Some Tips on Community Building

Adam Hyde Jul 25, 2019

Are you trying to build community and it just doesn’t ‘stick’? You can’t work out exactly whats going wrong. You know that you want community to form around a project, and you know it’s a good idea, but you just can’t work out why it’s not happening. Surely, people know it’s a good idea, right? Surely, they can see it’s of benefit to them or the world. What on earth is going wrong?

Well, perhaps ask yourself this simple diagnostic – is community building most like:

  1. inspiring and informing a group of people about your exciting project!
  2. teasing a kitten out from under a couch

If you answered (1) you are already toast.

Most efforts to start community fail because there isn’t someone that understands that community building is really like the second option. The result, inevitably, is that no one turns up, or if they do, they don’t stick around. I’ve seen this plenty of times, and I’ve also been in that situation plenty of times. It has taken me years to work out how to build community successfully.

We do a lot of community building, and behind the scenes, we advise a lot of people on how to do it. The following are foundational issues that I hope might help you. Notably, these issues are not about what you do, but how you approach what you do. Which is where most people go wrong. Community Building is not like building a house. It is not physical labor, it is emotional labor. Consequently, how you do things is as important, if not more important, as what you do.

Community Building is Emotional Labor

You must get used to the fact that community building is not automatic. People do not magically culminate around an idea or project. It takes a lot of emotional labor to seed and grow a community. It’s hard, messy work and it never ceases.

You Can’t Control Community

You cannot determine ahead of time what your community will look like and what it will do. You can only sow the seeds and help keep it on the rails as it grows. That’s about it. The first lesson for anyone building community is that if you are feeling frustrated because you cannot control it, then you are probably doing something right. The trick then becomes being ok with it.

Builders are both Insiders and Outsiders Simultaneously

To build a community effectively you must be inside the community and working within it. Insiderness is important as you need to be able to speak with the other community members in a way that is genuinely of the ‘I’m with you’ variety. It is a kinship you need to maintain, and it can be nothing other than natural. If it is not natural, then you are essentially an ‘outsider’ and outsiders are not, by definition, part of the community. It is ‘insiderness’ you need to achieve.

However, you must maintain an element of the outsider in that you must be a strategist. You must know how to massage community to maintain, and build, momentum. You must be able to act deliberately to bring about the growth of the community. This requires constant gardening, as you can not lay out the path and then run the community automatically through its paces. You must tend to it, and react with it, let it have its own head, but also help it to ‘keep its head.’ It is constant, messy, emotional labor.

Never Instrumentalise Community

One of the biggest mistakes I see is the instrumentalisation of community. You must never instrumentalise community. You can not use the community and manipulate it to your own ends. You will just kill it if you do so, or you will reduce your cultural currency, the only thing you really have, to zero – rendering yourself ineffective. Instead, you must do the work necessary to help the community achieve what they want. You hope that coincides with your needs, but you must also prepare yourself for the day that this might not be the case. If and when this happens, the community wins and that’s okay.

Build Value for the Community

If you want to build a community you must build value for the community. You must do this constantly and not act out of a desire to build value only for yourself. You, as the community builder, must push value out to the community. The community members must benefit from their involvement. The more you push value to them, the healthier the community will be. The more you build value only for yourself, the shorter the life of the community, or your role within it.

Build Cultural Currency for Yourself

The more you contribute to growing that value, the more cultural currency you have. And cultural currency is what you need to help shape the community. It is your internal currency. You can only be given so much by association, the rest you have to earn. Earning it is an ongoing and constant process. You get as much as you put in. It is not the same as ‘meritocracy’ which is often thrown about by the Open Source community as a kind of ‘community value metric’.

Cultural currency is earned not just by what you contribute but by how you contribute it. The merit of the contribution is only one axis. The other is your ability to make the contribution generously and in good faith. This is why meritocracy is an unhealthy metric. How you are is as important as what you give.

Community is Self Identifying

Community is self-associating, self-identifying. You don’t get to ‘appoint’ community. Participants must identify themselves as part of the community. To get this, community must work for them.

Facilitate, Don’t Dictate

Facilitation is a key ingredient to a successful community. Unfortunately there is often far too much dictating going on, especially in the Open Source world where the ‘Benevolent Dictator’ meme has a well established legacy. Dictatorships just make for conflict and miserable, toxic communities. Learn what good facilitation is and employ those techniques instead. The best way to learn facilitation is to watch someone good at it in action.

In Summary

These are some of the basic mechanics. Community can take many forms – communities of people making publishing platforms, communities of musicians, communities of book writers, Open Source communities -it doesn’t matter, they all have the same underlying mechanics. How you employ your skills to build the community changes dramatically according to the context but you are using the same principles.

And to sum it all up…

  • you are inside the community, it is not ‘out there’
  • to build community, you must also maintain something of an ‘external’ position while also being wholly inside the community
  • your goal is to build value for the community members
  • you must do so generously and in good faith
  • you must *never* instrumentalise a community
  • learn good facilitation
  • community is self-identifying and the more diverse it is the better!

It’s tricky stuff, but incredibly satisfying when it works.

About the Author

Adam Hyde

Coko Founder.