Online communities could benefit from the power of offline meetings

Face-to-face engagement can cement relationships and build depth in online communities.

As software vendors, open source projects, and companies in all fields rush to gather communities around themselves, I’m bothered that we haven’t spent much time studying the lessons face-to-face communities have forged over decades of intensive work by a dynamic community organizing movement. I have spoken twice at the Community Leadership Summit (CLS) about the tradition of community organizing as practiced by the classic social action group, Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. Because we all understand that a community is people — not software, not meeting places, not rules or norms — it’s worth looking at how face-to-face communities flourish.


Storytelling and urban organizing session at CLS

Last week’s CLS event had several talks and sessions about face-to-face organizing, which the attendees liked to call offline meetings because we assume so much interaction between groups takes place nowadays on the Internet. As one can find at CLS, a passionate confluence and sharing among dedicated “people people,” there’s a great deal of power in offline meetings. An evening at a bar — or an alternative location for those who are uncomfortable in bars — can cement relationships and provide depth to the formal parts of the day.

Too often, I’ve seen would-be community builders hold excellent events with speakers, family activities, or other entertainment, attracting sizable crowds who enjoy themselves but go home without ever seeing each other again.

The software community, a central topic at CLS (because it was started by Jono Bacon when he was the Ubuntu community manager and is held right before O’Reilly’s Open Source convention each year) can fall victim to similar risks. A group of people living off the fruits of some coder’s labor does not constitute a community — just a bunch of contented freeloaders. A community implies some commitment, which can entail efforts to improve the project at the center of the community and to participate in democratic discussion that empowers everyone.

The strength of CLS, which draws many experienced and sophisticated community managers and participants, lies in the attendees’ grasping that communities are deep and multi-faceted. The conference attracts more than a hundred people each year, many dropping in as Portland, Oregon, locals but others flying from as far as New Zealand.

Although crawling with open source developers and their hangers-on, CLS also brings in many non-software people from various social projects. It’s probably no surprise that many participants have extensive experience in both software development and organizing groups for social change. At CLS, we create our own agenda, gather in circles, and record our deliberations so that people around the world can learn what we teach each other about community.

Two key traits distinguish a healthy community from a collection of passive clients: emotional bonds and personal commitments. An emotional bond ensures that, if the project at the center of the community disappoints you in some way, you react by speaking up, winning over others to your point of view, and ultimately making a change — rather than quietly suffering through the lapse or abandoning the project.

Personal commitment is the trait that leads you to respond affirmatively when someone in your face-to-face community begs, “I have an emergency this morning; will you drive my kid to school?” The equivalent in an online community may be, say, to take on the logistics for organizing a local event even though it doesn’t appeal to you, just because you were asked to play that role by someone who has helped you in the past and whom you deeply respect.

We feel that sense of community when we come home from a long workday and cram a sandwich down in order to make it to an evening meeting. We feel it online when we rush to check the new messages on a forum every time we log in. This is the emotional evidence of the personal connections we’ve made. Wouldn’t companies and projects love to affect their users this way?

Treating the faceless denizens of online communities as individuals in a face-to-face manner can bring you the power that has built human communities over the millennia.Traditional community organizers (such as the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, of which I’ve been a member for a decade) build large communities by tapping into smaller existing ones (mostly religious congregations) and through escalating interventions that span one-on-one conversations, house meetings, task groups, and large, raucous convocations. Each of those levels of face-to-face communication has been rigorously researched and is taught to the members through intensive training. Although community organizers make use of modern Internet tools, the face-to-face components are stressed because they help develop the deep roots that communities need.

The outcome is that, when a major issue affecting the members arises, a community organization can draw hundreds to a rally and fill the streets with signature collectors.

How can software projects achieve similar results? I will illustrate with one seemingly trivial practice I noticed at local meetups. I am deliberately choosing a face-to-face example because its chances for community building are much stronger than purely online interactions.

Most meetups I attend serve food before the speaker starts. The atmosphere is quiet and even a bit tense. Although a few people come with colleagues and chat, most people sit alone and eat in silence. After the speaker finishes, people dribble out of the room during the questions and only a few stay past the end, mostly to try to get the speaker’s ear for a few moments and exchange business cards.

One meetup I regularly attend, however, serves the food after the speaker ends the presentation. The contrast is startling. Having sat through the presentation, people feel that they have shared an experience and have something to talk about. They also know who asked questions and what those people’s interests are. The room is always buzzing for half an hour afterward. I’ve seen people get so involved in conversations that they forego the food altogether.

What this teaches us is that people do crave connections, that they do consider the people they are with to be as important as the intellectual content of the meeting, and that pragmatic encounters can be used to build community. People who feel that they are part of a community will do more to help each other and the project organizers. They can be relied upon to stick to the project through hard times.

Can we reach this same level of engagement in mostly online communities? Smart organizers hold regular face-to-face events to strengthen the emotional and personal connections their members feel. An example is the Debian Project, an important distribution of GNU/Linux that holds an annual conference at different places around the globe. Cultural anthropologist Gabriella Coleman has devoted years of study to the Debian Project as an exemplar of strong coding communities. Thierry Carrez, release manager for the OpenStack project, also credits their semiannual summits for enabling developers to work well together.

When we are forced to build communities by predominantly online means — because we are geographically dispersed, hampered by disabilities, or just too busy to get together physically — we may be able to progress by finding out what human traits make offline communities powerful and mimicking some of the power of face-to-face meetings.

For instance, we can thank our contributors — not in a generic way like, “Here’s a shout-out to those who contributed…” or even a list of names — but one individual community member reaching out with a specific message to another. For instance, people who contribute to documentation appreciate it when a good editor goes over their work and improves it. This is one of the tips provided by a CLS attendee, Britta Gustafson, in a presentation from an earlier conference. (I moderate a well-attended session on documentation for communities at CLS each year.)

Another way to cultivate community was suggested in a plenary talk (available as an ODT file) by Jade Q Wang: provide “high-touch” guidance to the top contributors. She pointed out that volunteer contributions follow a pronounced power law or 80/20 rule, with just a few people doing extraordinary work. Once you’ve identified the people with great potential, take time to think about challenging projects that play on their skills.

Treating the faceless denizens of online communities as individuals in a face-to-face manner can bring you the power that has built human communities over the millennia. I was pleased to see these practices come up at CLS and would like to see this as a continuing topic of discussion.

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