These are the two universal (and often unconscious) questions people ask when deciding whether to join a community. They’re the two fundamental social needs that should be met if you’re going to successfully recruit potential members.


At Meetup, we found that Member Profiles were one of the most highly trafficked places on the site. Once someone has decided that they want to join a Beagle-lovers Meetup or practice their Spanish, their first concern is “am I going to get along with the others?” Or, as some people would put it: “I want to check there’s no weirdos there”. A community is predicated on sharing. Getting a fix on whether the others are enough like you to make that possible is important.

What’s even more important is to enable a feeling of belonging. Without this, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to build a strong and sustained community. Finding ‘like-others’ is, of course, critical to enabling belonging.

I first discovered this when I interviewed members of cults and cult-like organizations while trying to deconstruct why and how people commit to things. This may be a surprise, but people join cults not to conform, but to become more individual (‘The Great Cult Paradox’). Like all of us, they are looking for others with whom they can be themselves. We will change companies, join a clique of jocks or geeks in High School or change churches because we want to find a place where we feel at home. We’re all looking for a place where the others are enough like us that we don’t have to compromise who we are, we feel safe enough from criticism to express our true selves and thus self-actualize.

Harley riders admitted to me that it’s only when they’re riding out with their brothers can be themselves. They may be dentists or management consultants by day, but when they slap on their tattoos, don their leathers and ride out with the others, that’s when they become their true selves. It may be taboo not to feel like your beautiful home, your lovely family and your career is who you really are. But whether they were someone on the lam, an architect or a cop, they all admitted that when they’re with others who recognize that deep down they’re a rebel do they feel who they really are. They become themselves. They feel more individual.


So what does this mean if you’re designing a Community Platform or if you’re a Community Manager or Leader? Do as much as you can to clearly show what the membership is like…and equally, not like. It will hurt the community if people join who are not like the others.

1. Showcase the existing members.

Have rich member profiles and mini-profiles. Make your Member Page attractive and enable potential members to examine rich profiles in detail and skim mini-profiles to check that they share interests, goals, values or…they get their kicks from similar things.

2. Showcase what they do.

Enable potential members to see not only what members are like, but also what they do. Showcase photos and videos of recent activities or key posts that enable them to get an idea of how they’ll be interacting with each other.

3. Highlight pre-existing relationships.

There’s a high chance that if a potential member already knows someone within the group, they are likely to fit in. Meetup has social connections feature that shows how you’re linked to existing members of a Meetup Group. If you have joined the site by Facebook Connect or already attend other Meetups, friends and fellow members will be highlighted and rank ordered on the member’s page. And they rank those members on the Member Page accordingly.

4. Have an explicit Purpose/Mission/Goal statement

Being very clear not only about the benefits of joining but being explicit about who should and who not should not join is one of the fastest and best ways a prospect can assess whether the community is for them. It should enable them to answer for themselves whether they share the same goals, want the same things, share the same values, and are the same kinds of people as the other members.


Once the first social need has been answered: “Yes, these are people are like me”, the next natural question we tend to ask sounds slightly neurotic…but it’s a type of social anxiety we all feel: “Yes, but, will the like me, will they accept me or am I going to be left dangling, awkwardly nursing a drink alone or having my posts and questions unanswered?

The first few days or weeks after someone joins is critical. They’re effectively ‘in the airlock’, neither truly in or out of the community. They will quietly and quickly make an exit if they’re not made to feel welcome or can’t connect happily with anyone else.

Welcoming a new member with a personal message works wonders. Moonies had a term for this that I find helpful: ‘Lovebombing’. They would bed new members into their organization by pouring enormous resource into ensuring the vulnerable new member felt they truly belonged by celebrating everything they did and appointing buddies to help with every new task.

Lovebombing the Moonie way may be overkill. But it’s a good way to think about how you should treat new members:

1. Welcome new members personally

An auto-generated welcome email is never enough. If you’re the leader of a new community, welcome them personally. If the community has grown this won’t scale so appoint a member of the leadership team as the ‘welcomer’. Or highlight new members on the site so that existing members will feel compelled to drop them a line.

2. Highlight pre-existing relationships

The same feature mentioned above serves two purposes. It can reassure new members that they’re already known and liked because there are people they already know. Joining a community is a bit like showing up at a party alone where you will probably know no one. Technology now enables us to show that that may not be true and that in fact you already know quite a few people at the party (remember the joy when you spot someone across the room you already know). What’s more, encourage those members to reach out and welcome the new member.

3. Ask them to do something.

Asking a new member to do an easy task (such as introducing themselves to the group, uploading a photo etc.) pushes the member into engaging with others. It also gets them to make an investment (albeit small) in the community, predisposing them to do it again if they get a good response.

Asking them to do something also acquaints them quickly with the intrinsic…but not necessarily apparent…benefit belonging: engaging with others. It’s too easy for new members to make the leap and join, but never experience the real benefit of the group because they’ve not engaged with it.


It goes without saying that a community won’t grow without new members. But it probably is worth saying that it will grow strongly as long as you get the right new members: ones that share goals, values and needs with the rest of the group.

So having these two questions in mind as you design a community platform or lead your group is critical for effective community growth:

1. “Are they like me?”

2. “Will they like me?”

Conversation with Scott Heiferman: Part 2

Here is the second part of my conversation with Scott Heiferman, Founder and CEO of Meetup. In this part we talk about the roles of different social platforms (such as Facebook, Twitter etc), and the kinds of relationships that bind people to communities.

Douglas: So what do you thinks makes for a stronger kind of community: one based solely on pre-existing personal relationships. Like the majority of Facebook connections, or one based on passions and interests and causes, like Meetup or Ning? In Meetup Groups, people have bothered to get out of their homes and meet people around a shared need or cause, like being a military wife or just enjoying playing chess. It’s a more palpable reason for coming together, if you like.

So which is stronger, or is that a daft question?

Scott: I think life calls for different kind of relationships, different kind of communities and that, ultimately, you’re friends and the family networks are the strongest. It’s like saying is your circulatory system or your nervous system more important?  Well, it’s all part of a functioning ecosystem of life.

For example, I have a friend who’s part of a book club for some years. She has that monthly ritual, she devotes many hours to it, dozens of hours of reading every month and she looks forward to it.

But she doesn’t hang out with the people from book club outside of book club. I asked, “Don’t you consider them friends?” And she says, “Well yeah, but no, they’re my book club.” And this book club is focused on a topic. She’s got her friends, but then her    book club is something different and she considers the book club something very important, but it’s not friends exactly.

Douglas: So you can have segmented communities?

Scott: Yeah.

Douglas: There are communities which may or may not overlap within your life, some of which are based on a passion, interest, need, or cause, and some are just accidental, like you met these friends at college and you developed relationships with them, or you have this family you certainly didn’t elect to have.

Scott: Sure.  And I can’t say what’s more important.

Douglas: Maybe there’s another way of cutting it. There are communities that you elect to join and co-create within. Are they stronger communities than the ones you just happen to find yourself in?

Say you grow up in a small town or suburb. What’s your affinity to that town, really?  You didn’t elect to be there.  But you elected to be part of this co-creating local community around saving the environment or whatever. Which one do you really identify with and which one is strongest?

Scott: Well, I mean you gotta be a really cold person to not have warm, warm feelings for that town you grew up in.  I mean I’m sure when you head back to where you grew up, but there’s a part of your heart which is still there.

I see what you’re asking: do the things that you choose make you more committed to them?

Douglas: Yeah.

Scott: I don’t know. I do know that there’s a sense of relief when people find ‘the others’, as Douglas Rushkoff quotes Timothy Leary.

Douglas: In the research I did on cult-like organizations, I found that the root of it all was that everyone is trying to find the like-others. Somewhere where you can relax, create a safe space and become yourself.

Scott: Yeah.

Douglas: ‘Like-others’ can be defined in many ways. But I found that if you share the same values, that lent itself to the greatest stickiness. Because, generally, an individual defines themselves to themselves and others by describing their values: “I believe in this.  I think this is important.”  So if you find others who define themselves in the same way, that’s a profoundly strong tie.

Scott: Yes.  But you know, where it breaks down and where you see organizations like communes and collectives and intentional communities falling apart is when there’s a presumption, there’s an expectation, that all the values are going to be the same. But inevitably it’s going to translate to, “Well, you’re not exactly like me.” And I think that’s where, perhaps, more explicitness about the goal comes in.

Douglas: Yes, because you can unify around a goal but accept each other’s differences outside of the goal.

Scott: Right.  Right.  Like when the community says more explicitly that “here’s why we exist as a community and here’s where we’re not necessarily gonna agree.” It’s like saying, “Here’s why we exist and anything outside of this is – we have a tolerance for,” I think that’s really important.  Because when you have that degree of explicitness, all the things in a contract, it’s more likely to work.

History says it breaks down when there’s an intolerance for anything outside of it, as opposed to saying, well, this is the most important thing and other things are less important.

Douglas: So here’s a question I’m asking visionary founders like you of social platforms. Facebook, Ning, Twitter, Meetup. In five year’s time, what are the three or four left standing and why? Do they satisfy different needs or overlap? Is there a need that isn’t being satisfied?

Scott: Well, I think very strongly that some version of each of those is going to sustain – some version of each of those is going to be needed and become more and more and more important in the world. Like, I have my family and friends, I love what Facebook does for that.  And whether it’s Facebook or something else, that’s going to be a part of things.

Scott: That and that what Ning does is absolutely vital, and going to be part of the world forever. Which is that not-geographically specific common interest.

The idea of how do you spark real dynamism in that kind of geographically spread community is still to be figured out.

And then the role of Twitter, which I think is more about broadcasting, it’s about following, but is not about relationships. But that’s needed too.

I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t say that I think that Meetup or something like it is going to be the surprise strong player. For one reason. I’ll put it this way, that which elicits a community with roles and responsibilities, and interdependencies and relationships is just going to be a big winner.

Douglas: Right.

Scott: That’s what’s happening with Meetup period – because it pushes you. The Meetup is just a means to an end, which is to get the relationships and interdependences going. And the roles and responsibilities going within something that is not an audience, but rather is a true community.

Then from there, watch out.  You hear in the technology world the word platform a lot, and that the masters of the platform are the developers.  Developers are iPhone app makers, and Windows app makers.

Well, the platform that enables real people, not engineers, but real people to make applications, to be developers, is the formula for a big winner. When people are building a Meetup Group they’re being developers on a platform.  They are making something, like you make an iPhone app.  It needs to be a lot of people making it together.

And what we’re seeing is the more Assistant Organizers you have, the more successful the Meetup group is.  What is that saying?  It’s saying these people are taking roles and contributing.

Douglas: When I was at Meetup HQ we talked about how the investment it takes to participate in a Meetup Group is extremely high. It’s not just about a mouse click or posting a photo. It’s about showing up and more. That’s good and bad.

It means the barrier to entry is really high, but if they do show up, then there’s a strong possibility that the sense of reward could be equally high.

So, because Meetup is local and face-to-face, and if you’re co-creators and co-makers then the investment and reward is at a much higher level than if you’re simply in front of your computer.

Scott: Yeah.  I mean you could argue – and I’d be lying if I thought of this ahead of time, – but it’s like local isn’t even the point.  The point is co-creation and collaboration, and codependency, interdependencies and roles, and that that’s just more likely to happen locally, and face-to-face.

Are Twitter, Facebook et al just another media?

My recent conversations with marketing people brought this home to me. They tend to refer to Facebook, Twitter, Myspace et al as social media.

The people who build these things call them social platforms or utilities. The people who work at Ning, Meetup, Facebook etc see them as new social infrastructure where the Internet can remove the friction that impeded social interaction and community-building in the analog world.

You might think I’m parsing this too fine, but I believe that what they’re called is indicative of how they’re used.

For many marketers, these tools are simply media. They’re another way to reach a target audience. Not only that, they use them akin to the old broadcast media. Twitter and Facebook Fan pages are there to blast ‘messaging’ to their audience. (Not all marketers…the smartest brands use them as part of sophisticated community-building or customer service strategies).

The builders of Meetup, Ning, Facebook, Twitter etc see them as platforms on which people self-organize to form relationships and communities, often in ways they never envisaged.

They’re not ‘channels.’ They’re the new town halls, or social mixers, or forums or village squares.

Or are they? I could also argue that Fan pages are like the old media. They have an audience that receives updates and can respond in a limited fashion. But the degree of interaction between others on the Fan page is rudimentary at best. It’s not a real community.

Likewise with Twitter. Each person or organization or brand is broadcasting a point of view or an interesting link. Again, there’s limited functionality for interaction. And that’s just fine. It’s there as a personal radio station if you like with limited ‘call-in’ ability.

What do you think? Do you call them media or platforms, and why?

Fan, Follower or Community Member?

Over the past week I’ve been interviewing people about whether they are enabling real community. Most of them have been in the commercial arena. Many of them want to create communities around their brands to create more commitment.

There are really a few simple questions that they can ask themselves to clarify whether they are creating true community or not. Why should they bother to clarify this? Because there seems (to me) to be a bit of confusion about whether they’re creating fans, followers or community. Being a fan or follower is not the same as being a member. Membership of a community delivers a whole different degree of commitment (if done right).

It’s about the number of bonds

It’s all about the number bonds you have. With fandom, there’s essentially a simple bond between the fan and the thing or person they’re a fan of. Or between the follower and the followed. Like fans or followers, members also have a bond to the purpose or values of a community. But critically, they also have a bond with fellow members of the community who also buy-into the purpose or values of the group. They have a relationship, a commitment and sense of responsibility to the other members. They are their friends, colleagues, fellow fighters, or just Bill and Jane who you look forward to seeing again at the next meeting.

This triangulated relationship is much harder to break than a two-way commitment. To leave would not only mean saying goodbye to object of your commitment. It would also mean saying goodbye to your friends or even your brotherhood who share your commitment



So here’s a list of questions you should ask if you want a community vs. simply a fan base or followers. If you say yes to any of these things, you’re likely to enjoy the greater level of stickiness that that a true community endows.

Community checklist

  • Does it satisfy a real need? Do its members learn more, have more fun, get more done or get support?

  • Does is have a clearly articulated purpose?

  • Is it clear about who belongs and who doesn’t?

  • Is there interaction between members?

  • Are there enduring relationships formed between members that go beyond the original reason for connecting?

  • Do they contribute, do they participate, do they work together to achieve the common purpose? Being an audience is not a community.

  • Do they feel responsibility for each other and the community at large?

  • Are there roles, responsibilities and jobs performed by the membership?

  • Is it self-policing? Do people censure or eject unruly or unreasonable members?

  • Are there guidelines, rules, or norms of behavior?

To be really sure that you’ve enabled a real community ask the following questions of your members.

  • Do they identify with the community? Does it reflect, in part ,who they are as an individual?

  • Do they have a sense of belonging?

  • Can they be who they really are without fearing rejection?

  • Do they have a sense of confidence, safety, even protection?

  • Do they feel part of something bigger than themselves?

  • Do they have a sense of purpose and meaning?

This interrogation of whether you have, or want, a fanbase, a following or a membership should also be applied to the platform you choose to run it. Facebook, Ning, Meetup or a custom-made solution? I’ll cover that in the next few days.

Conversation with Gina Bianchini (Part 1)

This is the first of two parts of a conversation I had with Gina Bianchini. Gina is CEO and Co-Founder (with Mark Andreessen) of Ning.

Ning is a social platform that enables people to form communities of interests and passions. Well, you’ll see what it is and why Gina thinks it’s different from other platforms in this conversation…

This part covers why Ning was founded, what makes it different from other social platforms and what defines a successful Network.

The next (to be posted in a few days) will cover the evolution of Ning, it’s next significant development, what social platforms will be around in five years time and what Network Creators need to do to ensure success.

Douglas: Gina, why did you start Ning?

Gina: We started Ning with a simple premise: what if we gave everyone the opportunity to create their own unique social experiences online?

We saw early on that the native behavior on the web – or what people wanted to do on the web differently from any other medium before it – was connect people with other people. Looking at eBay, Craigslist, chat and discussion boards, it was clear to us that people wanted to connect and engage online in a fundamentally social way that the Internet and no other media type enabled.

With this as our foundation, we sought to create a social platform for people to create rich, immersive social experiences for the things they cared about the most.

Ning vs. other Social Platforms

Douglas: So what distinguishes Ning from other social networking sites?

Gina: We are focused on enabling unique social experiences for people’s interests and passions.

The fascinating thing about how social technology platforms are evolving today is that each social platform focuses in on a specific area of the human experience. It’s a bit like the five families actually. You have Facebook for connecting you to people you already know; Twitter for news and real-time events; Linked In for your professional identity and Ning is designed for meeting new people around your interests and passions.

For example, the IAVA (The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) has created a private social network on Ning for returning veterans to be able to find and talk to other returning veterans in a safe place and share their experiences.

Or TuDiabetes (http://tudiabetes.com), which has over 10,000 members touched by diabetes who are there to dive deep and build strong relationships online with others affected via videos, blogs and discussions around topics critical to living with diabetes.

From the politically important to the emotionally critical, Ning is the broadest platform for unique social experiences on the Internet today.

Douglas: So do you think online relationships based around a passion or a need are inherently stronger than, say, those that are on Facebook?

Gina: I don’t know if they’re stronger, they are just different. There will always be a place for you to have a relationship with the people with whom you grew up or went to college. That is one of the things that makes Facebook special.

I think relationships built around interests and passions are typically about meeting new people who have a shared love or identity to you. Where you can’t control where you are born or who you went to school with, what you care about – your favorite music, your critical causes, the reason you get out of bed in the morning – is what makes you uniquely you.

Connecting people around the things they care about requires a different approach than Facebook or Twitter, which are really set up for a different purpose. Interests and passions require context for that particular topic and the ability to go deeper with a smaller set of people filtered for the truly engaged.

Douglas: I agree.  I was talking about this to Linda Stone. We discussed what needs were being satisfied by which social networks.  Twitter versus Facebook versus Ning versus Meetup and so on. The only two that lean into the passion/interest/ cause/needs area effectively are Ning and Meetup.  Except there’s a fundamental difference between the two. Ning is enabling people to cluster around these things online…not necessarily anchored by geography. Meetup is at the intersection of passions and local.

Gina: Yeah.  I think they’re very complementary actually.

Douglas: I do too.
So here’s another big question.  What is community exactly?

What is Community?

Gina: A community has historically been defined as a group of people organized around common values and social cohesion within a shared geographical location.

With the Internet, you don’t need the geographical location, so the opportunity for community has increased exponentially with the types of communities expanding in ways that have no analog in the real world. From offbeat brides to steampunk aficionados, entirely new communities can emerge in minutes around interests that may only exist or be possible in an online world.

Ingredients of a successful Network

Douglas: What constitutes a successful Ning Network?  What are the ingredients?

Gina: Our successful Ning Networks share one thing in common and that’s “The Hook.” Regardless of topic, category, or member base, when a Ning Network has a Hook you know immediately what the social network is about, who it targets, why you should be there, and whether you belong in this contextual world.

How is the Hook communicated? The Hook is communicated via the name of the social network, the brand, the visual design, the features, and the layout. From these small sets of levers, we’ve seen tremendous diversity in the rich, immersive social experiences on Ning.

For example, when you show up at the Offbeat Bride Tribe, it’s got a Goth boot – like a Doc Marten boot – under a wedding dress.  In a split second, you know this Ning Network is about brides who want a wedding that doesn’t conform to the traditional.

Or Lost Zombies, which is a Ning Network creating a crowd-sourced documentary of people who are contributing themselves as the majority of the zombie army.  You immediately know when you’re on it that it’s about zombies: the look and feel, the photos, the videos and overall design tells you immediately what it is about.

These different Ning Networks are really clear about why they exist and why you should join them. They make their case immediately when you first land on the homepage and it goes from there.


Douglas: One of the things I wrote about in the Culting book is the ‘Four D’s of Difference’. It’s about how effective communities must communicate their difference to potential recruits. Everyone is trying to find their tribe.  We have a profound human need to be amongst ‘like-others’.  The successful cult-like communities…the ones that generate enormous stickiness…are the ones that telegraph their difference to those that are the most likely ‘match’. They say: “you’re different and we’re different in the same way… so come on in.”

Gina: Exactly.

Douglas: And they can do this in a number of ways.  But they absolutely must declare their purpose very clearly.  It could be in a Manifesto. By the way the membership behaves, maybe how they dress, the design of the site, the church, the meeting place, how they talk to each other.

And what’s equally important is to communicate not just to those who could belong but also to those who shouldn’t.  It needs to say, “Hey, you’re not like us. That’s cool but you probably don’t belong here so find the place where you do and you’ll be more comfortable”.

In other words you need to be very clear about who you’re appealing to and who you are not. And be very clear about what you get, and what you don’t if you join.

Gina: Absolutely. And I think that that’s going to get more and more obvious as we move forward.

Douglas: Why?

Gina: Because people are becoming more sophisticated in how they use social technologies and, especially, how and where they define what they stand for and who they want to stand with online.

If people want to be one of many in a rigid, uniform social network, they have that option with where social networks have been, not where they are going.

As the number of options for social experiences continues to grow exponentially, social experiences must both be unique and interesting, but they also must telegraph who belongs and who doesn’t. And they need to do it quickly and effectively on the first impression or they may not get another chance.

We see this playing out everyday across hundreds of thousands of active Ning Networks and it’s absolutely critical in separating out the successful from those that merely exist.

Interview with Caterina Fake, Part 2

Caterina small photo

Caterina Fake is co-founder of Flickr and Hunch.

This is the second part of an conversation we had about the nature of community.

Douglas: What do you think are the key ingredients of a high-functioning community?

Caterina: Well, obviously I think that there needs to be a reason for people to get together, and that can be an affiliation or an interest or proximity or some kind of common goal or need.

And I think that there needs to be people that care deeply about the purpose of this community. You see many examples of this not being the case online. Like corporations, for example, will say, “Oh, we are Cottonelle toilet paper.  We wanna form an online community around our toilet paper.”

And it’s a bit ridiculous.  There’s that famous case of L’eggs pantyhose wanting to create an online community.  This was back in the late ‘90s.

Frankly, you can’t imagine the conversation could sustain itself for very long.

They expected a bunch of housewives discussing the merits of different kinds of pantyhose. Well, they did get a passionate community, just not the one they were expecting. It was the cross-dressing and fetish community that latched onto L’eggs.

Douglas: Ha! I love that example, because what they did get is valuable…people using the community as a form of self-definition, It just wasn’t the one L’eggs was looking for. I would have been hilarious to see the brand managers’ face. It’s what happens on the self-organizing Internet I guess.

Caterina: Yes, exactly.

I think that community is – well, you know, my area of interest and study has been online communities.

But, I think that we’ve taken a lot of our cues from offline communities. I do think that there are certain kinds of fundamental principles of human sociality that do not vary between online and offline.

Douglas: So, what are those commonalities between online and offline?

Caterina: I think that every community needs rules of behavior. They may vary depending on the type of community. So, if you have a bunch of monster truck aficionados and their interests lie around monster trucks awesomeness, crushing their opponents, beer drinking and swearing, you have a very different set of worries and rules from say, The Ladies Christian Knitting Society.

But there do need to be rules that enable sociality to function.

This is the kind of thing that’s not allowed or discouraged or, you know, not welcome here, and this is the kind of thing that brings us together.

Community failure

Douglas: What are the characteristics of communities that fail?

Caterina: Well, I think that the main reason that communities fail is through lack of interest, like the pantyhose community.

Or lack of oversight by somebody.

That doesn’t necessarily need to be the software developer themselves, because there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of groups that are being formed on various pieces of social software.

But there needs to be somebody who cares sufficiently well and sufficiently enough to make sure that the trolls and the spammers stay away from the community.

I think that most communities fail due to lack of oversight and lack of care and maintenance and feeding.

Leader as guardian, nurturer and welcomer.

Douglas: That’s interesting.  So, are you saying that every sort of community needs a leader, and part of their role is to be a guardian or parent or nurturer?

Caterina: Yeah. They could also be the role of party host, where they introduce people that don’t know each other to each other and, you know, take the raincoats and offer them drinks and give them food. And they have to simultaneously, especially if this an online example, kick out the haters and make sure that everyone’s having a productive conversation.

Good and bad members

Douglas: I’ve found it interesting that after a while, new community leaders can’t love all their members equally. Whether it’s online or offline, they come to realize that there are good members and that there are bad members and that part of their role is to not only encourage the good members, but they really have to deal with the bad ones.

It’s a really an important responsibility to cull: basically get rid of the flakes and socially toxic members.

Caterina: They can actually destroy a community. For example, I belonged to a flourishing book club, and everybody was very engaged and enjoyed the group.  It was a great book group.

And at one point, somebody had invited a friend of theirs to join, and this person became this sort of obnoxious know-it-all. He started jumping in when other people were talking and correcting them and basically just being very offensive.

And within two meetings, the book club, which had flourished for two years previously, within two meetings of the introduction of this guy, who nobody stepped forward to get rid of – completely disbanded.

It was tragic because nobody had the cojones to say, “Thank you.  Please don’t come again.”

Douglas: Communities can be fragile things, and if people are breaking the rules, new community leaders have to learn very quickly that you have to be tough to be kind and get rid of those people.

Caterina: Yeah, yeah.

The future of community

Douglas: If you were to imagine the world in five years, what would community platforms look like, and how are they likely to be used?

Caterina: You know, I do think that the world kind of goes between promiscuous connection and expansion and then a kind of social contraction.

And I think that over the past several years, and even the past 10, 15 years, we have been socially expansive. Now there’s a general trend towards realizing that all of this promiscuous friending did not actually increase our sense of connection to other people and that we should actually spend more time concentrating on the small number of people with whom they have actual relationships.

Douglas: Is this something you kind of get a feeling about, or have you seen some data about this?

Caterina: One of my friends is a researcher on this topic, Linda Stone and her research has shown that now people are having fewer more meaningful connections.

Douglas: Interesting.  Is that within online community, or also offline?

Caterina: I do think that these things are pretty standard over time.  You have the Dunbar number, which is 150 people I think, that you can really only know reasonably well. You have your basic family unit, like 8 to 12 people that you keep in touch with on a constant basis in the course of, you know, a month. And these have seemed to be pretty standard in all kinds of human interactions over a period of time

Is community making a comeback?

Douglas: Part of the thesis of The Glue Project is that we’ve gone through several decades of the decline of community, whether it’s unions, social associations or whatever else. And it’s happened for all kinds of reasons, like sprawl, commuting, relocating, the culture of fear of strangers, whatever.

Caterina: Like the Robert Putnam Bowling Alone kind of thing.

Douglas: Yes, exactly. The thesis is that we are rediscovering the power of community. In a way, sites like Flickr and hunch and Facebook are introducing people back to both the fun and essentialness of association.

Is this something that you think is true from your own experience?

Big influence

Caterina: I do.

One of the driving forces of my life is that I was a miserable and lonely teenager growing up in Reagan-era suburbia and felt very isolated from likeminded people and friends and places that people could group.

And, you know, we would kind of get into our car and we would drive to our grocery store and have anonymous interactions with checkout cashiers and never actually speak to another human being for weeks at a time.

I found this to be just a horribly alienating experience. And I loved it when I went away when I was a teenager to a boarding school in Connecticut where everybody was living on campus in the same tiny little dorm rooms.  We were like rabbits piled on top of each other, and it was just this great Petri dish of human interaction. It was a thing that I had craved as a lonely preteen, you know, like preteen eccentric in a very homogenized community.

Douglas: And you said that was a big influence on what happened later?

Caterina: Yes. It was one of the driving forces of my life. I wanted to find context in which meaningful connections could take place.

Douglas: Suburbia is increasingly being criticized as a place that, although created with the best intentions, has actually driven community out. There’s no center, no locus, no equivalent of the forum, which enables accidental and purposeful interactions.

Caterina: Yeah, I remember some friends of mine were visiting from England, and they were in Santa Clara in California for a conference, which is like a big sprawly kind of town in Silicon Valley.  And it was nighttime, and my friend, Fiona, said, “Okay, we’re gonna go to the center and go out and have a drink and walk around and see people,” And then, she drove around for a good two hours.  She said, “There’s no center. Where do I go?”

Douglas: It is truly baffling to Europeans, actually.  That’s why they gravitate to New York and San Francisco and Boston, because they’re recognizable as communities.

Caterina: Yeah, exactly, exactly.  You know, I think that one of the things that’s happened is that, things like the suburban mega-churches become the center of community, and the schools become the center of community.

I mean, you know, the human will to form community is unquenchable. And so, even in suburbia people are very social. It’s just that it’s not nearly as easy to encounter people on the street as you would in a large city where you know your grocer and you are given the opportunity to kind of run into and see other people on an almost constant basis.

Enabling interaction=stickiness

Douglas: Here’s a more personal question. What’s the most useful or satisfying community you’ve ever belonged to, and why?

Caterina: Oh, that’s a really good question. I do think that some of the most, wonderful and gratifying communities were, as I mentioned earlier, boarding school and college. And I think that the reason that those were such gratifying and wonderful experiences was that there were so many people together.  We all had the common interest that we were all getting an education together.  We were, you know, young, open to new ideas.  We were present.

We were in the kind of the phase of maximal sociality that you go through in your life, which is when, between the ages of, I don’t know, I guess about 12 or 13 through the age of, like your 30s when you’re in your peak social phase of your life.

That period of time was truly a wonderful time. You had everybody living in close proximity to each other and all kinds of different people from different parts of the country and different parts of the world I was meeting for the first time.  All of those things, I think, conspired to make it a very gratifying kind of community experience.

Community is Protection

In my conversation with Linda Stone, she brought up an interesting exchange she had had with a younger woman. It was about how two generations derived a sense of protection from two different sources. Linda paraphrased the young woman’s view this way:

“Protection to my baby boomer parents and protection to me are completely different things. For my parents they feel protected when they have paid off their house. They feel protected when they have money in their 401k. For me, I feel protected when I have a rich social network. I just left a high paying job and I’ve taken a month and a half to be with my parents and I know that even in this economic downturn I’m going to be ok, because I have this rich authentic network of online and offline connections. People are willing to help me, I’m willing to help them.”

Community is there to catch you if you fall.

There are some interesting implications here:

1. The daughter’s view about community is older and more in tune with the human condition than her parents’.

Community as a source of protection goes back to our species’ dependence on it to survive attacks from predators. Even nowadays, the ancient wiring still works. You are more likely to be protected from the dire effects of an acute medical condition (like a heart attack) if you have a supportive social network. You heal faster and avoid death to a significantly greater degree than if you you’re not part of a community with strong social ties. And the recent science of Happiness is showing that there is a strong relationship between community, happiness and longevity.

2. Successful communities provide protection when their members are under threat.

The cults and cult-like communities I researched tended to marshal significant resources to support their own when needed.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (The Mormons) has a veritable care-machine that fires up when you’re ill or lose your job. Peg Fugal, a convert I spoke to in Utah, describes how it works:

“If you’re not in Church on Sunday, your home teacher is going to notice, your     visiting teacher is going to notice, the bishop is going to notice, and somebody’s going to call you, and somebody’s going to visit with you.

And if they discover you’re sick, they’re going to bring meals in. And if they discover your marriage is in trouble, they’re going to find you a counselor. And if they discover you’re out of a job, they’re going to refer the church employment specialist to you, and get you a job. And if they discover you’re out of groceries, they’re going to write you a welfare slip to go to the Bishop’s storehouse to get groceries…There isn’t a Mormon on the planet on [Government] welfare.”

Christianity may never have made it out of minor-cult status if it hadn’t been for how the community dealt with two devastating plagues that struck the Roman world in 165 AD and 251 AD. Unlike the rest of the population who’s habit in the face of plague was to literally run for the hills and leave the infected behind, the early Christians stayed in the cities and applied their ideology of care.

According to Rodney Stark in his book The Rise of Christianity, modern experts estimate that conscientious nursing care could have cut mortality rates two thirds or more: “love and charity had…been translated into the norms of social service and community solidarity. When disaster struck, Christians were better able to cope and this resulted in substantially higher rates of survival.” Before the first plague, Stark estimates the Christian population to have been circa 0.4% of the total. Post-plague it had bounced to one Christian to four pagans.

Incidentally, this had a very interesting multiplier effect. Higher rates of survival increased the ratio of believers to non-believers. This in turn increased the number of interactions between Christians and non-Christians. Increased rates of contact between the two are highly likely to have increased the rates of conversion (see the ‘rubbing together’ posts on this blog for the power of frequent social interaction in creating social glue).

This, plus other factors, contributed significantly to the religion’s penetration of the Roman culture to the point that, sociologists estimate, it represented 50% of the population by 300 AD. Its status as State Religion conferred by Constantine The Great was more likely a result of political wisdom than a vision from God, as Christian mythology claims

3. Boomers’ reliance on personal resources (money) as a source of protection is yet another symptom of the me-generation’s posture of self-reliance vs. group-support.

We’ve (I’m one too) dominated the culture’s attitude to community for several decades. It’s not exactly one of contempt, but it’s been a ‘nice if you can get it…but it’s not that important at the end of the day, because I’m the source of my own happiness.”

I, and many of my friends reflect a general trend amongst our generation to now seek a greater sense of place and connection. We have a profound sense of dissatisfaction with what our furious pursuit of careers and personal satisfaction has delivered, and are now expressing more desire to be involved in neighborhoods, spend more time with our family, put down roots, and stop moving so fast.

4.   The daughter’s use of technology as a builder of protective social networks has interesting implications for her and subsequent generations’ product demands. What could Facebook, Meetup and LinkedIn develop to really lean into these generations’ needs for social network support functionality?

Community is higher than food and shelter on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. But clearly it’s a fundamental need, and one that’s primal in its relationship to protection and survival.

For Linda Stone’s full interesting analysis on Boomer’s and Millenial’s differences in attitudes to community, check out her post on her new site.

Interview with Caterina Fake

Caterina phot

Caterina Fake is co-founder of Flickr and Hunch. The latter is a decision-making tool that uses the collective intelligence of its members. It launched in June this year.

I first met Caterina at her beautiful house in San Francisco where she had invited Scott Heiferman (CEO and Co-Founder of Meetup) and myself for tea. I have a lot to thank her for because she was indirectly responsible for my ending up at Meetup. She had read my book about cults and recommended it to Scott. And that ultimately led to an excellent chat over tea and a game of Wii tennis on the way to my first Meetup Board meeting.

This is the first of two parts of the conversation I had with Caterina this month.

HunchLogo w divot

Is Hunch about community?

Douglas: How would you say community works on Hunch?

Caterina: So, Hunch is an interesting thing, because I would say that Hunch is not a true community website or product, but it’s a collective knowledge system, and what people are doing on Hunch is creating decision trees.

And it operates in a similar way to Wikipedia, where people will contribute about a topic that they know something about.  So, for example, if I’ve spent some time doing research on which hotels to stay in Los Angeles, I can contribute to that topic.  And so Hunch is a different kind of social software.

People are not necessarily going there to interact with one another or to make connections or talk with one another. It’s more of a place where people can share their knowledge with one another.  It’s a kind of a culture of generosity and a way of showing your expertise on a certain topic.

Douglas: So it’s a crowd, not a community.

Caterina: Yes, that’s true. I would say that’s accurate, yes.

Role of Creator.

Douglas: How involved in the community should the creators of social platforms be? Like any community creator, should they be in there interacting and nurturing it, or just let whatever emerges, emerge?

Caterina: I think one of the things that’s very important when you’re building an online community is for the creators of the community, the company in this case, to be very present and interact directly with the people that are contributing to the system.

On Hunch we have a very strong presence. We’re all interacting directly with, and commenting on, responding to and basically helping coach, encourage and reward and cultivate the community that exists there.

Douglas: And is that something that you think is more important when the community starts and you can pull back later, or it’s something that’s continuously required?

Caterina: It’s very important at the beginning, because you’re establishing what the rules and expectations and parameters of this particular community are.

If you’re a monster truck community and swearing and trash-talking is part of the game, then you establish that at the outset.

Douglas: Right.  So that’s important for the platform builders, like when you start a Hunch or a Flickr. But it’s also important for people who create their own communities on those platforms isn’t it?

Every community needs to establish norms of behavior and rules of the road.

Caterina: Yes, and I find that if you model that behavior early on in the process that it carries through.

I call the founder of an online community the “Abraham.” You know, Abraham begat so-and-so, who begat so-and-so, who begat so-and-so The Abrahams of the community are generally the founders of the company or the person who first creates the social software and whatever their wishes and nature tend to follow through organization-wide.

Douglas: That’s something that’s a lot of community leaders that I’ve interviewed also say, whether they’re Meetup Organizers or Ning Network Creators. Inevitably the character of the community is a reflection of the character of the leader. And that’s OK.

Hunch’s potential for community

Douglas: One of interesting things about Hunch is that you’re aggregating huge amounts of rich data about what people have in common.

The dictionary definition of a community is a group of people who hold things in common, whether it’s monster trucks or beliefs in a particular god.

You’re collecting commonalities. So the overt purpose for Hunch is to enable decision-making, but you’re also sitting on a huge amount of data that would be an incredible platform for people to start creating communities on the basis of commonalities.

Caterina: I agree, and I do think that there is untapped social potential that we’ve got in Hunch that will reveal itself over time.  We’re in the very first phase.  We only launched three or four months ago, and so we are just on the verge of being able to see likeminded people emerge, people who share your aesthetic, or politics, or your interest in bird watching etcetera.

And so, there’s an emergent community that’s latent and unexpressed. But there’s definitely that kind of potential in the future.

Douglas: And is that something you want to do?  If you look two years ahead, will Hunch be enabling those kinds of connections so that people can form communities?

Caterina: That is TBD.  It’s not clear that people need to connect with each other directly. For example, say you’re somewhere in a small town in Michigan and you wanted to know where someone like you would have dinner. You don’t necessarily need to know the person who is making the recommendation.  You just need to know that you have tastes in common and therefore they would make a good recommendation for you.

Douglas: So you’re going to wait and see whether that’s a direction Hunch will take?

Caterina: Whether or not there’s an opportunity for sociality, that remains to be seen.  That said, there’s certainly things that Hunch could potentially catalyze. For the special snowflakes of the world to find one another!

Strategic Direction

Douglas: Do you think if you started to enable people to start forming groups, would that be a strategic distraction from the main purpose of Hunch, which is to enable decision-making?

Caterina: Yeah, when you’re building software, you have to constantly return to what are your founding principles, and whether we are we giving people the thing that we think that they most want.

That certainly can change.  You can discover things in the course of building software that you had not thought people wanted, but it turns out that they do.

Douglas: As a user experience of one, I found Hunch enormous fun. It’s not only that the questions are fun but it seems to be getting to know me in quite a profound way. I found myself thinking “I never really knew that about myself.  It’s forcing me to think about who I am and what I believe and what I like.”

I don’t know of any other platform that does it quite the same way, that’s capturing so much – that knows me so well and clearly knows other people as well, and identifies similarities.

It’s like a dating site that’s done well, richly profiling people like you on the basis of personality traits and interests. I want to get to know those other people! Especially when I can find them when I hit a tab called ‘Community’!

Caterina: Yeah.  I mean, I do think that we are still just scratching the surface of the possibilities that we’ve got for this particular kind of software.  And we may very well find that its use-case par excellence is in connecting other people to each other.

Douglas: Right.

Caterina: So, this is all – it’s all very early stage, and that’s why I enjoy being an entrepreneur, because you have no idea what’s down the road, and that’s what makes every day exciting.

What is a Community?

I keep being asked this question.

Not surprising really, since I go on about community a lot. And perhaps not surprising because it’s one of those culturally familiar, but rarely examined ideas like fairness, or even democracy. It’s a comforting, but somewhat vague concept, one that’s used frequently by all of us, and relentlessly by politicians (who tend to use it as an easily grabbed motherhood, guaranteed to legitimize any worldview). Unless you’re a sociologist, you’re unlikely to have spent much time thinking about what community really means. And what it takes to make one.

But perhaps it’s time to do it now.

Community is making a comeback. We have a self-confessed Community Leader in the White House. Data shows a climbing desire for more contact with neighbors and more time with the family.

Rugged individualism as a culturally defining idea (whether your preferred symbol is the Marlboro man or the survival-of-the-fittest Gordon Geckos of Wall St.) may indeed be central part of the national character. But it has eclipsed, to our cost, the equally defining, and interestingly juxtaposed idea of every American as a member of a vigorous community…something seen as uniquely American by a French man, no less: De Tocqueville.

Whatever the reason, I keep being asked to define community. So, based largely on the hundreds of interviews I conducted very self-conscious communities (like cults and religions) as well as those that are less so (like chess playing clubs and some neighborhoods) here’s my take.

Communities hold things in common.

They could be needs, like a cancer survivors’ groups or new-in-town social clubs. They could be ideologies if the community is a religion or political party. It could be proximity if it’s a neighborhood. Or a cause if it’s a movement, fighting, say, for the environment or against human slavery. Or it could be interests like opera, Nascar or technology. Whatever they are, their members align themselves with those who share these things in common.

But I think this begs a bigger and more interesting question: does the nature of the thing that’s shared predispose a community to be stronger or weaker?

Is a shared ideology inherently stickier than a shared hobby?

I would argue yes, it is. Beliefs not only tend to trump facts, and values trump policy arguments, but they also tend to beat other kinds of commonality in the ability to generate glue.

An alignment around more government or less government, around a personal God or atheism, or even around being an American or a Frenchman (because they’re particular national ideas that are packed with ideology), is a stronger alignment than being a chess player or even a neighborhood resident.

Of course there are qualifiers to this, which I’ll talk about in a moment. But I’ve seen ideology forming the strongest glue for this key reason: its ingredients…values and beliefs, a shared vision of how the world should be…are also the ingredients of self-definition at the most profound level. Being a born-again Christian or Sufi is normally central to a person’s idea of themselves. So is being a conservative or a liberal. Imagining a world where women and men are equal or race is irrelevant is more self-defining than if you’re an opera lover or you happen to live Manchester.

If people share self-definition at the level of beliefs, values and hopes, that makes for an extremely strong community. If I identify with the group because, in the final analysis, we say the same things about what makes us who we are as individuals, that’s a bond that’s pretty tough to break a part.

There is another factor that cannot be ignored in an analysis of what makes a strong community. Mix in this, and you can take a lower order commonality to a higher degree of stickiness.

The other thing that’s critical to community is contact.

Those communities that have more interaction between their members tend to be stronger than those that have less. Community is a contact sport at the end of the day. There is a ton of data that is in agreement with my own research that rubbing people together makes people sticky.

We found at Meetup that if people attended four or more events, whatever the purpose of the group, they tended to be more committed than those who attended less. And the primary cause of that stickiness was that four attendances was the minimum number of times it took for relationships to form, and for people to say to themselves things like “I like these people. Some of them could be good friends. I’m coming back not just because I want to be a better knitter, but because I want to hang out with Sean and Jessica”.

If you have a community that’s ideologically based and it has frequent contact between its members, then of course that’s the strongest formula of all.

I’m fascinated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) because they’ve cracked this code. They get both right. Their ideology is highly distinctive (so much so that it is seen as heretical by the established Christian denominations). And they have mandated contact between members to a much higher degree than other Christian churches and several other religions.

There are very few paid clergy in the Church. The work of running this global organization, from HQ to a local ‘ward’ is done primarily by its members, massively increasing opportunities for interaction. They don’t just meet at church on Sunday either. There is a rigorously applied program of contact that accounts for most days of the week. For example, whether in Bangkok or Birmingham, Mormon families meet on a Monday night for Family Home Evening. The Relief Society (a Mormon woman’s organization) drops in to give spiritual and temporal assistance. Home visits are undertaken to families to teach the gospel at least once a month.

Can you make communities stickier if they’re founded on lower-order commonalities?

Yes, if you amp-up ideological alignment. And, for bonus points, increase interaction too.

Where proximity was not enough, competing visions for a town’s future created the missing glue between individuals in a town in upstate New York.

My friend Sam Pratt helped lead its fight against the building of the world’s largest cement plant in its historical location. This external threat…or opportunity, depending on your point of view…surfaced ideologies and radicalized populations that had been dormant for decades in this sleepy Hudson River town.

stop the plant

This external stimulus clarified beliefs and crystallized needs within two distinct populations in the city. The more recent arrivals from New York City who had led the revival of the main street with shops, cafes and galleries were not surprisingly, galvanized around the idea of preserving what had been done to reinvent ‘local’ community. In contrast, the population that had been there for generations and lived through the booms and busts saw the plant as an opportunity for jobs and tax income to help pull the town, once again, out of the economic doldrums.

These populations clustered around differing worldviews of what constitutes community, the virtues or threats of globalization, the role of corporations, the localization movement and classic blue and red political ideologies.

The fight was fierce. But the ‘Stop the Plant’ side won, and they won famously. There will be more on how it pulled it off on The Glue Project. It’s an instructive story about how community can work when it has to…and I’ll write it with the help of Sam Pratt. But in summary, the winning side prevailed through a combination of very skillful ideological management, relentless energy and lots of interaction between its members.

So, a community is a population that shares things in common, whether they’re online, offline, local or global and whether the thing that’s shared is an interest, cause, need, passion, proximity or ideology.

I would argue the thing that’s shared is a determinant of the strength of the community, with the proviso that the degree of member interaction plays a huge part in the degree of stickiness.

This is a big and emotive subject.

What do you think community is?

Can brands be cults anymore?


This groovy dude was serving me ice cream in a funky shop in downtown Fort Collins, Colorado, this week.

He’s the Coke equivalent of the Nike ‘ekins’ (Nike spelt backwards), the inner circle of Nike cultdom who go round shops merchandising the product to make their beloved brand look better than any other. That’s what this guy did for Coca Cola.

I’ve been pretty focused on the cult-brand phenomenon in the past (to say the least). But even I found this strangely anachronistic. And then today, when I was talking about culting at Meetup, Scott Heiferman (Founder and CEO) asked me whether there’s a future for brand cults.

To be honest, I’m not sure.

In a culture that we have defined as ‘consumer’, we’ve seen that some brands have become elevated as suppliers of meaning and community. Sitting alongside traditional suppliers like Churches and social organizations, brands like Apple and Harley have provided ideologies and values around which people have clustered, identified and become committed. Whether you like it or not, it’s happened.

But I smell a shift in the culture. Perhaps it’s the recession that has forced a reassessment of the status that material things should occupy in our lives. This could be undermining the credibility of brands to claim and behave like real suppliers of belief and belonging.

Actually, I think the recession has simply accelerated a reassessment that was happening in the collective unconscious anyway. The excellent research that’s happening now on the source of human happiness (check out the short and readable book ‘Happiness’ that neatly pulls all this data together…written by an economist, would you believe!) has finally blown away any delusion that more stuff makes you happy. Once you get out of poverty, any incremental gain in material goods does not deliver the equivalent in happiness.

What makes us happy are things like ability to self-actualize and freedom of thought and action. And interestingly, there is a very strong correlation between belonging to a social network, happiness and how long you live.

Now the question is can a community, which makes us happy and live longer, be credibly based around a commercial product, which we are realizing is not all it’s cracked up to be in the satisfaction department?

My good friend Douglas Rushkoff is questioning some of the same things in his excellent new book Life Inc.. In fact I note he’s questioned my claims in his text, the bugger. He always does that. What are friends for? By the way check out his interview on the Colbert Report where he successfully parries the man himself.

But I think he’s right in his questioning of the role corporations and their products can lay claim to in our lives. I say all this at the risk of pissing off all my former clients and readers. But, to be intellectually honest, I’m not sure there’s a future for brand cults.

So, what do you think?