Longtime community builder Heather Merrick explains her accidental journey to community, the power of empathy, and why she's a little wary of the current state of the industry.
Heather: "Like many people, I came into this field a bit by accident.
For undergrad, I went to a very small liberal arts school called New College of Florida. There, you have a lot of freedom to design your own curriculum and independent study projects. I had been personally involved in online communities since the late 90s and had always found them fascinating (AOL chatrooms, MySpace, LiveJournal, etc.).
I was a Humanities major, which gave me the freedom to write my senior thesis about practically whatever I wanted. Mine wound up being about online communities, wikis, and interactive art projects. This was 2006, and that was all very new, uncharted territory at the time. Sherry Turkle was one of the only published academics in that space.
A couple of years later, I went to grad school at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU. It’s a difficult program to explain, since it’s unlike anywhere else, but basically it approaches technology from a creative perspective. Before the end of my first year, I cold emailed a bunch of tech companies about summer job opportunities. (That was actually a fruitful method back then; I wouldn’t recommend it now.)
I was offered an internship at a blogging startup. The role wasn’t defined and it essentially involved various 'non-technical' responsibilities: customer support, writing blog posts, helping out at conferences, and handling a few admin-type things for the CEO. That then turned into a full-time job. I never went back to ITP for my second year.
That was 13 years ago now and I’ve been in the same field since then. I’ve worked for an e-commerce platform, a payments processor, a couple of social media apps, and now I’ve just started a new job at a telehealth startup. They’re all quite different industries, but at the end of the day they all have people who rely on them and those people need a point of connection with the company and each other."
H: "Empathy. I think most people in this line of work share this trait, as it’s fairly crucial. When someone is having a frustrating experience with a product, for example, I understand that experience, feel their pain, and want to help.
Sometimes that’s quite exhausting. For a while I did content moderation, and that was not at all sustainable for me because I couldn’t separate myself emotionally from the content I had to review."
H: "I avoided asking for help in my first tech job, out of fear of looking inept. Unfortunately, you only set yourself back when you do that. It’s a common mistake and I’m still prone to it, so this is actually a good reminder as I’m settling into a new job now."
H: "You may spend an inordinate amount of time explaining what you do and why it’s valuable. It’s very strange, but I’ve heard the same from other people. I can’t think of many other fields where that is such a common part of the experience. How odd would it be if you hired a plumber and then were like, 'Why are you here and why are you touching those pipes?' You know what I mean?
I suppose that’s because 'community' is a fuzzy word and it’s still quite hard to generate reporting and metrics for it. Not seeing a clear connection to revenue seems to make some people very uncomfortable."
H: "I’m a bit wary of the stage we’re in, actually. As I mentioned, historically, community has not been viewed as all that valuable to a business. I believe we may be swinging a little bit too far in the opposite direction. There’s now almost a bit of an over-emphasis on the revenue-generating function of community. I’m actually all for that in the sense of it earning people more respect and increasing their salaries, that’s great. But it feels like there may be a point at which that approach could undermine the core work that we do.
I see a bit of a parallel here to the circa 2013 'Lean In' craze, which I always really disliked. Sandberg’s philosophy puts a ton of onus on people who are marginalized to contort themselves and play someone else’s game in order to stop being overlooked. I never understood how that was supposedly empowering. Thankfully, there was eventually a backlash and I believe there is now more recognition that structural problems are what put people at a disadvantage and that is what needs to change.
Anyway, that may be a bit of a dramatic comparison to make on my part, but I do worry a bit about the potential for a stifling effect. In an effort to give community more value, by applying a lot of the traditional business terminology to it, is its original purpose lost?
My hope for the future of community is that those outside of the industry will also take the time to understand the value in helping and connecting people."