Scott Ashton over at WriteAboutDragons had a wonderful idea: as part of his Masters project in Instructional Technology, he’s posting lectures from a writing class taught by Brandon Sanderson at BYU. Hundreds, nay, thousands of people are following along week-by-week, as well as writing their own fiction and sharing it for critique. I wish more people would set up sites like this.

But I’m not able to continue with the class. Here’s why:

  • The website lacks basic functions like search. (A third party has come the the partial rescue by writing a crawler, but it doesn’t see all the stories, and is really limited. I can’t see this search tool linked from the main site–which leads to the next bullet…)
  • The site navigation is not useful. For example, as I write this, under the Learn header is the FAQ and Lecture 1 and archives of a previous year’s lectures. There’s no sign of lectures 2-7, for which links you need to closely follow the site’s blog. When the videos do post, they are often out of order, have long titles so you can’t see the ‘part 6 of 9’ tags. As I write this, all of the week 7 lectures are marked as ‘private’ and completely unviewable. It’s hard enough to carve out time to view these lectures, and this added element of unpredictability makes it that much harder.
  • Scott seems unimaginably busy, and doesn’t fix problems quickly (or in many cases, at all). The comment sections in the blog often turn into giant complaint-fests.
  • The ‘kismet’/karma/reputation system is confusing and apparently broken. On the same page, it reports me as having “30 reputation”, “50 kismet credits” as well as describing me as “Freshly ripened wheat” (huh?) I have no idea what any of these mean, or even what they’re talking about. The pages ask me to cash in some of my credits to see critiques, and yet I never need to because every critique gets mailed directly to me anyway. Incentives are completely broken, and accordingly participation is dropping week after week.
  • The critiques are of a suggested size of about 1000 words. This is partly due to following Brandon’s own suggestions in the class, but there are different constraints in a face-to-face group of 3 or 4 people consistently meeting week after week versus an online system where random pairings are more common. It’s hard to give a good critique of the 7th 1000-word chunk of someone else’s novel. It’s hard to find the previous pieces, and even if you do, it’s time consuming to read that much, just to critique the next 1k word chunk.

I guess you could summarize these points as ‘poor community management’. For whatever reasons, Scott doesn’t seem to be devoting the level of attention to the site that would make it really shine. Assistants would help, and there are several “Geek Gods” listed on the main page, but again for reasons that are not apparent, none of these folks seem to be assisting in any immediately visible manner. I hope this gets straightened out, because it’s a fantastic idea.

For me, one of the most valuable aspects of a writing class is the permission & environment & deadlines needed to crank some serious wordage out. I’m not getting that, so I’ll probably sit this one out. I’ll gladly go back and view the lectures when I they’re all posted. I’m pretty happy with the few thousand words I cranked out as part of a new story, and quite possibly they’ll see light of day at some point.

There’s some lessons here for community management.

  • Focus on the individuals in the community.
  • Get frequent feedback and act on it.
  • Make full use of web technology. Off-the-shelf search is great for this sort of thing.
  • Let community members do their thing at their own pace.
  • Ask people to help you. Delegate.
  • Think carefully about incentive systems and how they will shape the atmosphere around your community.