Online Communities: Building Self-Organisation

I’ve been involved in creating and sustaining online communities for a scarily long time, and I’m gradually getting better at it.

One of my current groups is doing brilliant stuff at the moment. In the last couple of weeks, members of my Metaphor Mastery student group on Facebook have:

  • Organised their own global Wednesday-night meetup on Zoom, to practice together and tick off tasks towards certification
  • Discussed the niceties of translating the Clean Language questions into new languages, including Danish and Mandarin
  • Found local practice partners in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Sweden, Finland and Romania
  • Posted several case studies of successful applications
  • … and initiated a bunch of other interesting discussions.

They no longer need me to make everything happen: they’re getting on with it for themselves. It’s hugely exciting to be part of!

And I’m also involved in getting a couple of other online communities started. The wheels are creaking as we get things moving.

What’s the trick to getting from one to another?

In his book Buzzing Communities, Richard Millington talks about four stages in a community’s lifecycle:

  1. Inception
  2. Establishment
  3. Maturity
  4. Mitosis.

He argues that the job of a community manager changes from stage to stage, and he’s spot on. When the Metaphor Mastery group was new, my presence was very much needed: now it’s established/mature I can back off and let members of the group take the lead.

And, there’s another layer to all of this. All the necessary tasks, at each stage, can be done either with a “controlling” or a “facilitative” attitude.

The Metaphor Mastery group is very much “mine”. I’m the teacher, the subject-matter expert – and it would have been very easy to take control. I could dish out new content every week, pair people up for practice, ask them to send assignments to me and so on. But in the long run, that would make me a bottleneck and limit the community’s ability to grow itself.

Promoting self-organisation is the better longer-term bet. Not only does it allow the community to outgrow me and my capacity to support it, it’s congruent with the content. And it’s more fun – I’m constantly surprised.

But promoting self-organisation – facilitating – feels very different from the sage-on-the-stage approach.

It involves stepping into the unknown – the dip of Nick Udall’s creative rollercoaster, the chaotic domain of Cynefin, the adventures of the Hero’s Journey.

It’s not about following the instruction book: it’s an ongoing process of probe-sense-respond.

It’s challenging to both the facilitator and the facilitated, bringing us face-to-face with our fear. People want there to be simple rules. They’re often afraid to put themselves out there “to be shot down”.

These questions are especially sharp at the initiation stage.

Instead of constantly filling the online space with my stuff, I want to create a space in which it feels safe for others to show up and shine. But that can’t be a vacuum! Online, especially, you can’t just keep quiet and expect someone else to speak.

To some extent, you have to build it for them to come – and yet whatever you build reduces the freedom of the participants to shape the space for themselves. The fact I put a group on Facebook excludes people who don’t use Facebook, for example. The title I choose sets certain boundaries. The people I initially ask to participate will set the tone of conversations.

I’ve been round this loop before. There’s no such thing as “completely Clean” in organising an online Forum, any more than there is in a face-to-face interaction.

We’re always influencing each other!

The best I can do is to set an intention to build self-organisation, keep experimenting with a probe-sense-respond approach, and hope for the best!

  • What do you think? What promotes self-organisation in online communities? Please comment below.

3 Comments

  • JR

    26/01/2017

    Note to self: Digital natives are young – cf Kegan’s model, facilitators are typically not young. How does Jarche’s triple-A fit?

  • Angela

    26/01/2017

    This may or may not be relevant, but I feel like dialogue rather than debate promotes online networking.

  • Jumala Multazam

    27/01/2017

    That is great Judy, what You said about, “Instead of constantly filling the online space with my stuff, I want to create a space in which it feels safe for others to show up and shine.” is empowering them to self organizing. And this is actually the implementation of “clean organizing” of online community. You do more than Clean Language but also Clean Organizing.

    Again, it is great.
    Jumala Multazam Indonesia

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