Rethinking Community Design to Build Better Communities

Forefront Journal publishes essays from the frontier of web3 social and tokenized communities. This is a guest essay from Mashal Waqar.

I grew up in an expat community in the Middle East, at a time when community meant the people around me. Most of us connected because of physical proximity and the feeling of being “othered”, and we formed connections as we tried to find “home”. Home: a complicated relation for most third-culture kids– children who spend their formative years in places that aren’t their parents’ homeland. But here’s the thing – if you’ve grown up having spent a big chunk of your life online, the way you connect with and find your people is different. It’s only natural that the way we think of community has evolved and changed over time.

Today, the definition of community has changed dramatically. The word has been translated and adopted into everything – companies, networks within companies, social movements, newsletters, projects, and hubs for making online friends. If we took everyone who’s been welcomed into a community – whether passively or actively – we’d likely count most internet users, because virtually everyone is part of a community in some shape or form. Think about it – how likely are you to come across this word online? As someone who’s built a career building communities, I can give context to why: because community translates to trust and connection which, in commercial terms, translates to action, retention, and value creation. Founders, audience builders — literally anyone doing anything– are all encouraged to build a community in the hopes that this community will help make their project successful.

But we’ve left the time where communities were more or less seen as a way of fueling growth. We’re living in the “golden age of communities” because they symbolize ranking and opportunity. In many ways, communities symbolize social status. You see people proudly tagging the ones they’re a part of in their social bios because it signifies something to them and to their network. A big part of this is the feeling of belonging. At our very core, most people want a sense of belonging. Communities elevate that feeling, at least the good ones do. But, when you couple this feeling of community with exclusivity – you’re feeding into ego as well.

There’s a certain joy that comes from feeling like you were selected. “It wasn’t a random occurrence, but a very intentional one!” Call it feeling important or an elevated sense of social status – it’s only human to want to feel like you’re part of something special, even if it’s by association. We’ve seen this with legacy institutions like the Ivy League and FAANG: this phenomenon isn’t something the internet invented. A more recent example of this is Clubhouse. In the early 2020 Clubhouse days, being on it was like a status symbol, albeit more on Twitter than any other platform. Being on Clubhouse was cool because it wasn’t accessible– you needed to have an invite from someone to “get in.” When invites are used as a social currency, you know you’ve played the FOMO factor well. This strategy has gained traction in blockchain-based communities as well: white-lists, alpha, referrals – anything limited that requires an invite – symbolizes exclusivity. The issue with building a community based on exclusivity is it de-facto leads to less meritocracy and more of the old ways in a space that’s meant to be radically different in ethos.

So what is the right way to build a community, how do we design better ones, and how can we measure and assess community building in a more meaningful way? These are good questions to think about because as community builders and community members, the way we move forward will shape up the future of community building.

While community building has become a very KPI-driven game, with bigger numbers signaling strength, impact, and influence, I’d like to share a counter perspective. The strength of a community is perhaps not in sheer numbers, but in what cannot be quantified and measured in a straightforward way. A straightforward way of measuring growth in communities is by looking at metrics such as the number of community members, number of new users, number of active and engaged users, and percentages around rate of growth over time. To measure strength, engagement metrics such as threads, replies, comments, shares, responses, and messages, are ways to measure activeness. But, by focusing on them, we’re prioritizing visibility over depth and connections. Metrics are easy to track and present in decks or talks, but they often miss out on accounting for lurkers, who are a crucial part of the community because they are a big chunk of the consumers of content. I’d recommend summing up a mix of approaches to accurately measure community health. For starters, prioritize overall content visibility across your community as a metric. That means tracking and measuring the number of people who are viewing the content. This is because when folx are looking at posts and content in your community, they are engaging, even if they’re not sending a message directly! If you’ve got 117 impressions and 1 reply, that’s fantastic, because you got 117 people who viewed your content. That’s a sign of interest and engagement. It’s a sign of them spending time in your community, and is therefore still an important metric.

A second way of measuring community health is responsiveness – how many people in the community will respond if you individually messaged them? This might not be the most effective method if you’ve got thousands of people in your community. So, for larger communities, I’ll take a page from Noele Flowers’ playbook and recommend prioritizing 1:1 time with community members who may have a positive ripple effect on two to five other community members, minimum. Another way to do this is also to create more settings where other members can get 1:1 time and engage with each other. An example of this is hosting a curated community call/event where selected members are divided into breakout rooms with prompts for conversations/activities.

Another good way to measure community health is to check for a community version of the PMF (product-market fit) question: ask your community members how disappointed they would be if the community were to shut down.

Lurkers are people in a community who passively consume content. They don’t post, they don’t respond, and they rarely engage – but they’re interested in the content and they consume it all the same. The mistake most builders make is trying to change lurker behavior, to get them to become active community members. I’d argue that consuming content and spending time in a community is by definition being active in it. While I respect the efforts passionate community builders put in, as a personal lurker myself, I find efforts to change behavior annoying at best and inconsiderate at worst. Because, in an effort to engage me, active members will tag me in blanket efforts that make little sense. To change behavior, you need to build trust and understand who you’re speaking to before you can gauge how they’ll respond or assume what will interest them enough to respond. While the social pressure of being tagged can be a short-term effective way to make people engage, in the long-term, it leads to irritation and half-assed responses, which gradually decrease over time. This is risky because in the attention economy, where you’re quite literally competing with a million other online dopamine triggers, you want people in your community to leave your online space feeling good. If they leave feeling annoyed, irritated, or guilty (for not responding) a few times, they’ll associate that feeling to your community, and eventually reduce the time they spend in it.

What’s also important to note is trust takes time to build. You can’t expect a person who’s just joined a new community to immediately trust everyone in it. I asked a few questions on my Instagram to ask my Insta-fam (my IG community), who were part of online communities, about what made them feel they were part of their communities. For some it wasn’t so much a feeling of belonging, as much as it was a feeling of being seen and recognized. Being considered, and being asked for feedback and thoughts – and to have these be taken seriously– all led to feeling like a stronger part of the communities they were part of. Making people feel seen and recognized takes active interest and intentional effort. For a community that’s growing rapidly, you need multiple community leads who will actively welcome people, and get to know them better – and most importantly, you need time to build trust. Trust can’t be bought, it’s built bit by bit. Of course, there are intentional ways we can accelerate this process, such as increasing face-time and direct engagement. You’d be surprised at the difference a good onboarding experience can make.

Introvertedness and social anxiety is another reason for lurking. Putting yourself out there in a channel with hundreds or thousands of people vs. two people are very different experiences. People are people – regardless of which platform or medium they’re in. The fear of not sounding good enough can play a very real role in why some people don’t feel comfortable being active in communities. This is where it can sometimes be easier to gauge people in smaller communities. To replicate this in bigger communities, the trick lies in creating sub-communities and creating smaller settings where people feel more comfortable. This can start from the onboarding process itself, where when done with intention added layers of thoughtfulness. Humanize the process. Is there a question you can ask that would help break the ice with the first cold convo?

Are there questions you can ask to get a better understanding of the person joining? Use this information in a way that improves the overall experience. For example, using these answers to create smaller private channels with 4-7 people and making it a more intimate setting. When we prioritize being more visible over feeling more connected, we build a culture that takes away from deeper community building and feeds into vanity metrics.

Safety, comfort, and trust are at the heart of a good community. Creating safe spaces, speaking to people instead of at them, and making people feel included are all important as we design better communities. I know this will be an evolving conversation over time, and as more builders chime in we’ll see better models. For now, finding more compassion and comfort in the unquantifiable may just be what leads us to better communities.