06 Jun The Community Dictionary | Episode 4 – Openness
Welcome to the Community Dictionary. This series of articles will feature the English version of the Italian spoken podcast hosted by Marta Mainieri, and produced by Produzioni Dal Basso.
Openness is an important word for community design and our dictionary because it is related to identity, safety, and community growth.
Openness defines who participates in a community (the players) but also who does not participate, referred to as “the antagonists,” those whose entrance risks undermining its safety and identity.
Players include all those who can participate in the community. Using industrial product or service terminology, players can be compared to the target audience, the individuals to whom the community is addressed. As such, segmentation is crucial. This segmentation should not be based only on age, average income, education, or habits, as is often the case, but primarily on specific expertise, engagement, and potential interest in the community’s purpose. Segmentation is even more important for communities than for industrial products since it not only shapes their identity but also fosters security and confidence among members, driving their participation.
Community players and its identity
Depending on who joins the community, it will adopt distinct identity traits and characteristics. For example, if a community is created for users of an innovative technology, the discussions, information, and meetings will vary significantly depending on whether they are intended for technical experts or those who could benefit from understanding the technology (e.g., unskilled technicians or designers). The former may share new experiments, code snippets, and process reviews, while the latter may seek examples, best practices, attend training webinars, and discuss potential applications. The language used will also differ, with the former being more technical and specialized, and the latter simpler and more accessible.
Thus, in the first case, the players are the technology experts, while in the second case, it is the opposite. Even if a single community were formed for both groups, the environments for experts and novices would necessarily have to be distinct. If inexperienced individuals were to enter the technical community, they would likely feel uncomfortable, unable to grasp the discussions, and ask irrelevant questions, resulting in a lack of value derived from the experience. Similarly, the experts would likely feel out of place, no longer comprehending the tone and language of the discussions. Conversely, if experts entered the more popularized community, they would likely not find value and might even criticize the simplicity of the questions and the superficiality of the topics, leading to chaos and dissatisfaction.
Openness is about context
Defining openness is not about excluding anyone but rather creating the right context where people feel confident to express themselves, socialize, get to know others with similar passions, practice the same profession, or share the same condition or territory.
Openness also plays a role in identity because it determines individuals’ sense of belonging (see Episode 3). The more closed a community is, the more its value is limited to a small group, and the stronger the sense of belonging and shared values becomes. Conversely, if a community is completely open, its value becomes generic as it aims to encompass everyone related to the topic, resulting in a weak and fragmented sense of belonging. In such cases, people often do not fully know each other, and the general nature of the purpose renders the experience non-aggregative and irrelevant for everyone. Returning to the example of tech communities, if the purpose is to share experiences and promote the use of an innovative technology, and the community is filled with individuals who discuss the topic in an unskilled or superficial manner, those deeply specialized may not feel part of that community and lose their interest and desire to engage.
How to define the right level of openness
Defining the right level of openness also determines the growth of a community. It is not a fixed dimension but will change, sometimes unexpectedly, over time. As a community grows, new members inevitably join, representing both risks and assets. They pose a risk because unanticipated segments of players can undermine the community’s identity, but they’re also an asset because they bring fresh ideas, needs, and energy. Monitoring openness helps to understand whether the new members align not only with the community’s expectations but also, more importantly, with what they can contribute in the future. Initially, it may be beneficial to keep the community relatively closed to solidify a sense of belonging and shared values, but later on, opening up becomes important to generate turnover and introduce novelty. The arrival of new members signifies community growth and the spread of its impact to different types of people. Managing how to attract and benefit from this richness while balancing transformation and identity is probably the most significant challenge for communities that aspire to grow and evolve.
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