This is an exciting day. When we launched the National Improv Network, just over six months ago. We promised there would be more tools for improvisors to come. We spent those six months travelling and talking to people about the existing site and what they wanted to see next. People have been really excited about the potential to maintain a presence for their troupes, theatres and festivals, but one thing we heard loud and clear was that there needed to be more ways for users of the site to interact with each other. Outside of blog comments and private messages, there hasn’t been much in the way of facilitating conversations. We were very aware of that from day one. We knew conversation and interactivity were key to the growth of an idea like this. We also knew that too many great online communities over the years have died because they didn’t have the right tools to let people communicate in a useful and healthy way. We spent a lot of time researching different models and different interfaces and we talked to a lot of people who make their living developing tools for conversation. But we’re finally here.
So starting today, Communities are part of the site. But what are they? How do they work? Those are two pretty good questions. Let’s take them one at a time.
What are “Communities”?
In some ways, communities will look familiar to anyone who’s used web forums before. So if forums already exist, why not just use them? Two reasons. First, there are already many great improv discussion boards out there. Adding another general improv forum web page to the mix just means one more web page that people will have to visit each day for the same thing. Those pages are great and we don’t have any interest in trying to take away from what they’ve already created. Second, a centralized forum doesn’t really fill the mindset of what we’ve all started creating here together.
When the idea for the festival submission tool was being discussed, we looked at many old lists of festivals and talked about why they didn’t survive or grow. The answer we came up with is that a centralized place for festivals and troupes is great. But it can’t work with one person or a few people try to update the info or anticipate the needs of all its users. Instead, troupes and festivals need to have the power over their own content; troupes need a place to keep their profiles and festivals need to be able to add and customize their own festivals.
The same thought process went into communities. Instead of trying to build forums that could meet and predict every users needs, the page now gives users the ability to create their own places on the page with their own self contained forums on any topic.
Similar Facebook groups, you can now create a community for
- Maryland Improvisors
- Theatre Marketing
- Your Thursday Night Level 3 Class
- Gender Issues in Improv
Really, anything you want. You can create an ongoing community within the NIN membership and start focused (and private, if you select) conversations with other improvisors. You have control over your communities. They can have multiple administrators and mods. They can be public or private or even hidden altogether from non-members. You can have open or closed membership. You can create RSS feeds from them. Follow conversations, get alerts. You can customize them to pretty much however you’d want.
How do they work?
The first thing you’ll want to do is click the new “Communities” button on the left toolbar of the webpage. This will bring up a list of existing communities to join or the option to create your own. To join a community, just hit “Join Community” or “Request Membership”
If you want to create your own community, just click “Create Community” on the top of the page.
You’ll be taken to a quick wizard where you can enter the name and decription of your community. Set your personal preferences, set up an avatar for the community and invite members.Be sure to check the checkbox asking if you want forums if you want to have conversations in the community.
That’s it. You’re done. You’ll notice that the Communities section of your page will have a “1” in it meaning you’re now part of that community. You can click this part of your profile to bring up a list of your communities.
And there you go. Instead of several web pages. All your forums on any improv topic are in one place. You can click on any one of them to read the discussions
What’s that Forums button I see next to Communities?
That’s where things get fun and time-savey. Also, we’ve already gotten some early feedback that the word forums is confusing here, so a different word may be in it’s place in the future. But here’s how they work. Having all of your communities on one page instead of several is great, but you still visit them individually from your own communities page. The forums page is sort of like a mini RSS feed for all your communities. Clicking here will bring up a stream of posts from all of your communities. Borrowing from tools like “Hootsuite” a bit, you can see streams of your own posts, your replies, threads your following or favorites. It’s a way to take a quick glance at what happening in all your communities at once.
Oh, did I tease the word RSS? In answer to the next question, yes. All of your communities can be set up for your RSS feed with whatever RSS reader you use. I’m sure the more tech-savvy among you can generate them yourselves right now, but there will be buttons going up soon to make it easy to add any community to your feed.
A note on troupes and communities
As you cn see from some of the time stamps. This is something that’s been in the works for several months and a few people have come in to play with it in the testing phases. Many communities have been built around a performance troupe. That’s awesome. It’s a new way to share messages with your cast mates in a centralized location. That said, a community for your troupe is different than a profile for you troupe. Setting up a community for your troupe won’t automatically allow you to submit to festivals.
So what now?
This is a big new tool. It gives any group of improvisors tools to communicate. It gives a central place for many improv discussions. As one of the programmers who put some work into this. I’m going to continue to tweak and improve the interface and the user experience. But if this is something that’s going to take off we’ll all need to use it wisely. I hope you keep these things in mind as you start building your communities
No matter how advanced online communities are, they are not the same as person to person meetings. It’s easy in text for misunderstandings and missed cues to pop up. That’s what leads to YouTube comments. Please remember that everyone here has different ideas, but we’re all together in our love of improv. We want to have the same policy here that many improv theatres have for their shows; we won’t try to police everyone’s actions, but we ask that people be respectful towards each other and act like grown-ups.
Also, the door is wide open on what communities you want to create, but please keep them improv related. Our new hosting site is great, but we still have limited resources, so let’s use them wisely and also not make the site too confusing to navigate for improv discussions.
The site has many firewalls already. There are many cool tools that have been considered for the network that were ultimately abandoned because we couldn’t guaranteed the security of users’ personal information. That’s a number one priority. We are asking for your trust to post information here and have that information be safe. We take that seriously. This new tool allows for much more content coming from users. There isn’t a day that goes by that people aren’t concerned about their privacy on Facebook or Google because their privacy settings are confusing. We don’t want that to happen here, but I know that there are probably areas where the explanations on things are absent or unclear on how public or private your information is. In the first few weeks, play it safe. If there’s something you don’t want to be seen publicly, don’t post it. Hold off a few weeks until we’re all a little more familiar with the system.
This is the first day communities are public. Some parts of the interface may not yet be intuitive or aesthetically pleasing to you. Some things may require a few extra mouse clicks. Undoubtedly, things will change a little in the weeks to come. So please understand both that things might be unintuitive now and also that they may move around a little bit. If there is something that seems off to you, please drop a line. There’s no ego here. You can click on the “Feedback” button on the right side of the webpage at any time, or just drop a PM directly to me (Bill Binder) and tell me what’s going on. I’d love to talk with you about how to make it better. And if you see me at a festival, grab me and tell me what’s working and what’s not.
This is not revolutionary in it’s newness. There are many similar models out there. But I know it’s not exactly what people are used to with forums. I think the long term payoff will be a much more robust way to communicate in the social media age if we’re willing to sink our teeth into it and find new and exciting ways to use the tool. We’re improvisors. Let’s be creative in the ways we work and play together with this tool. We can all learn from each other; theatre owners, students, festival organizers, coaches, performers, directors and teachers.
Let’s start building some communities!
Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.