Community: listening and leading

by Jon Lebkowsky

For the last two decades I’ve been preaching about the limits of “community management” – no one can “own” a community or tribe; top-down approaches fail. You can lead, you can facilitate, but you can’t dictate – you have to listen to the community, and be sensitive to community input.

At larger scale, this is the rationale for democracy, “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Democracy is difficult, you can’t have a true and pure democracy and make it work – but when we talk about democracy we’re seldom talking about a system that’s purely that, a direct democracy. We always have vertical hierarchies, however flat they might be, and we always need leadership. Few members of a community will have the understanding and perspective required to make decisions; success depends on their input. But success also depends on a system that supports a sense of open, public discussion preceding whatever decisions are embedded in policy.

We see this in micro in online communities and social networks. On a platform like Facebook, for instance, there’s a persistent tension between what Facebook wants to do and what its users will accept; Facebook-the-company has been forced to back off on policies that were perceived by users as too constraining. It’s an ongoing dance, and to the extent that the users of Facebook are its product (sold as eyeballs to advertisers), the system must empower its users while at the same time depending on a more passive form of information consumption (the kind that makes advertisers happy). Facebook is a company, it makes platform decisions, but to the extent users feel locked out or ignored, they’re cranky and might ultimately walk, if they feel they have no input, no control over the online environment. You didn’t have this with television, because television doesn’t create the same sense of place or community. It was media, but not social media.

Coding Horror has a post that about online social space and community empowerment, quoting the 1990 paper “The Lessons of LucasFilm’s Habitat.” Habitat was an early online game/community, “one of the first attempts to create a very large scale commercial multi-user virtual environment.” This quote could have been written about any number of online platforms that have emerged over the last two-plus decades:

… we shifted into a style of operations in which we let the players themselves drive the direction of the design. This proved far more effective. Instead of trying to push the community in the direction we thought it should go, an exercise rather like herding mice, we tried to observe what people were doing and aid them in it. We became facilitators as much as designers and implementors. This often meant adding new features and new regions to the system at a frantic pace, but almost all of what we added was used and appreciated, since it was well matched to people’s needs and desires. As the experts on how the system worked, we could often suggest new activities for people to try or ways of doing things that people might not have thought of. In this way we were able to have considerable influence on the system’s development in spite of the fact that we didn’t really hold the steering wheel — more influence, in fact, than we had had when we were operating under the delusion that we controlled everything.

The author of the Coding Horror post, Jeff Atwood, points to his earlier post about lessons learned managing the Stack Overflow community, “Listen to Your Community, But Don’t Let Them Tell You What to Do.” That strikes me as a good description of the process of practical democracy: those who hold power (community managers, legislators, executives) must listen (actively, seriously), but they have to make their own decisions from their perspective, which is different from the perspective of the average community member or citizen. As Atwood says in his “Listen” post, “Community feedback is great, but it should never be used as a crutch, a substitute for thinking deeply about what you’re building and why.” I.e. leaders have to work hard at having the right perspective and understanding to make meaningful, “right” decisions. He goes on to say that “half of community relationships isn’t doing what the community thinks they want at any given time, but simply being there to listen and respond to the community.” Spot on.

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