Photo from the 2012 Sandbox Summit in Lisbon

From 1 to 1 -> many to many

One of the most powerful aspects of a well functioning community is that it can scale trust beyond individual relationships. Not only do members trust other members they meet inside the community, they also trust the organization as a whole and all people in it, even the ones they have never met. This is where the magic of community happens.

Part I — the Community Proxy Effect

Individual relationship: 1 to 1. Network relationships: 1 to many. Community relationships: many to many.

Let’s look at three different kinds of relationships:

First, the individual relationship, 1 to 1. When two people meet and share a meaningful experience, they are likely to start trusting each other.

Second, network relationships, 1 to many. If I, as an individual, build many strong 1:1 relationships and I am diligent about keeping in touch with them, I build a network of relationships.

Third, community relationships, many to many. Communities ideally create spaces for people to share experiences and hopefully build many meaningful 1:1 relationships and a strong network. However, if the community is well designed, something else happens. On top of personal relationships I start to build a collective relationship and identity: I am myself and I belong to a group .

And this is where the magic happens: I continue to trust the individuals I meet and build 1:1 relationships with, but I also start to build trust into that collective identity. And the more I trust the collective, the more I will trust every member within it, even the people I have never met. As an example: two alumni of the same university that are meeting for the first time are more likely to trust each other, because they trust the overall framework of their university.

I call this the Community Proxy Effect: I don’t know you, but because I trust the community we’re both part of, the community acts as a proxy of trust, and I therefore trust you.

Part II — why the Community Proxy Effect matters

Proxy trust is never going to be as strong as the trust built in 1:1 relationships. However, it is in my eyes the most powerful element a community has, because it unlocks the real power of a group. While many organizations and platforms provide opportunities for people to collaborate and connect, only communities can scale trust and unlock the support of what otherwise would be strangers. While in most organizations your trust extends as far as your relationships go, in a community your trust reaches across a whole ecosystem of relationships.

This has huge consequences: suddenly, when you’re searching for the answer to a question or need help, you’re not just looking among your team mates, friends or personal network, but within a much larger group, potentially thousands of people across the whole globe.

I call this the human search engine effect. Searching, collaborating and working with a community means that the chances of finding a new apartment, an employee, a new job, the right kind of funding, are much bigger. There will be more people who could potentially help. The set of people who could help you will be more diverse (and therefore more valuable). A match and meaningful insights are more likely.

Another massive benefit comes in the form of resilience and flexibility. While a network is planned, organized and nurtured top-down, the relationships within a community care for each other in a more distributed way. This makes it much more resilient to change and opens itself up to serendipity.

Part III — how do you strengthen the Community Proxy Effect?

Of course, the strength of the proxy effect very much depends on how “well” the community is designed.

In our ongoing research into the Community Canvas, we are exploring what it means to design a community “well” and identify the design principles that help create this strong collective identity and the overall trust from it. This is likely not a complete list, but hopefully a good conversation starter:

Strong and transparent curation

Nothing gives me as much confidence into other people within the same community as knowing that everyone else has gone through the same thorough curation process I experienced myself. Equally important to curation itself is that this process is transparent. If I understand what criteria is being used for selecting members, I can deepen my confidence into the overall curation, as I meet more people that fit that criteria. And over time I will trust strangers from the same community in a similar way, because the curation experience has been consistent and trustworthy.

Lived and practiced values

Many communities these days have a list of nice sounding values. As a member, two questions matter: first, do I agree with the values? And second, are these values — often aspirational — actually put into practice? When I experience the values lived and practiced in a community on a daily basis, I start to take them seriously, I start to feel an expectation to live up to them and I assume that everyone around me is practicing them as well. And if I believe that other members in my community are actively practicing these values, I am more likely to feel connected to them and trust them.

Brand

I think a community’s brand is a highly under-appreciated asset that most organizations neglect. In today’s world, we are often not just born into communities, we actively choose them. And when we choose a community, we also choose to express our identity through them. So if we want our members to make our community part of their identity, it matters a lot how this community shows up in the world, what it stands for, how it communicates, what it looks and feels like. At Sandbox, we were always very aware that we wanted to create a community brand that people were not simply joining for utilitarian reasons, but also out of pride. And that pride comes from being part of a brand you admire.

A small example how brand matters is through the choice of the community’s name. Can you easily personify someone who is a fellow member? At Sandbox, a member is a Sandboxer. I’m part of many communities, where I’m not sure what to call my fellow members. In terms of collective identity, this matters.

Clarity in what the community stands for

I know so many communities that have beautiful values, smart goals, an inspiring purpose and cool stuff happening. But they suck at communicating that to their members. Some stuff might be written down, but often in different documents nobody regularly looks at. A big part might just be in people’s head. To address that issue, we have created the Minimum Viable Community framework, to help communities summarize on 1 page what they stand for and easily communicate that everywhere. Having the core characteristics of your community be explicit and very visible makes it more likely that members will take it seriously. The learning curve of adapting to the community’s values, rules and way of doing things becomes much faster.

Culture of vulnerability

Different communities have different collective levels of comfort with being vulnerable and showing the not-so-great sides of ourselves to each other. I have experienced many communities that describe their own members with some superlative as “rockstars” and “leaders”. It is usually in those circles that people just show their strongest, best self. These interactions often stay on a superficial level and the proxy trust is pretty low.

I have gotten to experience a different example by being part of a community called Dot2Dot for many years. The founders have consciously and consistently created spaces for people to be vulnerable and celebrated those moments. When I meet other people from the Dot2Dot community, even ones I don’t know, our conversations automatically start at a more meaningful point, thanks to the overall culture of honesty and vulnerability.

These are some initial thoughts on designing for strong collective relationships. I’d love to hear how you approach this!