Things That Kill The Village

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Online communities often remind me of villages, offering a sense of belonging, a place to grow roots, and a bustling exchange of ideas and services. I found my ‘village’ among sci-fi enthusiasts and software entrepreneurs online. And I do my best to contribute to the continuation and improvement of these communities.

But not everyone has that long-term perspective. Some people very selfishly act in ways that kill the village.

Maintaining these virtual communities is —no doubt— challenging. We need to understand what makes a community thrive and what can lead to its downfall. To avoid killing the village, we have to know what sustains the village.

Looking back at how settlements develop, they tend to start with pioneers who establish the basic infrastructure needed to settle, followed by settlers who develop the village further using their more specific skills. Generalists followed by specialists. This applies equally to online communities where key members set up everything before others contribute value in many different ways.

As more people join a community and interact with each other, it grows into something self-sustaining, like a village. People forge bonds as their daily lives intermingle. The farmers grow the crops that, once milled and turned to flour, allow the baker to make the bread that the blacksmith eats before forging more farming instruments. It’s cyclical, interdependent, and —most of all— built on trust. Mutual necessity establishes strong ties over time.

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But the problems arise when too many new members arrive in the village without enough time for trust-building. Villages develop culture, which boils down to a shared way of doing things. When too many new settlers flow into a village without soaking up the established culture, there are no shared ways anymore. That significantly erodes trust. And in a virtual community that might even consist of a significant number of pseudonymous or anonymous members, this trust is the only thing that prevents scams, cons, and abuse.

But if you don’t know your virtual neighbor from many positive interactions before, how can you extend that trust?

Well, you can’t. You start doubting the intentions of your fellow villager. You wonder why they do the things they do. And more importantly, they don’t do the things they do for the sake of the community.

They do things only for themselves.

Selfish behavior is another major contributor to the death of the village. In a world of advertising fueling the bank accounts of some of the world’s largest companies, virtual villages have been barraged by promotional activities. While some self-promotion is acceptable if it’s beneficial for the group (something I call ‘selfless self-promotion‘), purely selfish acts harm the community — because they go against the community.

And that’s something a lot of founders are guilty of.

Sometimes entrepreneurs enter communities solely for personal gain. They need customers and try everything to get a few more conversions. But without contributing anything valuable to the community themselves, they’re using it as a means to an end. And that violates Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, particularly its second and less well-known formulation:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

— Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

This means that anything you do in a community, from the public space on Twitter to the invite-only expert groups on Facebook, your actions should always also improve the community in addition to getting you what you want.

Exclusively selfish acts are not making communities better. These acts kill the village.

Scamming or even just making very optimistic promises damages trust in communities. That’s why platforms like Reddit established a culture that quickly punishes selfish behavior. Promotional activities should benefit everyone rather than just the promoter alone. And if you don’t have a history of contribution to show for, you will be banned from that subreddit for life if you start promoting your services.

Selfishness erodes the foundations of community.

Selflessness leads to increased reputation and trust.

It’s a very easy choice — at least if you think long-term. Because the inconvenient truth is that these short-term selfish acts often do generate customers or purchases. But they come with the hidden cost of burning your reputation. And in the long haul, reputation is worth significantly more than a few more sales today. Look at the “elders” of our virtual villages, the people who have been part of our communities for decades. Not a single one of them tries to cheat you out of your money. Most don’t even talk about their services. They trust that you’ll find them when you’re ready. They’d instead participate in the community than mindlessly monetize it at all costs.

Communities flourish through contributions from members helping each other without expecting returns. Which, ironically, often leads to outsized returns, to eventual reciprocity as people feel compelled to give back after receiving much help themselves. Trust fosters opportunities. Not knowing your neighbors destroys them.

But this doesn’t mean new community members are a threat. In fact, they are needed to keep the village alive and able to keep up with the progress of the world.

A healthy community avoids becoming overly insular or tribal, where only those with similar ideologies are accepted. If a community locks out everyone, it can promote internal extremism and has reduced adaptability due lack of diversity or fresh ideas. Communities and villages need shaking up sometimes.

Or just any activity at all. Active participation keeps a village alive, while apathy leads toward decline. If you find your virtual village becoming noticeably less engaged, that may indicate issues such as selfish individuals pulling participants away to other places or overly rigid norms and regulations preventing fringe thinkers from contributing somewhat spicy ideas. Conformism kills the village.

So, what can you do, pioneer, settler, or late-stage community joiner? Encourage active participation; contribute to your communities. Don’t lurk, post. Engage with people who share their thoughts while discouraging ideological rigidity. Prioritize relationship-building over personal gain and allow room for dissenting voices so your ‘village’ remains adaptive and enduring.

Because we moved into the village because it was a great place to live.

So keep it alive and make it a place that others like you want to live in, too.

One thought on “Things That Kill The Village

  1. This would really benefit from specific examples or specific rules of thumb for evaluating a post or other contribution a founder may be considering. Looking back over the last decade of your interactions in various online communities what are mistakes have you made or posts you now regret? What rules of thumb do you apply in evaluating how to reply or how to form a new post?

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