Discussions around the type of members in a community often focus on active vs inactive members, or true fans vs mainstream adopters. But there is another way to look at member roles: The social role they have in the community.
Social roles are emergent roles. Certain roles in a community are hard to codify or would feel ludicrous to recruit for. A good example is the joker in the classroom, or the person spreading memes. Most often people grow into these roles, as the inherent activity is an extension of who they are, and the value they bring to any community.
For new subscribers, I often write from a social network perspective. This means I won’t just look at a person in isolation, but take their relationships into account.
"The community resembles a magnetic field of personal forces in which individuals and groups attract and repel each other, developing idiosyncratic interpretations of the culture that are reinforced through social interactions." - David Krackhardt & Martin Kilduff (2002)
If you look at individuals in isolation from each other, you neglect the “magnetic field of personal forces”. It’s through social interactions that people become who they are and shape the community they are part of. Every community has their own culture, a system of knowledge. Understanding a culture means understanding the web of relationships between people and who depends on whom or in some way has a relation to another person.”
When you don’t include a social network perspective, you miss a lot of what is happening in a community.
The Three Catalytic Roles in a Community
People have different roles in a community. While some post or react, others prefer only to read. Of those who contribute in any form, often it's only their number of contributions that are taken into account. Community builders look for super fans, their only true fans, or their first 1000 fans. Or whatever they want to call them. It's easy to measure, but it creates the wrong expectation. It isn't just the quantity of posts a member makes, or even the quality of the posts, their complexity, or length, but the value the post adds to the community.
One way to measure the value a contributor adds to a community is to consider the emergent role a person crafts for themselves in a community. What type of community isn’t really important. In the research which inspired this article, the investigated community was an online forum for hobbyist car mechanics.
Subject experts are members who answer questions. It feels like they are always present because they are helpful, do not wait to chime in, and offer resources and answers to others. A community can have several members who are subject experts in the same field. This is helpful if they are online at different times due to their time zones or workstyle. Of course, a community can also have experts on various topics. It depends on the mission of the community. A learning or community of practice will have subject experts in every relevant topic, whereas a social club type of community will see fewer subject experts.
Information navigators become increasingly important as your community expands in size. Community managers aren't super-humans, even if some display superhuman traits by being everywhere and knowing about everything that is happening within them. Information navigators support community managers’ work by connecting people with each other and with topics. This can be by nudging them to reach out to another member with their questions or ideas, or by suggesting that they check out another channel — or even another community. No community can satisfy every need, recommending another community is normal and healthy for your ecosystem.
Cheerleaders and party organizers might sound like a non-serious role, but without social support, jokes, memes, parties, and side events, communities would be non-human. The conversations cheerleaders and party organizers are involved in may often feel not directly relevant to the community, but deepens relationships and forms the basis for resilience. If the focus of your community is to create something together, this role is crucial.
The first two roles seem logical — especially if you are a team or your community is in some way sponsored by a company. Subject experts and information navigators are serious roles because they are directly related to exchanging information, helping members grow and network.
But cheerleaders and party organizers?
There is more evidence about the importance of party organizers for communities.
Anthropological research on work communities living in harsh conditions (think fishermen, researchers at the North Pole, or the research NASA is funding for sending astronauts on the way to Mars) say the same thing: Storytellers, clowns, and comedians are the social anchors of a community. Chill out, and create space for those people in your community who can lighten the mood and make people laugh.
These are some pivotal roles you'll most likely find in your community if you look closely. This categorisation is in no way relegating the silent members or lurkers to the background, everyone in the community is equally as important. It is, however, shining a spotlight on those who play an obvious role in the growth of your community.
Another aspect of the conversation is knowing how best to harness their vibes and gauge it towards the goals of your community. A good practice would be to first create an environment that is conducive for their unique personality to shine.
This would mean taking a look at your onboarding processes and the general vibe in the community. You should create systems that encourage members to participate within the community. This could be by way of acknowledging contributions they make, soliciting their opinion on some aspects of the community as well as publicly celebrating their small or big wins.
If you don’t yet have a budget or grants for social events, now is your time to create it — and create social media posts praising your subject matter experts and information navigators. A public shout-out from the founding team carries a lot of social status and will have positive ripple effects in their life.
Thanks to the (community) editors at Foster for improving this piece.