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?”


What happens between the moment of birth and spawning (when the community is mature-the subject of the last post)? Communities go through recognizable life-stages as they grow. You should be aware of them because you can anticipate and meet the community’s needs by both providing the right tools at the right time and tasking yourself with the right leadership actions appropriate to each stage. And if you’re building a community platform, it’s smart to be aware of what stage needs what tools, when…crowding a new community with tools it doesn’t need can confuse the user experience.

Above is a simplified diagram of the stages and what they need.

Below is a bit more of a description.



At this stage it’s unlikely that you have a real community on your hands…yet. You’re in the build phase and all you need are tools for basic interactions because relationships between members are only beginning. Your goals are to:

  • Define the purpose, goals and membership profile of the community (who should belong and who shouldn’t).
  • Focus on recruiting doers and contributors (content writers, meeting organizers, etc.) who can quickly fill the community with desirable content and make connections.
  • Make the community look attractive by showcasing that content with photos, board postings, video and activity feed
  • Promote the community
  • Make new members feel welcome
  • Encourage interaction between members
  • Avoid the ‘empty restaurant’ syndrome by encouraging activity and showcasing it on an activity feed and by showing a rising member count.



Now the community is taking off. Relationships are being formed between members so more sophisticated tools are needed. Organic growth is happening because existing members are recruiting others (provide those ‘viral loop’ tools that make this frictionless) and the content is growing and making the community look useful and active. So you need to promote less but manage the relationships more (policing and dispute management) and you’ll need member management metrics and tools.

There’s a growing sense of group identity as experiences are shared and group stories and myths emerge…so make sure they are being documented in video, photos and narrative. You probably need help running the community too so time to appoint members to roles such as ‘welcomer’, ‘event organizer’ etc.

What characterizes this stage is:

  • More sophisticated interaction tools
  • Tools for members to recruit others
  • Leadership team and roles
  • Strong sense of belonging and group identity
  • Shared memories in photos, video and story form
  • Member-management dashboard and metrics
  • Member blogs



Now you’re humming. Time to recruit a larger management team as the community grows rapidly. It’s also time to offer more sophisticated interaction and event tools as people will have formed friendships and want to interact via video and face-to-face at meetings and outings. Now is also the time to anticipate spawning: the tendency for groups to hive off from the main community to maintain a sense of intimacy and/or more narrowly satisfy their needs as the membership grows larger and more diverse. Poll the members to see if they want to form sub-groups or local groups.

This stage is characterized by:

  • Rapid organic growth
  • Strong identity
  • Strong sense of belonging
  • Sophisticated interactions
  • Talk shows, live and recorded video interactions and live events.
  • Potential for spawning into sub-groups and local groups
  • Larger management team.



At this point the community may have grown large enough for you to encourage spawning to maintain cohesion and strong relationships. The original community might decline in numbers a bit as sub-groups form but no-matter. You’ve still got a growing base that’s feeling bonded and having their needs met albeit in newer, smaller groups. You may be getting tired and a little burnt out. Don’t’ worry it’s normal. Good to recognize it and time to figure out a succession plan so you can start over with a new group or retire to the pub.

Or, if your community is mission-driven (its goal is to improve the lives of others or change the world in some way) time to consider whether you want the community to become more of an activist organization: set a big goal, raise donations and sign petitions. More on this in subsequent posts where I’ll discuss Movement-Making.

What characterizes this stage is:

  • The community is large…maybe too large
  • It’s likely to spawn smaller communities that maintain a sense of intimacy and more narrowly satisfy the needs of members
  • But you will have anticipated this by identifying those needs by forming sub-groups and the potential members and leaders fill them.
  • You may be getting tired…time to think of succession or a different role.
  • Indeed, your original community may adopt a different role…that of an activist organization for example.



I’ve taken the Community Checklist I wrote about earlier on this blog when making a distinction between fans/followers and real community members and turned it into a feature list. It’s a list of features that you should look for when starting a community and are looking for a good platform or are, in fact, building a community platform for your cause, blog, magazine, TV property, brand, movement or whatever. The Feature List is in the next post.

In the meantime, here’s the Checklist again.


The Community checklist

If you can answer “Yes” to these questions, you’ve got a good community on your hands.

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



The most powerful agent in creating Loyalty is Belonging. There will be more justification for this assertion later in the blog, but in the meantime I would argue that the main ingredients of a successful community all create a degree of loyalty that is hard to match by any other means. Ingredients such as:

-An emotional bond with others in the group

-An alignment between your own values and those enshrined in the community’s worldview

-Therefore an alignment with the values of the others in the group

-Shared experiences, memories, rituals and goals

-In some cases, solidarity in the face of a threat.

And I’ve not included the most obvious sign of, and outcome from, a successful group that leads to unbelievable stickiness: mutual support.

From the hundreds of interviews I’ve had with members of all kinds of communities…brand communities, cults, religions, bands of activists, knitting groups…I’ve found that you can tell you’ve got a successful community on your hands when you see evidence that its members are helping each other out. And this is often in ways that have nothing to do with the main purpose of the group. Here is a typical quote taken at random from a member of a Meetup that explains what I mean:


“We have such a diversity of members from all backgrounds and professions, from plumbers to dentists, tree surgeons to television directors, car dealers to accountants.

From this, if you’re ever need advice with something (e.g. a blocked sink, what’s the best second hand car to buy, or how do you do a tax return) there is always someone in the group who can help out – usually in exchange for no more than a beer or a smile.

We’ve got a great community.” Matt – Poker Meetup, UK.


Why is mutual support a good indicator of a high-functioning community? It suggests the community has developed to the point that a feeling of mutual responsibility exists between its members. And mutual responsibility normally occurs when there has been enough social contact between them via face to face meetings, video chats, commenting on blog posts, and so on, that they’ve developed a familiarity with, an affinity for and a resulting sense of responsibility to each other.

Generally, you can track the following stages of community development that result in mutual support and stickiness:


Interaction = Bonding = Mutual Responsibility = Mutual Support

= Strong Social Glue


The richer the social interaction (meaning not just liking and commenting here and there, but attending events, working with others on some goal of the group and so on) and the greater the frequency of interaction tends to result in stronger bonds. And this leads to a sense of mutual responsibility and the resulting mutual support.

This has been tracked by sociologists of religion amongst those organizations where frequent interaction has been built in as a membership requirement. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) work hard to ensure Sunday isn’t the only day when you engage with other members. Whether you’re in Manchester of Manila, virtually every day is assigned to some kind of church-related social interaction undertaken by members of the Church (there is no paid clergy except for a few leaders at the HQ in Utah).

This is Peggy, a Mormon who also runs her own marketing agency. She marvels at how good her church is at keeping people. She describes how rich and frequent the social interaction is that leads to mutual support and an enviable degree of loyalty:

“I mean a missionary can convert a member, but how do you keep that member involved?  Because the church becomes your life.  And when you’ve got a bishop checking on you, and his two counselors checking on you, and two home teachers checking on you, and two visiting teachers checking on you, plus you’re given a church job to be a home teacher if you’re a man, a visiting teacher if you’re a woman.  Plus, you’re probably given a job to teach a primary class or a youth class or an adult class on the Sabbath.  Plus you’re maybe assigned to the activities committee to plan a ward activity.  The church becomes your family.  The church becomes your social life, as well as your spiritual center.  Because the church is brilliant at marketing.”

Which brings me to important finding. You can ‘legislate’ for mutual support to happen versus just waiting for it to occur. And the organizations that do that, together with organizing themselves in a way that ensures frequent and rich social interaction, get incredible levels of commitment.

You can make it a goal. Don’t just wait for it to occur.

When you join the Marines, you join for life. As a grizzled old veteran once told me “there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine. You’re a Marine. Period”. The Marines would argue that they’re the most cohesive, absolutely loyal-to-each-other force in the military. From the first day, the idea of mutuality that’s enshrined in ‘never leaving a fellow Marine behind’ is reinforced in everything they do. “We have a ritual in the Marine Corps early on that if a person falls out of a run, you just circle until the guy captures his wind, and he becomes ready to go back in. They don’t leave him behind” as a young lieutenant told me. The grizzled veteran thumped the table as he said: “In combat, we are notoriously famous for never leaving a Marine on the battlefield. We are the only service that does that. Others say they do, but they don’t. We will do whatever it takes to go back and carry our wounded and dead off the battlefield. That ethos, if you will, is bred in you from the outset”.

A convincing argument has also been made that the success of the Christian religion in beating out its competitors in the first three hundred years of its existence (it was just one of several Mystery Cults in the eastern Mediterranean two thousand years ago) is owed to the fact that the value of mutual support was at the heart of its ideology. Rodney Stark in an excellent little book called ‘The Rise of Christianity’ suggests that the religion might have remained one of the minor cults had it not been for its response to two major plagues throughout the Roman Empire in 165 A.D. and 251 A.D.

Unlike the conventional reaction to a devastating plague…leave your friends, family and neighbors alike to succumb to the disease while you run for the hills, literally…Christians were invoked to tend for the sick. Modern medical experts have calculated that even the basic kind of nursing care likely to have been administered by the early Christians would have increased survival rates by two thirds compared to non-Christians. The increased survival rate naturally increased the ratio of Christians to non-Christians following the plagues (from 0.4 percent of the population before the plagues to roughly one Christian to four pagans following the second). This significantly increased the religion’s influence within the society (not to mention the perception that Christians miraculously survived the devastation) and was ultimately declared the State Religion by Theodosius in 380 A.D.

Now, I’m not suggesting you have to start a religion or crack military unit to create a successful community. There are plenty of examples of regular everyday communities that make mutual support an explicit goal. Healthcare groups, for example. Whether you look at the more famous examples such as the AA or Weightwatchers, or local cancer survivor groups or even hiking or yoga groups they all tend to make mutual support their core purpose.

And even in the world of business there are communities that ‘legislate ‘ for mutual support. Thrivent is Mutual Fund Company with more than $60 billion in assets. It baked Community into it’s offering well before the founders of Facebook and Twitter were conceived. They make mutual support an explicit goal  “Our community is who we are, so their goal is our mission – helping our members with financial security and caring for others. We like to think about it as security, generosity, community” says Stacy Eckes-Borys. And it’s not a hollow ‘caring for our community’ claim that you see in most corporate mission statements. Well over 40% of their 2.6 million members participate in volunteerism through the company. More of this interesting case in this article I wrote for Forbes.

So, whatever the purpose of your community, whether commercial, religious, military or just for fun, try and engender the circumstances that favor mutual support: getting people to interact with each other so they form bonds and develop a sense of mutual responsibility. Then you’ll have an extremely sticky community on your hands.

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.

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.

Ingredient: #12: Myths

…they aren’t lies, they’re core Truths!

Myths are stories, but with a critical difference. They have symbolic importance. They embody what the community is all about: its purpose, its beliefs and its actions.

Regular stories that relate things like events and achievements and that are captured in photos, videos and words are good for collective memory-making and co-creation…all great things for stickiness.

Myths are slightly different.They become elevated to a special status because they have more meaning.

For the Apple tribe…yes, there is one… the story of a very young Steve Jobs flouting convention and pitching Venture Capitalists in his shorts and sandals in the earliest days of the company perfectly symbolizes the values of the group: be different, don’t conform (Apple users all think they’re more creative and less conformist than the rest of the world. They can be insufferably smug. I confess that I’m one of them.) This story is told and retold by Apple users who weren’t even born when it happened.

The life story of Mary Kay Ash, the founder of her eponymous company, is also told and retold by thousands of Mary Kay consultants. She was passed over for promotion by her previous employer in favor of a man she had trained. Infuriated, she left and started her own business brewing cosmetics on her kitchen stove. Working from home was important at that time. She needed to support and care for her family as her husband was dying.

The empire she built was based on recognition and celebration of women’s entrepreneurial ability. The pink Cadillacs and the huge mutually supportive annual event at Dallas are all about enabling women to beat the odds and become their best (the bee is a key piece of iconography for the company…it flies despite its improbable aerodynamics).

The Mary Kay consultants I interviewed would tell this story with tears in their eyes. It perfectly embodied the values of the company. And, importantly, they felt it was a perfect expression of their own self-story.

How Myths can be Master Narratives.

Paula (not her real name) had been fired despite leading a graphics company’s sales department to impressive records. She ran the department according to her own personal values: support your staff, make them feel they can do anything, don’t use fear as a driver.

The company took a different direction that contradicted these values, and despite delivering superior results, she was let go. Faced with trying to figure out how to support herself and her two-year-old son, she accepted an invitation from her friend to go to a Mary Kay party. She recognized that the company’s values were her own, joined as a consultant and rose through the ranks.

Paula told the story of her joining as if it was ‘meant to be’. Mary Kay Ash’s story was both an inspiration to her and reinforcement of her own choices. It was almost the same story.

The founder’s story was the Master Narrative of the company. It embodied its values, and was reflected in the personal narratives of its members.

Can you make myths?

These special stories will emerge. The art is recognizing them for what they are and then celebrating and circulating them. If you think they express accurately (and inspirationally) what the community is all about, find ways for the membership to absorb and retell them. Often, if they’re really good, membership will find ways to do it on their own!

Gating and Culling: How-to's #'s 2 through 5.

In this sequence of posts about how to gate and cull, we’ve looked at the first tool you can use: your purpose or ideology to accept/reject/eject people.

Now we’ll look at #2 through #5: Use Rules,  Approve membership, Cultural Sieve and Like-get-like.

2.  Have rules and enforce them consistently and fairly.

Codes of Conduct in most communities tend to establish the very basic norms of civility and expectations of engagement.

When I asked a selection of community organizers what 5 pieces of advice they would give to newbies almost all included having Codes of Conduct. Here are some of the responses:

-Set very clear guidelines to your network and then stick to them. If you compromise you will pay for it. Treat everybody the same

-Be just but firm: If you have a Code of Conduct or some posting guidelines, stick to ’em like it’s your job!! It’s important to be consistent and for members to feel safe and treated fairly. No favorites allowed!

-Post clear rules about spamming, fighting, trolling, etc, and don’t feel even the slightest twinkle of guilt about banning people who cross the line.

Jeff, in a response to my question about whether all communities should be gated, wrote the following on the community part of this site. Clearly, he puts having an active membership as a key plank of his Network:

Good question. We already impose such a feature on our network.  In our TOS we clearly state that if a member does not contribute and/or sign in to their profile within a 90 day period their profile will be taken offline.

There is always the option to re-instate their profile. However, it is stressed and followed up with a quick reminder that their profile has been inactive and basically on the chopping block if they don’t answer our message within a 48 hour period. This keeps dead profiles off the network and allow the NC [Ning Network Creator] to concentrate on those who are actively contributing to the network.

Many new community organizers feel queasy about establishing rules of any kind. But most discover that not everyone understands the need to be civil or engaged. They quickly realize that you have to establish basic minimums of behavior. And this is best done at the foundation of the community. It’s much harder to grandfather them in when the need to have a Code becomes acute.

3.  Approve membership

“At first I thought this would be “just the worst thing on the planet,

LOL”. Turns out, it’s really not bad at all. It only takes a few minutes to look over a

member’s submitted page, and approve or disapprove. This has cut down on nasty

spammers and spambots, around 95%.”

This is from a Ning Network Creator and she’s talking about keeping out spammers. She’s making the time-consuming effort to review every ‘application’. She considers it a sound investment in time versus handling the fallout that Toxics and Trolls cause.

There are, of course, much more comprehensive ways to winnow out potential mistakes and let through only those who are likely to be high-functioning members. The strongest of communities…those that generate cult-like attraction and loyalty…are extremely careful about who belongs and they invest heavily in the ‘recruitment’ process.

They’ll use the ideology, and the following two tools to ensure consistency with the organization’s goals.

4.  Have a Cultural Sieve

Scott Heiferman, Founder and CEO of Meetup would half-jokingly, half seriously, would pull a photo out of his wallet of a Chihuahua Meetup Group, pastel polyester-panted women and all, and show it to a potential company recruit. If they snickered, he wouldn’t hire them.

“When I showed it to people, I was looking to see if they’d smile at the beauty, laugh at the absurdity, smile at the potential… and bonus points for a tear.” Scott Heiferman.

Meetup is about reviving local community and it has a profound belief in the transformational power of groups. The company is on a social mission. They want a real local group available everywhere for people when they need it, because “groups have the power to improve lives and change the world”.

The people who work at Meetup HQ are there primarily for that reason (we know, because we survey ourselves twice a year). The company has a Manifesto, and a culture document (that’s now used as a cultural sieve since Scott had his wallet…and photo…stolen) and expects whoever works there to be a high-functioning member of its own community. That means that there is total buy-in to the Manifesto and values. Here’s an excerpt from the Culture Statement that shows why sneering can’t be tolerated:

‘We love that our members want to have fun…or fundamentally change the world. Or both. We admire these people who tell their stories, expose their vulnerabilities, fear that people think they’re freaks (let’s remember that we’re all freaky one way or another).

We cheer this multitude of ordinary people who are crazy enough to meet complete strangers and fearless enough to start a Meetup Group. Never underestimate or under value what it takes to do what they do. Meetup Culture Statement.

Interestingly, when we wrote this Culture Statement, we also reiterated the importance of self-organization and decentralization…the key principals behind the Meetup’s Ideology and platform: that people should be enabled and inspired to self-organize into communities, groups and networks.

But what dawned on us once we’d written it, was that we weren’t applying that principal to our own internal community. Instead we had decision-making was hierarchical and centralized. We were shocked to see that we had a traditional corporate structure predicated on control. The Culture Statement was a mirror to ourselves, and we weren’t looking as good as we thought we were.

Once we realized this we went through what amounts to a revolution…of not just our working practices, but of those in business generally. I’ll write more about this in later posts because it’s instructive about the power of rigorously applying a community’s ideology to itself. In the meantime, check out the article that Business Week wrote about our adventure.

Some highly qualified job candidates were repelled by the new environment we had created. And we didn’t hire them. And some existing employees self-ejected. This was exactly the outcome we wanted. Good skills weren’t enough. There had to be a cultural fit. And that means total buy-in to the ideology, values and behavioral norms of a community, which in this case was within an Ideologically-driven company.

5.  Like-get-Like

For cult-like groups and societies like the Masons, fraternities, groovy urban clubs and some companies, you can use the ‘like-get-like’ strategy.

Peer recruitment can pre-empt problems by using existing members to target, win and ‘pre-approve’ recruits.

Existing members are the most likely means of identifying others who will align with the values and aims of the community. And of course there’s some accountability involved to make it real…a mistake can create blowback on the referrer.

When I worked at a branding company we produced a card for the first few employees of jetBlue (we were helping launch the airline) to hand out to people whom they thought would meet the tough criteria to be a member of the jetBlue ‘crew’ (all employees are crew members, including the people who clean the planes). JetBlue only hired ‘virgins’, those who hadn’t been soiled by previous experience in the poisonous airline industry. They handed the card to those they thought clearly enjoyed other people and who had strong social skills, whether they were serving behind the Starbucks counter someone they met at a party.

Of course this was well before the multitude of online tools now available to community leaders to inspire existing members to recruit people like themselves. That being said, good old-fashioned real-world like-get-like tools can still work.

Steve Ressler who runs Govloop, a twenty three thousand strong online community for innovators in government, uses a charmingly quaint offline device to recruit the right kind of members. It’s a lanyard: a ribbon from which people can string their government ID cards. They have several slogans printed on them, of which “Bureaucrats need not apply” is typical. These are worn proudly by existing members and often provoke conversations with prime prospects who are curious about the kind of organization that would be populated by such people. Steve has run Google ads and done PR in an attempt to recruit, but instead has found the lanyard and other like-get-like techniques have yielded better quality members.

Next I’ll post the last three tools you can use to gate and cull.

Gating and Culling #3: How?

We’ve covered Why and Who you should reject and eject in the previous two posts. Now we’ll talk about the difficult job of how to do it.

In the case of culling, the general rule here is respectfully, kindly and keeping the rest of the community informed about why the person is removed.  In the case of rejecting a potential member, again, respectfully and explaining why.

Those are the general rules. Here are some specific tools you can use to ensure you get and keep the right members, and lose and reject the wrong ones.

  1. Use your Mission/Worldview/Creed/Ideology/Purpose/Values
  2. Have Rules and use them consistently and fairly
  3. Approve Membership
  4. Use a ‘Cultural Sieve’
  5. Have a Like-get-Like Strategy
  6. Accountability. Self-Policing. Transparency
  7. Charge a Fee.
  8. Have Courage and Be Kind…and don’t let it get you down.

In this post I’ll talk about the first. In the next two posts, I’ll cover the rest.

1.  Use your Mission/Worldview/Creed/Ideology/Purpose…whatever you call your founding idea and values.

During the very early days the founder of Ebay, Pierre Omidyar, wrote over a weekend what amounted to be the community’s ideology. Its origin was frustration. He found himself sucked into refereeing disputes between buyers and sellers that took valuable time away from building the site. He wrote what he believed the ebay community should value, implicitly who belonged and who didn’t, how to behave and what constituted infringement.

‘eBay is a community that encourages open and honest communication among all its members. Our community is guided by five fundamental values:

* We believe people are basically good.

* We believe everyone has something to contribute.

* We believe that an honest, open environment can bring out the best in people.

* We recognize and respect everyone as a unique individual.

* We encourage you to treat others the way you want to be treated.

eBay is firmly committed to these principles. And we believe that community members should also honor them—whether buying, selling, or chatting with eBay friends.’

Note he describes ebay as a community, not a marketplace , and he articulates several of the classic norms of community behavior, including reciprocity.

Ebay’s business model only works if there’s a republic of trust (at least before the advent of PayPal). The buyer has to trust that the seller’s item is as advertised, and that it will be shipped. The seller has to trust that they’ll get payed.

Interestingly, social trust is used by most sociologists as the key measure of social capital in any neighborhood or society (social capital is a concept that is used to measure the number and quality of social connections and interactions within any society or network).

It was therefore critical to elevate trust as the social currency of the community. The truly brilliant innovation (that removed Pierre’s need for direct involvement in disputes) is that he ‘operationalized’ the ideology by creating one of the first and most effective reputation engines. Members could rate each other according to how much they trusted each other after each transaction. You could attract more transactions as you improved your trust-based status.

In effect, he put a value on good citizenship.

Several of the eBay-ers I interviewed even viewed their rating within the eBay community as a badge of rectitude within the larger culture. There’s no reason not to. It mirrors Judeo-Christian doctrine…but with a metric attached!

The purpose of a purpose

One of the benefits of having a coherent vision, values, and code of behavior is that it is a template that allows fast decision making about who to reject and eject (among other things). Do they buy into the goals of the group? Do they share the same values? Did they infringe the contracted standards of behavior?

Not only does it make for faster decision-making, it makes for buy-in by the rest of the community to your decision. You can point to the ideology and say “they weren’t living it”. And you can use it to have a less subjective conversation with the person you’re rejecting or ejecting: “this is the contract we all live by. You broke it here, here and here”.

Using the Purpose as a measure for membership

This is exactly what Cheryl, who runs the Queens County Parents Autism Coalition, Inc. Meetup Group used to cull passengers and flakes from her group.

This, plus a retelling of the moving story of why she started the group became standard against which compliance would be assessed.

For Cheryl, flakes and passengers were a big issue. Passivity wasn’t just an annoyance. It couldn’t be tolerated for the reasons mentioned in an earlier post in this series: it undermined the purpose of the group because value was only generated by the degree to which members shared knowledge and practical help. And in particular, it eroded the morale and energy of those valuable members who did share information and help.

Cheryl sent out an email that essentially blew the whistle:

Major changes are coming to QCPAC where some members will stay, some will leave, and most will be removed. These changes are necessary in order to align members with the mission of QCPAC. Up until now we have only had a handful of contributors. QCPAC is a community not just a resource. We cannot display “autism awareness and support” proudly if we don’t walk the walk.”

She had two meetings (on a weeknight and weekend to ensure everyone could come) and solicited input to a proposed a ‘terms of use’ for membership. “It’s like a contract a guess. It says what we’re going to do and what we expect them to do in response and they have to sign it. And if they don’t’ we have to remove them.”

Cheryl and her team modified the mission of the group to be more explicit about the fact that it was a community, and that it was dependent on the contributions and passion of its members for it to work: ‘Members of this community are immensely dedicated, passionate, and involved as one community in the vision that their child deserves a place in this world. We welcome new members who will be just as dedicated and involved’

There were three basic expectations or rules. Even the most vociferous objectors in the meetings (who, interestingly, were the ones who contributed the least) had to admit they were fair:

  • Attendance. Members had to show up. The basic minimum was six events a year (not unreasonable given that Cheryl organized an average of four per month)
  • Participation. Members had to post on the boards at least once a week. The boards were a key source of facts and practical help. If you didn’t share your knowledge and support, then the group couldn’t fulfill its mission.
  • Membership Fees. The people who administer the non-profit are volunteers. No-one receives a salary. But basic costs needed to be covered so the group charges an annual fee of $40.

Some said they couldn’t comply and would return when they could. One woman said that she was offended that she was being treated this way, to which Cheryl responded by saying that she was offended at the way she had been treated all these years:

“We’re just like you. If anyone should be offended it should be us. We’re mothers like you, we don’t get paid. We’ve been doing this for 3 years. We want this organization to move forward, and we can’t do that if everybody’s not on the same page.”

Cheryl’s speech with which she kicked of each meeting is worth reading in full. For an amateur organizer, I think she handled the situation in a very professional way. I’ve reprinted it with her permission at the end of this post.

All of this happened a few months ago, so Cheryl is still assessing whether it worked. But so far she is pleased. The membership numbers are more or less the same, but the population of the group is now more engaged.

The restatement of the Vision and values crystallized to members and non-members alike the benefits and costs of membership. It articulated the expectations of behavior and essentially asked you if you were up for them. It was clear about who should belong, and who shouldn’t. It suggested that if you’re not comfortable with the ‘price’ of membership, then start or find a group where you might be.

In the next post we’ll take a look at Rules and Approving Membership.

Gating and Culling #2: Who and What.

This is the second post about the controversial subject of gating and culling.

The first post discussed why you should gate and cull. This one covers who you should gate and cull,  and what they do to deserve it.

Here are some of the key characters who can both undermine the community’s core purpose, as well as its operation.

Who should you reject and eject?

I’ve seen five categories:

  1. Spammers: abusers of access.
  2. Social Toxics (including Trolls): abusers of social norms of behavior.
  3. Flakes: abusers of expectation.
  4. Non-believers: abusers of purpose and values.
  5. Passengers: abusers of mutuality

What do they do that’s so bad?

1. Spammers.

These are the people that abuse access. They pitch to a membership that’s not signed up for being pitched at. Spammers may have joined for that reason. Or they’ve become members with the best of intentions, but can’t resist the juicy ‘captive audience’ they’ve happened upon.

Julia’s tough about these people. She ran two Meetup groups in Southern California: a social group for Fibromyalgia sufferers, and one for Dutch-speakers.

“I’ve four main rules. One of them is that you’re not allowed to sell anything, period. Some of the girls started selling stuff since they joined. They go “Oh how wonderful, I have this whole potential client base here for my magic juice that’s going to cure everybody.” And I’ve had to kick them out of the group because they’ve refused to stop selling to members.”

Intrusive behavior that’s inconsistent with the purpose or norms of the community constitutes abuse. If the group is about selling and buying magic juice, then fine. If not, stop, or find a group where that is the purpose.

For Andy The Chicken Whisperer the individual he was forced to deal with was not selling stuff, he was selling ideas.

Andy was dubbed the Chicken Whisperer after he launched a network of Backyard Poultry Meetup Groups. He now has two books, a radio show and 38 Meetup Groups internationally that cater to people who want to learn how to raise poultry in the suburbs.

Andy delegates, which allows him to adopt the role of ‘guru’ and guiding light of the mini-movement. But every now and then he has to step in for some hands-on management.

The person that demanded his involvement was quite senior: an ‘Assistant Organizer’ of a Meetup Group.

“And I always have to keep an eye on him, or assign one or two people if I can’t always have an eye on him. I have to remind him to stay on topic. If we’re talking about vaccines for chickens, he’ll turn it into the corrupt CDC giving vaccines to 11 year olds to prevent cervical cancer that they would’nt have got if they weren’t sluts to begin with.

He’ll turn it into a conspiracy theory, anti-government rant, and he’ll really go over the top and make people uncomfortable. And I have to go over to him and say, this is a chicken meeting and I appreciate your views, but we want to keep the subject related to chickens. He doesn’t really have social skills. I don’t’ have to ban him, I just have to keep him on a short leash.

2. Social Toxics (including trolls).

Social toxics are the people like the obnoxious guy in Caterina Fake’s book group. They have poor to zero social skills. They’ve not necessarily joined with the intention to disrupt (unlike Trolls). Sometimes these people can’t help themselves…it’s just the way they’re made. In any event, they have to be managed, neutralized or removed for the sake of the group’s survival.

Trolls are a different matter. Where social toxics may or may not be deliberate about destruction, Trolls are. They tend to derive malign pleasure from upsetting the fragile ecosystem of the group.  They seek to provoke anger and dissent in online by inflaming noxious debate and encouraging personal (online) assaults.

Social toxics and trolls don’t tend to constitute a large population within a community. But their influence is disproportionate to their numbers. Almost every organizer has told me in a voice loaded with bitter experience that when encountered, they have had to deal with them with speed and resolution.

3. Flakes.

Flakes take a while to emerge. They’re the ones that promise to host an event, or do a leaflet campaign, or sign a speaker, or post on a blog, or even just show up…but don’t.

Flakes are not just annoying. They can become a major drag on the community because:

a) Stuff doesn’t’ get done. Not following through obviously handicaps the community in reaching its goals.

b) It erodes the morale of the group

The latter is a more significant that you might imagine. They create a disappointment that’s deflating and a sense of injustice that can undermine the high-functioning members of the group. There’s a ‘fair trade’ dynamic that operates in most groups. People will play their part  (taking on roles and responsibilities) because they feel others will play theirs. Mutualism is the signature of strong communities. And collectively, progress is made.

c) They’re a time-suck.

They take time to chase. If you find that you’re on the phone, emailing or showing up at the person’s house to check on whether they’ve done something, it’s not worth it. Demote them, because they’re taking too much of your energy and distract from you concentrating on those who can make a real difference in the network.

For groups that meet face-to-face, the no-show-flakes can be a big issue. You might have booked a venue for a hundred, paid a deposit, but only forty show up. A Meetup organizer in Northern California told me he would book limos or buses for wine-tasting tours to the Sonoma and Napa valleys based on the number of Yes RSVP’s only to see that half would show up. This made the cost for all the others higher, aggravating the active members.

4. Non-believers.

The cult-like organizations I examined…which included religious cults, companies, sororities, fan-clubs, religious groups, the Marines and hundreds more…had cultures that were palpably strong. Those cultures were informed by coherent beliefs, big visions of how the world should be and lines drawn in the sand about what was important and what wasn’t: values.

These were universally known and bought-into by all. And, critically, lived by all. The leadership of these organizations credited the clarity of the worldview and the homogeneity of its believing membership as key instruments of their organizations’ success.

Collins and Porras wrote one of the most influential and best selling business books of all time: Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. They examined the core reasons behind the long-term success of (the few that qualified) American Corporations. Visionary was their term for those organizations that succeeded due largely  to their commitment to big goals and differentiating values that seldom, if ever, changed. In their chapter on cult-like cultures (a key ingredient) they write:

“Visionary does not mean soft and undisciplined. Quite the contrary. Because visionary companies have such clarity about who they are, what they’re about and what they’re trying to achieve, they tend to not have much room for people unwilling or unsuited to their demanding standards.”

For visionary companies read any organization, community, group or network that has a differentiating ideology at their core.

I found that without exception, communities that generated commitment had a clear Purpose and Values and a membership that was totally bought into them. Those that didn’t buy-in, and didn’t live the creed, were politely asked to leave and find organizations that were more aligned with their values. More often, these people would self-eject, because they didn’t feel ‘at home’. They didn’t belong in the most fundamental way: on the basis of values. They weren’t amongst ‘like-others.’

Porras and Collins quote one of their researchers who had been examining the likes of Walmart, Procter and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson and HP:

“Joining these companies reminds me of joining an extremely tight-knit group or society. And if you don’t fit, you’d better not join. If you’re willing to really buy in and dedicate yourself to what the company stands for, then you’ll be very satisfied and productive-probably couldn’t be happier. If not, however, you’ll probably flounder, feel miserable and out-of-place, and eventually leave-ejected like a virus. It’s binary: You’re either in or out, and there seems to be no middle ground. It’s almost cult-like”.

When I was a partner in a marketing agency that helped launch jetBlue, a senior exectutive told me a story to illustrate their commitment to the company values and how that commitment was manifested by the values’ rigorous application to who they hire and fire, and now they train.

A highly promising flight attendant trainee was a high-performer in every respect. However, when he muffed a procedure during a mid-course test he asked a more senior employee to cover for him. The individual was fired not because of the mistake (that could be trained) but because the company values of transparency and trust had been abused. They said goodbye to a promising employee because that individual compromised the organization’s creed.

So why is this important?

It goes to the core of a successful community. Having a ‘believing’ membership:

a)    Predisposes the organization to reach its goals because its members are not just aligned with them, but motivated by them to do more.

b)   Avoids stalling debates about “why are we here, what are we about”. These tedious debates interrupt progress.

c)    Potential recruits will see a coherent community and make a more accurate decision whether it is for them or not.

d)   Members will have a clearer picture of whom they should recruit (are they one of us?) thus minimizing future difficulties for both the leader and member if it’s not working out.

And most importantly, there will be all the key characteristics of the most sticky communities:

  • There will be solidarity and fluid action around shared values and aims.
  • There will be bonding founded on identification with both the organization and fellow members at the most profoundly important level of worldview and values.
  • There will be a sense of safety (see glue ingredient # 4) that enables self-actualization, a critical ‘gift’ of successful groups.

In other words, there will be a sense of belonging and meaning that the most successful communities are able to generate.

The clarity of creed and homogeneity of a believing membership is arguably more important for some communities than others. For vision and values-driven communities (like visionary companies, some military organizations, non-profits, Unions, political parties, movements, cult brands like Harley and of course religious organizations) it is critical. For others, such as social groups, perhaps less so. But these tend to be in the minority. Every organization should be conscious of why they exist and the values they live by, and ensure its membership aligns with them.

5. Passengers

These people are not active detractors, they’re just not active.

Why should this be a problem?

For many communities it isn’t.

Beyond you having an inflated sense of your real community’s size, members who contribute little or not at all aren’t necessarily detrimental to the experience of the rest. Perhaps some of those members have joined, stuff has happened in their lives that prevents them from fully participating, but they expect to in the future. Or they’re getting value from the community by reading posts and downloading information and newsletters. Whilst a fully active membership is likely to increase the value to all, a partially inactive one does not necessarily undermine the experience for everyone.

Except where the community is predicated on mutuality.

In these cases the community only really functions optimally when all are playing an equally active role. This can be especially true of support, networking and social groups where the experience of all is dependant on the participation of all.

Cheryl has had to confront this issue. She’s an ‘accidental leader’. But one that has learnt quickly to take some of the tough decisions that more experienced organizers would find intimidating. She never intended to start and lead a Meetup Group of parents of autistic children, but when other sources of support failed her (online resources and government agencies) she decided that the only real source of help was going to come from parents in her situation. Peer support was likely to yield not only the most relevant sources of information, but also the emotional reinforcement that would get her through the week.

This a support group in the true sense of the word. Without each member contributing advice based on their experience, and without them sharing medical and practical help they’ve uncovered, the group’s purpose is compromised.

“We’re all families dealing with a tragedy. I started the group so that we could all come together as a community and learn from each other about how to adapt to this new life. People have learned that the best help they can get is from other parents.”

The trouble was, many people were joining, not contributing, and just taking. There was little sense of mutualism. Critically, beyond starving the collective knowledge of the group and limiting the resources for support and care, it demoralized the ones who were doing all the work. This was an especially dangerous problem. There were five key people who organized events, raised money, and communicated with the group.

Because of exhaustion and a growing sense of injustice, these ‘gems’ were feeling like they should scale back their own valuable contributions.

“We started feeling some kind of resentment. All these people claimed they’re going to do this and do that, and that they needed this kind of help, but when it comes time to ask them to put in what we give, basically an equal amount of participation, we give you so you give back, they don’t do it. We’ve experienced that people come on board, they get all the resources and then they leave….they take advantage. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.”

The group played an incredibly important role in her and other key members’ families’ survival. She would not jeopardize it for the sake of members who weren’t prepared to share.

Despite being an ‘accidental leader’ with no experience of leadership prior to founding the group, what she did next struck me as a very wise and fair in the face of a difficult and potentially inflammatory issue (as we’ll see in the ‘how’ section below.) In short, she redefined the terms of membership to require basic minimums of participation. If existing members could not commit to these basic minimums, they had to leave (but would always be welcomed back when they could commit).

Julia, who had had a lot of experience running groups professionally, is quite clear how much she hates passive members, even in a social group:

“We have a lot of joiners in society today. I think it’s important for a community builder to realize that getting people to commit to participating is important. With the Fibro group I’m actually quite hard-assed about it. If you don’t participate, I will actually throw you out of the group. Our group is about getting together and participating and if you don’t want to do that this isn’t the group for you. By me pushing them they’ve pushed themselves.”

In the next post we’ll look at how you gate and cull these kinds of members.