Communities are cultural ecosystems. They thrive with the right care and attention, but as they grow, they also face unique challenges when critical facets of that community tip their scales. From the vantage point of a community builder, It’s difficult to navigate. Samantha 'Venia' Logan a Community Architect & Founder of SociallyConstructed.Online with expertise in Social Sciences, has devoted her research to understanding these challenges, which she calls the six burdens of community growth.
In our latest CMX Masterclass, Venia took a deep dive into her ongoing research and shared her hypothesis on how to manage these burdens. But this was no ordinary academic study. Her work is all about the nitty-gritty of community management and the day-to-day challenges that can make or break a thriving community.
And the best part? The study is still in progress, so you can participate too by taking this pre-qualification survey to get interviewed for the study!
Throughout the masterclass, Venia covered everything from allocating tasks to the dreaded spiral of silence phenomenon. Her insights were truly eye-opening, and I promise you won't want to miss what she had to say. (I won't spoil the surprise here – you'll have to keep reading to find out more!)
So let's get right to it!
Venia's journey to discovering the six burdens of community growth is one rooted in a decade of experience. "I saw this common thread, and I wanted to pull this thread a little bit more for all of the different communities that I run into."
For her, virtual communities are cultures, and just like any culture, virtual spaces have underlying facets that define their unique feel. While there are some cultural universals that can be discovered in these communities, there's still a lot of work to be done in the industry before we can move beyond the "special snowflake" mentality where every community is different. At present, it’s almost entirely up to the community manager to uncover unique differences.
That's why Venia decided to pull on the thread of the burdens of community growth. By identifying these common challenges that all communities face, she hopes to provide community managers with a framework for success: "If we're gonna move this industry forward into education and academic use–to find a system for sustainably growing communities beyond their current scales, we're going to need to do this the right way using the social scientific framework."
This research on the burdens of community growth is not just about identifying the problems but also finding solutions. But how did Venia come up with the solutions to these challenges?
"When it comes to these solutions, I often find that in many communities, people will say, 'Yeah, but the burden of contribution, it's not a problem in my community.' And I'm like, sure, it's not a problem. Did you just potentially just already solve it before you noticed it was an issue?"
Through her research, Venia found that many community managers had already implemented solutions to manage these burdens but were only sometimes aware of it. For example, a community that had previously struggled with the burden of contribution may have solved the problem by implementing a mentorship program.
"This is my hypothesis, These burdens look to be culturally universal. All communities will go through them and encounter them in some regard, but they will present differently and require different solutions. Many communities haven't viewed these universal cultural burdens as "problems" because they've already implemented the infrastructure to fix them organically."
"The first burden I came up with was one of contribution," Venia explained. "This notion that work available in your community is logarithmic, but the rewards of that work is exponential. People view the exponential reward for their work as a positive thing until it gets out of hand. Everyone benefits from just a few people’s work without supporting the people who do all the work. This burden creates a bottleneck where the number of people doing the work decreases while the rewards increase."
When it comes to solving this burden, Venia believes that looking beyond technological solutions is key. She warns against relying too heavily on vendor contributions that repeatedly solve the contribution burden without ever hitting the underlying issue. Instead, community managers should look into creating new processes and strategies, such as the microtask concept in open-source communities. GitHub is a brilliant example of a solution, but also the poster child for the problem.
"Microtasks work well," Venia explains. "You can see all of the different microtasks assigned, and then the community can be like, 'Hey, grab one, contribute to it, submit it,' and it's all right." By creating new processes like this, communities can ensure that the contribution burden doesn't fall disproportionately on a few individuals while the rewards go to the many.
“Allocation is about the approach that people take to reciprocity in your community based upon how connected they feel." In other words, as a community scales, its members may become less inclined to take on the weighty responsibilities that characterized their earlier engagement with the group.
This shift in focus can create a number of challenges for community managers. As Venia pointed out, "We tend to focus so much on the long-term responsibilities that we don't recognize the importance of small microtasks. New users want to learn first and then take on bigger roles later, but they need to feel like they have a place in the community before they can do that."
To address this challenge, community managers must create opportunities for users to take on small tasks and build their reputations in the community. "It's important to have a range of tasks available, from big responsibilities to small tasks. That way, new users can find their place in the community and build their confidence before taking on bigger roles."
Venia recommends a "ladder of commitment" approach that organically targets specific members willing to take on certain levels of responsibility. These simple but effective approaches help members find their place in the community without overwhelming them. You are building their confidence before asking them to take on bigger roles. This ensures that tasks are allocated efficiently based on each member's perceived level of responsibility.
As Venia dove deeper into the pain points community managers face, she discovered a recurring theme: the burden of distribution. She explains, "Every community intelligence platform is trying to solve this issue of scale. As your community grows, it starts to use platforms that most community managers just cannot keep up with."
But the problem is deeper than that. "There's this overriding burden of distribution that is causing problems with grapevine or unstructured communication. This is the communication you’re not supposed to see because it’s not built into your structure. This communication must be encouraged because it greases the wheel of interaction - but the point is NOT to structure it. you need to add it to your platform list and plan for this platform creep to happen."
So how can community managers address this issue, especially if their preferred communication channels are no longer effective? The answer is simple: "Get yourself a community intelligence platform."
Well, there's more to it than that. Venia also pointed to the socio-ecological model as a valuable tool for understanding and addressing the burden of distribution. "Once you understand how your community structures itself, you can associate that model with your measurement system and apply it to your community structure. This will solve some hefty problems without even needing to know the platforms those people are on. You don’t need to see them to know they are there."
The next one moves away from how people act to the results of those actions. Attribution isn't only about the individuals but also about the artifacts that emerge from their interactions. As Venia suggests, the burden of Attribution "Is about the assets produced through communication. The artifacts of your community when people get together and talk," she explained. "These assets indicate that a community has created something valuable through its conversations."
To further illustrate this concept, Venia mentioned CMX as an example. We have faced this issue several times as our community has expanded. Venia explained that the challenge arises when the content isn't structured around the conversations within the community. "As the community grows, the conversations become vaguer due to the sheer volume of information being shared," she noted.
To address this challenge, CMX has taken several steps. Firstly, we created a Summit to capture conversations in a more structured way. This enabled us to build a reputation for experts within the community and allowed for the emergence of cohesive and easily digestible media. When we outgrew that, we then expanded the Summit to include local chapters, so we could capture more artifacts faster. This enabled more voices, more space, more discussion, and, ultimately, more high-quality content. However, this content had to be organized in a way that was accessible to the entire community.
"As CMX continued to grow, you created CMX Connect and produced webinars all over the place," Venia explained. "But then that wasn't enough. You also had to create a cohesive master class that takes the best information as far as it can possibly go. Lastly, this masterclass feeds into the conversations had at the CMX summit." By doing so, CMX overcame the burden of attribution by creating layers of content, each with its own “test” on the value of that information. Every time the content coming out of the community became too vague, CMX created new artifacts that helped more people build a shared understanding of the most valuable concepts within the community.
According to Venia, as a community grows and develops, different voices naturally surface. Some voices become more prominent, while others may be pushed to the sidelines. Organically, our bid to solve the other burdens strengthens this one. "We've talked about attribution, where some voices have to float to the top. And we’ve talked about allocation where we build structures around members’ seniority," she explains. "CMX Connect chapters will select specific people to give their webinars. CMX Summit is a highly selective group of those same members who have ideas worthy of sharing in a Summit. We use stratification to structure communities we can manage. It’s helpful to us."
But, it’s a burden of its own as well. While it's important to recognize the contributions of these voices, it's equally important to ensure that all members feel valued and heard regardless of their contribution level. "Implementing infrastructure the smart way means understanding how your stratification is depressing or elevating voices. Truthfully this is the most important skill for any community facilitator or coordinator," Venia emphasizes. "In the absence of infrastructure to handle that stratification, people's share of voice starts to reduce, and it starts to become homologous at the top."
To address this issue, community managers can work to mitigate power distance, or the perceived understanding of power between two individuals in a specific culture. Venia explains that power distance can often cause voices further down the ladder not to be listened to, and over time, these members can begin to lose confidence that their voice matters. "Understanding power distance is helpful because it allows you to understand how your community stratifies, but also how that structure hinders a large majority of DEIB practices. This is the most critical skill any community builder can have."
The Spiral of Silence phenomenon is a perfect example of power distance and stratification. This spiral plays a significant role in perpetuating the burden of stratification. Venia explains, "The idea is that people feel like they have less power, authority, and capacity in their online communities over time. As their dissenting opinions go ignored, they feel like their voice doesn't matter as much.So they stop sharing those opinions. They talk less," Venia continues. "Because they talk less, people hear less and assume those users' opinions are in line already, And then it's just this vicious cycle."
The burden of stratification is particularly subtle because it often goes unnoticed, "Silence, by definition, doesn't show up on your radar very often." That's why it's so important for community managers to proactively seek out those who feel silenced or marginalized and ask them what can be done to give them a voice. By doing so, we can help break the spiral of silence and create more equitable communities where everyone has the opportunity to be heard. Ultimately, it's up to all of us to recognize the power dynamics at play and work more intentionally structure them so that everyone can have an equitable voice.
Let’s separate ourselves briefly from the burdens of community growth and turn inward now. Let’s talk about funding... The burden of remuneration is difficult for any community, especially when it comes to maintaining authenticity and purpose. As Venia points out, "Every solution for all of the other burdens has an impact on this part. The core issue here is in how the people funding the community see the value of that community. Our job as community managers is to make that value clear. And to do that, we have to abstract our community into cohesive metrics." This means adding more systems, people, architecture, standard operating procedures, and more people, and yet more people. As we do this, we create distance between the core members of the community and its day-to-day operations. This detachment harms the community's core values as the people most invested in it get further away from it.
"The key stakeholders have overhead to deal with and tasks to perform. They can't be present in the community as often," Venia notes. To address this issue, community managers must quantify the value of the community, which can be challenging as it grows. Venia suggests abstracting the ROI of the community by using carefully crafted metrics, processes, qualitative data, and development. Focus on telling the story the funders care about, separately from the story the community tells. These are separate goals.
"A community intelligence platform is a perfect answer for this, but you have to tell a story yourself. Such platforms enable abstracting qualitative data almost as fast as Google Analytics, which can help quantify the value of the community quickly. If you learn and understand how the Google Analytics account works, you can abstract data quickly to help with the remuneration problem. Community Intelligence Platforms are no different"
As Venia puts it, "Despite all the measurement instruction out there, we just simply have not solved the remuneration problem reliably across different communities. Identifying and studying funding as a cultural universal will help," By staying committed to the process, we can continue working towards a solution.
If you have ever felt burdened by the challenges of building and maintaining a community, Venia wants to hear from you! By sharing your experiences and insights in this interview qualification survey, you can contribute to a larger and more comprehensive understanding of the intricacies of community dynamics. Sign up to be interviewed!
But that's not all - Venia is taking her research to the next level. She is collating data in real-time on her YouTube channel and Discord and bringing together interviewees and focus groups to analyze and discuss the results. This is more than just a survey or a report.
You can take part in a live social scientific process that aims to build a sustainable, well-researched, and well-categorized theory of community. I, for one, can't wait to see where this journey takes us.
So if you're intrigued by Venia's work, I encourage you to watch her full masterclass and get involved in the conversation!