Think of science like an incurable intellectual disease

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Or, why your online science community engagement plans are probably wrong.

Part one (of three): It’s a collective, not a community, and that’s OK

Nearly a decade ago I was on a team that was exploring a new online network platform for ocean scientists—one of those “Facebook for X” forays that never took off. During the research phase I learned that online groups exhibited a wide range of “stickiness,” a description for member engagement. In general, engagement could be plotted on the usual power law curve; a handful of really engaged members on one side, and hundreds or thousands of mostly un-engaged members in the “long-tail” end of the curve.

One genre of online groups completely broke this curve. These were the most engaged groups online, and by a long ways. Their entire membership regularly contributed content. The problem—for them most of all, and for any online community manager trying to emulate their engagement on the open web—was that these groups were made of individuals who had been diagnosed with terminal or incurable chronic physical diseases.

These online groups, numbering in the hundreds, shared personal stories about symptoms and medication advice, uploaded and argued over new medical findings, and identified sources of emotional support for members and their families. They sought answers beyond the ken of their individual medical advisors, and they collectively shouldered the news when one of their members inevitably passed on.

The feeling of “community” was evident in their mutual concern, but this feeling was not central in these groups. “Belonging” was not the goal; it was their circumstance, their fate, their bad luck. Nobody was trying to get into these groups. Yes, they grew to care for and about one another. But they didn’t join for that purpose. Members joined because the circumstances of their lives brought them to this sad place: a space of collective struggle against a common and specific foe: their diagnosis.

Let’s explore the dynamics of these groups. Each online group focuses on a single disease or condition, from ADHD to Zika. Each member shows up already fully engaged in their own private struggle. What they need and find is an online collective, a place to share what would remain private in any other circumstance. A space of mutual learning. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown have described these spaces in their book A New Culture of Learning.  “Collectives are made up of people who generally share values and beliefs about the world and their place in it, who value participation over belonging, and who engage in a set of shared practices. Thus collectives are plural and multiple. They also both  form and disappear regularly around different ideas, events, or moments” (Pp 56-57). For more than a decade, the most engaged groups on the internet have been collectives, not communities.

The global internet has two virtues: it scales pretty will up to billions of users (e.g., Facebook); and it can host a hundred million independent groups. Online communities generally (and always when these are commercial in intent) love to grow bigger. Group size is a key metric. Belonging builds the brand. No company wants to say, “sorry, we don’t need any more customers at this point.”

On the very other hand, online collectives only need to grow to the size that optimizes the group’s collective intelligence and variety of knowledge. In fact, you know you’re in a collective when you try to join and somebody asks you what you bring to the conversation. Collectives have no long tail of non-participants. The collective may be very sensitive to an internal “signal-to-noise” ratio. The quality of participation is a feature.

To use another analogy (getting away from disease for a moment): if you joined a church congregation, you’re a part of that community, even if you only attend twice a year, and toss in a bit of coin now and then. But if you also join the choir, you enter a collective. Everyone in the choir is supposed to—you guessed it—sing. If you just stand there with your mouth shut, people will notice. If you don’t show up at all, someone will call you and ask where you are. There is no “long-tail” majority of choir members standing up in the choir loft not singing. The choir has zero need for a “choir engagement manager” to encourage choir members to actually sing. Singing is why members join. And if you happen to suck at it, others in the collective might encourage you to leave.

This leads me (finally) to science (including data science) and to the online engagement of scientists in social networks. From a series of cases and anecdotes collected from other community managers who have attempted to “engage” scientists online, it is clear that science effects its “victims” (scientists) much like an incurable (intellectual) disease. Scientists commonly spend sixty or more hours a week chasing unknowns in their labs, gathering field data, or tracking down software bugs. They share a fever for knowledge and their own common foe: the specific unknown that stands between the state-of-the-science in their specialty and a better understanding of the object of their study; the peculiar intellectual challenge (disease) they have chosen as their quest and their foe.

Scientists don’t need and don’t want to join online communities to do science. I am sorry, but if that’s all your new platform or service provides, your dance floor will remain empty. What scientists need are online collectives that can amplify and accelerate their own research, and reward their contributions to new knowledge in their chosen specialty.

Six Lessons so far:

  1. The most engaged online groups (at least in 2008) are collectives, not communities.
  2. Collectives don’t follow the power-law curve.
  3. Collectives form around specific issues, and common foes. They house a hunger for collective intelligence in the face of inadequate information. The driver here is a collective need to know.
  4. Unlike online communities, membership growth is not a desired metric within collectives. Small can be beautiful.
  5. In terms of engagement, science acts like an intellectual disease, a diagnosis of a specific lack of understanding about some object of study that drives the scientist to devote her life to discovery.
  6. Scientists will already be engaged if they join an online collective, and will already be disengaged if they are asked to join an online community.

Coming soon: Part Two: what the internet can really do for science.

Preview: The internet can provide is the capability of enabling millions of scientific collectives, linking these into a web of knowledge across the planet. It just hasn’t done this yet. We can fix that. Oh, yes. And why we still need community.

5 signs that you need to rethink and reboot your membership engagement effort

Members feeling disengaged?  Maybe you’re doing it wrong.
Members feeling disengaged? Maybe you’re doing it wrong.

In your volunteer-run, virtual organization, how do your members become engaged in sharing their time and knowledge? Do they come away from these activities enthused? Or do they feel like they never want to come back? Here are five danger signals that mean you should rethink and possibly reboot your organization.

  1. You can’t agree on what engagement is.
    What are your metrics for engagement? How are you collecting these? What does engagement look like in your organization? If you cannot answer these questions, then you need to start over and rethink why anybody should become a member.
  2. When members tell you what’s important to them, you have no way to respond.
    Engagement is where your organization shows it’s value to its members. Your members are intelligent, enthusiastic, and busy. They showed up. Every member needs to be able to find support to do what is important for them (inside the boundaries of the vision/goal of the organization). When your organization can amplify the efforts of each member to solve their immediate problem or support their creative input, they will be engaged. And they will engage each other. Remember the first rule of a volunteer organization: each member needs to get more than they give. Members need every reason to come back and bring their colleagues. When a new member shows up and tells your staff, “I really need to solve this problem” that becomes a priority for your organization. If it’s not then you need to start over.
  3. You’ve invented a list of tasks that you want volunteers to work on.They need to chose from this list if they want to engage with your organization.
    Helping the organization with higher-level organizational work: planning, strategy, etc., is not engaging. It’s a service. This is something that people who are already engaged will do in small doses. In volunteer-run organizations members eat the pudding first, and then get the meat. If your answer to a member is to look at a web-page with a list to things you want them to do, then you need to start over.
  4. You’ve got an “engagement team” instead of being an engagement organization.
    Volunteer-run organizations are propelled by engagement. This is the locomotive that pushes all other activities. If your organization has an engagement team somewhere trying to figure things out, then you’ve lost your locomotive and you’ll only grow and move as fast as the team can pump a hand car. If engagement is not your first order of business, then you need to start over.
  5. Nobody is certain how decisions are made.
    Engagement runs on trust and and is propelled by a governance that is open and responsive. Members of volunteer-run organizations need to know they are in control. Every time a decision is rethought or rescinded by the staff or through some back-door conversation with donors; every time the membership only gets to vote on a document somebody else wrote, every election where the nominations fall to the same people: members become less engaged. If your governance is not actually run by the volunteers who are your members, then you need to start over.

Photo credits: poor doggie: bull-dog story