Communities Are Strongest When Everyone Plays A Role

Last month I talked about the power of building an online community and the feedback that I got was unprecedented in all the months since we launched the advisory column.  Realizing that I touched a nerve, I thought it best to talk some more about this topic.

People participate in communities for a wide variety of reasons—to find emotional support and encouragement, to explore ways to contribute to the greater good, and to cultivate interests and skills, to name a few. Opinion leaders and evangelists play important and well-documented roles in social networks. They spread information, influence decisions, and help new ideas gain traction. But whereas focusing on opinion leaders may be sage advice for “buzz”, it is a misguided approach to community building. Robust communities establish cultural bedrock by enabling everyone to play a valuable role.

Research on communities including the Red Hat Society, Burning Man, Trekkies, and MGB car clubs, show 18 social and cultural roles critical to community function, preservation, and evolution. These include performers, supporters, mentors, learners, heroes, talent scouts, and historians, to name a few. In complementary research, Hope Schau of the University of Arizona and Eric Arnould of the University of Wyoming have documented 11 value-creation practices among community members, including evangelizing, customizing, welcoming, badging, competing, and empathizing. Companies with existing communities can evaluate the roles and behaviors currently being demonstrated and identify gaps that could be filled to improve community function. Those designing new communities can create structures and support systems to ensure the availability of a wide range of roles. 

With all these players what does it mean for communities of all shapes and sizes, both online and off?  communities are inherently political, and conflict is the norm. “In” groups need “out” groups against which to define themselves. PlayStation gamers dismiss Xbox. Apple enthusiasts hate Microsoft and Dell. Dunkin’ Donuts coffee drinkers shun Starbucks. Dividing lines are fundamental even within communities, where perceived degrees of passion and loyalty separate the hard-core fans from the poseurs. Community is all about rivalries and lines drawn in the sand. In other words, successful communities are also those who embrace the conflict in order to thrive and ultimately become stronger by highlighting, not erasing, the boundaries that define them.

Respectfully,   Lisa deSouza