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Community isn’t always good (especially in marketing)

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Community in marketing or elsewhere is a problematic concept. A strong and top-down sense of community is prone to creating discrimination and hindering innovation.

Everything these days is about building a sense of community. I don’t like it.

I’ve spent most of my life looking for a sense of belonging. I had it in skating, I had it in gaming, I had it in many other places, and community made me happy, sometimes; but it also made me face how much building community leads to injustice and peer pressure when not done right.

When marketers and entrepreneurs talk about leveraging the power of community for their product, I’m sincerely scared. I’ve seen what communities can do, even when they’re built with the best intentions in mind.

I’ve seen people gain power for no solid reason – hell, I’ve even been one of them. Being an « influencer » is nice, until you say or do something and are painfully reminded that you’re not a celebrity with a legal army and a spokesperson. You’re just a person and sometimes you make a bad decision that has real, severe consequences on other people. And I’ve been on the other side too. I’ve been a member of a community that shunned me because of a handful of people who didn’t like the idea of someone who dated people who had common interests and a similar lifestyle. I’ve seen people protect racists and domestic abusers and sexual assaulters because calling them out would give a bad image of the « community ».

Community is dangerous. Community means us vs. them, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll always be part of the « us ».

And I see businesses turning community into their marketing tool, through forums and hashtags and live conversations and Discord servers and Slack chats.
I see the appeal of user-generated content and of a sense of belonging in marketing, of course I do. But community means that people who don’t have the best intentions in mind can take power from the company’s hand (supposing that the company itself had good intentions to begin with, which is already a strong assumption to make).

And then, things can go awfully, awfully wrong.

So before you decide to build a community around your product, I’m imploring you to think about this:

  • Do you have systems that will prevent abuse?
  • Will this space be dedicated to uplifting and inspiring conversation?
  • Do you have systems that make sure under-represented groups have a voice in your community, and are not relegated to their identity?
  • Do you have proper moderation by people who actually have training and experience in moderation, and aren’t just superfans?
  • Are you making sure that your early adopters are a diverse base that will encourage a diverse crowd to join?

And if I may sum it all up in one question. Do you actually need to build a community that you’ll « own », or should you just let people build their own small, decentralized communities and then MAYBE support the ones that have emerged as diverse, constructive, and open? (Oh, and when I say support, I mean support, not exploit: create the right structures, pay top contributors, and hire the right moderators before giving communities a level of visibility they might not be ready for.)

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