Community Builders Need to Think in Systems

Have you read the book, “Thinking in Systems“, by Donella Meadows? You definitely should give it a read. It’s about understanding the interconnected nature of systems and their feedback loops to help us influence complex issues more effectively, fostering a shift from linear, reductionist thinking to a more holistic and resilient approach.

Community is a System

As a community manager, I constantly search for new insights and perspectives to enhance my understanding of the intricate dynamics within online communities. Recently, I re-read, “Thinking in Systems”. This book offers a profound and refreshing approach to understanding complex systems – everything from ecological processes to economic models. As I read it again, my mind began to draw parallels between the systems thinking approach and the role of a community manager. Imagine the impact of applying systems thinking to our work in community management! What if we viewed our communities not merely as separate individuals interacting, but as complex, interconnected systems, full of feedback loops, leverage points, and patterns that could offer us deeper insights? With this perspective, we could uncover new ways to build, sustain, and enrich our communities, crafting spaces that are more engaging, resilient, and adaptive than ever before.

“If we transform our thinking, we transform our communities.”

Hans Scharler

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking provides community managers with an expansive lens to understand and navigate the complexities of their online communities. Traditional approaches might view community management in terms of isolated elements: members, content, rules, etc. While these elements are indeed important, focusing on them separately may lead to incomplete solutions or unintended consequences.

For example, in response to negative behavior in a community, a traditional approach might impose stricter rules or increase moderation. While these actions may curb the negative behavior in the short term, they might also create an oppressive environment, stifling free discussion and potentially driving away members. If the underlying issues aren’t addressed, the problems might resurface, leading to a vicious cycle of rule-breaking and punishment.

How to Shift

Systems thinking involves a shift in mindset. It’s not about prescribing one-size-fits-all solutions, but about developing a deeper understanding of the complex, interrelated factors that shape your online community. By considering these principles, community managers can create more engaging, resilient, and vibrant online spaces.

  1. Identify the elements, interconnections, and function of the system: Start by identifying key components of your community (members, content, platforms), the interconnections (communication, shared activities), and the overall purpose of the community (networking, support, learning, etc.). Understand how these elements interact and contribute to the larger purpose.
  2. Understand the types of feedback loops: Feedback loops in a community might be member engagement leading to more content, which in turn draws in more members (reinforcing loop), or moderation efforts that balance out disruptive behavior and keep the community environment healthy (balancing loop).
  3. Recognize time delays and nonlinearity: Changes made today may not show immediate effects. The growth of a community or the impact of a new policy might take time to unfold. Also, small actions, like highlighting member contributions or consistently enforcing rules, can lead to substantial long-term community health and growth.
  4. Consider the community’s resilience and adaptability: How well can your community handle disruptions or changes? Factors like the diversity of members, the strength of community norms, and the flexibility of your platforms can affect this.
  5. Identify leverage points: A small change in the community can lead to big results. This could be introducing new modes of interaction, redefining community guidelines, or even recognizing and rewarding positive behavior.
  6. Beware of community traps: Some common traps in community management could include over-policing, leading to a stifling atmosphere, or the echo chamber effect, where a lack of diverse viewpoints leads to stagnant conversation. Identifying and avoiding these traps can lead to a healthier community.
  7. Think in terms of hierarchies: Recognize that your community exists within a larger system (the entire web, societal norms, legal frameworks) and is also made up of smaller systems (subgroups or threads within the community). Changes at one level can have effects at other levels.

Online communities are living entities that evolve over time, influenced by various internal and external factors. A systems approach prepares community managers to adapt to these changes, to learn from them, and to guide the community’s growth in a way that aligns with its purpose and values.

Thinking in systems is all about becoming better stewards of our communities versus being more effective at problem solving. If we transform our thinking, we transform our communities. Let’s keep the conversation going on Discord.

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