They Are Smol: creating a fan community — guest post by TPH.

by Dogpatch Press Staff

The genesis of a community is today’s furry news. TPH (TinyPrancingHorse) asked if I could cover his humorous science fiction series that features several anthropomorphic species. I sent back an offer: Let’s see your own story that covers — (1) The content that makes the community’s backbone — (2) Proof of how it gets support like money or views —  (3) Nuts and bolts of how it got going — (4) Earned experience from doing it. I hope this inspires YOUR creation. (- Patch)

They are Smol has a main page here, and the first chapter can be found here.

What’s it about?

When people think of their favorite series – be it Star Wars to Tolkien, Discworld to Dune – there’s always a sense of mystery and nobility to how those series began. It starts with Men and Women, taking their life experiences, war stories, deep thoughts and desperate hopes, and pulling from that mysterious aether of the “could be” and bringing it into the real world.

Then there’s my series, Smol.

They are Smol was not created out of the desperation of homelessness, the pain of war, the desire to preserve culture, or any other number of excellent and moving reasons. They are Smol was created during a mental breakdown at work, where the author – on a throwaway reddit account – ended up tapping into something interesting in the human psyche.

All too often, in popular media – games, movies, books – humanity is depicted as this ascendant demigod given form, and they often have a cute sidekick character to play off of and highlight these traits. Think Rocket Raccoon, or if you’re in the Monster Hunter universe, the Palicoes. Something cute to headpat, something small to protect, yet noble in their own right.

Make our species that cute.

They are Smol simply reverses roles to consistently comedic effect, putting the reader in the position of the adorable yet terrifyingly effective sidekick. The story takes place in the near future after a disastrous first contact and the subsequent accidental invasion of Earth. Humanity is on a rapid uplift schedule. Partly because our alien neighbors feel guilty, partly because having another allied species is a boon all around, and partly because it took us something like 150,000 years to learn how to plant grain.

…look, nobody ever said we were clever. Humans, as a whole, oscillate between abject fear at the otherness of our friendly (if confusing at times) alien neighbors; and the frustration that they keep putting everything way up high on the top shelf.

Show me some metrics!

  • As of writing this article, They are Smol has produced 5 books ranging between 35K – 50K words each, distributed to a 20,000+ strong readership base.
  • They are Smol has also expanded, grown into a horrific megacorporation that has ~150 patrons who are generously supporting the project to the tune of $730/mo.
  • This has allowed the team behind They are Smol to produce a bi-monthly podcast, a visual novel, plushies (still in the works), meme artwork and many other things.

How did it start?

As a content consumer, I’m the kind of person who binges. I enjoy taking in whole series of things, and then going back and picking them apart and turning it over in my mind – honestly, I don’t know if I was hurt by an abandoned story as a child or what, but it is what it is. I do the same thing no matter the type of content, be it Chernobyl from HBO or the entire Discworld series of books by Pratchett.

So, when I was bored one day at work (in a doomed position, no less) I stumbled back across Reddit, and more specifically their /HFY/ board – shorthand for “Humanity, Fuck Yeah!” With literally nothing else to do but count down the clock, I opened up a couple of stories and began to read.

And just didn’t stop.

We are talking dozens and dozens of individual universes. Stories that – after consuming 200K words over the span of a week or two – ended up following the same tired tropes. Mankind = best. Aliens = worst. All enemies are cardboard cutouts and we can windmill through space doing nothing special or amazing in particular. It was… boring, after a while.

When I had my mental breakdown at work, I sat down at my laptop and wanted to write the anti-story to this entire genre while still staying within the genre. Humanity, people, they’re amazing not because of what they are but because of what they can do and the choices they make. So the first chapter was cranked out in a 100% stream-of-consciousness flow, submitted with absolutely no editing or re-reading, and I went on with my lunch break.

An hour later and 900+ upvotes, it looked like there was some desire for more. Another stream-of-consciousness outpouring, zero formatting, and a fight for your right to party netted roughly 750+ more upvotes. Chapter three – 820+ upvotes.

It seemed the game was afoot.

They are Smol started to get fanart, it started to get some traction on social media, and for giggles I ended up putting together a Discord server so people who liked the story could talk to me directly. At the behest of someone in the comments section, I was told to put up a Patreon – and within it’s first few days, it shot up to $150/month.

“Oh dear.” I thought. “This is now a thing, isn’t it?”

Fan art

How is it managed?

One thing that comes with things being a thing is that you need to keep momentum going; communities will wither and die if there isn’t a steady stream of new coming in – be it new people, new content, or new fan works. As a creator, you have to carefully manage that universe you’re creating, both in your own mind as well as in reality – for your fanbase is the most important thing you have going for you.

Management is key, as you can’t fix what you don’t measure. This means walking down the decision funnel™ and figuring out what you can handle yourself, what needs to be automated, and what needs to be delegated (if you’re working with a team). The Decision Funnel™ for those who don’t know is pretty simple:

Take thing that needs to be done -> See if it can be automated. If not -> See if it can be delegated. If not -> do it yourself.

So in my posts, for example, I link to all my media, website and community locations. In all of those places, I try to automate as much content as I physically can. I explicitly tell my fans that they are welcome to make any art, music, writing, etc – any content at all – as long as I can share it with the world at large, and I stuff the meme pipelines full of fan-created works.

They are Smol is a community effort, and cannot sustain itself without the work and love of everyone involved, both officially and unofficially; so remove the friction between your fans and the work itself and everyone profits, everyone participates, and everyone gets to enjoy the thing that is now becoming a thing.

Social media calendar and more fan works.

What keeps members together?

One note on community building – you must be intentional while doing it. You have to have a community charter that your fans can see and abide by, and a second charter of higher standards for those you trust to staff and manage your community in your stead. It is the most important thing when it comes to building a fanbase that you have everyone who wants to participate acknowledge and agree to that charter, as it puts everyone on a level playing field, explains what behavior is acceptable, and sets the tone for the community at large. (See Culture Code Notes below.)

Even if you have a fanbase of a couple dozen people it’s important to create that living culture document. They are Smol has it as a prerequisite to join the community server, and in doing so it automatically vets out the people who are not interested in being good members of the community.

I can point to this community statement – both the actual laws and the cultural guidelines – as the sole reason why we are able to build a non-political community that (to my knowledge) has members of every single political party, both radical and centrist, without it devolving into a gigantic dumpster fire. The cultural guidelines are why we have a self-help/ask-for-help channel where people can go to work on their own selves, as well as get questions answered on anything from finances to art, writing to cooking. They are Smol’s community builds each other up and recognizes the inherent humanness of everyone, and because it’s baked into the charter of the community from the ground up it only magnifies and amplifies itself in a virtuous cycle.

We are smol, but getting bigger.

All these things build on each other and allow me – and my team – to focus on multiple projects at once.

I’ve been able to host multiple panels at various conventions (talking about storytelling and business practices) because I’ve been given the bandwidth to learn and grow and not deal with infighting or drama.

We have multiple writers working on side stories and new IP, partner-artists building a visual novel as well as various other goodies (such as finger puppets! What other series has official finger puppets, huh?!), and the community is encouraged to interact with us as they desire.

We would love to have you as well.

They are Smol has a main page here, and the first chapter is here. Get exclusive content on Patreon, interact on Discord, follow the newsletter or on Twitter.

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