How to build Humane Communities from scratch
My humane design guidelines recommend we promote connection. I mentioned it because I've noticed many people feel lonely these days, even though today's technology makes forming connections and communities easier than ever. This suggests our communities dissatisfy our need for connection. To do better, we should approach building communities differently.
The rest of this article discusses traditional communities, the online communities we've tried to replace them with, and how we might do better.
Traditional communities are artifacts
Loneliness feels like a new problem. Which traits allowed America's traditional communities to stave it off, and what prevents them from working today?
Everyone in the community tended to fall into the same demographic, which increases "togetherness" and help prevent disagreements. Communities today are much more diverse, which naturally increases the chance of division.
War is terrible, but it has a knack for bringing communities together. This strategy became much less effective once the public lost trust in the media. We've not restored that trust since then.
Many people spent their whole lives living in the same small town. They had the time to ingrain themselves and built strong bonds with their neighbors. Today, fewer people live in small towns. Rental living — and the pipe dream of homeownership — means your neighbors change yearly. People are more mobile than ever thanks to remote work, the internet, and accessible travel.
Many people used to spend their free time socializing. While people socialize today, the internet provides a more accessible (and addictive) way to spend your free time.
Traditional communities did not solve all our social problems, but they ensured being social wasn't a problem. Unfortunately, these communities no longer meet the demands of our modern world, so we attempted to complement them with online communities.
Online communities are massive echo chambers
Online communities exist for every niche. As a result, their numbers dwarf those of traditional communities: they have far more members, and there are far more of them. Yet they feel like poor proxies for the traditional communities we've abandoned. What makes them feel that way?
Online communities tend to contain a majority consisting of similar people. This isn't an accident: certain platforms optimize communities to concentrate people with the same beliefs or traits together. When that doesn't happen naturally, certain people can create that majority for themselves. Consequently, many online communities have a greater degree of homogeneity than our traditional communities.
At least, that's how it appears. If you represent a minority opinion or belief, you will likely be dismissed, ignored, disliked, or even censored. At that point, many stop trying to contribute and either fade into the background or join a community where their opinion is the majority. People end up in divided realities, echo chambers where we cannot challenge our own beliefs. We embrace tribalism rather than empathy and understanding; we grow apart rather than come together.
Many communities require a person or people to enforce its rules and regulations. To fill these roles, smaller communities rely on dedicated community members, while larger ones pay to bring in outside help. Either case leads to issues. Dedicated community members volunteer their time and might lose the freedom or ability to do so. Outside help might not understand the community's values or context, leading them to incorrectly judge issues.
Thousands of online communities exist, and we can join as many of them as we want. We split our time between several online communities: Facebook groups, YouTube channels, subreddits, Meetup groups, Discord servers, and others. Since we limit the time we spend in each community, it takes much longer to form deep connections with other members, who might not even be online at the same time as you. This process takes longer if you become active in more communities. As a result, the connections you create in online communities lack the depth that in-person connections have.
Many people choose to deepen their online connections by limiting the communities they join. Yet they will likely encounter a paradox of choice:
- How do I know that a better community doesn't exist somewhere?
- Should I spend more time looking, or settle for this one?
- How long should I wait before I look for something better?
The paradox of choice can paralyze people, preventing them from joining any communities and forming any connections at all.
All these issues become larger problems at larger scales:
- The majority in a tribal community becomes more powerful as more people join it. The minority shrinks away, productive discussions end, and mob mentality can take over.
- A few volunteer moderators cannot handle tens or hundreds of thousands of users with care. They face an unenviable choice: make heavy-handed changes or give up moderating. Either choice leaves you with too much or too little censorship, creating an unwelcome community.
- Large communities have a hard time nurturing a feeling of community. If you join a large group &madsh; like a state college or a massive subreddit — you feel like you're a drop in the ocean of humanity. Every time you enter, it feels like you're talking to different people. You might see a few of the same faces, but they might not care for you. Thus, you're not building any relationships and deepening any connections, and that might make you feel lonely.
The above problems show that the status quo isn't good enough. How can we do better? We can try building more humane communities, both physically and electronically.
Humane communities are those which embrace diversity, govern transparently, cycle contributors, foster connections, and grow responsibly.
All communities need common values or interests to bring them together. Yet if members share too many opinions, they won't be able to constructively challenge them, which can lead to tribalism. To avoid this situation, communities should agree on a small, finite set of shared values, then strive to diversify everything else. In other words, find minimal commonality.
Our world is a diverse place, and we should recognize and encourage diversity within our communities. It can help us:
- develop healthier opinions by respectfully challenging our beliefs
- humanize others by recognizing them as individuals rather than one in a group
- increase our EQ by learning about different experiences and empathizing with them
- build better solutions by gaining a broad understanding of the problem space
Ideally, a community organizer could trust the members to govern themselves. Or we'd have a benevolent and ethically-aligned AI like the Oversoul running the show.
Unfortunately, both of these options are difficult to achieve. Humans have a hard time being impartial. Plus, a jury of hundreds would take a while to reach a consensus. For now, communities need people to enforce the laws — hereafter referred to as moderators — and a system to hold them accountable and prevent the community from falling to corruption or inactivity.
To create this system, start by being transparent:
- make all rules and guidelines readily available
- inform violators of the specific rules they violated and what they did to violate them
- make moderators available to answer questions about their decisions
- provide straightforward avenues to report moderators or change unjust community rules, and give the community insight into these processes
A transparent governing process begets trust:
- give members the tools to moderate each other's public behavior — including how they moderate!
- give moderators the tools to do their jobs efficiently and with minimal side effects
- give long-standing and well-behaved members the chance to become moderators
...and trust begets mutual respect:
- treat moderators as elected officials: give them a good salary and benefits, an election process, terms, and term limits
- make it clear that moderators serve the community, rather than rule over it
- remember that moderators have a tough job sometimes.
While transparency serves as the foundation, humane communities should nurture trust and respect. Without these, members will lose faith in community leadership and stop participating.
Much like healthy ecosystems have a carbon cycle, healthy communities have a contributor cycle. It looks like this:
- Learn if the community is right for you
- Join a community
- Learn how to contribute
- Start contributing
- Become a core contributor
- Help newer members make contributions
- Hand over the core contributor mantle
The contributor cycle acts as a sieve: each stage filters out more and more members. Few will become core contributors, and those that do rarely get the chance to hand over their roles to newer members. The existing core contributors will leave, and the community will stagnate or die out.
Perpetuating the cycle starts at Step 1. Prospective members need time to determine if they fit into the community, and communities need time to determine if they align with the community's core values. We call this the Evaluation Period, during which prospects learn about the community's rules, expectations, and membership experience from existing members. At the end of the period, both parties decide whether they want to proceed. This process may sound time-consuming, but it greatly increases the likelihood of new members being high-quality.
Once a new member joins, they are likely to contribute if they benefit from participating. Thus, experienced members should take the opportunity to teach newer members how to grow their skills and provide general guidance for making contributions. One-on-one interactions work, but they don't scale. Instead, core contributors should routinely publish learning resources, then make themselves available to help specific cases. Up-to-date learning resources should increase member participation without resorting to cheap engagement tactics. Plus, they should help a few contributors become core contributors.
Community members should regularly interact with each other to develop deeper connections. To encourage interaction, the community should organize opportunities for both one-on-one and communal bonding, since each type is intimidating for different people. These opportunities should happen on a regular basis and require minimal effort to attend.
One physical example of communal bonding comes from Twin Oaks, an intentional community in Virginia. They put a board tacked with community issues near the entrance of their lunch hall. Members will enter to have lunch, read through the issues, and sit down with other members to talk about them.
A common virtual communal bonding example is "daily discussion threads" on forums. Basecamp has a tool called Campfire which allows you to chat in real-time with your teammates. These work decently if they're active.
Real-world one-on-one bonding might come from an "office hours"-style setup, or through a platform like Lunchclub or Gather. Electronically, you can chat with people through direct messages, which common chat platforms support.
Regardless of the method you choose, providing opportunities for connection helps members integrate into the community and avoid loneliness. This adds value to their lives and encourages them to stay.
"Grow Responsibly" matches the wording in the humane design article I wrote for a reason: all the goals above become more difficult as your community grows larger.
- more people increases the likelihood of a majority and reduces the number of differences you can introduce
- you need more moderators for more people, and it becomes more difficult at scale (see: Reddit, Twitch, YouTube, Facebook)
- conversation and attempts to connect get lost in the noise
Humans do best when they live and work together in small groups. Honoring this, we should limit the size of our communities until we know we can support the human needs of all new members.
This piece provides guidance on improving our communities, both online and in real life. Consider sharing it with your community. If you're a community organizer or leader, think about how you can introduce these ideas to your members. Together, we can create more empathetic, diverse, and equitable communities for everyone.
Do you know a community like this? Reach out and let me know and I'll write about it here.