Community Bonsai (a Metaphor) – Part One: How to Start

This is part one of a three-part series where we use “A Beginner’s First Bonsai1 by Brent Walston as a muse for thinking about managing an online community. See parts two and three.

I am fascinated by bonsai. It’s such a work of love and almost daily care. Occasionally, I consider starting a bonsai, and today was one of those days as I found myself reading A Beginner’s First Bonsai by Brent Walston

While I read, it struck me how much similarity there is between community management and bonsai care:

“Don’t ‘buy a bonsai’. That is a poor way to begin this fascinating hobby and usually doomed to failure. Bonsai is not about ‘owning’ bonsai plants, but rather the enjoyment of caring for them and especially creating them. … Any ‘real’ bonsai will take at least five years of development to be convincing. … Of course you can find ‘mall bonsai’ everywhere, even grocery stores. These are junk, they are not bonsai. … It is the care and training that makes bonsai.”  

Our translation to community: Just putting a community out there and hoping for the best rarely works. A community, like a bonsai, requires care and nurturing, which can be amazingly enjoyable. You do not “own” a community, but by hosting one, you are responsible for it. If your goal is long-term community that will hold up to the vicissitudes of life, it will likely take years to develop. Of course, like bonsai, you can buy a ready-made community platform from a multitude of vendors, but these are just platforms, not an actual community. Even a few hundred support posts in a community does not a true community make. Community creation takes time, care, and communication; platforms are just the underlying structure. If a strong community is important to you, hire a community professional, your bonsai master.

“One learns the basics of bonsai best by creating them, even your first one. Without these basics, it is unreasonable to expect that someone could keep one alive, let alone maintaining it as art.”  

Speaking of community professionals, one learns the basics of community management best by actually managing a community. There are classes, blog posts, and certificates, but nothing will prepare you to be a community manager better than by actively managing a community. You can probably keep a community alive without the skill of a professional, but it is unlikely to grow and flourish.

“If this seems daunting, well, it is. It takes years to learn most bonsai skills… Styling skills are learned over a lifetime. Well then, how do you start? First and foremost read as much as you can find about bonsai. … Next look at as many bonsai as you can, even if only pictures. Many images are available on the web, analyze them critically. Try to determine just what it is that you like about them. Until you can visualize bonsai, you won’t be able to create one. … Begin right away. Buy one gallon nursery plants that look interesting and start training them.”  

It takes years to learn the skills to be a truly great community manager. How do you start? Read as much as you can, join communities dedicated to community management, go to community conferences, read a book or two. But the best thing you can do is participate in many online communities. Figure out what works and doesn’t work in the communities in which you are a member. Volunteer to help, probably first with moderation, as this is one of the best ways to see the internal workings of a community.

“Finished is a relative term in bonsai because they are never really “finished”. … If you work on the roots right away, you will kill it outright. But by working on the top you will learn some of the pruning, wiring, and styling techniques, and will actually prepare it for its first root pruning.”  

An online community constantly moves, changes, grows and shrinks. It is yours to decide how to react to those changes. Just as a bonsai can die from too aggressive pruning, so may a community die from overly aggressive moderation. It is often better to take the gentle road with moderation than the harsh “ban hammer.” Except, of course, when it’s not, which an experienced community manager learns to distinguish through years of skillful “pruning.”

“Believe me, EVERYTHING you need to know to start bonsai is right here in front of you. Nobody said it was going to be fast or easy, but it is fascinating and addictive. If you have the dedication, it can be done.”  

As true for community management as for bonsai.

Next up: The trunk line

(1) The article was mildly edited to fit the narrative.