Ana Noemi, a native New Yorker specializing in developer-focused community building, explored how we can learn about community from fields beyond the confines of the tech startup world.
She’s seen firsthand how community works in a number of organizations, and has reached a conclusion about the community manager struggle:
“We probably envisioned pulling people together, rallying around a cause, and making people feel appreciated. And we do those things…on a good day.”
The problem is, we wind up spending a lot of time justifying ourselves, which is simply exhausting.
“What we do is a lot bigger than startups,” Ana said, pointing to David’s comment earlier that community has existed since the beginning of society itself. “It’s easy to lose sight of our purpose when we’re facing a constant onslaught,” but you don’t need to reinvent the wheel in order to build a successful community.
“We’re just the first people to bring this practice into the tech space… If we look to deeper patterns and structures, we can put ourselves back in the driver’s seat.”
No matter who you’re working with, and what mission you’re working toward accomplishing, there are five staple ingredients to building a healthy, vibrant community.
5 Ingredients for an Enduring Community
- A Cycle of Non-Transactional Giving: Successful communities are sharing value with one another, which in itself establishes the value of the community to its members.
- Self-Identifying Membership: It’s all well and good if we as community managers are calling them “members,” but is that what they call themselves when we’re not around?
- Alignment of Desires: “Until we have a shared belief, passion, or hero, we’re just a band of individuals.”
- Customs and Rituals: All communities create customs and rituals together that their members then perform, cementing their participation and sense of shared experience.
- Empowerment of Individuals: Enduring communities don’t have central governing bodies–they change based on what their members bring to the table.
So how do these five traits show up in other organizations?
Example 1: Alcoholics Anonymous
- Sponsorship: Members give one another the support and commitment necessary to seeing them through their journey toward recovery.
- AA Doesn’t Diagnose Alcoholism: They will not tell you whether or not you’re an alcoholic, but will just be there for you when you decide you need them.
- Working to Get Well: Everyone in the room is working together, and that’s what unites them. They’re people from all walks of life working toward a unified goal.
- Meetings: “Hi, my name is ______, and I’m an alcoholic.”
- Anyone Can Start an AA Group: There’s no central governing body to the organization–anyone can start a group in their community if there’s a need for it.
Example 2: Burning Man
What is Burning Man?
“A Disneyland where the participants create all the rides.” – Michael Mikel, Co-Founder
Ana also applied the five ingredients with Burning Man:
- Gift Economy: You’re not allowed to exchange commerce of any kind, except at center camp where you can buy ice and some beverages. That money goes back into supporting the neighboring town that’s just opened itself up to 65K strangers.
- Culturally Abnormal Activity: Burning Man is a difficult event to explain to someone who’s unfamiliar with it. “You’re telling me you’re taking off for a week from work to go to the desert and wear a tutu? WHAT?!”
- “Leave No Trace:” “It’s not easy to get 65K people to scour their campsite when they leave to pick up every feather and piece of glitter from their costumes.”
- Effigy Burn: It doesn’t really get more ritualistic than burning a big wooden man in the middle of the desert, does it?
- Theme Camps: Example – Costume Cult. They take costume donations all year long, then lend them to everyone in the desert. They bring together a smaller subset of members to make their mark on the whole group by offering something to everyone.
Example 3: Linux
“I think, fundamentally, open source does tend to be more stable software. It’s the right way to do things.” – Linus Torvalds, Project Lead
Linux is an open-source, community-driven software system, which also includes the five key ingredients of an enduring community:
- Built by Volunteers: The entire project was built by volunteers who wanted to share their knowledge with others.
- Linux User Groups: Willing to put up with hard experiences to understand more about how their product works, effectively tightening their tribe.
- Anti-Corporate Ethos: In the beginning, the corporate community was using similar, open source software, but then closed the source. The community that established Linux wasn’t happy with that, and thus created Linux. “We’re not defined by who we are, but defined by who we’re not.”
- Lots of Shouting: Being told you’re stupid and wrong is essentially a rite of passage within the community. Perhaps not super favorable, but generally accepted nonetheless.
- Pull Requests: Any member can submit a “pull request”, contributing to the overall project.
Then Ana went on to define how the five ingredients of enduring communities work at her organization, StackExchange.
Example 4: Stack Exchange
- We Believe People Want to Help Each Other: “This is exclusively a knowledge-sharing community.” The company itself is a thesis and experiment to prove that people want to help each other.
- Give Away Content, No Pressure to Sign Up: You’ll never be halted by a sign up modal on StackExchange to continue reading content.
- Defining “On Topic:” The community has an ongoing (and never ending) debate on what’s on topic and what isn’t. Its members are all about creating high-quality artifact for people further along the line, and are dedicated to keeping the conversation in that vein.
- Community Documentation of Memes and Inside Jokes: The Many Memes of Meta is a running post to document inside jokes. “It’s critical to any community feeling like they have a culture that’s distinct to them.”
- Creation of Meta Stack Overflow: The rule used to be “You Don’t Talk About Stack Overflow on Stack Overflow,” but then users created an off-site location for the discussion to take place. That’s when StackExchange thought, “Nevermind, you were right, we were wrong, here’s a place to talk about how we work, our policies, etc.”
Ana continued to explain that “Community is an applied social science,” and as community managers, we’re the pattern matchers in the “weird tangles of human interaction” that are communities.
“Oftentimes, staring into the huge swath of interactions that take place within a community, it looks like you’re staring into chaos.”
The importance there is to stare into that chaos and extract meaning from it. That’s the job of a successful community manager.
If we don’t define what community building is, others will do it for us. This gives us an opportunity to step up. But while the onus is partially on us, not every organization is going to embrace the five traits or community in its truest form like we will.
“If you’re not in a place where you’re empowered to do your best work, find somewhere that you are.”