Community ownership is a tricky issue. In this post, I am not talking about legal ownership, but about something a little more abstract. I’m sure the courts would come up with a different conclusion than the one that I propose here. I’m really talking about the sense of ownership that people feel for something that they are passionate about because they helped to create it in some way. This sense of ownership is a big part of what makes an active community so special and interesting.
Too many people and companies think that they “own” their community with a level of ownership that includes exerting too much control over the members participating in the community. Some people delete posts or comments containing criticisms that don’t show them in the best light. The natural instinct for some people is to bury anything that is less than favorable, but this is not a healthy approach for anyone (it’s how we end up with companies like Enron).
A better approach is to think of it this way: the community “owns” the community, and the employees of an organization or other people hosting the community are an integral part of that community. If you think of yourselves as an equal member of the community, it might be more natural to have conversations about negative criticism and work to resolve them together. Maybe this is just semantics, but I think it can help people think about the community in a way that facilitates collaboration and cooperation.
Anyone who starts a community is responsible for a few things. Clearly, they do own the infrastructure and the environment where the online community software resides. As a result, they should feel a responsibility to maintain the software and keep it running well. They are also responsible for facilitating the discussions and participating in the community along with the other community members. Finally, they are also responsible for moderation and keeping people in check by deleting spam, porn and other content that is truly inappropriate for the community. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, negative comments do not count as “inappropriate” for the sake of moderation.
If the company doesn’t play nice with the community, the community will take their discussions elsewhere. Thinking about the issue of ownership in a way that encourages community members to consider themselves a real part of the community is just one more way to encourage people to remain actively engaged in the community.