This weekend just gone, I was having dinner round my in-laws. They roughly know what we do building Learn.Community, but they didn’t fully understand exactly what an online community was or the experience of growing one.
What is an online community?
Here’s the example I gave them to explain:
I think of an online community like a house party.
If you’re a good party host, you want your guests to have a great time. This is largely based around them connecting with one another.
Stage 1: Planning
You want to decide what kind of party to host. Is it a formal dinner party? A paid event? Baby-shower? A wild frat party? All of these are parties, but they couldn’t be more different.
You also need to consider who you want there. It would be a nightmare to leave your front door open and accept hoards of stranger off the street. You’re selective about your guest list. You consider how large you want the party. What kind of people do you want there? Is this a professional work party? Is it your childhood friends? Or perhaps it’s mainly newer people in your life? You need to consider whether the guests you’ve selected will get along well.
When you consider atmosphere, you start to think about food vs no food, how many drinks to offer. You choose an appropriate music playlist and consider how loudly you’ll play it. You ensure the lighting is optimal. Maybe you hide valuables that could get knocked over easily.
Stage 2: Early days and onboarding
At the start of the party, only one or two guests have showed up. It’s a little awkward.
You have a big room to fill, and there’s very little atmosphere early on. As the host you nervously welcome your early guests and try to get them to relax. Immediately you take their coats, show them where the bathroom is in case they need it later, and offer them a drink. You also try to spark some early conversations and help establish connections between your guests: “Katy – have you met John? We met last year at that local beer festival. Hey Katy – you actually started home-brewing a bit right?”.
As more guests start to trickle in, you’re frantically plate spinning. Making introductions, taking coats and always ensuring that nobody feels left out. You simultaneously try to be present and engaged with each guest, but don’t spend too much time with any single person, at the risk of alienating others.
Stage 3: Growth
As more guests begin to arrive, the atmosphere starts to develop at the party. You have less time to welcome each guest personally, so generally spend 30-60 seconds welcoming each new guest and offering them a drink. Rather than acting as personal server for each new guest, you also make sure they know where the drinks are kept, if they want to help themselves throughout the night.
Your behaviour starts to naturally change as the party grows. You realise that you definitely can’t top up every drink for 30 people, nor can you initiate or lead every conversation.
Instead, you start to flit in and out of groups and conversations, working to promote a happy atmosphere. You work to ensure that everyone feels included – if someone appears to be on the outskirts of a group, you offer warm intros and bring them in.
Stage 4: Scale and moderation
As the party gets bigger, you’re now at over 50 people.
It’s loud. People are generally having a great time. Conversations are flowing.
You can no-longer control the granular, individual interactions happening.
Now that the party has taken on a life of its own, you can finally relax a little. You enjoy a longer chat with an old friend. Finally, you can pause and enjoy yourself, without worrying that the atmosphere will fizzle out.
You keep control of the music playlist, which you’ve been steadily ramping up in energy throughout the night.
Someone is getting a little aggressive and acting inappropriately. You step in and ask them to leave before it escalates and ruins the night.
Some kind souls at the party offer to help you. They help serve drinks and one person even stops a valuable vase getting smashed.
The value of the party is the people and their shared experience. If you grabbed a microphone and demanded that all attention should be on you, it would kill the atmosphere. The night is not about you, it’s about your guests and their enjoyment. As the host, that is what you’re working to facilitate.
It’s hard work. It’s exhausting. By the end of the night, you’re wiped out. Your guests had a great time and ultimately so did you. However, most of them didn’t realise the efforts you went to when they weren’t watching.
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