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Building and maintaining communities

A perspective on the psychology of how to grow a thriving community

An outcome of the pandemic crisis is the increased interest in building, growing and maintaining communities. As we have all experienced with working from home, we’ve all realised that the network of people we have and the community we have around us is of great importance. And businesses especially have had the importance of a community reinforced upon them.

Building and maintaining a community uses the same behavioural psychology as much of gamification does. One of the aspects of gamification even is to build and grow a community, as players playing together fosters a greater motivation for them all to continue playing.

But to build a community and maintain it, at least initially, takes effort and you need a champion, or champions rather, that can keep your community going and get it past the initial training wheels stage before it can become self-sustaining.

These champions will likely be you or someone, or several people, from your team, that will give the initial pushes and contributions in the community. They will be promoting interactions through content and knowledge sharing, essentially being the invisible hand that guides newer members in a community and through that gets it going. Much like a plant, a community must be nurtured, to begin with, and once it has matured enough, then and only then will you be able to see whether it can survive on its own.

Once your ‘plant’ reaches an ever-green status, able to weather the majority conditions, then you will have a built a long-lasting community. But your likely next question is whether this is even possible? In the short-term; no, like a plant, you need to take care of it from seedling to fully grown plant and there is no way of knowing how long it will take. In the long-term, it’s certainly possible to do, but it takes effort, patience and time.

We will look at these five aspects of building a community:

  1. A common purpose,
  2. A communal identity,
  3. Communal accountability and responsibility,
  4. Shared activity,
  5. And safety

Common purpose

Every community needs a bonding agent, something that the individual members can gather around. A shared belief, or goal or purpose, a solidifying factor that brings everyone together. This common purpose that all members can share is what a community coalesces around.

For a common purpose to have an effect within a community it requires four features:

  • Meaning,
  • Value,
  • Agency,
  • And Urgency

You may think you can do with just a few of these or even just one or two of them. But if you want your community to thrive and become self-sustaining, you do need all four elements to engage people. If they can find meaning and value in what is provided and what to contribute, as well as a feeling of agency to engage and a sense of urgency that it cannot be left till another day, then you will loyal members who share a purpose.

Additionally, the purpose must be aimed towards the future. It must be something that can continue over a long period and something that will only be realised somewhere far down the road in the future. A purpose that can be achieved within a year or less will not have enough weight and gravity for a community to coalesce around.

And finally, the purpose of the community needs to align with the self-interests and goals of its members. This is not something that you can ensure, at least not directly beyond vetting members. A way to guide this is by making it clear from the outset what the community can offer its members when they collaborate. Doing this will give a level of transparency and aid you in gathering the right members for your community.

Communal identity

Communities, like individuals, develop their own identities. These identities will become distinct entities that can separate themselves from and differentiate themselves within a society or some other larger social group.

For communities to survive and thrive as distinct entities within a society, they will create and develop their semiotic domain, as described by James-Paul Gee. Such a domain will have it’s own shared languages, traditions, symbols and stories. Languages, in this case, can also mean jargon, terminology and vernacular associated with that community. Having all of these features of the semiotic domain will lead to a community creating a shared culture that all its members join and recognise.

An outcome of having these unique cultures within communities is that they can become exclusive and selective of who joins them and who doesn’t. As a community evolves and becomes self-governing it will only select individuals who share the same interests and purposes as the community itself. Those that do not align will not be accepted into the community.

The can be both a disadvantage and an advantage. The disadvantage is the exclusiveness, and possible isolation if not dealt with correctly. The advantage is that members will have a sense of pride when they enter the community. This is important as a community is essentially based on the people that are in it, and they are the ones that shape it.

The people in a community will take on roles and identities as well, depending on how long they have been there. If you wish to assign a gaming aspect to this, then the often unspoken status of members in a community go from beginners to amateurs, to masters and experts, community leaders and then the final stage of being a community elder.

For these roles to even be a possibility, a community must remain healthy and active. And this can only be done if it continually tries to recruit new members and supports the beginners as they onboard into the community. Additionally, current members must therefore also celebrate the achievement of both beginners, all the way up the ranks through to the elders. And doing this through rituals and traditions that are unique to the community.

Celebrating achievement has two effects, one is that it creates a bond and a sense of responsibility between each member. And secondly, events are necessary for facilitating this bond through shared experiences and shared memories, which increases the sense of belonging among the various members of a community.

When everyone feels that their contributions matter, and that their time and effort invested was worth it, then that sense of belonging will be truly entrenched within them.

Accountability and responsibility

An important facet of ensuring that any community can survive over the long-term is to make sure that all members realise or are made aware of the fact that they are indeed all accountable and responsible for the continuation and wellbeing of the community. Because a community cannot survive if all the members are not involved. A community will fragment and slowly disassemble if there are members who only consume what is provided by the community without contributing themselves. Much like in older human societies, if you only benefited from the hunt and never actually hunted yourself, you would eventually be ousted from the community for being a leech and not a worthwhile member of the tribe.

Developing this awareness among members is much easier in smaller groups and communities. As when a community becomes too large, it well self-fragment, since an individual can only have so many meaningful connections with others.

So, therefore, if a community grows too large, you as a facilitator within the community may need to consider fragmenting it yourself and segmenting it into smaller groups. Consider adding another aspect that can be taken from games. Call the overall large community the Tribe and have smaller Clans or Guilds within that Tribe. This can maintain the sense of a shared identity.

For this kind of segmentation to be effective, there would need to be some kind of shared governing structure within the Tribe and among the smaller groups. The benefits of having such a structure are that there would be multiple leaders and champions and the overall leadership structure would be able to better maintain the purpose of the community while offering support and resource to everyone.

Do remember though that such a leadership structure is not there to control a community but rather to guide and facilitate the experience, helping new members enter and acting as a bridge and connector between members and groups.

As the community evolves and its members understand the accountability, responsibility and value of their connections, the hope is then that the community will eventually become a self-structuring and self-regulating entity. No longer requiring your assistance or guidance to keep going.

Shared Activity

Individuals become members of a community when they find meaning in acting together with other like-minded individuals. These shared activities are done through knowledge creation and sharing of that knowledge, exploring it with each other and putting it into practice.

It is a known fact that people are communal creatures, and the majority of people want to connect with other, similar people. This need for connection, be it with just a singular person or a group of people, gives a sense of togetherness and is the basis for creating lasting relationships. Communities are essentially large interconnected webs of various relationships after all.

As this togetherness strengthens, communities will slowly develop a secondary objective beyond their primary purpose of existing. This secondary purpose then is that the members in the community, to remain together, will protect their semiotic domain. Initially, this will take the form of an ‘us versus them’ mindset, but (hopefully) this will change into a need for maintaining a community’s value in learning, growth and its inherent and intrinsic value gained from that shared learning.

Once communities enter this learning stage, they will naturally start to promote mastery and curiosity to sustain the shared activities with their members. This need to promote such things is so that members become motivated to continue contributing to the community, through an innate need for acknowledgement.

Peer acknowledgement then, and the need to continue learning, are recognisable facets of life and activities that can only occur and have value if shared with others. Such things are strong motivators of wanting to belong and powerful reasons for individuals to remain in a group or community.

On rare occasions, it may even occur that certain individuals feel such a strong sense of belonging that they feel that the community would benefit from a monetary injection. Such members feel that the value they have gained from the community should be reciprocated with a financial recognition.

Many free-to-play models within games essentially count on this feeling occurring, as they will offer all their high-end content for free and only aesthetic changes cost money. This means that community members of the game have the opportunity to show their appreciation by buying something that has no impact on the game itself but shows its value in a very visual manner.

Safety

One of the last and possibly strongest reasons for the creation and maintenance of a community is for the need of safety. This is an embedded need in every human, the sense of feeling safe when you belong somewhere. Of coming home to something familiar, be it physical, emotional or intellectual. Very much the idea of a safe haven.

Being able to go to a community where you are welcomed for who you are, where you feel safe to be you and in which you can take pride in being a part of, is the strongest motivator to remain and contribute to a community for many.

Three of the most important tenets of a strong community are, therefore:

  • Security,
  • Respect,
  • And privacy

A strong community will support and protect its members, whether online or offline. Offering this is what will retain members and give them a reason to offer the same back to the community. To achieve this, you can provide such support through the use of various communication possibilities that allow for members to stay in touch. Communication is the foundation of support, respect and eventually protection within a fledgling community.

Final Thought

As a closing thought on communities; having a shared goal and investing shared effort, where everyone is understanding and collaborative is what will give a community a higher chance of surviving.

If everyone understands what is expected of them and there is an agreement that everyone contributes equally to remain a member, then your community will grow and thrive. As with anything in society, when every one injects energy into an endeavour in equal amounts then the benefits can be reaped by everyone involved.  

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Do check out the other posts on æStranger.com, and do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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