Being a TC (Top Contributor)

I was in the US for a week and a half recently, during which I visited Philadelphia where I met up with TM and stayed a few days at LO in Burlingame who has very kindly hosted me. Now I am back in a disntinctly chilly, rather grey, and altogether autumnal London. Between sightseeing, catching up with friends, and meeting new people (and cats), I attended a summit for Top Contributors (known more often as TCs) organized by Google in San Jose, California, and in this piece, I would like to write a few words about TCs as well as the summit. The following paragraphs are what I – as one TC – think about the TC programme, and as it should become clearer in due course, another TC would hold totally different views about the TC programme. In other words, each TC has his or her own story to tell, and that is something I really like about being a TC.

TC summit name tags

Who are TCs, and what do they do?

Before being carried away and wax lyrical about things, it makes sense to say a few words about who these TCs are and what they do. Google has a site that explains TCs and their role at www.google.com/get/topcontributor/, but to summarize, TCs are very active members of Google Help Forums (and exceptionally for Google+, the Google+ Help Community on the Google+ platform, as well as AdWords Community which is on yet another platform), which are for most part peer-to-peer forums for various Google products and services, ranging from Gmail to YouTube. TCs alongside other forum members offer help to those who post questions in the forums. TCs (should) have a good technical grasp of and expert knowledge in the Google products for which they are TCs, mostly through actual and heavy use. In addition to knowledge based on experience, as well as trial and error, TCs have direct access to Google product teams and Community Managers, as noted at www.google.com/get/topcontributor/join/events.html. If you have had an issue with a Google product or service, and ended up at a Google Help Forum, then it’s quite likely that a TC has responded to your query.

The preceding paragraph did not really address the question what kind of people are TCs. It will sound a terrible cliché and utterly tripe, and it is, but as with all overused expressions, there is more than a grain of truth in it: there is no such person as a typical TC. Different nationalities, languages, ethnicities, religions and beliefs or lack thereof, educational and professional backgrounds, political opinions, generations, and any other way that we tend to divide ourselves are represented among TCs. Some TCs can justifiably be called geeks and nerds, while others perhaps see themselves as advocates of product users, and others like to help people, and a Google product just happens to be that place. For me, it is a kind of addiction: hello, my forum nickname is wasaweb, and I am a forum addict ... This diversity is probably the most important reason I like to participate in the forums. We may not all agree on everything and indeed often argue and sometimes bicker, even on what Google does as a company or with regard to specific products and services, but the dynamism and electicism that this diversity engenders is truly magnificient. I do not think I could have met so many interesting people from so many different backgrounds and get to know them as I have done in Google forums elsewhere. Perhaps it is like going to a pub, and getting to know everyone in that pub.

OK, you may say, it is one thing to know who and what kind of people TCs are, but what do they do in the forums? One good way to explain what TCs do may paradoxically be to list the things that TCs cannot do. TCs’ powers and competences are quite limited. Contrary to some people’s belief, TCs are not Google employees in disguise (or lizards in human skin suits), but volunteers who assist fellow users of Google products and services, and as such, TCs only have access to pieces of information that are publicly accessible or disclosed by the posters. TCs cannot interfere or intervene in other people’s accounts, though TCs can draw the attention of Google employees who can actually do things. TCs cannot overturn decisions that Google makes, such as termination of an AdSense account or suspension of a Google+ profile. In other words, TCs are a kind of human filters, responding to questions that can be answered easily, while bringing hard cases, false positives, and various bugs to the attention of Google employees.

While there are many things that TCs do, I believe that the main role consists of explaining how things work with Google products and services. This process could simply be a matter of pointing towards the relevant documents on Google website, but quite often such documents require further interpretation and explanation, attuned to the individual circumstances of the poster. As TC functions are closely tied to the forums, another vital functions that TCs peform is to set the tone for the forums, as among the most frequent and voluminous posters. Sometimes it is not particularly pleasant or easy to deal with the issues that forum posters are having, as there is no solution that would satisfy the posters. Posts and threads can become very heated, because money is involved in AdSense, and because personal identity is involved in Google+, for example. It is not much comfort explaining why some Adsense accounts are terminated or Google+ profiles are deleted for failure to follow the policies and guidelines, even if I believe that Google had acted correctly and entirely reasonably. TCs are essentially the users of the same products, and as such can often understand and empathize with the anger, frustration, and all other negative feelings that posters may feel towards Google and actions it has taken. Yet at the same, TCs can see things from Google’s perspective, and as mentioned above often agree with the actions that Google has taken with accounts.

When, how, and why I became a TC

Currently I am a TC in two products, AdSense and Google+, which is an odd combination, as they have little in common and they do not really overlap. I like the contrast, since I belong to two different sets of TCs: it is very evident to me that each product or service forum develops its own culture, determined to a large part by the personnel. I have been a TC in the AdSense forum for quite a long time, since late autumn 2009, and more recently for Google+, since early 2012.

Oddly, I can no longer remember why I went to the AdSense forum initially, as it is not a kind of place I would have visited unless I had a problem, so I assume I must have had a question regarding AdSense. After posting a question, I realized I was able to answer other people’s questions, thinking I know the answer to this question, and that question, and so it started. It is difficult to explain why I stayed, but I stayed, as it was an interesting place. As I posted regularly in the forum, and I seem to be able to answer quite a few questions posted in the forum, I was eventually invited to become a TC. I thought about it a bit before accepting to become one, as I was not sure if I would be able to post consistently for long, but in the end, I thought why not? and accepted. I had no idea that being a TC would become that big a deal.

By the time I was invited to become a TC in Google+ pages forum, I knew what to expect, and what was expected of me as a TC, so I accepted without hesitation. Soon the Google+ pages forum was merged into the larger Google+ forum, and I became a TC in Google+ as well. And I was hooked on the forums. Addiction is a dangerous thing.

The summits in 2011 and 2013

The recent summit took place between 30 September and 2 October 2013 and this was the second such occasion organized by Google, following on the previous summit held in 2011. These summits were generous offers by Google who covered the costs of travel, accommodation, and food (and a plentiful supply of alcohol), as well as arranging a number of different sessions, some of which were plenary, while others were specific to products.

The first summit in 2011 was a huge, unexpected, and pleasant surprise: I doubt any TC could have imagined such an invitation arriving in his or her inbox. I initially thought some Googlers were pulling our legs. Yes, visits to the local Google offices may be, but an all-expenses-paid trip for all TCs to California from across the globe? It must have been a logistical challenge, and hugely expensive. At that time I was a TC in AdSense, and perhaps it is the rather stormy nature of the AdSense forum, that we knew each other for quite some time by pseudonyms used as forum nicknames: we really had no idea what other TCs looked or sounded like. Even the very best of video-conferencing tools, as businesses and diplomats seem to know, cannot replace or replicate face-to-face meetings, and the 2011 summit was such an occasion. It strengthened already a durable esprit de corps among the AdSense TCs. Naturally, it was also very good to know the "real" people at Google working for the products.

Google street view car, photographed on 2 October 2013

The 2013 summit was even a grander occasion. I am still awed by the fact that Google has expended so much time, money, and personnel to bring hundreds of TCs and Googlers for a conference. It was organized very well: there were people whose job it was to meet and greet the arriving TCs at San Francisco International Airport; there were a good few occasions to socialize, often with good food and drink; and there were good sessions in which many aspects of Google were discussed. I did not take photographs during the summit, with almost the sole exception of the Google street view car, but thankfully there are many images shared publicly on the internet, and you will be able to find them by searching for TC summit 2013 or hashtag #tcsummit2013.

While it may look as if TCs who attended the summit are having a great time, and boozing up, and we did, it was not a reward or some sort of bribe from Google to TCs for working as a kind of an outsourced and unpaid workforce to provide support in the forums. TCs are not obliged to stay in the forums to answer questions, but are choosing to do so, for different reasons. Many TCs have had to make arrangements, whether professionally or personally, to attend the summit, and it is a give-and-take relationship: TCs often have strong opinions on issues connected to the products, and also many ideas and pieces of feedback, apparent thorugh the posts in the forum, and some of which may in the future lead to changes and improvements.

The best part for me, as alluded above, was to meet other fellow TCs and Googlers face-to-face, but it was tinged with sadness in the knowledge that not everyone was able to attend in person. Many TCs were not able to attend because of their work or personal commitments, or because California was simply too far away. TCs in any given forum get to know each other – even if they learn that they do not particularly like each other – and that results in a strong collective identity, partly as a result of hostility from disgruntled posters in the forum, as TCs make visible targets.

Why and how long will I remain a TC?

Predicting the future is a hazardous and foolish thing to do: while I don’t know how long I will remain a TC, I would like to remain a TC so long as I have the time to post in the forums, and so long as I feel I can be useful to the posters by answering their questions. It is often difficult to keep up with the developments, in AdSense but more particularly in Google+, as things can change quite rapidly, and I do not use the products in all its aspects. So we shall see.

Humans are social animals, and some sort of hierarchy or recognition exists in most societies, so it is nice to be given a marker – be it a title or a badge – that distinguishes me from a large, well-known corporation. It could be a status for an airline mileage tier, but in this case a recognition from Google. To deny that would be dishonest on my part. As already mentioned, it is a matter of addiction for me: so I might find some other addiction, or gradually wean myself off the forum, because of time constraints or changes in personal circumstances. I will also have to continue liking Google as a corporation. There are aspects and things that I do not approve of or agree with, sometimes very strongly, but generally speaking, I believe it has done a lot of good, and we are all richer for its existence. Take Google Books for example: I doubt there has been anything comparable in recent history in opening up and freeing access to so many books in so many libraries across the globe. I keep coming across sixteenth- and seventeenth-century printed materials that I would like to read at some point: some of the materials are ephemeral, such as pamphlets, and there may not be that many extant copies. Now I do not have to travel to a particular library to read that document, but can do so in the comfort squalor of my flat.

How do you become a TC?

I had not anticipated or expected the TC programme to become what it is today, so I am very impressed by how it has developed over the years. It is more structured now, and dare I say it, there is greater expectation, from all quarters: from TCs about their role in the forums and in their relationship with Googlers; from Googlers on the role that TCs play; and most importantly from the posters in the forums, who look for assistance from TCs, whether in answering their queries or in making sure that Google employees are aware of their issues. So how do you become a TC? The website already quoted, www.google.com/get/topcontributor/join/become-a-top-contributor.html, explains the process very well, and more specifically, the attributes that Google looks for in TCs are listed at www.google.com/get/topcontributor/join/attributes.html. The short answer is: post often in the forums to assist the posters with questions. While there are many TCs who have been TCs for longer, I probably belong to the old guard in many respects, and one of the things that some TCs would say and with which I agree is this: attempting to become a TC for the sake of TC status is not going to succeed, since you will need to demonstrate engagement and patience, as well as knowledge and helpfulness consistently over a prolonged period before becoming one. Whatever motivates you to beomce a TC, it has to start with a post, so if you know something about a Google product, pop into the relevant product or service forum, and see if you can answer a question. Take it from there, one post at a time.