Being a conscientious online community tourist

Just over a week ago my husband and I took a whirlwind vacation to Istanbul with a stop in Rome on the journey to our final destination. Of course, you know me, the typical Type-A personality, I like having a plan and a process. This does not mean I cannot be spontaneous. Other than a dinner reservation on one night of the trip, we did not schedule a minute-by-minute itinerary. Yes, we had a list of places we would like to visit, but did not want to feel any more rushed than our four day trip was by default.There was pre-trip planning and a plan to be had, however.

You see, I did not want us to be “that tourist” – you know the one I am talking about. I can see you cringe right now. Let’s not generalize either. It is not just the Americans visiting other countries. There are folks fitting this description of every culture, gender and age. Unfortunately, folks tend to generalize the population of an entire country based on the case of one rotten apple. Just take a read through this post on the most annoying habits of tourists. How many of us have ever committed one of these fouls due to ignorance or blatant disregard?

So, I may not have planned my every move in Rome and Istanbul, but I did study the habits and customs of the cities visited. Trust me, I had my fair share of sticking out like a sore thumb in high school. My goal when visiting any location (this includes within U.S.A. too) is to put on the hat of an anthropologist and study the community before entering. Perhaps this study habit is the product of my career as a community manager or developed as a military brat visiting and living in a multitude of countries. There is nothing worse than being “that tourist,” knowingly or unknowingly.

Applied anthropology may be a useful practice extending beyond your annual vacation planning. You may consider applying this research habit to your daily online ventures, as well. It is so easy to hop from one blog or community platform/group to the next without hesitation or consideration of the inhabitants and regular participants in these spaces. Interrupting a conversation or insulting a community member because you did not have context of prior conversations or actions is a blunder similar totrying to touch in on London’s Oyster system using a paper ticket.

Before you can map the connections between your organization and community, you have to understand the methods, motivation and venues of participation.


  • Try to be an impartial observer and look at the community surroundings and interaction through the lens of one without bias.
  • Read between the lines and examine the underlying emotional triggers of what is said and shared or not mentioned.
  • Look at the content being shared and discussed to pinpoint trends and hot topics.


  • Go for a community walk (similar to a photo walk) and take action without being disruptive and document landmarks or other areas of the community space or platform you have not noticed before:
      • How are people organized within the community? Are there subgroups? What is the cause of these subgroups and current conversation topics/exchanges?
      • How do people influence each other and outcomes?
      • How much space is allocated to sharing different types of content (i.e. documents, blog posts, discussion forums, etc)? Is discussion enabled and encouraged around content?
      • What type of information is considered important enough to label as announcements or advertise prominently within the community space? Does this priority of information align with conversation and subgroup organization observations?
      • What topics of conversation or forms of engagement utilized in common community areas?
      • What type of lingo is used in conversation to reference topics and company/brand/product/service mentions?
      • What level of emotion is expressed in the interactions? What is the tone?
      • What types of interaction is observed? Is the interaction limited to community members or are there official company spokespeople participating?


  • Interview community members (Once again, don’t just analyze the answers to your questions, but observe how and what is said and not said in reply) to help make sense of the information gathered during the observation and lurking stages:
      • How do community members discuss the community with friends outside the online community space?
      • What would community members change about the space and interactions?
      • Who are the (perceived) community heroes?

These questions are just the tip of the iceberg of the information you can and should glean before participating in any community. You are just a tourist like any other until you become familiar with the habits and customs of your community. Avoid being labeled as the ignorant tourist. Your Internet connection may be your passport and transfer you immediately to any community destination, but citizenship is a process. In online communities, citizenship is earned with trust and credibility.

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  • Sue

    Fantastic tips. This is also a great example of why we should never underestimate the value of lurkers. Quite often I see communities that are closed off to non-registered members. This is a big mistake. If communities don’t allow lurkers to view discussions they are missing a great opportunity. Quite often lurkers are drawn to register because of their desire to respond to a discussion. And as they may have already lurked for quite a while as a “community tourist” they will already be familiar with the layout and culture of the community, and will therefore integrate better within the community.

    • Lauren

      You are spot on! We need to recognize the various levels of consumption and engagement.