How to Build and Lead Successful Online Communities: Behaving appropriately

By Nic Laycock / May 2012

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"Now children, settle down so we can get started," is a comment to which most of us can relate. For me it often spelled the end of fun and signaled the start of something with which I grew very bored, quite quickly. I envy young people entering the workplace after an academic career marked by more enlightened attitudes, which encourage interaction, team working, and the use of mobile devices in the classroom. I weep when I see formal, rigid lectures start in the world of work—and that includes formal eLearning, which allows no interaction apart from clicking a mouse.

In my own experience there were times when things went wrong in the online communities with which I had been associated. In some cases the cause lay in a failure of leadership, in most a failure to create the right behaviors and support those who were hurt, isolated, and disempowered. Ultimately some of those communities died.

A comment, treated by the receiver as aggressive, but which was probably intended as a tongue-in -cheek joke can cause a person to withdraw. The rasping negation of someone's tentatively shared insight, without looking at it carefully to extract the nugget of goodness from it frequently leads to a long stretch of "lurking." Failing to acknowledge contribution from a newcomer or a long-time lurker, who has just started to contribute, creates a lack of engagement. Not noticing and probing a previously active participant's absence contributes to isolation and feelings of not belonging. The hijacking of a community for purposes outside of the community's scope and established ways of behaving leads people to disengage; inappropriate triviality that irritates and drives down use of a community. All of these and many more are behaviors that contribute to communities not reaching their potential. All of them lead individuals to decide, "This just isn't worth the effort." Establishing and fostering appropriate behavior in a community takes effort. Low levels of contribution and a general lack of response to them are difficult to turn around.

Politely put, pouring water into a sponge when nothing comes out is a disheartening and uninteresting experience that is likely to discourage. One day I sat initially fascinated and then hilariously entertained, on the banks of an African river watching a herd of elephants and a pod of hippo bathing in close proximity. As his elders went about the routine business of bathing and drinking, a young elephant, clearly bored with the lack of activity, waded the short distance to the hippos (very dangerous even to elephants when their water is threatened) and nudged the nearest animal. His action elicited a startled but characteristic grunt and the hippo moved a few meters away. Stimulated by the reaction, our young Ellie did it again and with the same result a number of times. Eventually he got bored and rejoined his herd. Nothing novel and exciting was happening. There was no new stimulus.

It was a real lesson that we can use in our work to build communities. They have to be kept fresh and stimulated. Our behavior can and will impact them. We have to be actively involved to set a tone and to build up the energy that will lead a community to be self-sustaining. One time attraction is not good enough. A social media community with 5,000 members and no evidence of collaboration is going nowhere. There is no stimulus to get involved. The same can be said of others that have reached impressive dimensions, accompanied by hectic early activity but which have become moribund.

Yet, others have bonded vibrantly and become very valuable in many dimensions of those peoples' learning, because there was a constant theme of support for other members in the community—despite being of less significant size.

So what are the behaviors that will aid us in that task? Leadership of communities requires both innovation and creativity to maintain its vibrancy. That's a topic for later in this series.

Quality interaction requires a human and humanizing touch. There is a need to model and nurture appropriate behavior in a community. Getting those right behaviors in place is not an easy task but that is no reason for it to be ignored in the hope that it will happen. Chances are it won't.

The difficulty lies in the fact that in online situations we cannot see the other participants so we cannot judge their reaction to what is happening unless they feel strongly enough to provide some feedback. What we therefore have to do, in an almost exaggerated way, is to model the behaviors that will draw the community together. The personal welcome for every individual, ongoing checks to solicit feedback on people's level of comfort, the willingness to offer help, public recognition in the community of people, supporting one another. All of these things matter, after all, we all like to be cared for and appreciated.

In the situation of one-way communication, which is the dominant mode in online working, it is all too easy for words to be misunderstood. Remember, communication is more about perception than intention. The communicator, as much as the receiver, needs to be alert to the possibility of misunderstanding or offense—the one to be careful about wordings, the other in the way that messages are received. It's particularly important in using micro-blogging media such as Twitter, where the message is cryptic and the interaction can be very fast. This kind of platform has developed conventions and protocols to combat its cryptic nature. They can be very intimidating to the newcomer, who will benefit from a bit of care, advice, and assistance from more experienced participants.

What is appropriate sociability in online communities? Where does it cross the line to unwanted triviality? There are few people who will not engage in some kind of sociability with those with whom we work. Even "good morning" is a connection that is meaningful at some level. It is recognition that there is someone else there. The impersonal and cryptic nature of some of our online work, together with the high-paced life that is now the norm common in business means we run the risk of forgetting such politeness and miss the opportunity to create relationships. If "good morning" takes too many characters for your platform then try "Hi!" It may not be your normal style but it will have the same effect.

We each have a different level of need and a different level of tolerance for non-business related messages. Yes, they can help us get to know one another better, but a string of tweets or posts on a wall about the perils of the journey to work and the fact that the kids were impossible getting ready for school this morning is probably better left to more private conversations with people with whom we have a more familiar relationship. And what do we think about the gratuitous Twitter #tag added to a message in isolation and which seems to have no particular relevance?

But there is a place for some triviality. Peter Kemper said at a recent Yammer Conference in London, that when social learning and the social media were introduced to Shell, there was a public recognition that there would be non-work related communication around the communities that rapidly emerged. It is seen as healthy, assists in team and community building, and instances of abuse are rare to the point of being non-existent. "If we can't have fun at work, what is the point?" asked Kemper. BT's well-documented Dare2Share initiative achieved an employee based podcasting community in which more than 700 learning nuggets were shared in a year without a single instance of triviality or risk in a dangerous workplace environment. The time spent by the L&D community helping people in the workplace get comfortable with the technology of podcasting was crucial to this success. Many organizations fear that opening the social media to employees will result in a rubbishing of the company. The spontaneous creation of a "we love the company community" in one such organization only illustrates frequently the underlying responsible nature of the employee is forgotten. Trust and empowerment are the watchwords.

Now let's consider for a moment the avatar. Working in a space where we are denied the usual visual contact and the use of our non-verbal skills, the presence of a photograph can bring meaning to a relationship. And while we are there, that tedious little chore of creating our profiles can also convey meaning beyond its impact in a face-to-face situation.

Appropriate behavior in online communities needs to be modeled, fostered through recognizing the contribution of others, and reinforced through gentle guidance when necessary. It is a role and a task for the whole community.

About the Author

Nic Laycock blogs at Nic's Discoveries and can be found on Twitter @alc47.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/05 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2207270.2232816

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