Building Thriving Online Communities: Functions & Roles to Support Success

What roles, structures and functions are the backbone of support for online communities that are thriving – where people feel safe to explore and learn together, and to just be themselves with one another?

In our first meeting on this topic, we described what “thriving” would look like in online communities. And in our second meeting, we determined the preconditions for that success to be possible.

Those pre-conditions included (and we strongly recommend reviewing the descriptions of each of these bullet points at this link):

• The power of setting expectations

• The power of modeling

• The power of facilitated engagement and invitation

• The power of a space for exploration

Roles and Functions to Create and Support those Conditions
The roles and functions that can help create those conditions were the topic of discussion in our 3rd and 4th meetings (you can watch / listen to those meetings live here for Meeting #3 and here for Meeting #4). We are grateful to Isaac Shalev of the tech strategy firm Sage 70 for compiling this list from those meetings!

Greeter Role
Gardener/nurturer who greets new people when they come into the (virtual) room. Consistent greeting ceremonies with the following ingredients help set the tone of the group’s culture immediately:
• Express genuine happiness that the new person is here
• Ask the new person to share their story with the group
• Ask the new person to make an explicit connection between their story and why they are in the room (how did your journey lead you here?)

Beyond the greeting ceremony, the greeter might also connect the newcomer to specific, relevant individuals to whom newcomers can turn for help.

Another greeting role, which may be held by another person, is to re-invite, to ask people who haven’t contributed in some time to return and share their voice. This role is best served by someone who has a consistent presence within the group.

Network Weaver Role
This person looks through threads of conversations to make connections between individuals who would benefit from knowing each other. Sometimes people fail to participate not because they are disinterested, but just the opposite – because a conversation is too interesting and time-consuming. A network weaver can facilitate connections in cases where a likely candidate for a particular discussion did not take part.

Archivist Role
There are at least two kinds of archivists: cataloguers of conversations, and re-broadcasters, though one person can do both roles. In healthy communities, many people take on parts of these roles. For example, as some individuals model how to tag, store, and sort conversations, others will naturally adopt those conventions (e.g. Twitter hashtags). However, there are individuals for whom sorting and cataloguing conversations is a primary role and contribution to the community.

Rebroadcasting is creating highlight reels, digests or just links back to interesting conversations, and then either re-posting those points of interest within the group itself, or posting them to other channels, including blogs, Facebook pages, etc.

Questioner Role
Questions are conversation-starters, and the beginnings of shared journeys of exploration. Communities without questions come to share nothing but lolcats. Well-led exploration is therefore a powerful component to building strong communities. That role includes:

1 – Scheduling and being intentional about asking provocative questions
2 – Drafting the questions (with a team to support that?)
3 – Learning how to ask the questions in the first place
4 – Clarifying ‘Can you share more about that?” as a further exploration of a first answer
5 – Tagging specific people whose opinions and experiences will be relevant
6 – Tagging specific people who might be drawn to this particular topic, or whose participation might be expanded through this topic

One of the key pre-conditions for success noted in all these meetings has been the function of “holding the space” for safe exploration, to ensure that the desired vision, philosophy and experience of the community is protected and nurtured. Speaking the rules of the community is one way to do this. Over time, participants will echo some (if not many) of those rules.

Polite Intervener
Person who privately helps to reinforce the shared expectations of the group ,and publicly and politely reframes the responses of participants (e.g.  “Can you tell us about what’s at the link you posted? What intrigued you about that?”). This is the layperson’s version of the more authoritative Rules-Speaker role.

How can a Community Communicate the Needed Roles?
The following are some of the ways in which communities can support these roles:
• Being Explicit – Modeling
• Being intentional/proactive, then being reflective about the actions taken
• Celebrating individuals and actions for taking on roles and living up to group norms
• Speaking the rules out loud
• Creating traditions (eg Brag Basket)
• Periodically have an intentional conversation about what creates safe space 

After summarizing the discussions at those meetings, Isaac shared a few additional roles and functions, from his own experience as a community facilitator. We liked them so much, we’ve included them here:

Though this person rarely/never contributes, when they do, their impact is outsized because they’ve been deeply moved to suddenly break their silence. A community without lurkers will never have those great moments when a lurker speaks up. Lurkers often also rebroadcast to the outside world in ways that we’re not always aware of. Creating a safe space for everyone will therefore intentionally include creating that safe space for lurkers (i.e. don’t try and break everyone out of their shell or get everyone to speak up).

Someone who stirs the pot, who can be a bit contrarian, or who stakes out a polarizing position can be the grit in the oyster that creates a pearl of a conversation. Gadflies often require a bit more facilitating than most people, but they make for lively discussions.

The Googler
A person who contributes to the group by bringing in outside resources and links that shed light on the conversation. Those resources may be products and services, research, articles or other conversations. As noted under the “Polite Intervener” role above, the Googler often needs to be asked to contextualize their sharing, as they sometimes drop links assuming that everyone knows why they did so, and that everyone will go look at the link. Unless someone is intentionally keeping conversation going within the community itself, links peppered by The Googler often draw conversation away from the group.

As happens when we use causality to create actions, these roles and functions will create favorable conditions for Creating the Future’s online communities to thrive. The question for your own communities is therefore not “Who will fill these roles for us?” The question for you is actually three questions:

1) What would thriving look like in your community? Thriving for whom?

2) What would people need to have / feel / believe / be assured of in those communities, in order for that vision of “thriving” to be reality?

3) What roles and functions would create and support those favorable conditions for success?

1 thought on “Building Thriving Online Communities: Functions & Roles to Support Success”

  1. I agree that rules of engagement (vs. just do’s and don’ts) are essential. Any thoughts on size? Is there an ideal facilitator/admin to member ratio? You don’t want too many Googler’s or Lurker’s or the group dynamics seem to get dysfunctional fast!


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