Over the past month, I’ve been observing and documenting the structure of online communities that I enjoy: what makes me feel welcomed and comfortable participating, and what keeps me coming back. This is one aspect of my work at Gather as we partner with museums and learning institutions to create spaces for meaningful online communities. While participants and their motivations are many and varied, it’s also important for us to personally experience the impact of a really good online community, and understand what makes it work. For this purpose, I narrowed my focus to communities formed around personal interests and enrichment learning; communities that have a clear convener, whether it’s an institution, brand, or person; and where a primary mode of connection is online, though many create complementary opportunities for in-person experiences as well.
Before continuing, I’ll address why you might be interested in developing the online community around your cultural organization.
As many of us have joined online events hosted by museums and other cultural organizations, we’ve been part of or have witnessed connections between participants in a program — moments of shared understanding, identification, and inspiration. We’ve seen participants find a way to continue the conversation after the program, much like they might have in-person before the pandemic. At Gather, we’re building tools for museums and cultural organizations to sustain those connections after the program, before the next, and as a through line between all of the ways in which museums’ communities engage with them, online and in-person. We’re helping institutions create coherent experiences and longer-lasting relationships with their constituents.
Picking apart “what makes it work,” these are the outcomes that defined success for me as a participant in enriching online communities:
- My contributions are valued.
- I can find both personal affirmation and be exposed to new ideas.
- I find some value, or growth, for myself in my participation.
- I am welcome, comfortable, unintimidated, and I can be “myself” or a part of myself that I wish to share.
- I am getting something that I don’t find elsewhere.
- I have a role or a place within the community, however small or large, subtle or apparent.
- I have options for how to engage that I feel are sustainable, safe, and rewarding.
- I can rely on the community’s overarching purpose to be consistent.
- I can trust in the collective contributions to be, on the whole, relevant and meaningful to me.
I also documented the elements that contributed to these outcomes, and combined them into a loose framework. While one of the most important values of good online communities is their originality, there are basic elements shared across many online communities that help make a space more inviting, inclusive, and rewarding. I’d like this framework to be a starting point for those who are beginning to organize an online community around personal interests and enrichment; one they might use to kick-off or inspire some of their own, unique approaches.
I’m also hoping this will spark a conversation that makes this a collaboratively-generated framework. Have you participated in online communities that look different from or are sustained in ways beyond these characteristics? What have you found to be most important in maintaining a thriving community? To what degree is the success of any community a function of its members or its convener? As an outline, of course, each of these points can be greatly expanded on and unpacked, and I welcome feedback about that too.
Establish what or who is inspiring and guiding the community space
- Establish community purpose through mission, values, or shared interests, and create visibility and presence for it throughout the community experience.
- Great facilitators who genuinely care about cultivating participation in others are key to the health of an online community. A good facilitator, instructor, leader, or organizer can inspire audiences and create a shared sense of delight, enthusiasm, and journey. They may come from unexpected places: keep an eye out for those skills in those who are helping organize the community and in those who are most engaged, and support them.
- Find opportunities as an organizer or institution to open up your process to your community to invite transparency and collaboration.
Warmly welcome participants and establish expectations
Share welcoming and orienting content that clearly establishes:
- Who this community is for
- Why someone might wish to participate or what they might gain
- What a participant can expect from the community organizer(s), including the cadence of new content or opportunities, and how, in turn, a user might choose to participate
- Some suggested ways for navigating the community space or how they might make the most of it, in a way that appeals to a range of commitment levels from browsing to power user
- Mission, values, and people who will help guide, inspire, and structure the community space
- Share community agreements to encourage thoughtful, intentional participation. Even better, invite participation and feedback to shape the community agreements together.
- Keep the orientation content and community agreements accessible to participants each time they come into the space. This serves as a reminder but also recognizes that a participant may take long breaks from the community and, when they return, it should be as welcoming and inviting as it was the first time.
Surface who’s here—get to know the community
- Create a distinct space for your community by requiring participants to join, opt-in, enroll, or a similar function, even if it’s free. This creates a sense of belonging and privacy, encourages community growth from participants who share its purpose, and makes it less intimidating to participate if you’re not broadcasting to an open public. (Find out how museums and learning institutions can create a community space with Gather.)
- Introductions break the barrier of participation. Encourage community members to introduce themselves, both on entry (synchronously or asynchronously) and in a persistent profile to surface the variety of interests, expertise, geographic spread, and more of the community.
- Encourage identification and connection between community members, and spaces for more focused sharing, through subgroups (or channels, threads) within the community.
Invite and scaffold participation
- Maintain a regular cadence of content or prompts to spark renewed participant dialogue and exchange around a shared reference point.
- Offer a range of options for engagement that allows community members to scale their participation according to what is sustainable and comfortable for them.
- Center making, collaboration, and co-creation. Transformative learning and connection happens when participants are able to share their knowledge and experiences, and find inspiration and encouragement in the community.
- Localization and personalization make the community and its content more resonant by helping community members create connections with what they know deeply or encounter in their day-to-day life.
- Offer moments of reflection and pause.
- It’s worth repeating: Good facilitators are key to the health of an online community. No one wants to be alone in an online community, or share a contribution or idea only to be met with silence. Good facilitators are responsive but also make community response sustainable by encouraging and modeling responsive behaviors from other community members.
- Acknowledge community members who are most engaged and helpful, such as by inviting them to advance to leadership roles or opening up new opportunities and access.
- Continuously evaluate and seek feedback from the community to make sure you’re on the right path and gather ideas to improve the community experience.
Many of these elements apply well beyond sustained online communities — for instance, greeting and orienting participants, sharing community agreements, and inviting and valuing participation help create inclusive and welcoming live programs, online and in-person. They’re at the core of good gatherings more generally, which can be relieving to those who want to convene online communities but aren’t sure how to start. Begin by asking and listening for the answers: why do you want to bring people together, and how will you each benefit or grow through participation? What connects these people and how might they already engage in exchange, collaboration, and dialogue — or want to? Build gradually, together, by valuing your community’s input. After all, in a community, you don’t have to go it alone.
Image credit: Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.