FEATURE1 August 2007

The brains behind the social networks

Jamie Hamilton, managing director of Nqual, shows how psychology can help create successful online communities

Research-oriented online communities are achievable. However, it’s not as easy as knocking up some suitable surroundings, throwing in a bunch of people, kicking back and waiting.

A community is not an environment, it is a highly intricate social system which requires thoughtful groundwork and ongoing supervision to flourish. Consequently, instead of trusting technology, prize-draw incentives and Lady Luck, we would be wiser to turn to Social Psychology, which affords some invaluable perspectives on communities and the forces underpinning them.

Sit and listen
A good illustration is Social Identity Theory, developed in 1979 by Tajfel and Turner to explain the findings of experimental studies of racial and other inter-group discrimination. Although the connection may not be immediately apparent, by describing what happens to our identity, motivations, judgments and perceptions when we join a new group, this threee-stage model offers community builders many key insights into how to build and maintain a committed online membership.

In the first stage of SIT, social categorisation, the new social group provides us with a unique ‘template’ for making sense of our world and for organising perceptions of ourselves and the people around us. This template is composed of structural elements such as a mission, a vision, an event calendar, milestones, a language, status hierarchy, rituals, procedures, and codes of conduct. When we encounter a new hobby club, social group or job, its pre-existing template helps us to decide whether or not to join, and if we do, it guides our views, motivations and behaviour.

Creating a community template from scratch, bottom up, however, is difficult and time-consuming – neither appealing to online participants. Principle structural elements (such as those stated above) should be prepared ahead of launch, ideally with the involvement of future members: to ensure elements are appropriate and familiar. The objective should be a schematic template with enough organisation to make the community concept attractive, quickly comprehensible, and easy to get stuck into; yet allowing plenty of freedom for members to flesh out, adapt, and create something which is uniquely their own.

Self-esteem and belonging
The next stage of SIT is social identification, the process whereby our self-esteem becomes linked to our membership of the new group. Here the template involved in social categorisation fashions us a new identity with different self-definitions, value systems, and status relative to fellow members. “What is the group?” becomes “who am I as its member?” and “where will it take me?” Finally in the third stage of the model, social comparison, we strive to amplify our new positive self-image by maximising favourable differences between our new group and other groups.

It is a key insight that, above all, we seek self-esteem and personal progress from the groups to which we belong. Material and financial gain, if relevant at all, are secondary to the fact that being a part of them makes us feel better about ourselves. Underestimating the emotional significance of membership is probably the reason why so many online communities flounder. To be a success they must offer members an interesting, meaningful identity with development potential.

The foundation of an online community, therefore, should be a concept that supports the formation of strong identities; something defined by the interests and motivations of the participants, and not (solely) by the aims of business. This could be a subject already involved in their sense-of-self (e.g. a job, hobby, favourite brand), where their individual wisdom, passion or expertise is recognised, and member interaction offers opportunities for self-expression and knowledge enhancement. In such instances, it is likely that members already compare their groups favourably against others (e.g. Mac vs PC); portal managers should provoke these rivalries using site content, polls and discussions.

Alternatively, members’ identities might become aligned with a resonant cause or end-purpose, such as the development of a new brand, product or website, or the improvement of ‘something’. In these circumstances self-esteem is stimulated not so much by comparisons with out-groups but by collective progress and achievement; and it is critical that portal managers set clear milestones so members can see how far they’ve travelled and have compelling goals to work towards.

Social Identity Theory provided three key insights: firstly, to get members involved and active quickly and easily, an online community requires a schematic ‘template’ with familiar structural elements in place prior to launch. Secondly, it must also be rooted in a resonant concept, which is simple to comprehend, promotes a particular world-view, and offers members an appealing self-image. Lastly, to maintain ongoing commitment, self-esteem must be managed assiduously at both a group and an individual level. A portal manager has a fascinating and challenging role, part mayor /moderator, part psychologist /anthropologist, part-mirror in which the developing community sees, knows and loves itself – all skills which are peculiarly well-suited to the research industry.

Jamie Hamilton is managing director of Nqual, an online qualitative software solutions and services provider. www.netfluential.com

August | 2007