Musings on Community Ownership

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.

6 thoughts on “Musings on Community Ownership”

  1. Amen! 🙂

    Great post. Trying to get people to not freak out and do things like delete negative or critical (but otherwise non-rule-breaking) comments is hard.

    I agree that a company that “hosts” a community should think of itself as en equal member, but it’s so hard to get some people to move away from the “it’s our house, so we can do whatever we want” mentality.

    I use the metaphor of hosting a party quite often, when I’m teaching about community building. When you host a community, you’re throwing the party. You build and provide the house (site) where the party will happen. You invite interesting people to come to the party, and give them other interesting people to talk to. You can provide amusements, but not stupid party games (no one likes to be forced into doing something they don’t like at a party). You’re there in case something goes wrong, and needs to be addressed. But if you’re a good party host, you want to make sure things go smoothly, and enjoy the party equally for yourself, NOT make yourself the center of attention the whole time.

    Every time I think about it, I find more ways the party metaphor applies to community building. I think in this case, with ownership, you could say that sure, a party host COULD make and enforce abitrary rules, and act like a dictator, because it’s “their” house or “their” party. But that makes the party suck. No one will want to stay if you start acting like that. And in the end, it’s really just embarrassing. 🙂

    Keep up the great posts, Dawn! I’m telling everyone I know in the community building world (especially at Intel) that your blog is a must-read. I hope they’re listening to me, because if they’re not, they’re missing out! 🙂

  2. Great conversation here given birth by your post.

    I really like this description you supply for the meaning of ownership; “the sense of ownership that people feel for something that they are passionate about because they helped to create it in some way.”

    And metaphor of a party works for me too!

    Keep creating….a party worth going to,

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