What makes for a good community? Layout? Competitions? Moderation? Social sharing features?
Having done this line of work for over ten years (a career I find myself in entirely by accident), I’d say there is only one relevant answer: People. Or more specifically, interesting people – ‘Characters’, if you will. It’s easy enough to say, but I think it holds true: – the strength of a community is only as strong as the personalities that populate it.
Twitter is a prime example of a social community where interesting characters dominate, and are rewarded by followers. You could argue that one of the key hooks of Twitter over Facebook (at least several years ago) was the idea of being able to ‘follow’ and to a lesser extent ‘interact’ with public personalities. Whether they have anything relevant to say, is another matter; but from my experience, interesting people are attractive and draw followers wherever they go.
For example, several years ago, when I was administrating the Alan Wake forums, I remember a particularly charismatic individual who arrived complete with her own set of followers. I got the impression that she moved around the internet like a celestial body, collecting them as she travelled from forum to forum. At the time I joked that these people orbited around her like moons, caught in the sheer gravitational force of her personality. Where she went, they followed, and when she departed, so did they. Thinking about it though, I believe the solar system analogy is a good one, as it stresses the fact that when someone leaves, moves position, or when someone else enters the community, it affects the people around them.
Most importantly, interesting characters encourage other people to participate in your community and become active members themselves. Obtuse, obnoxious characters are the opposite — they repel and drive people away (and this includes staff/management — there’s nothing more toxic to a social community than an obnoxious person with supreme power). So, when managing a community, my approach has always been to identify the dominant characters that inhabit it, to understand why they chose to spend their time there, and to facilitate their needs wherever reasonable.
With this in mind, you have to be sensitive to when they’re unhappy and considering leaving, because their influence will affect the entire system. Some people are very vocal when they’re unhappy — anger and frustration are very clear symptoms that their expectations are not being met in some way. Anger, in particular, can be seen as direct emotional response to not getting what you want; and therefore it’s good to get into the practise of finding out exactly what people want. You can learn a great deal by starting with yourself — whenever I get pissed off and caught in the heat of an argument (and working for Last.fm, this happens more frequently than I’d prefer) I confront myself with the following: You are angry because you’re not getting what you want. So, what do you want?
However, not everyone speaks up — prolonged absence is a good warning sign that they’re moving on, but you may be powerless to prevent this. Certainly, in a large, multi-tiered community, it can be difficult to track the comings and goings of individual users, and you may not realise they’ve gone until, many weeks after, someone asks “Hey, whatever happened to…?”
There has been lot written on the topic of motivation, and the idea that people leave their job because they are either attracted to something new, or they have become dissatisfied (repelled) by the existing one interests me. However, the exact workings of this depend very much on circumstance and personality, which are difficult to understand and predict. In a general sense, I think you have to just accept that people come and go for a variety of reasons, and you have no real direct control over whether any individual stays or goes.
In my experience, most people don’t leave online communities in a grand departure, they just fade away. In this respect, I would say that the best you can hope for is to keep the spirit of the community alive, by creating a warm, inviting, vibrant community, with enough strong characters to attract newcomers and keep things lively. So, nurture your prima donnas — allow them to express themselves, celebrate community tropes and in-jokes, and give them what they need to be creative and do what they do best. Don’t go out of your way to stifle their fun when they’re having a good time. Learn to make exceptions for the greater good — because it’s their community as well.
I want to close this by stressing that when I talk about communities, I’m not just referring to online interactions, but any circumstance where people regularly meet as a collective group – work, school, clubs, and so on. Companies are made up of people, and by definition each one has its own community — a culture formed from norms, values, roles, and ‘characters’. I have used the word ‘characters’ to describe influential members of a community or organisation; some might describe these people as ‘leaders’, although I don’t think they necessarily are in the traditional sense. Certainly these people can be charismatic and inspirational; but ‘characters’ I feel, captures the more intangible, quirky, and endearing aspects of their personality. It’s also worth repeating that some dominant personalities in a group can be obnoxious and utterly repulsive; so perhaps a more academic definition would describe influential people in terms of ‘attractors‘ and ‘repulsors‘ — or some nonsense.
Regardless of how you describe them, it has been stated many times in managerial literature that the strength of any organisation is defined by the people that work there. I would extend this by arguing that the strength of an organisation hinges on the strength of its community. If people are what defines an organisation, then community is the glue that bonds that organisation together. When these people leave, the company loses more than just their knowledge and work output (physical body) — it loses its community spirit (gravitational effect). Their absence will affect all those that remain.
Working for a tech company for several years, I’ve had the privilege to work with people who are as eccentric as they are intelligent — brilliant minds with quirky humour and fascinating interests (one used to run a nightclass on lockpicking, for example). Like any community, brilliant minds need a social space to flourish — one that not only accepts their culture but encourages it. Some of my fondest memories at Last.fm include being shot at by a motion triggered Nerf gun; model helicopters flying past my desk; and toy sonic screwdrivers re-engineered to function as working presentation remotes. These are kind things that make a company fun to work for, in spite of everything else they might throw at you.
Ultimately though, it always comes back to the people you work with – the people you spend time with. Sadly, quite a lot of my friends have left over the last 6 months, and my fear is that as each person moves on, we lose a bit of our community spirit. At the same time, I think those that remain have been brought closer together, which can only be a good thing.