Creating Social Media Community

In our previous post, Creating Social Media Connection, we talked about creating the third of our Social Media 4 C’s, social media connection. Next we consider our last and perhaps the most important C – Community.

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Some rights reserved by Dru Bloomfield – At Home in Scottsdale

Social Media Community

Community is one of those things that everybody knows in their bones, but which defies being tied to specifics. You know what community means in your offline life — neighbors, town or city, worship partners, your golf league, your book club. It’s easy to call them communities.

But when we talk about the insubstantialities of community online, even — or especially — the pundits can’t agree. They use too many or too few words to describe the phenomenon, and spend more time ruling examples in and out based on their definitions than actually creating a useful definition. Notice how the following list from well-respected social media gurus range from definitions that emphasize the tools the community uses to broad descriptions that encompass online and offline communities:

  • Jeremiah Owyang: “Where a group of people with similar goals or interests connect and exchange information using web tools.”
  • Shel Israel: “Communities are bodies of people loosely joined together by a common interest.”
  • Howard Rheingold: “[Virtual communities are] social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.”
  • Jake McKee (the Community Guy): “A community is a group of people who form relationships over time by interacting regularly around shared experiences, which are of interest to all of them for varying individual reasons.”
  • Tim Jackson: “A strong community will be built around that shared experience or interest and passion will be at the heart of it — for a healthy community to survive anyway.”
  • Ann Michael: “Communities are groups of people that actively support each other.”
  • Deb Schultz: “Don’t forget TRUST and a sense of commitment. To me it is not a community without the feeling (perceived? real) that other members have my back.”

We like parts of all of these definitions. In particular, we like a key concept in Rheingold’s quote: “sufficient human feeling.” That’s what makes the connection, the gut, not the brain, the Homer, not the Spock.

To create a community, you must foster the human feeling. This means in your messaging about your business, statistics may inform, but human stories will engage, and create the connection between your organization (Be a Person) and your community members. Make sure your staff and your supporters or evangelists tell their stories using social media.

We definitely need to add Ann Michael’s and Deb Shultz’s ideas about support and having each other’s backs.

We also think there are important concepts in the dictionary definition of community: “A social, re­ligious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (e.g. ‘The Business Community’).”[1] Common characteristics — having cancer, for example — and common interests — wanting to save the world, for example — are what attracts people to form a group and helps define them as distinct from other individuals or groups.

Also important are the following basic community characteristics.

  • Organized Around a Shared Purpose
    Communities need a reason for existing, and that typically is a shared interest or purpose. Community members generally have a common reason for joining.While some communities may be more general — YouTube, for example, or Facebook — these broader communities generally are hosts for sub-communities comprised, for example, by you and your friends on Facebook, people who like stupid human tricks videos on YouTube,[2] fans of a band on MySpace,[3] or members of your family tree on Ancient Faces.[4]Within these larger communities made up of members with weak attractions for one another (like viewing funny videos online, or having a lot of followers on Twitter), your community will be organized around your business or perhaps the problem it solves, and will include people who are interested — hopefully passionate — about it.Your community won’t necessarily, or optimally, be organized around your business. It generally is not the content (videos, tweets, blogs) or the tools (blogs, messaging, friending) that create the bonds that tie the community together. It’s the people, and their relationships.
  • Interactive
    Interactivity is the whole point of community online: the ability to easily find kindred souls and interact with them. The job of the community organizer is to remove as much friction as possible to allow people to interact, while maintaining agreed-upon levels of privacy and confidentiality. The conversation is many to many, not top down to the crowd — two-way not one-way. Members support one another and defend each other if necessary.The basic interactive tool of a social media community is the contact, or friending, capability. By friending, people identify each other as connected in some way. Friending can be weak, as in Twitter followers, or strong, as in Facebook friends, who are allowed to see each other’s more-personal information. Another basic community tool is commenting, which allows community members to react and respond to each others’ posts.
  • Everyone Can Contribute
    Contribution is fundamental to a successful community: the creation of a system that supports and encourages all members to contribute, not just the organizers. Although lurkers may comprise the majority, all have permission to contribute.In your community, you should seek a balance between helping enable the dialog, and guiding it. Too much in one direction and the community degenerates into lawlessness. Too much in the other, and the community becomes just another place for you to push your messages. Remember that you don’t need to be involved in every conversation, and you don’t need to correct every misconception or misinterpretation yourself. Your community will often take care of that.On the other hand, your community will likely expect you to be present, and involved. You may be expected to respond to direct requests for answers or information within a particular timeframe. Make sure your community understands the service level they can expect in this regard. And be sure you have the resources to consistently deliver that level of service.
  • Evolving and Growing
    You may start out with a goal and a plan for your community. Things may change as your community members evolve their relationships. However, members determine how the conversation and the community develop and grow, or die. Since one of the main principles of community is that the community is in charge, you may need to hold the reins very loosely. Remember, a mob is also a type of community. Online, passions can spike instantly, and people have the tools to express themselves immediately. See a good example of what can happen on the influential Techcrunch blog.[5] Co-Founder Michael Arrington provoked an angry response when he questioned a journalist on a video blog, resulting in a mob of angry people wishing him ill on the social site FriendFeed.Depending on your community, and how it evolves, you may need to worry about mob rule. Anonymous blog commenting is one of the ways social media can get out of control. We classify the people who comment on a blog post as a form of community, although others disagree. The posters often comment on each others’ posts, and things can get out of hand and way off topic. What is your responsibility in this case? If you are too heavy-handed in ensuring posts are on-topic and polite, users can revolt, or simply leave.Another problem with blog commenting is the automated bots (short for robots) that look for blogs that don’t require registration in order to post. The bots can slam one or a hundred spam posts into the comments, polluting the commentary, and turning off the community. You need to think about how you will implement specific features like this, and how you will react as your community evolves.

    In fact, the various bits of functionality your community offers, from commenting to friending to blogging or video uploading, can have an effect on the direction and vitality of your community. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan said, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” We definitely see this concept at work in online communities where the technology — be it YouTube’s video or Foursquare’s GPS tech — shapes the interactions and the arc of the community.

  • Multi-Threaded
    Community is not a monologue. There are multiple speakers, multiple topics, and multiple ways community members can interact. One aspect of community management is to set policy regarding off-topic posting. Some community managers delete off-topic threads, move them out of the main flow, or otherwise discourage them. We feel that a good amount of the attraction f a good community is the ability for its members to express themselves as they see fit. We recommend that you ask your community how they want to police off-topic posting, and enable them to solve such problems themselves.But there are other types of undesirable activity you’ll need to deal with: trolls. The term troll refers to someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community.[6] Trolls deliberately create messages to foster responses of outrage or indignation. These are the people with an axe to grind, or who just enjoy stirring the pot. They may hijack threads and bend them to their agenda. We talk about trolls in a post in our What CIOs Need to Know About Social Media series.
  • Leaderless/Many Leaders
    By this we mean there is usually no single leader in a community. You may think you’d like to be the leader, but what you’ll find is that many leaders will emerge. And they may fight for dominance. To use your community properly, learn how to nurture these leaders and turn them into evangelists so they can spread their influence — and your messages — beyond your community. You may find, however, that some of the leaders are leading dissent. We talk more about handling negatives in the post CIOs: Techniques for Handling Social Media Negatives.In general, however, you need to govern your community with a light hand. Community members will expect to be involved in major decisions about your community, so you should clearly lay out your policies regarding the actions you can take unilaterally, and respond to community comments about them. You’ll find that most community members will expect you to exert a certain amount of control, but be very careful about actions that could be construed as censorship.
  • Continuity
    Generally, a community is a longer-term entity. However, some communities are quite ephemeral, coalescing around events or short-lived causes (for example, disasters like the Haiti earthquake in early 2010) or fads. To benefit, members may require a sense of continuity — the feeling that by investing in the community it will be there when they need it.Most communities generally have a core membership that interacts over a long period of time, and it’s often the quality of their interaction that attracts and holds the rest of the membership together. A good example of this is the long-running Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (the Well) that started in the San Francisco Bay area in the mid-80s (as a bulletin board for Grateful Dead fans) and is still running strong today. When I first joined the Well in 1993, all the leading lights of the Internet movement made their home there, including Howard Rheingold (previously mentioned in this section), Whole Earth Catalog creator (and Well cofounder) Stewart Brand, writer Bruce Sterling, usability pioneer Brenda Laurel, Lawrence Lessig, one of the founders of the Creative Commons Copyleft movement, and Caterina Fake, creator of Flickr and Hunch.This is not to imply you need stars to keep your community going, but it doesn’t hurt. Surely there are stars in your field. See if you can get them to participate.

Why are we going on and on about the definition of community? Well, to state the obvious, if you’re going to build a community, it would certainly be helpful to know when you’ve achieved one. But also we feel a definition of community that states the characteristics of good, sustainable efforts will be the most useful in guiding your efforts to architect your community.

So to put all this into one definition, we’d say an online community is:

A group of people with a shared purpose in a longer-term relationship in which all voices can be heard, members support one another, and which evolves over time based on where its members want it to go.

Does that sound good to you? OK, we’ve defined what community is. Let’s take a quick look at what it isn’t.

What isn’t Community?

  • An audience
    • Chris Brogan says, “The difference between an audience and a community is which direction the chairs are pointing.”
    • Do you want an audience to speak at, or a community to support and converse with you?
    • The community is not there to consume your messages
  • Leaderless
    • You as a sponsor can lead, but in the best communities, leaders emerge
    • Those leaders can be your evangelists, but even if they aren’t, they are critical to the community’s success
  • A Place Requiring Equal Participation
    • Many more will lurk than contribute, and that’s OK
    • A small percentage will contribute the majority of content and interaction — cultivate them!
    • It’s just important that everyone have the same opportunity to contribute even if they don’t take advantage of it

Here are some quick tips about community:

Attribute of Community



Not Just Geography Affinity for your business Ning, Plaxo, LinkedIn
Self-Forming Already out there Find existing communities, enable new ones
Enable Commenting And don’t censor! Blog, Contact Us, Wikis, YouTube, Polls, Surveys
Invite Everyone, Even Detractors Especially detractors, be proactive, answer all negative comments, actually fix problems Blog, Website, Wikis

Creating Social Media Community is the 57th in a series of excerpts from our book, Be a Person: the Social Operating Manual for Enterprises (itself part of a series for different audiences). We’re just past page 180. At this rate it’ll be a long time before we get through all 430 pages, but luckily, if you’re impatient, the book is available in paper form at and you can save $5 using Coupon Code 62YTRFCV

See the previous posts What is Social Media?, Social Sites Defined, Why Social Media? How is Social Media Relevant to Business? First Steps Toward a Social Media Strategy, and Decide What Your Business Will Do About Social Computing, pt. 1

Next up: Aim to Influence on Social Media


[2] YouTube search:

[3] For example:

[4] Ancient Faces:

[5] Techcrunch mob:

[6] Wikipedia definition of a troll:

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