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The Witch Doctors Of Social

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

If you had the choice, would you want a witch doctor to treat your illness or a trained professional?

The social space is filled with witch doctors using personal superstitions, anecdotal stories, and untested assumptions to build communities.

Thousands of organizations are betting millions of dollars their social witch doctor can wave a magic wand and spawn a new community.

They can’t tell the difference between a witch doctor and a trained professional.

The trained professionals use a unique understanding of the human mind, a deep database of case studies, and a special skillset to unite people around their organization.

Did you know that a community organizer is trained for months before being allowed to interact with the few hundred locals of any community? Online community professionals interact with thousands, we need higher standards.


The Demise of the Witch Doctor and Rise of the Psychological Community Builder

Most online communities aren’t. That’s not a typo.

They’re online but they’re not communities. They’re a group of people looking to extract instant gratification from a collective resource. They want immediate help or immediate resources. Once they get their hit, their gone.

Too many organizations fall victim to the witch doctors of social who build quick-hit communities.

But you can’t blame them.

Witch doctors of medicine haven’t studied medical science. Witch doctors of social haven’t studied social science. They don’t know any better way to build communities.

We can’t change this by educating the witch doctors of social. They’re too invested in their practice to change. The cognitive dissonance is too great.

The best way to change this is to teach the rest of us to spot the difference between the quick-hit communities and deep psychological communities.

Our goal is to help the real professionals build communities that affect people at a deep psychological level. We want to help you build communities where your members categorize themselves as one of you.

Your wins should be their wins. Their successes should be your successes. You should feel in this together. You can’t harvest the fruits of your community labor unless you both feel you’ve shared the labor.

To do this, we need to understand a little about the psychology of communities. We need to go where the social witch doctors don’t dare to tread.


Why We Join And Participate In Groups

Groups are a mental adaptation to survive the Paleolithic era (2.6m to 10,000 years ago). Individuals were more likely to survive in groups. Groups offered safety from environmental dangers and the pooling (and division) of collective resources.

This matters more than you might think.

Online groups today offer us emotional safety (the same parts of the brain are activated as physical safety).

Groups let us be who we really are and want to be. Groups offer us a sense of belonging (1) and mutual support (2).

Groups also give us the ability to pool our resources and each receives a greater division of the benefits.

This includes exploration of our given field (3) and bigger influence over our environment (4).

Every single psychological community today must be rooted in one of these evolutionary adaptations to survive; sense of belonging, mutual support, greater exploration or greater influence over our environment.


How Do We Decide Which Groups To Join? 

We feel a psychological connection to numerous groups during any given day.

We are parents, students, employees, company employees, sales team members, soccer fans, feminists, humanists, deep-thinkers, freethinkers, Christians, Muslims, American, Brits, Canadians etc….

If I asked you throughout the day what group you feel most connected to, you’d say “fellow teachers”, “fellow community professionals”, “STOP ASKING ME THAT!”

So why do we join and participate in communities for some groups and not others?


Cognitive Dissonance and Impermeability

Last year we made an interesting discovery. Most new members to communities hadn’t been involved in that topic for long.

In most of our interests, we haven’t joined a community. We therefore don’t feel we need a community. To admit we do is to admit we’ve been wrong all this time.

That leads to cognitive dissonance. We rationalize this away by disparaging the group or telling ourselves we don’t need it.

This has some fascinating implications. Most communities target the most hardcore passionate members of their field. That’s a mistake. These are the least-like people to join your group.

You can nurture hardcore members, but it’s hard to attract them.


We’re More Likely to Join Groups for New Interests

We’re more likely to join groups if we discover the group in the natural course of learning more about the topic.

We therefore need to ask our members how they first became interested in the topic. What did they search for? What sites did they visit? And then ensure our community has resources that attract people from those sources.

We want our communities to be the central place for people that are new to the topic. We always want more newcomers to the topic than hardcore members.

You want to be the ultimate resource for people that are new to your topic.


What Do We Do Once We Do Join A Group?  

Joining a group is a deeply psychological process that you need to think carefully about.

We can plan the journey carefully to ensure newcomers are affected at a psychological level and aren’t quick-hit junkies (lurkers).

Again, however, we need to understand a little of the psychology here.


Optimal Distinctiveness Theory

There’s a widely accepted held theory in social psychology called optimal distinctiveness theory.

There are two elements to this theory.

The first is that upon joining a group we attempt to adopt the behavior of the group’s prototypical members (and the group in turn attempts to enforce norms upon us e.g. through gossip).

There is some evolutionary psych in this too. Groups survive on the principle of indirect reciprocity.

Everyone commits their resources to the group and reaps a division of the collective benefits.

But it’s not directly reciprocal. Sometimes you get more than you put in, sometimes less.

Only those considered part of the group are entitled to the benefits. We can’t waste resources on freeloaders.

We determine who is part of the group based upon their appearance and actions.

This means new members in a community first try to ensure that they are seen as part of the group. They adopt the behaviors and norms of that group. They mirror what they see the prototypical member doing.


Be Distinct Or Extinct!

However, resources aren’t divided equally. Leaders of the group got a bigger share. Research suggests that the best hunters received a greater share of the resources. The greater the member’s standing, the more resources (food, mating opportunities, security) they were afforded

This is where the optimal part of the theory comes in. Once a member feels a part of a group they also want to feel distinct in a trait the group values.

We maintain a tricky balance of adopting enough of the behaviors to be seen as part of the group and being different enough to be afforded a special standing within that group.

We can all think of people who have strayed too far and been ostracized from the group.

An important sub-plot here is group permeability. If we see the social structure of a group as impermeable (i.e. it’s too hard to break through/increase our own standing) we give up and drift away.

This means all the articles about giving even more recognition to your best members are wrong. It reinforces impermeability. (If they’re the best members they’re already happy).

You want to ensure that you have constant stories of newcomers breaking through. Members have to feel they’re making progress in increasing their social standing among the group.


Understanding Your Member’s Motivations

An annoying number of articles can be reduced to “understanding what motivates your members and then use that”. That’s all good, if you know what motivates your members.

Using the optimal distinctiveness framework (first we want to be accepted, then we want to impress), you can finally understand what motivates your members.

For example, you can look at any member’s contributions to a community and determine if they’re trying to be part of the group or trying to be distinct from the group in a particular trait the group values (usually specific knowledge).

This changes how you interact with every member in the community. You can read their minds and subtly highlight ways of methods to be accepted or impress the group in their trait.

You can see what traits they’re highlighting in their profiles and nudge them slightly (don’t be too heavy handed) to become an even bigger expert in this particular trait. The more members feel they can use their unique (key word, unique) to the benefit of the community the more active they will be.

Better yet, you can train a hundred volunteers to do exactly this.


From mystical dark ages to social science enlightenment.

This is a very first step at moving from the social witch doctor level to a trained community professional.

My goal here has been to reveal just how useful social sciences can be. We can build entire eco-systems using the very principles of social sciences.

For example, you can create separate mailing lists and protocols for interacting with members at different levels of the optimal distinctiveness framework.

We desperately want to move the community space out of the mystic dark ages and into a field highly enlightened by social science.

It’s a small part of what makes up our extensive and intensive professional. If you believe in our mission as much as we do, if you think you would benefit from becoming a highly trained online community professional, I really hope you will join us.

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