech support, that sort of thing – I think you should be more open. For sites where trust isn’t as much of an issue – humor sites for example – then being anonymous could be ok.

Of course there’s all sorts of information not to share. Street address, phone number, that sort of thing seem like information you shouldn’t be sharing.

Michelle from the Coulee Region May 4, 2008 at 3:08 pm

This is something I’ve struggled with as well. The fact that my site is a local one and people on it are much more likely to live nearby than you normally find on the internet makes me doubly nervous. So far I haven’t gotten any crazies. Let’s hope it stays that way!


Smiley May 4, 2008 at 3:55 pm

Well that’s one advantage being really personal from day one has got me. My members trust me. But this has backfired in the way that they’re dependent on me and seem to revolve around me, so I’m trying to get out of that position.

I’ve given someone else the (Host) tag and given myself simply (Founder) and started taking a back seat putting someone else “in charge” and I’m trying to be the guy that pops in from time to time to check on things and show I care.

The chats have gone quiet since I’ve been more backseat though, the regs just don’t go in unless they see my name. I’m sure after a while they’ll get used to it and the chats will pick up again. Just a case of playing the waiting game.

I’d advise anyone to be careful when being on a personal level with your users when you start off. Being friendly and approachable is one thing, but I made the mistake of seeing myself as just another user like them, enjoyed chatting and posting.. if you’re like that it seems they get dependent on it.

Eva White May 5, 2008 at 9:09 am

Hey Martin first let me congratulate you for the new look to the blog. I think it just looks simply awesome.
A very nice article and very well explained points.

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 5, 2008 at 4:37 pm

Smiley – I think you should still get involved in conversations and share your opinions from time to time. If you are trying to take more of a back seat, you should pull out gradually, over an extended period of time. If you suddenly disappear, you may find your members follow your example!

Ramana – I agree with you to a certain extent. Playing it by ear is a good idea, but it may lead to you getting involved in conversations you may have otherwise avoided. It’s up to the individual just how much they want to share, and under what circumstances.

Ryan – You make some extremely good points. Developers of communities that require trust in order to succeed should share more information, whereas in other communities building trust may be less important. It’s all about striking a healthy balance so you can build trust without revealing too much about yourself and ending up with a community that is entirely dependent on you.

Michelle – You raise a very valid point; if your community is based around a local area, you may choose to reveal less information about yourself in order to avoid potential encounters with crazy people!

Eva – Thanks for your kind comments :)

Smiley May 6, 2008 at 7:32 am

If you suddenly disappear, you may find your members follow your example!

Which would explain why the chats have gone a little quiet. They suddenly picked up again yesterday when they saw me in there all night. I’m going to do it slow, as you said. It’s not that I really want to take a back seat, it’s more.. I don’t want them dependent on me. I want to login and see it lively and chatty in my absence. It sounds silly, but until they arrive they’re “bored”.

So I’ve been sitting in showing my presence, and still chatting.. but trying to encourage them to start the conversations. Rather than before, it was usually me steering the conversations to keep it going to keep people in, they’ve gotten used to that. Then with out me there.. they don’t know what to talk about. Sounds silly doesn’t it? But that’s chatters for you :D

I’ve had a word with some of the chatters I’m more close and personal with, and explained to them my feelings about my age and the community, and they have agreed to keep my age amongst themselves. If anyone asks them how old I am – they have agreed to say they don’t know. So that’s a good start.

I don’t want complete anonymity. I just feel if people don’t know my age, it’ll be easier to deal with my visitors on a personal and friendly level, but still maintain professionalism. Ie: an abuser or a pervert who I may have to contact who happens to be older than me cannot use my age as ammo against me. “What do you know? I’m old enough to be your dad, blah blah blah” — as you can understand.

I feel bad or rude if I don’t answer questions. So when they ask me my age, I’m never really sure what to say without coming across as rude or hurting their feels. What do you say when people ask you? I’ve just been sort of saying “sorry, as a rule I don’t give out personal information about myself”.

Nicole Price May 6, 2008 at 10:10 am

What about painting an appropriate picture for the admin even though not entirely true? Do people do that? Put in age, gender and other details as per the need of the site whether true or not.

Smiley May 6, 2008 at 10:27 am

Never lie to your community about yourself. It’s okay to hold information back. If they ever find out information, it doesn’t matter because you’ve never lied about it.

But if you lie about it, and they find out……. bang goes their trust. Bang goes your community.

Colorado Lasik Surgery May 6, 2008 at 3:16 pm

Perhaps the best policy is to only share what you are comfortable sharing. On a typical forum regarding a specific topic is not the topic more important that who started the forum. If I want to join a forum on “dog food” while it may be interesting to know about the administrators life and how he/her life relates to dog food when it really boils right down to the meat of the issue I really want to delve into the forum itself and hear everyone’s thoughts and opinions about dog food and as I engage with all those folks I will probably forget there is even an administrator.

Michelle from the Coulee Region May 6, 2008 at 10:12 pm

Smiley: Sounds like a good answer to me. I think most people will accept if you don’t want to reveal personal information. If they don’t, then they’re the ones with the problem.


Sleep Aid May 7, 2008 at 2:55 am

I think you should only share enough information to build a sense of community but not enough where a stranger could figure out who you are and cause problems in real life. There are a lot of strange people out there so protect yourself.

moneysmart May 7, 2008 at 10:11 am

I believe that info such as age, address, family etc are of no real importance. Focus instead on who you are as a person and what your opinion is on subjects, that tends to make the other stuff irrelevant.

Online Furniture Store May 7, 2008 at 5:53 pm

I can understand how revealing certain details may be counterproductive such as when you said you began at the age of 19 and chose not to share that information. Certainly i can see people not taking a 19 year old very seriously, so what to share and what not to are important considerations.

Chat May 10, 2008 at 5:33 am

Thanks martin, I have always wondered how much information I should be sharing online.

I agree the administrators should at the least show they are a human being and not a robot.

I personally liked when administrators were not invisible when i used to go to online communities, its nice to see the the authority cares and interacts with its members.

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 12, 2008 at 8:09 pm

Smiley – I really don’t think your age should be an issue; if they choose not to respect you or your site, then you take action against them. Having said that, I can understand your concern. Perhaps when people ask you can just say it’s a secret – it’ll only add to the intrigue!

Nicole – There is nothing to stop you from creating a pretend persona for yourself, but if you get caught you could end up losing the trust of your members. I would stick with revealing what you are happy with sharing, and keeping quiet on the rest.

Colorado – You make a very valid point; people really aren’t all that interested in the personal details of the administrators. If they are, then you need to work on making the community and its members more interesting than yourself!

Sleep – Ha! Yes, there are some weirdos out there and there is definitely some information that should never be shared.

Money – Agreed. Again, it all depends on the individual; I wouldn’t mind mentioning how many brothers/sisters I have, but any more than that would probably be a no-go.

Reena – Exactly. It’s all about thinking about the potential consequences of revealing certain pieces of information about yourself.

Cody – I agree with you; that’s why we keep our chat room moderators as visible as possible; not only as a visible deterrent, but also to show that we do care and want to interact with our members.

Online Furniture Store May 13, 2008 at 7:02 am

Hey Martin i checked your ‘about’ page after quite a while and we finally get to see your pic, that’s really nice! i remember earlier it used to be David Hasselhoff complete with horns :)

Smiley May 13, 2008 at 2:59 pm

I’ve taken on a sort of very light ‘Alf Garnett’ type persona on my site. It rather made me giggle when this new signup thought I was really 63, because I keep saying I’m 63 as a joke, and regulars follow the lead and also say I’m 63 to add to the humour.. I think that’s that problem solved !!

Martin Reed - Blog Author June 26, 2008 at 11:19 pm

Reena – Yup, all part of the redesign! Hasselhoff had to be retired from my blogging image, but he still lives on in my heart!

Smiley – Yup, I love a bit of humour and the occasional ‘inside’ joke with members; it all helps build relationships.

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