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Great Findings From Social Sciences Applied To Online Communities

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

You can learn far more about running successful communities from reading about social sciences than technology blogs. Since most people wont do that, here is a rundown of some great findings from various social sciences applied to online communities.

1. False consensus bias. People believe they know what others are thinking. They don’t. This often leads to vocal members believing they’re speaking on behalf of the community. They don’t (nor do you). Ask people directly for opinions. You’ll be surprised.

2. Social Identity Theory. Our own identities are formed from the groups to which we belong. We want to be in groups that are high status and have a positive image. It makes sense to make your community exclusive. Erect tough boundaries. Focus on the dedicated members.

3. Performance. When our work is being independently judged by the group, we work much harder. When it is not being judged separately by the group, we slack off (social loafing). Don’t ask the community to do something, ask specific members to do things. Recognise individual contributions, throw the spotlight on what members are doing.

4. Group Polarization. After a debate, two groups become more rigid in their views. This can split your community. Alternatively, to bond your group, have a debate against an opposition community/group.

5. Bystander Apathy. People don’t help those in trouble because others aren’t. If you want something to happen, directly name the people you want to do it. The rest will follow once they see others getting involved.

6. Conforming Theory. People will ignore their own beliefs and conform to what the group.This breeds harmony but also muffles important voices, limits creativity and can cause your community to become stale. Be aggressive when moving this forward. Sometimes you need to push your community through a big change (like Facebook’s redesign).

7. Cognitive Dissonance. Nobody wants to feel they made a bad decision, so they rationalize what they did with their thoughts and actions. Nobody wants to feel the community they’ve contributed much to might fail, so they will work hard to prevent it. Get people to contribute as much as possible to your community.

8. Attribution bias. When we make an error, we attribute it to the situation. When others make an error, we attribute it to their personality. Generally, the situation plays a far greater role than personality in someone’s actions. This is good news. You can change the situation. You can put people in situations which foster discussions, encourage interactions and goodwill. e.g. Pick an enemy to battle with, have a strong cause, give people positions of responsibility etc… By changing the context you change the actions.

9. Minimal Groups Paradigm. You don’t need much to create a group feeling. People look out for people who are on their side (it’s tribal, I suppose). But you need to have an opposite side – that’s the easiest way to begin a community. People need to know who isn’t in the group.

10. Roles. Give people a role and they tend to become that role. Make someone responsible for anything and they tend to become more responsible. Good for handling trouble-makers and getting people more active. Community treasurer anybody?

11. Leadership. Newcomers can’t join an existing group and become leaders unless they toe the line first. It’s important that those wanting to become leaders of your community confirm first, then emerge (over several months) from the pack. This goes for members you’re helping become leaders and new community managers. Gain trust from members before they follow you.

12. Groupthink. People who all come from the same backgrounds are incapable of thinking outside the box (music/newspaper industry anyone?). Your community is likely to think the same on many issues and discourage real discourse. For new ideas, you need to personally play devil’s advocate.

13. The Prisoner’s Dilemma. People are more likely to compete than co-operate for a common good. The only solution is to set a cooperation trend from the beginning. Provide small, immediate, gains for every cooperation. Or, in the other direction, focus on making the competition a major part of the community (e.g. game mechanics)

14. Motivation. Forget Maslow. People are most driven by the need for power and recognition. Or, in the worlds of Dale Carnegie, the need to be important. The things that really motivate people are free to give and invaluable to receive. You can design your entire community around this.

15. Self-Disclosure. Real relationships between people are only formed when people open themselves up and real personal information about themselves. You have to pry people open with questions, discussions and opportunities for people to talk about themselves. People love to talk about themselves.

16. First Person You Meet. In a new and intimidating environment the first person you meet often become your best friends. Make sure newcomers to online community have direct, personal, communications with another (newbie ideally, or established member otherwise). The friendship might just blossom.

17. Procrastination. We don’t like doing things that are hard work. We want things that are quick and easy. If your community has a big task, you need to break it down into tiny, day-long, chunks and divide it out to members and celebrate the tiniest achievements.

Credit to PsyBlog for a breaking down these and many more complicated theories for mere mortals..

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