This is the first part my conversation with Scott Heiferman about what makes Communities work (or not work.) In this part we focus on the role of membership in making sticky communities.
Scott is Founder and CEO of Meetup: the world’s largest network of local groups. I worked with Scott as Chief Community Officer and Partner for almost two years.
Douglas: So what does it take to have a high functioning community?
Scott: It takes glue.
Douglas: Very funny. Can you be more specific?
A real community has real members
Scott: Yes. I think that if you’re in a community you have a sense that you’re not amongst fellow audience members or fellow consumers. In a community you shouldn’t feel like you’re amongst passengers but rather you’re amongst co-organizers of something. It’s more that we’re in something together. That’s when I think something emerges as a community.
Douglas: I’ve asked that same question to community leaders and a lot have had the same response. They say a really high functioning community is where people are participating and contributing equally. There aren’t passengers, there aren’t flakes. Everyone feels a sense of mutuality and responsibility.
There’s a sense of a fair trade. And if it’s not in balance then it can get ugly. People will say things like: “Well, I’m doing this for the benefit of all, and if you’re not going to pull you’re weight, why should I bother?”
Is that what you mean?
Scott: Yes. But I think that there can be plenty of dysfunction and it’s still a community. I think the reason why community intrigues people and it touches some nerve is that it in a sort of over-industrialized, de-personalized, over-corporatized, over-anonymized existence, you can just become or live as the target market of something.
Community and Identity
I think we have a deep need. I’m quoting you here. You talk about how we have a deep need to ‘believe and belong’. You really dig into that.
It’s about wanting acknowledgement that you exist.
You could exist in an industrialized, consumerized world and have your friends or have family, but not really exist outside of that.
I’ve been trying to explore that lately. You have your friends and family and work life. But there’s a role for community which is outside of that and touches on whatever interests you or intrigues you or what’s important to you. The stuff that’s often not fulfilled by friends, family or a work network.
Douglas: We were talking about how the strongest communities are those where the members feel that a part of their identity is defined by the community. You can see that phenomenon really clearly if it’s a religious community or a political community or even a cult brand community. I think it’s absolutely vital. It’s why communities need a really clear ideology or world-view, because that’s what people are buying into. They’re sharing that world-view with others, so it’s also a shared identity. That makes the community very, very sticky.
Scott: Yes. Absolutely. But I think there’s a false sense of community in things like the Apple Fan Boys. Because there’s definitely an identity there, but they’re not co-creating anything, they’re not making something together, or they’re not really interacting and relating to each other, and building something up with each other.
It’s not just about shared identity
So I would argue that the identity itself is not enough, that there has to be an identity tied to a shared goal, and it might not be an explicit goal, it may be a very implicit goal. I mean if you look at gay pride parades…I’m sure there’s an identity and there’s a celebration and a pride. But I think we have this implicit vision of a world that’s more equal or better for us, and that’s what brings the warmth of the community.
Douglas: So, what you’re saying is for a high functioning community, people don’t just have to have a shared identity, but they must also be co-creators, that they’re makers? They’re making something to achieve an implicit or explicit goal together?
Scott: Yes. That’s why I started the New York Tech Meetup, which people herald as a great success, but I don’t consider it a success because it’s just a monthly event with a giant audience.
I’m interested in reviving the lost art of membership.
What does it mean to be a member of something? I’m not talking about reviving some old model completely. I’m saying what’s the 21st Century version of membership in a community? And there’s going to be a lot new for the 21st Century, but I think it borrows from what’s always been true.
I think implied in membership is a responsibility.
Or a role.
And a role is not necessarily the overt explicit stuff, but the role is “are you pulling your weight, are you doing your part?” The balance of rights and responsibilities, the Aristotle stuff: I’ll get the right of celebrating and having this pride and doing all that, but there’s a responsibility too. I mean there’s gotta be norms in the gay community about what would have people turn against you. When you take on responsibility then you can benefit from the rights of having a celebration.
Discrimination is good
Douglas: I couldn’t agree with you more. Something I’ve been thinking about recently is whether all communities should be gated. Whether some members should be culled. There’s many criteria for whether someone should be accepted, but one of the key ones is if they are prepared to sign up for joint responsibility in the outcomes of the community. Strong communities have to have a sense of mutualism.
Douglas: There almost needs to be a barrier to entry where you have to agree to play, to be a real participant, or you get thrown out. Which makes me remember a time when we sent something around to the Advisory Board of Meetup to get their input. It included something about being exclusionary. It provoked a whole thread about whether one could be or not. I found it surprising that that would be an issue. There is a kind of political correctness in the Tech world, a trope about how everyone’s welcome, everyone can be part of it, and I’m not sure that’s true.
Caterina Fake and Linda Stone were talking about this when we spoke. The pendulum is swinging back. Until recently, people would join almost anything. And they would be welcome. I think of it as CJS-Compulsive Joiner Syndrome. People had wide arms and said anyone can be a member. Now we’re detecting that people are un-joining things, are thinking carefully who they’re friending. And organizations are getting more savvy about approving membership, and less tortured about chucking people out if they don’t’ behave according to the rules.
Scott: Yeah. Absolutely. On of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve gone around meeting Meetup Organizers in 25 cities-and I was shocked at this in the beginning, and it still is a little bit shocking-but I hear organizers being so vigilant about pruning their base.
What makes it so fascinating is that they have this strong incentive to want to have a large member base because having a large number of members makes you more attractive, makes you listed higher. There are a lot of advantages to having a lot of members, and there’s the ego of course. It’s like having a lot of followers or fans or something like that. So that makes it even more shocking when they’re angry at the inactive members and they’re prepared to prune them.
There is a big campaign going on about wanting people to pledge that they’re gonna stand up against genocide and it’s organized by the Anti-Genocide Coalition, which is a bunch of 20-something’s and the U.S. Holocaust Museum and a few different organizations. They’re really well organized; they’ve got this really great thing going on.
If you look at their website, it says “Pledge and add your name to this list of people who are pledging to stand up against genocide,” and all you have to do is send your email address and do your thing.
And I was so bothered by it because it’s using this word ‘pledge’. I’m like, “Great, this is interesting. Wonderful,” and then I’m looking for “what am I pledging?”
There needs to be a cost to membership
Douglas: Yes, exactly. There’s no real cost.
Scott: There’s no cost, exactly, there’s no cost. What am I giving up? What am I committing to? And it’s really nothing more than signing up for a mailing list or maybe a petition. I met someone who’s involved, and they say, “Well, we’re out for big numbers.”
And I actually think they do such a detriment to the whole idea of people with good intentions wanting to do something. At the very least say, “By pledging, you are agreeing you’re going to do something once a year,” – they’re just bastardizing the word.
And is there even the loosest from of a community emerging out of that? No. It’s just yet another mailing list you’re on.
Douglas: I agree. It’s a low-investment decision, and therefore how much is it worth?
I know what they’re doing. They’re starting with a low investment commitment (basically a mouse-click), which gives the organization a large list. Then they’ll ramp a fair chunk of them up the commitment curve. They’ll get them to make increasingly higher investment commitments.
The danger, of course, is there’s going to be ‘signing-up’ fatigue. I think people are very quickly going to have ‘joining-burnout’ because the act becomes meaningless.
The importance of provenance
Scott: Right. I think generally we’ve become so disconnected from so much around us. We’re so disconnected from our food and disconnected from our bank, and disconnected from our insurance, and disconnected from everything that is our life around us.
It’s rare I get addicted to a TV show, but I’ve been addicted to this obscure show…I’ve been recording them: How It’s Made. There’s just endless episodes of things like how plantains are made, how bowling balls are made.
And I never in a million years thought I’d be so interested in this, but you know, I think there’s this deep human need to be connected to the origin of things.
I think people are going to gravitate towards the real – gravitate toward people, especially when they’re living more and more off the screens.
And so the version of the highly scalable movement that is about networks of cells is really the model for maximum sort of movement making.
Douglas: Well, that’s one of the reasons I was so interested in the Mormons. They structure themselves like a collection of cells. Each member within each cell is intimately known to each other. Each cell is replicable in the sense that they have the same structures, the same positions, the same responsibilities and everything else.
Scott: Oh, and that’s the woven strength of Facebook, I mean Facebook is not made up of a community of 300 million people. It’s made up of a web of people who have deep relationships, at least some of them do.
I’ll be posting the second part of this conversation in about a week. It covers the roles of the different social networks (Facebook, Ning, Twitter etc) and what it is that binds people together.