You Need a Social Object, Not Only Shared Self-Interest, to Build a Strong Online Community
During our Guardian Activate 2010 panel, I mentioned how organizations need to think about an outside-in social object, instead of an inside-out message, to build an online community, and MobileActive‘s Katrin Verclas asked me how a “social object” is different from “self-interest”. So, here’s my long overdue note on why you need a social object, not only shared self-interest, to build a strong online community.
Most people involved with grassroots community organizing are familiar with the idea that members of a local community are motivated by their shared “self-interest”, and to motivate them to take positive action, you need to create programs that tap into their self-interest.
This approach assumes that members have a shared “self-interest” to begin with, most often: resources to improve local conditions, or representation in decision making bodies. While this assumption is often true for neighborhood-based or faith-based communities (or caste-based communities in India), it tends to breaks down for online communities.
The members of the most successful online communities (like MoveOn, Pepsi Refresh Project, or Global Voices) tend not to share a narrow self-interest, because their membership often transcends narrow neighborhood-based, faith-based, or caste-based affiliations. Instead, they are united by a shared social object: a lifestyle, a cause, a passion, an ideology, a big idea, or a charismatic leader.
Of course, smaller groups within the bigger online community do come together, sometimes for short periods, around shared self-interests, but they stay engaged with the bigger community because they believe in a bigger social object.
It also seems to me that highlighting a narrow self-interest is more important when you are working with a disadvantaged group, when you are using the lens of scarcity. However, highlighting a broad social object is more important when you are working with a group that has all the advantages in the world, when you are using the lens of surplus.
Both in the developed North and the emergent South, online communities tend to be dominated by the second group which benefits from several advantages but suffers from the crisis of caring, and you need a broad social object to inspire and engage them.
So, if you are trying to build an online community, self-interest is important, but not enough. What you really need is a social object that acts as the magnet that pulls together the members into a community, or as the glue that holds together the members of the community.