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.
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?
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.
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.