Monday, June 9, 2008

You Don't Build Community, You Enable It

I've spent the better part of my career attempting to do the impossible: I was trying to build community.

That might seem an odd message on a web community blog, but bear with me. It is certainly possible for a community to form around a website. The question is, who is the responsible party?

When I was a history major in college, there was a lot of hand-wringing in class about the "great man" theory of history. This is the understanding of the world by which history is formed by the actions of great and famous men: men like Alexander, Napoleon, Lincoln, Churchill, and JFK: the sort of men who you've probably seen in statue form. The great man theory has taken a lot of abuse of late, as historians have begun to realize how powerful social movements as a whole can be. Could Hitler have had the effect that he did if Germany as a society was not already ready for his message? And could Kennedy have put a man on the moon (posthumously) if the ground was not already prepared by generations of scientists and amateur tinkerers working in obscurity?

In short, we give these great men more credit than they probably deserve. They influence, but they do not create. And I would like to propose a similar understanding of web community: that the "great content" theory of community is largely a fallacy.

It's an enticing notion: build great content, and then spin a community out of the audience that forms around that content. By that theory, good content should create community, and great content should form community even faster. If community doesn't form, there must be something wrong with your content; go back to the drawing board and try to come up with something more compelling. When you hold to this point of view, you always feel like you're right on the verge of figuring it all out. You were close last time; this time you're sure to put content out there that will be like a powerful magnet, drawing in readers and convincing them to return to your site again and again. And if it doesn't happen the next time, surely you'll learn lessons that will make it happen the time after that. Or the time after that.

Except it doesn't work. And the reason it doesn't work is something I've touched on before: most of your members don't care about your content. Sure, they might read something and enjoy it, and if you put tons of time and money into a dazzling multimedia display, they might even forward a link to their friends. But the amount of resources you spend on content never seems to bring a proportional increase in repeat traffic. Meanwhile, blog posts breed comment threads that head off on tangents and digressions that carry on for weeks or months, and forum posts encourage repeat traffic that puts to shame anything else on the site. What's the problem?

No problem at all; it's just a misunderstanding. You don't build community. You enable it. The only person who can build community on your site is a member. He or she can make a connection with another member; you cannot do that for them. If a community is to be formed on your website, they will do it, not you.

So what do you do? Enable it. Take some of the time and resources that you might have spent on content and spend it on features instead. Give them a messaging system, so they can contact their friends. Give them a friends list or an address book, so messaging is a snap. Give them a calendar tool, so they can use your site to schedule get-togethers. Provide widgets that allow them to track their friends and keep in touch. Allow them to upload content and share it with their friends. Give them what they need in order to make a connection. Enable community rather than seeking to build it.

That's not the end of your job, of course. Since you're not a member of your community, it's a near-certainty that you don't understand what your members want. Call some in for user testing. Track their movements through the site and measure the traffic on your tools. If the calendar tool involves multiple steps, what's the abandonment rate before an event is scheduled? If an invite is sent out, can you track whether or not the event went off successfully? Measure and refine and tweak continually, as your members discover what they want to do over time.

If you work hard and maintain your focus over the long term, you might enable community on your site. You likely won't ever build it, but that's OK. There are thousands of people out there who are ready to do that for you.