You Can Build a Community, But You Will Never Control It

Little People

Since the earliest days of the Internet, communities have been set up for a variety of topics.

Some are formed organically as like-minded people naturally find one another. Others are formed by brands or organizations around their products or services.

I’ve been a part of all kinds of communities over the years.

Doesn’t matter if it was a Usenet group formed around Prince bootlegs or a private group on Facebook on social journalism. At some point the community was formed and then it became what it is today based on the members of that community.

Where people fall down all the time is that they think they can control a community. The most successful ones can be guided and directed, but at the end of the day the members are the ones that will determine if it is what they want or not.

Especially in today’s world where we are only a click away from the next distraction/destination. Where we spend our time online must provide some form of value to us.

Recently, I was told what I chose to share in a community was not appropriate. I laughed a bit because once again I was watching someone make the mistake of thinking that just because they brought a group together that they could control how we interacted with each other.

In this case it sparked a conversation of other members helping each other. Exactly what a community should be all about.

The best communities want the members to interact with each other. Get to know one another beyond why they’ve assembled. That is how real friendships and lasting relationships are formed.

Being empowered to ask questions of the gathered crowd and collectively share knowledge around the given topic is the glue that will keep the community going.

I’m not an anarchist and know that you need rules and enforcement in the world to keep the basic sanity of life around you. I’m not saying otherwise.

This is why the role of a community manager is so critical. They are there to be more of a cruise director than a drill sergeant and help keep the community from going off the rails.

No matter what kind of community you set up, it is the members who will determine if it grows and thrives. How the creators interact and work with those members is vital.

Let them interact. Let them share. Encourage them getting to know one another better.

It will help you and the community in the long run.

  • The difference is between companies that create a group where they’re afraid of the potential, or embrace the potential. And yes, sometimes the potential in a community is curiosity or dissident. Especially in an online social community, the group will come up with a median conversation and then self-regulate the over-and-under. Like you mentioned, the community managers should be like a cruise director. They should see if they can help the “unders” and calm the “overs” but without destroying content, or more importantly, the enthusiasm of its members to create that content.

    • If a community is nothing but cheerleading, it is rarely useful 🙂

      Open, constructive conversations are where the good stuff happens.

  • Great post C.C. and I agree – trying to control people is a fool’s errand (and actually always has been). I am fascinated, both in my personal and professional lives, how much you stand to gain from ceding control and how much you limit potential by insisting on control. Control is very expensive – if you want to be able to tell employees what to do you either have to pay them a lot or spend a lot of money on ‘control functions’ to ensure they are monitored, accounted for, etc. If you want friends and want to control them, you are going to find meek friends who don’t have much to contribute but will follow along.

    Having said all that, I also think there are many types of communities and if someone starts a community, they have every right to decide where the boundaries are but when they do, they will have to live with the consequences. If your boundaries are too restrictive, people will go elsewhere. Community management is all about balancing the needs of the community (and where they want to take the conversation) with the needs of the community owners/sponsors/organizers (if that exists – it doesn’t always).

    • Thanks for chiming in. I KNOW you understand this space.

      Setting rules and guidelines IS necessary for sure. Where it gets crazy for me is when a community is rolling along and THEN they change. That always causes waves that rarely lead to good things.

      I like how you said “control is expensive” and it isn’t just expensive in the form of dollars. SO right!

  • A community is a two-way dialogue and experience. There needs to be expectation setting. You should not change a communities expectations or boundaries without first requesting community feedback or offering explanation. There is an invisible social contract in place and it is the responsibility of the community manager to interpret the pact and educate about the guardrails without disrupting the entire ecosystem. Control is not possible. Influence is possible, but only with established trust and communication. Any community must be prepared to evolve and understand that this trajectory is not decided by them, but community members. Must be able to adapt.

    • I KNEW you’d be able to say it better than I tried to.

      The two-way piece is something I need to keep in mind when I talk about this in the future because it is crucial and often forgotten about.

  • Couldn’t agree more. I love the analogy, so I made this for you.
    Great post as always, C.C.

  • You might not be able to control it directly but you can definitely GUIDE IT. This is what gives different communities different online ‘personalities.’

    • I agree FULLY.

      Especially if the community is brought together by a brand or organization. Then you need some guidance or it will never progress forward or could end up going off the rails.