The Tattered Notebook: Linda Carlson on goat herding and community management

The Tattered Notebook  Linda Carlson reveals how goat herding teaches community management lessons
What do goat herding and community management have to do with one another? On the surface, you'd probably think not much, but at GDC Online this week, SOE Head of Global Relations Linda "Brasse" Carlson explained the parallels between her job as Community Manager and her job as a goat herder.

In the talk, though, she not only gave advice on how to run a community management team but also shared some interesting observations about some of SOE's online communities in general. In this week's Tattered Notebook, we'll look at some of the highlights.

Brasse began her talk by giving a bit of background on her experience raising and caring for goats. Apparently, goat herding community is actually surprisingly competitive!

She went on to say that while SOE does have some long-lived games such as EverQuest (13 years) and the now-sunsetted Star Wars Galaxies (eight years), that's a relatively short time period to gain knowledge and learn the lessons of running online communities. She contrasts that with the goat world, which has 7,000 years of knowledge and growing. Even though these are two very different jobs, she argued that you can't discount the fact that people from different backgrounds do indeed operate the same way gamers do.

To illustrate, she shared her observations on some of SOE's various online communities. They're a lot like societies, she reasoned; there's a life cycle to communities that's parallel to our life cycle. Games begin in infancy, and there's a feeling of wonder and excitement at the newness of everything, similar to a young child sensing the wonderment of life. But also during infancy, there's a tendency to rebel against authority, and game communities express that when they're frustrated about certain aspects of gameplay.

Eventually, though, communities reach the college years. Just as a young adult leaves the home and heads off to higher education, gamers leave their online communities to visit other games. But some do return home, and when they do, they come back a little more settled and with less complaining. Brasse pointed to EverQuest's current community, which she said tends to be older than the average gamer age. Many EQ players fall in the 35-49 year range and are almost in a zenlike state of happiness about the game. But at the same time, because the game is the way they like it, they tend to bristle at change, so it's a different sort of rebellion than what you'd get from a newly released game.

Even the concept of passing on is similar in gaming communities. When Star Wars Galaxies shut down, the players essentially went through the same states of grief that we experience in real life. First there was the disbelief for the news that the game would be sunsetted. Then when things sunk it, feelings turned to rage. Eventually, though, the players moved on to accept the shut-down and began to celebrate the game and the years of memories from it.

Back to goats. Brasse explained that the goat herding community is currently going through the same experiences and road bumps that gaming communities went through a decade ago. Online communication, for example, is a relatively recent development, since many goat herders are in rural areas and agricultural communities are still getting a handle on what it's all about.

What that means is that the goat herding world is going through what the gaming world went through 10 years ago. These rural animal keepers are learning that everything you say can be seen by everyone and that usually more people than you think will see it. The concept of anonymity brings challenge as well, since people tend to fear consequences less. There's also a need to understand the process of give and take, which is a massive culture shock in the goat industry. Finally, people expect more information now than ever before, and they want it immediately.

The Tattered Notebook  Linda Carlson reveals how goat herding teaches community management lessons
Change is hard, both to online communities and goat herding communities. But it's also necessary, Carlson contends. She points to the example of the Nigerian Dwarf goat, a relatively new breed introduced in Canada and the United States. Initially, many hated it, saying the goat was too small, that it wasn't a dairy goat but a small, stupid, useless pet. Others said it would bring extra competition for goats currently on sale. Eventually, everyone had to find a way to communicate that this was not the end of the world because things got very personal very quickly.

Interestingly enough, opponents campaigned against the goat but used traditional mailings rather than email and sent flyers out expressing their views. In the end, though, they formed committees and took a longer view at the issue. That gave the goat herding community time to educate itself and openly communicate. Personal attacks were resolved as well. By 1987, the Nigerian Dwarf goat was recognized in Canada, and two years later, in the U.S. too.

Ultimately, Brasse believes that understanding human nature is critical to community management, whether it's in an online game or a real-life discipline. Her team understands that negative reactions to any game change are not only normal but expected. Gamers have such a wide variety of playstyles that for every player happy with a change, there's going to be one who's unhappy, no matter what the catalyst.

But Brasse was quick to note that negative feedback is also a positive. From the team's point of view, change requires time and patience and a willingness to evaluate and be willing to continue to change. Overall, the talk was focused on lessons she learned that might be helpful to community managers in other games. But even if you're not in that field (or into goat herding, for that matter), her observations on the life cycle of games and communities are valuable to all.

From the snow-capped mountains of New Halas to the mysterious waters of the Vasty Deep, Karen Bryan explores the lands of Norrath to share her tales of adventure. Armed with just a scimitar, a quill, and a dented iron stein, she reports on all the latest news from EverQuest II in her weekly column, The Tattered Notebook. You can send feedback or elven spirits to karen@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.