EgyGeeks: on Building an Online Community08 Aug 2012
A little over two years ago, a group of techies got together for a Skype conversation. Mohamed Meligy tells the story. It was a great talk and we really enjoyed it, he says and I remember.
What started as a group of people “geeking out” on Skype transformed into something that is a little bit more. “Let’s have some sessions where someone tells us about a topic they know”, someone said and it so it was. It continued for a while. There are few things I think I learnt from that phase:
- It Takes Time: one sessions seems like it wasn’t that good, the next one didn’t have a big audience, don’t worry about it. Just keep going. You’re doing good. Effort + Time + Learn from mistakes = Better Results.
- An Online Community is Different from an Offline Community: I gave one of these sessions, and it was one of most difficult longest sessions I gave; it was my first online session. When I’m in front of an audience, I keep going and build on their feedback. Start with a joke, they laugh then I can try another, they don’t then it’s information from then on. I can see when they’re bored, when they’re interested, when they’re just lost. I can do some course correction and damage control along the way. In an online session, I don’t have any of that feedback, it’s one long hour of me just talking. They could be rolling on the floor laughing at my jokes, and I wouldn’t know about it. They could be surfing the web, and I’d be thinking “Oh, I’m kicking ass today”. Online communities by their nature are different from offline communities. They’re not offline communities plus the convenience of availability, asynchronous communication, and never ending memory. They look the same, but they’re not the same. Pay attention to that.
- Lots of Silent Participants: A lot of people will attend and be part of your community and not say anything. Don’t make them feel bad that they’re not participating and don’t make them feel like they have to participate. These are your audience. They are what makes your community possible. If not for them, you’d be just a guy talking. Also, you’re not smarter than them. You just feeling like talking and they don’t. When you get a chance to hear from them, you’ll see that they have a lot to add.
- Logistics are a Pain: A lot of time went into finding free tools that we can use to hold online meetings. There’s a lot of tools, but you’re looking for a specific set of features that match your needs and you have to give up some of these because none of them have all of what you’re looking for.
Over time, those who are more vocal in their participation wanted to make this online gatherings into a community. EgyGeeks, we would call it, and lots of activities would be part of it.
One activity stood out as: long lasting, easy to start, and kinda cool is podcasting. In the Arab tech world, there’s one podcast that I know of: Dot Net Arabi for the always-delightful Emad Alashi who’s done a great job of maintaining that podcast. He models it after the Hanselmintues podcast for Scott Hanselman. It’s short to-the-point interview with a developer and is strictly about specifics of technology. “You’re here to learn something” is the idea.
We wanted to offer something a bit different. Less of technology specific, or about technology specifics, and more of a community building exercise. Less about “what we do” and more about “how we do it”. There’s a lot of good developers in Egypt. There’s a lot of mediocre developers who can be good if given the chance. But one thing I’m sure of is: there’s a bad software industry in Egypt (and in the Arab world by extent). Wrong practices, bad motivations and incentives, and no meaningful community. (Individual exceptions exists, but they’re still exceptions, and individual). This podcast would be about replacing bad habits with good ones by informing people about what’s out there and how it’s possible, and how it relates to you as a local developer.
One idea that comes to mind when listening to one of these technology podcast is “Well, they work in Silicon valley” or “That’s not how we do it here” or whatever other idea brought to you by the inferiority complex in each of us. But if you start talking to other people, you’ll find that they have the same problems, they’re looking at the same solutions, they’re having the same obstacles, and in your conversations you can remove them. We’re willing to listen and participate of these American podcasts, and communities but not in our own and that should change.
A lot of thinking went into the format, length, style, and other aspects of the podcast. Let me tell you a little bit of what I learnt:
- Format doesn’t matter, Style does: Format could be interview, circle of friends talking, host and circle of guests and friends, or else. This is not really that important. What’s important is the style of the conversation: it must be clear, obvious, inviting, to-the-point, easy to follow, and takes into account that there’s an audience. Feel free to use acronyms about the topic you’re talking about, just make sure to explain to the audience what it is. There’s one person listening who got annoyed by your exclusion of him, and will never listen to your podcast again. Don’t make inside jokes, invite everyone to enjoy the conversation as you are.
- Keep It Short: I love long podcasts, I listen to Windows Weekly and Twit, and they sometime reach two hours per episode. Both great shows and made greater by the length of the show. I advocated a longer show (about an hour), everyone else said no, let’s make it 20-30 minutes. I thought of each episode to be a block of information and complete case about a certain topic, and they thought of the audience. Let me tell you, they were right and I was wrong. People listen to podcasts on their computer, and I listen on my cell phone when outside. People are busy, and I’m not. People dedicate a block of time to listen to a podcast while I multitask. I download the podcast and save it while people just stream it. Consider the audience, and you’re not necessarily representative of them.
- Release Quickly, Release Often: I’ll use a software phrase to explain this point. Podcasting is like anything else. When you’re starting you don’t know anything about it. There’s no podcasting school. Learn from your mistakes, correct them, next time will be better. Just keep it steady, don’t say “we sucked last time, so I don’t feel like recording this week”. Say “we sucked last time because of _____, so this time we’ll fix it”.
- Audio Quality, Audio Quality, Audio Quality: You can make a great podcast of background noise and inaudible discussion, but I’m not sure that’s what you’re audience is looking for.
- Logistics are a Pain: They are. This includes recording, hosting, audio editing, publishing, getting the word out and coordinating a meeting time for people who live in four different time zones that span the earth (literally).
This post comes after following a long Facebook thread on the Egyptian Geeks group by Mohamed “Bashmohandes” Hossam discussing the idea of starting a podcast of their own which I think is a great idea. There was a discussion of what happened to EgyGeeks podcast. What happened simply is, the Arab Spring. Last EgyGeeks episode was published on January 20, 2011, five days before the revolution in Egypt. Since then, no one was really in the mood to geek out. We certainly weren’t. Things are now coming to a relative clam (I hope they are). We’re not committing to anything yet but before Ramadan we were discussing the idea of coming back. I hope this happens soon.