Sometimes you may wonder where all the people who are supposedly members of your community are. What are they doing? Why aren’t they participating? Some of them are probably just natural lurkers, but surely some of them want to join in the discussion. If your community is a bit dead, it’s possible that it’s social climate or other barriers are stopping people from even wanting to participate. But what creates this toxic climate? What discourages online community participation?
A study done by Caterpillar on their internal community suggests that often people don’t get involved in a community because they’re afraid of social pressures. Similar pressures keep us from, say, joining a group of people we don’t know at a party or making new friends or hanging out with the cool kids.
A couple of the most notable fears were:
Community members are afraid of being embarrassed by their lack of knowledge or incorrect knowledge and this discourages online community participation. In the case of this study, the community was a question and answer type forum, meant to function as a knowledge-base. So knowledge credibility was an important part of the community. But every community has a similar barrier, whether it’s just fear of being mocked for posting the wrong thing, asking a stupid question, or saying something that’s taboo in particular community’s culture.
Sometimes people’s fear of losing face is brought over from other communities or is just a natural social fear. But it’s also possible that your own community is fostering that fear.
Ask yourself: Is your community culture toxic? Do your community members instantly leap on someone if they make a mistake? Are they dismissive of new ideas or opinions?
How do they word their responses? Sometimes people on the internet don’t mean to be rude. They just forget that on the internet people can’t read their facial and hand gestures. Sometimes something can sound blunt when it isn’t meant to be. Does your community have a problem with blunt, impolite replies?
Some community members in this study didn’t participate in their community because they were new. They didn’t feel they had the right to answer questions or discuss issues. Not an unreasonable assumption. From my own experience, “noobs” (as they were called in my day) are often treated with, if not active contempt, then exasperation and impatience. Especially when they’re asking a question that’s already been asked a hundred times before.
For example, in a YouTube community I’m a part of, a man has been documenting his exercise regime. Every day he uses an app for a 7 Minute workout. Almost every day, someone in the community asks what the app is called. The answer, typically: “He’s said this before, but…” Note the “He’s said this before.” It’s this subtle hint that the asker is being annoying that can keep people from diving into a community because they’re afraid that they’re going to tread on well-worn ground.
Most new people are naturally reluctant to push themselves into a new community, but it’s also possible that your community is discouraging these newbies from participating.
Ask yourself: How do my community members treat new people? Are they dismissive of their posts? Do they scold if someone brings up an old, worn question? Do they treat new people like children instead of adults?
Are new people extra confused? Are they having a hard time using my search tools and FAQ? Are they being directed to the FAQ in a blunt, impolite way?
Some barriers were more mechanical than social, in this community every post had to be approved by moderators, which meant the community moved slowly. (And, also, perhaps people felt censored.) Many communities don’t run on such a strict platform, but they may have other mechanical problems, poor layout, bad UI, or lack of social media push. Every one of these reasons discourages online community participation.
Your community structure may make it hard to find the post button. It might make it hard to search older topics. You may not have noticed because you’ve used the platform for years.
Ask yourself: Is your community platform older? Has it been updated lately? If I go to my community platform, imagining I’m a new person, do I feel lost or confused?
Number one, don’t let yourself get discouraged! You may need to do some adjusting and establish some new rules and guidelines. You may need to discuss with your mods how they react to certain situations. Perhaps you can start a community discussion and let them help you smooth out your community culture.
Want some more help? Check out this post for some suggestions on how you can create a culture of encouragement in your online community.
What’s your community culture like? What may be discouraging participation in your online community? Tell us in the comments below.