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Social Identity, Knowledge Management & Member Roles in Online Communities

Click to view LARGE on FlickrLiving systems contain their own solutions. When they are suffering in any way - from divisive relationships, from lack of information, from declining performance - the solution is always to bring the system together so that it can learn more about itself from itself.

Somewhere in the system there are people who have already figured out how to resolve this problem. They are already practicing what others think is impossible.” -Dr. Margaret Wheatley

As a community manager or social designer, it's vital to remember that there is a social identity within an group that is both individual and collective.

Community managers should let this process happen naturally to allow for the most meaningful communication to occur between peers and give members time to discover their role in the community.

Social Design in Community Spaces

 In their book, Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge (Harvard Business Press, 2009), Wenger, McDermott and Snyder outline the key strategies required to build a functioning, vibrant and healthy online community:

  • Design Your Community to Evolve: You can't dictate strict design constraints, but must leave it open so new members can shape and contribute to the culture.
  • Include Insiders and Welcome Outsiders: You need insiders who know the purpose for the community and how it works. Yet at the same time, you need new members and their ideas to keep the community vital.
  • Plan for Different Levels of Participation: I'll dig deeper on this point later in this post, but the key takeaway is to remember that only a small 'core group' (10%-15%) will be actively involved in the day-to-day functions of the group.
  • Plan for Private and Public Community Spaces: Creating "private" spaces for one-on-one focused interactions or private meetings should be a key element of your social design. Public spaces are equally important as they give members to engage, share knowledge and draw new members to join the community.
  • Create Value: Online communities and groups must generate value for their participants. Solicit feedback from members and find out what you can to improve it.
  • Combine the Old and the New: Communities need membership continuity to foster their shared identies and preserve their knowledge.
  • Community Rhythm: There will be periods of greater and lesser activity--this is normal and desirable. Groups will naturally formulate their own culture and patterns of interaction.

    Member Roles in Online Communities/Social Networks

    Each group member wil bring a unique set of experiences, sources of information and level of participation in the community. For example, there will be some members who naturally become the group organizers because of their ability to keep track of details. Those who have artistic abilities will find their personal identity as they offer creative input.

    image from

    The exchange of knowledge and experience transforms a group of people into a community as members begin to appreciate the expertise and perspective of each member.

    As members interact, they develop relationships, shared values and interests.

    View Member Roles Chart Large


      When designing for an online community, groups must be given time to build an identity. Each community is unique because of the individuality of its members.

      Because of this distinctiveness members within a group must have an opportunity to discover what their contribution will be and which role they will play by interacting socially with one another. Allowing a community to create a sense of identity is a critical.

      Finally, it's important to remember that a community built around a shared practice is a living entity that is always evolving. In other words, a well-designed social space should provide users with the tools and leave it to them to construct their own meaning and level of interaction within the community.

      Image Credit: D'Arcy Norman, via Flickr

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