Let me start off by saying that I believe that communities already exist. With or without someone like me or you “managing” them. Communities form organically. Sometimes surreptitiously. Often accidentally. Communities come and go. Congeal and evaporate. Form and dissipate. Sometimes communities go their entire existence without even being prescient or self aware.
With that in mind, I find that a great deal of my work focuses on helping communities recognize themselves as communities. Validating and formalizing their existence. And divining and illuminating the culture, definitions, and mores that drive the community. And then, with that knowledge, I work to enhance and amplify those aspects in ways that more directly benefit all of the participants in that community.
And in my experience one of the most important aspects of that work — of truly maintaining community — is trust. Unfortunately, it’s also the most precious and transient trait of a community. Which is why I think I tend to focus so much time and energy on it.
Trust is the currency of community
While communities seem to be inherently predisposed to foster trust, it still takes work. Because developing that trust among participants can be challenging. It doesn’t scale easily or effectively. And it gets more and more diffuse as the community grows.
So I never take trust for granted. I do my work assuming that trust is a precious commodity that always must be managed, developed, and maintained. And so I thought I’d share some guidance on how I go about doing that work. Hopefully, it won’t be too pedantic or overly philosophical. Because I think it could help you be better at what you do. If you’ll trust me.
Dynamics of community
For initial context, let’s talk about the general dynamics of community. And how trust exists within those dynamics.
A community is anything but linear. Or static. It’s not a funnel. Participants in a community do not necessarily start at the outermost part of the community and work their way to the center. And even those individuals who happen to occupy the centermost point of the community may not always exist there. Or may leave and return innumerable times.
To me, community is a jellyfish.
There’s an ebb and flow to community. A sort of organized chaos. Which only stands to reason, since community is technically an organic creature composed of organic creatures. And that community can grow and shrink. It can move different places. It can change. So it can be weird. It can also be awesome. But it can definitely be weird.
And trust has to exist within those dynamics. Connecting people. Providing protection. Increasing engagement. But trust has to be as malleable as the dynamics of community. It’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
Dynamics of your community
Once you’ve thought through the general dynamics of community, think about the dynamics of your community. Is it inclusive or exclusive? Is it tightly focused or broad ranging? Is it designed for face-to-face interactions or is it virtual only? Toward what end is your community working? How big should your community be? How important is trust to this community?
Most communities tend to be exclusive communities. And by exclusive I mean that the participant in that community has had to do something to be part of that community. Maybe they purchased a product. Maybe they’re an employee. Maybe they made a commitment to achieving something. Maybe they went through an application process to be selected to be part of the community.
In my experience, exclusive communities have the opportunity to leverage trust more effectively because there is the ability to manage aspects of the community. Like its size. And its focus. There are opportunities to create subcommunities or affinity groups within the community. And there are ways to use levels of trust to define roles within the community.
But exclusive communities are also more beholden to trust to make them as effective as they can be.
With the dynamics of your community in hand, the next step is to take your community and break it down into the different roles that comprise the community.
If you’re managing a community focused on an open source project, that community might include the people who simply use the product, the people who submit bugs or feature requests, the developers who contribute code, those folks that have the authority to commit code, and the founders of the open source project.
I like to think of these as concentric circles, with the most trustworthy roles in the center and those folks who are least reliant on the dynamics of trust toward the outmost edges. (This is similar to Mac's diagram in a recent post.)
Trust in your community
Now that you have the roles, understand that each of those roles has a different level of trust based on their importance to the community. And each has a different expectation of the community and the trust they expect from it.
Given that trust doesn’t scale terribly well, now you have the context to think about the role you want trust to play in your community. Should you try to keep the community smaller and more tightly knit to keep everyone at a similar level of trust? Are there roles in your community that naturally garner different levels of trust? Are their roles that must be granted trust or does it always have to be earned? Do you need to reduce the number of roles you define as part of your community to enhance trust within your community?
Once you’ve got the roles and circles figured out, take some time to think through and document both what trustworthiness entails for each orbit as well as how critical trust is to each of those roles for individuals to be successful within your community.
So, how does a community manager enhance community trust?
Finally, we’re getting to the work. And probably the whole reason you started reading this in the first place. Sorry. For me, that context was critical to getting my head around how trust functions within communities. I hope it was helpful for you to think through that.
Now that we have all of this context — general dynamics, your community dynamics, roles in your community, and the role that trust plays in your community — it becomes much easier to understand where you should be focusing your time and energy as a participant in the community. And you have a better understanding of what individuals within your community may expect in terms of trust. And you can begin to better assess and understand the dynamics of trust within your community.
With all of this in mind, your job becomes ensuring that those folks who need trust and trustworthiness are getting that asset. And to recognize when individuals who are becoming more trustworthy are rewarded for that behavior.
Rewarding behavior could be as simple fake Internet points. Or a sticker or a tshirt. Or public recognition. It could be promoting them to a different role in the community that carries more responsibility and accountability. It could be giving them the opportunity to write a guest post or speak at an event. You can get creative here.
And for extra credit, you can also start to organize these rewards within the "trust context" of your community. And the roles in your community. Because different roles may need different levels of recognition.
Think about how present you need to be in order to build trust in your community. Sometimes, less is more with community management. Maybe recognition or being an active contributor can be detrimental. Is your community generating more significant trust through your absence? Do you need to spark interactions among certain roles or participants to enhance community? Do you need to be heavy handed and engaged? There is no right answer. Every community has different needs.
Just as critical, you need to be aware of places where trust is breaking down. And where it can be repaired. You need to be wary of distrust or bad actors. And you need to constantly reassess whether the initial dynamics you outlined still hold true for your community. Because trust is precious. And fleeting. And you need to help ensure that participants in your community are always building trust and strengthening trust.
Because when it comes right down to it, trust is a two way street. The individual needs to trust the community. And the community needs to trust the individual. Because trust is the most valuable asset your community has.
Now, I’d love to hear from you. Did this context setting help? How difficult is it to enhance trust within your community? What are some of the ways you’ve discovered to enhance trust in your community? What other questions do you have about the role of trust in communities and community management?
Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash