Why culture matters in building community

Punk rock bands. Star Trek enthusiasts. World Cup soccer fans. Communities of real people, each of which have their own set of behaviors and norms. Anthropologists call this “culture”. Now let’s look at a different group of communities: Quora, TED, Google+. Do these online communities also have a culture? Of course they do. Let’s take a look at how each established a culture early on, and what this means for new communities:

Two former Facebook employees founded the Q&A site Quora in 2009. Quora is all about thoroughness. Why? First, Quora encourages using your real identity, not an alias, so you’re accountable for your work. Second, users vote up or down answers based on their quality. Finally, many early adopters were from the tech industry, where meritocracy rules. Glib contributions don’t get you far in that field. The combinations of these three factors, established early on, meant that Quora became a place where meaningful information is the norm. You can imagine what the site might like otherwise – just take a look at the comments under any YouTube video. Want to hear what happened when these norms were broken? Read this post by Robert Scoble.

TED Conversations was developed just earlier this year. It’s a debate forum for TED enthusiasts. This community strongly encourages quality discussion. The “TED community” is very much a reflection of the TED talks that have been taking place for several years – intellectual, well thought-out, and poignant discussion around complex issues. As you might expect, TED Conversations is a very polite place, a behavior no doubt influenced by the fact that TED talks encourage sharing and appreciating different viewpoints. Take a look at TED’s guidelines, and you’ll see plenty of statements like “if you choose to start (or join) an Idea conversation, it’s important to maintain a polite attitude toward what’s working and what needs fine-tuning.” This community will obviously be a place where intellectuals thrive.

Finally, Google+ is a nascent community whose culture is still being developed. See if you can imagine where it’s headed, though: “Circles” allows you to arrange your contacts into relevant groups. “Hangouts” and “Huddles” are features that allow groups to easily video chat or IM together. And “Sparks” is a way for users to find content relevant to them, particularly if it’s shared by people within their Circles. It’s too early to tell exactly what Google+’s culture will look like, but it’s obvious that informal group sharing will be at the core. My guess is that Google will allow its users to establish the sites culture as much as Google will itself.

So why make a point of understanding these online “cultures”? Each of them has been successful (in their own way), by being very intentional about how users behave within each community. Think about how difficult it would be to change any of these cultures, after norms were already established. Having trouble? Just review the negative feedback Facebook dealt with when it changed its privacy settings.

If you are planning to build your own online community, sites like these are worth paying attention to. The culture you build for your community is primarily defined by the norms you establish early on. Since it’s much easier to do this right the first time, ask yourself: “What kind of culture do I want to establish? How do I want users to interact with each other and with my organization?” Pick whatever behaviors you’re looking for, and set those as the default way for taking part in the community. Don’t pay attention to this, and you may as well not even start!

What do you think – how does establishing the right norms early on establish the long-term behavior of an online community? What are some other examples that have a done a particularly good (or bad) job of this?

The Somalian or the Squirrel?

How relevant is this to you today?

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg is oft-quoted for saying “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” It’s a troubling thought, but absolutely correct. This week illustrates his point exactly: a famine in Somalia is killing hundreds each day, yet there is little media coverage. Case in point: the New York Times‘ feature today is about luxury goods. The Wall Street Journal? No mention on the home page. How about Huffington Post? Slightly better, if you scroll down far enough.

But this treatment isn’t all that surprising. Unfortunately, people don’t have the capacity to constantly hear about emergencies. When they do, it results in “donor fatigue“, and people end less likely to give than they were before the call to action.

The problem with this cycle it’s that it’s reactive. An emergency prompts pressing public campaigns for support, and people react by giving. They give once or twice, and then move on, even if the problem persists. So why do they stop? A reactive cycle relies on triggering guilt, and people give to relieve themselves of this burden. This can be very effective in the short-term, but after too much, people tune out.

But a much better cycle is a proactive one in which giving happens before an emergency. Proactive giving is when one chooses to regularly donate, regardless of the state of emergency. It means that giving is part of everyday life – built into your monthly budget or done using easy tools like SwipeGood or GoodSearch. It’s giving because you’ve decided it’s important, not because someone else has told you it is. When proactive giving occurs, some good things result:

  1. It helps aid workers prepare for emergencies ahead of time. This is ultimately more effective – why not prevent someone from falling ill instead of only treating them once they do? Helping alleviate poverty in the first place is one of the best ways to avert future crises.
  2. It creates a level of giving that is sustainable for your own situation. I’d argue that it’s easier for many people to give $20/month for a year (for a $240/year) than to part with $100 annually in one fell swoop. You’ll actually give more, but it will feel like less.
  3. It creates a better sense of awareness about the world and the challenges it faces. By supporting causes more regularly, you’ll find yourself more interested in the world at large, and less reliant on sensational crises to keep you informed.
What do you think? What are some of the good things that can come out of giving proactively instead of reactively?

By the way, if you DO want to support the crises in Somalia, I’d recommended heading over to Save the Children’s site or visiting their campaign on Causes.com.