Is The Future of Branded Community Splintered?

I want to write about where I fear branded communities are headed, not where I think they will actually go.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve called out some of the community-centric companies I admire most, Airbnb and WeWork. They’ve been building community tirelessly for years, but have recently begun spouting hollowed out community-first marketing messages while taking action that could potentially violate their members’ and employees’ constitutional rights and rob them of power.

When companies quietly take away power from the community members they pay lip service to, they undermine the true value of the word community. They take the trust they’ve worked hard to build and toss it out the window. And that spells disaster for community managers who may work for these companies, for the members who sign away their rights upon joining, and for the industry as a whole as these stories proliferate.

The root of the problem is in the corporate world’s love for bigger and bigger wins, for faster results that can be measured more precisely.

So let’s ask a fun question: how do businesses build branded communities at scale without becoming evil?

First, admit wrongdoing. Admit that you had two options and you chose the wrong one, that you forgot what community really was while you were in those big investor meetings and meeting with your General Counsel.

I have a friend who is at the cusp of her company making their decision about which road to go down right now. A few weeks ago, we met at a wine bar to discuss work. She builds community at a prominent company on the IPO track. She was leaning in and telling me how much she loves her job, how supported she feels, how safe of an environment they’ve created for community innovation, and then she suddenly stopped and corrected herself. “I’m waiting to see what happens with the community in the long run.”

I asked her what she meant by that.

“We’ll either build the most amazing community in the world… or we’ll totally sell out.”

Two roads diverge. Let’s go down the former.

Here’s what I think the future of community could look like if we do things right:

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Photo of protesters at the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong via Compfight

It looks like Revolution splintering, people joining together through good and bad to take tiny collective actions that reaffirm their power.

When the Occupy Movement sprung up in 2011, it was decried as a failure about as soon as it had begun. “They don’t have clear goals,” pundits said. Maybe they didn’t, not yet. This is where, had they been a branded community (the horror!), their impact would have halted.

And yet the impact of Occupy is still felt today in ways you likely never realize. That movement went on to galvanize millions of people around the world to protest, to take action, and then to splinter off into smaller groups with niche goals that have caused serious change to occur not only in legislation but in the very language we use (“the 1%”), in the leaders who have risen to political prominence (hello, Elizabeth Warren), and in the $15 minimum wage in my city of residence, Seattle, Washington.

The medium-sized community, the splintered community, is not a glamorous story to sell to VCs and reporters. It is a modest story, an ordinary story. But that’s why it’s so powerful from our perspective as ordinary community builders: our ordinary selves have the power to splinter off into smaller groups that can take serious action, political or otherwise. Not only are we far more powerful than any of us can imagine, but this is one of the only ways that community can work at scale.

Businesses have the power to build medium-sized communities with hyper-specific goals. When you get “too big to fail”, maybe it’s time you did the right thing and encouraged real action to take place, not just the marketing speak that you wish were still true.

And there’s an added benefit to smaller groups: Splintered communities with individual goals are easier to manage and hold accountable to their goals. They’re easier to moderate. The individuals are more likely to feel social responsibility to others within that group (it’s why, in his CMX Summit talk, Jeremy Bird said they only had one field organizer per 10 volunteers in each region during the 2012 Obama campaign). And, perhaps most significantly, smaller communities allow power to float up from the bottom to the top, rather than trickle down unevenly.

I hope that the future of large community is splintered. I hope that tools, resources, and power are distributed among more, smaller groups of people. And I especially hope that that power is distributed among the voices that are often not loud enough to hear in a crowded room filled with people working to preserve a system that keeps them quiet.

Photo Credit: Mat McDermott via Compfight cc

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