Community refuses to become a business
When I left Andrew Morris’s Standing Out Facebook group for translators some years ago now, I made a conscious decision to ignore him. I was appalled at the way that a man who seemed to advocate reasonable behaviour and respect between colleagues could viciously turn on people outside the group in an obvious attempt to rally his members behind him against the “outsider”, but decided the best way of dealing with an attention-seeker was to have nothing to do with him at all. I have broken that vow of silence twice, to report on his contributions to two different conferences that we both attended. You can read those posts here and here, and I particularly recommend scrolling down the comments section of the second post, which reveals much about the kind of man we’re dealing with. This post will be the third and, I hope, the final time I mention Andrew Morris here.
I cannot ignore Standing Out now because since last Thursday I have spent considerable time helping to deal with fall-out from his decision to begin to charge for membership of his Facebook group. The fact that the implosion of Andrew’s Facebook group was caused by a row over online communities and money is another reason why I have to say something about it. Not to do so would be unfair to Dmitry Kornyukhov, whose efforts to secure donations from members of his non-Facebook based translators’ community I criticised here a few weeks ago. So here goes. Andrew’s plan is to demand a fee of €4 a month from his members. It doesn’t seem that much, does it? I’ve heard it said that Andrew considers it to be the price of a latte. Well, he obviously drinks in more expensive coffee shops than I do, but the price label isn’t that far out.
Yet those €4 caused as big a furore as I can remember seeing in the translation world, so it’s worth considering why. Firstly, people obviously liked Standing Out. It offered what felt like a safe, comfortable environment where they could chat and socialise and encourage one another. Perhaps they weren’t always comfortable with the way Andrew behaved, but it was worth putting up with his eccentricities for all the friends they made and all they believed they could learn there. They felt like a community and events and meet-ups were organised to contribute to this sensation. There were also Facebook subgroups on various specific topics and language combinations, which many translators found useful.
So why didn’t they just stay and pay? Some, of course, will do just that. Andrew inspires intense personal loyalty strong enough to make some people dip into their pockets without question. However, many Standing Out members felt betrayed. Andrew may have been the founder, but they had built the community and they had contributed to the content that made people want to join. Now they were being expected to fork out for the privilege of forming part of something they had always thought belonged to them.
Andrew, on the other hand, clearly saw it as a business decision; a new “phase” in a development he had obviously been planning for some time. It’s hardly surprising that he should. One former Standing Out member quickly calculated that if Andrew managed to get a quarter of his more than 5,000 members to pay the €48 euros a year, he would be making €60,000 a year before tax, a sum not to be sniffed at. Not unreasonably, Andrew was asked what he was going to do with the money. He flatly refused to say.
None of this implies any actual wrongdoing on Andrew’s part, although his callous disregard for how group members who had trusted him and looked on him as their friend might feel is unpleasant in the extreme. What it does show, though, is the confusion between business and community which also marked Dmitry’s venture. This is obviously a 21st-century phenomenon not confined to translators, but it seems to have been poorly handled by both of them in different ways. We’re getting used to businesses wanting to draw us into communities to make us feel fuzzy and warm about their products or services. What we find more difficult is when people build communities and then want to turn them into businesses. In Dmitry’s case, I believe he is genuinely confused about what he has on his hands with The Open Mic. However, I don’t think Andrew is confused in the least, and it seems possible that the introduction of charges might have been planned, if not from the very beginning, at least for quite some time. It may also be a response to the relative failure of his paid-for group, Standing Out Island, which has only just over 50 members and does not appear to have met expectations either for them or for Andrew. Over the weekend, he seems to have begun making rather confused noises about maintaining some sort of free group, although without giving up the idea of making his main focus of operations paid-for.
But the damage is done. The suspicion that they have been taken for a ride all these years is what seems to have hurt many Standing Out members most. They feel they have been used – drawn into what appeared to be a community in order to be exploited. Former Standing Out stalwart Claire Cox expresses the disappointment of disillusioned former group members very clearly in her latest blog post. Nor did Andrew’s handling of the move or his reaction to criticism of it help very much. Not even close collaborators were given prior warning of his plans, which prompted some of his group administrators and people who had put a lot of work into Standing Out to walk away immediately. Those who stayed to challenge his plans were simply told they could pay up or leave. Others were treated even more rudely than that. Many members left straightaway and others are simply waiting to be thrown out when they refuse to pay.
I was alerted early on and became involved when some colleagues suggested setting up a group or groups as alternative to the ones that will soon no longer be free. It seemed a good idea to help give these people who had lost something they valued a friendly, welcoming place to go. So, the Standing Up and Standing Up Exchange Facebook groups were born. The names – some like them, others hate them – are obviously no coincidence. They will certainly make the groups easy to find and they also carry a rather attractive hint of rebellion, although if enough members want to change them they will, of course, be replaced. The point is to have places where people who liked Standing Out but didn’t want to pay for it can go and do exactly the things they did in the Standing Out group, and in the Standing Out Exchange, which was a jobs platform.
The response to the new groups was phenomenal. On the first day alone, my fellow administrators and I allowed almost 500 members to join Standing Up. There were times when we couldn’t add them quickly enough. Those keen to join seemed to be a rather interesting mix of people bitterly hurt by Andrew asking them for money, others who’d always been suspicious of him but stuck around for the things they felt they got out of the group and some, like myself, who’d seen Andrew in his true colours a long time ago and distanced themselves from him. Whether the new groups will be a success is anyone’s guess, but the early signs are good. The former Standing Out members are getting to know people who had been demonised by Andrew and finding out that, in fact, they have a great deal to contribute. It is as if a wall has come down in the translation world, although, of course, what happens in this brave new world is up to all the group members. Standing Up has three administrators who have no wish to take over the group or become a new guru, nor would any one of us be allowed to if we tried. Meanwhile, I will watch the Standing Out membership figure with interest, especially when those payments come due in January. Time will tell whether people feel more at home in a free community or a cult.