Building a community is difficult: it requires to listen to people, understand different (and potentially opposite) point of views and be pretty open-minded about opinions from others. Because success of a community is mostly defined by involvement and actions of its members, building a new one from scratch requires a lot of efforts while letting room and space for everybody to talk, exchange and be comfortable.
Since several years, I have started and participated in several communities and groups of interest in different domains. Some were focused on technical and geek objectives (such as Tuxfamily or POK) while others were more casual (such as the French meetup group in Pittsburgh with its weekly dinner – called “Les Francofous”).
Criteria that will make a community a success may varies on factors (domain of operation, members, environment, etc.) but there are some common, general and basic traps and pitfalls you do not want to get into. So, if this is hard to get you general advise about what to do to build your community, it is pretty straightforward to detail NOT what to do. Last weeks, I spotted them in a local community in my neighborhood (the Swissvale Crime Watch). I will try to take this example to detail these traps and pitfalls, proving example of how they might impact your community. Failure helps us to make progress and thus, should but embraced so that we can learn from them.
Disclaimer: this post discusses community building and was not written for personal purposes/disputes/etc. Please use the comments to discuss the topic but refrain personal attacks. For that, my inbox is big enough. Also, this post might contain part that are fun. Please be aware that is might make you laugh. The author will be not responsible for side-effect. Finally no personal name is mentioned ; people that want to discuss the topic is person are more than welcome!
Living in the lovely Swissvale area since several months and being an enthusiastic home owner, I consider the area like a hidden gem in the Pittsburgh area as soon as I landed here. This is close to main universities (Carnegie Mellon University, PITT), has direct access to main roads so that commuting time is quick, and finally, housing is affordable. You just cannot beat that.
I took me a couple of hours to fall in love with it and think it deserves to be valued and highlighted. So, I decided to be active and part of the existing group and communities. I had a look at social networks (facebook, twitter, etc.) to figure out what was going on and what are the existing initiatives around. I found several interesting groups, including the Swissvale Crime Watch. Even if I am not a paranoid, having a safe and secure neighborhood is something most homeowners want (well, who want to live in an area where people get murdered or robbed every night?). If this might not be your primary concern (because you do not consider yourself at risk), it can be useful for your neighbors (in particular if they are old, have kids, etc.). Also, as a software developer, as I am currently programing a security system, I thought this was a good opportunity to probe what people are expecting and eventually present what I am creating. So, I joined this group (among many others) without any special expectation and followed the discussions on the facebook page.
Swissvale Crime Watch is there for your safety – picture on flickr
When it started to suck
After a couple of days, I went to a face to face meeting. Police officers were there, as well as the organizers and few other folks. Very few people were there and the organizers pointed out that the group need to involve guys around the area. Why not: the more we are, the more information we can have. That might be a good idea to recruit!
Life went on but, and, when discussing with some friends, some reported that their posts on the discussion page were removed. They were upset about that and for a good reason: why would engage in a group if your contribution is removed right away? would you feel welcome? what are the benefits to discuss with other folks if you are even not sure your message will be here in a couple of minutes? It turned out that only some posts were removed whereas other were still there.
So, acceptance criteria for being published or not seems to vary. After a while, the group leaders reported that all non-crime related discussions will be deleted/removed from the discussion board. But there was not evidence that removed discussions were not crime-related and many other non-crime related posts were still there.
This new policy started to restrict interaction between members. It was just a turning point: the group was no longer a discussion group with interaction between users but rather a bulletin board where administrators put stickers. After all, why not, at the era of social media where people connect each other by discussing online, this sounds old-school and it can still be useful.
When it started to really suck
After a while a discussion emerged about a new business (a bar) in the neighborhood. Even if this was not crime-related, everybody discussed the matter, even the group moderators. So, I thought it was authorized and I jumped into the discussion to explain my position: if a new business started in the area, that might be a good opportunity, so, let’s discuss it.
After all, nobody is guilty of anything unless there is any evidence or proof! But after a couple of minutes, posts were removed without any notice, explanation or motivation. I started to feel the same frustration my friends experienced weeks ago, I feel offended, rejected and unfairly treated.
After some time, moderators reported that I started a racial debate on the group, without any supporting evidence or proof. Having never started such a discussion, I felt offended and clearly mistreated because this is something I will never do. Asking for evidence, the group moderators backed off and reported that this was not my fault, failing again to report evidence or the issue.
It seems that censorship applies randomly, without any clear guideline and report. Several folks contacted me privately to express their support regarding this issue and notifying that they already experience such interaction in the past.
Time flies and I thought there are always some glitches here in human relation and you should always give the benefit of the doubt. So, I tried to participate again to some other discussions. But as usual, my posts were promptly removed after just a couple of minutes while others were still there, even if they are not crime-related. After a couple of months, the group is still looking for new people is seems to struggle engaging new folks.
The Swissvale Crime Watch is hiding in secret spots – picture on flickr
This experience was really fruitful to show traps and pitfalls you might make when starting a community. In this situation, members started to be frustrated because they cannot having a free and open discussion and feel to be censored on unfair and random principles. Some members will still be skeptical about that but after a while, when they will try to be engaged, they will experience the same thing and just walk away.
On my side, this was a nice experience to get in touch with my folks from Swissvale. For now, I left the group: I prefer not to invest my time into negative thinking and prefer to dedicate my efforts to make a positive impact in other initiatives in Swissvale (check out the Farmer’s market that is coming, the EDAC group or the Runners/Walkers group!). Other folks seem also to feel that way and this might be a good way to connect together and engage through other opportunities. And even if I am skeptical of the Crime Watch community success on the long run, I wish them good luck to recruit and engage people! Diversity should be embraced, not rejected!
This example does not show you how to built communities but what you should NOT do. There are basic traps and pitfalls you must avoid at any cost, no matter what you are trying to do:
- be fair and honest: like it or not, rules apply to everybody. Even to you and your friends. Be fair and apply to yourself what you ask to other folks.
- communicate with others: when spotting a behavior problem, explicitly discusses the matter publicly. Do not write a book: stick to the fact and provide evidence (see 4)
- engage, inspire with others ; let people communicate: a community is (mostly) about engaging people. You want more folks involved in your group? Give them room, space! Let them discuss and avoid any frustration by censoring them. Sure, some dudes will not agree all the time and this is what human interaction is about.
- provide evidence when problems arise: members can cross the lines and, as a leader, you have to check that discussion are appropriate. But you also need to track evidence of any issue. Otherwise, people will likely think that your decision was not fair (see 1) and/or legit.