Had a discussion yesterday with a community leader (facilitator) who was mentioning that people who came across his community may wish to participate in forums, but first had the hurdle of requesting membership.
He instantly grants membership without batting an eyelid, and currently has over a hundred members, which isn’t too bad considering it’s a business-unit type community.
I said aren’t you picky about people you add as members, wondering how they are going to add value to the shared identity of the community.
This did not bother him, in fact he’d rather his community be open so any visitor can contribute.
He did not want to miss out on receiving valuable inter-disciplinary participation just because of permissions. A visitor passing by may contribute a gem, as much as any member, and may never come back, but we are glad they visited that one time, and are welcome again.
Unlike the web, behind the firewall all our communities have something in common, and that is that we work for the same company, so any visitor may have something relevant to say.
In this case he would not abolish membership, but instead have a smaller membership of key contributors who would help with participation to engage and sustain the community.
But, there would be no difference in permissions/access between members and visitors, the difference is that members would be there when times are tough, they are a pillar of the community.
The next thing I mentioned is that wasn’t he worried that visitors would post forum topics/replies that would pollute the community. Eg. off-topic, in the wrong forum, has been talked about in earlier topics, doesn’t blend into the wavelength of the group (this is more of an issue in small communities of ten or so people).
From what I have read in the literature communities may get polluted, as it ain’t what is used to be, the original dynamics, banter, calibre of talk, and all those elements that make it feel homely, all of a sudden feel like a city. Some important members may stop participating, and others may contribute less as they wouldn’t say things a certain way to people they don’t trust, plus they may not feel confident participating in front of hundreds of members (but this may be a non-point as anyone in the company can subscribe or visit a community without having to be a member, so there are indeed more listeners out there than people may realise).
One thing I like about this idea is that Groupthink can be challenged or broken by a visitor perhaps from another discipline.
Anyway, he acknowledges this total openness will obviously require more facilitation/moderation as visitors don’t know how things operate round here, so are more prone to do or say the wrong thing, but that’s OK, because that’s how we learn. To mitigate a little of this it’s a good idea to have a visitor welcome message with some pointers on the specifics of the community, and to please search forums before asking questions, which forums to use for which questions, etc…
He said, behind the firewall we don’t have an issue of “anonymity” as anything someone posts will have their name marked alongside it, so it would be career suicide to be a troll. In this respect, the act of “membership” has one less function to play.
I like this approach in that it doesn’t miss or prevent any opportunities and is totally a culture of welcomed sharing across all teams. But at the same time I wonder how it will effect the domain and community dynamics.
At the moment I think participation full stop, is an obstacle as people are used to closed tools like email, so I don’t think the total openness is going to be that big of a deal. If we ever get the network effects of the web, then we can see the bigger effects visitor contributions are having on the community. Anyway we are going to test this model on this community, so we will find out.
To wrap up, this community is not doing away with membership, instead they are adding another dimension, which is, visitors are free to contribute just like members.
If we were to do away with “members”, then we would really have no direction, and sustaining mechanisms.
It may help if I mention the default permissions Visitors and Members have at the moment in our communities. We do have the option of private communities for confidential stuff, but we like most of them to be open.
Visitors - visit, subscribe, leave blog comments
Members - all the above, and request to join or create a blog, post forum topics/replies
Please leave your thoughts.
[ADDED 22/01/09: Community membership reinterpreted online]