[This post is inspired by notes from a talk by Douglas Atkin (currently at AirBnB) about his work with cults, brands and community.]
We all go through life feeling like we are different. When you find people that are different the same way you are, that’s when you decide to join.
As humans, we each have a unique self narrative: “we tell ourselves a story about who we are, what others are like, how the world works, and therefore how one does (or does not) belong in order to maximize self.” We join a community to become more of ourselves – to exist in a place where we feel we don’t have to self-edit as much to fit in.
A community must have a clear ideology – a set of beliefs about what it stands for – a vision of the world as it should be rather than how it is, that aligns with what we believe. Communities form around certain ways of thinking first, not around products. At Mozilla, this is often called “the web we want” or ‘the web as it should be.’
When joining a community people ask two questions: 1) Are they like me? and 2) Will they like me? The answer to these two fundamental human questions determine whether a person will become and stay part of a community. In designing a community it is important to support potential members in answering these questions – be clear about what you stand for and make people feel welcome. The welcoming portion requires extra work in the beginning to ensure that a new member forms relationships with people in the community. These relationships keep people part of a community. For example, I don’t go to a book club purely for the book, I go for my friends Jake and Michelle. Initially, the idea of a book club attracted me but as I became friends with Jake and Michelle, that friendship continually motivated me to show up. This is important because as the daily challenges of life show up, social bonds become our places of belonging where we can recharge.
These social ties must be mixed with doing significant stuff together. In designing how community members participate, a very helpful tool is the community commitment curve. This curve describes how a new member can invest in low barrier, easy tasks that build commitment momentum so the member can perform more challenging tasks and take on more responsibility. For example, you would not ask a new member to spend 12 hours setting up a development environment just to make their first contribution. This ask is too much for a new person because they are still trying to figure out ‘are the like me?’ and ‘will they like me?’ In addition, their sense of contribution momentum has not been built – 12 hours is a lot when your previous task is 0 but 12 is not so much when your previous was 10.
The community commitment curve is a powerful tool for community builders because it forces you to design the small steps new members can take to get involved and shows structure to how members take on more complex tasks/roles – it takes some of the mystery out! As new members invest small amounts of time, their commitment grows, which encourages them to invest larger amounts of time, continually growing both time and commitment, creating a fulfilling experience for the community and the member. I made a template for you to hack your own community commitment curve.
Social ties combined with a well designed commitment curve, for a clearly defined purpose, is powerful combination in supporting a community.