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Chapter 4. ROLES: From Newcomer to Old-Timer > The Membership Life Cycle

The Membership Life Cycle

Imagine that you have just moved into a neighborhood. You peek into the café and peruse the bulletin board, in the neighborhood bar you eavesdrop on a man complaining about his boss, you visit the park and inquire about classes at the community center. It all feels strange and new, and you’re relieved and grateful whenever someone helps you out.

Fast-forward twenty years: you’re still living in the same neighborhood, but it certainly doesn’t feel strange anymore. In church one Sunday, you strike up a conversation with a woman who’s new in town and doesn’t know a soul, but who recognized you from the café, where you were laughing with your friends. Almost without noticing it, you’ve become one of the community elders, someone other people look to for information and a sense of belonging.

These kinds of transitions get played out in every thriving community. Newcomers arrive, filled with curiosity and unanswered questions and eager for acceptance. Established citizens go about their business, attending meetings, exchanging gossip, and hanging out with their friends. Leaders emerge to welcome newcomers, resolve disputes, and keep the various systems running smoothly. And the old-timers kibitz—telling stories, sharing knowledge, and transmitting the local culture.

A Basic Lesson

Over the past decade, as I’ve helped clients build a wide variety of Web communities, I’ve noticed something fascinating: even when the platform and the purpose of these communities were radically different, the same basic social roles emerged again and again. And I watched my clients learn the same basic lesson about community roles over and over.

What’s the lesson? In a nutshell, it’s that communities are held together by a web of social roles, and you can help your community flourish by providing features and programs that support these roles.

Membership Life Cycle—Five Key Stages

These archetypal roles make up the Membership Life Cycle, which outlines the progressive stages of community involvement (Figure 4.1). This conceptual framework can help you design your platform, prioritize your feature set, and create the programs and policies that will shape your emerging culture.

Figure 4.1. The Membership Life Cycle

The five essential stages of community membership

The Membership Life Cycle outlines five successive stages of community involvement.

  1. Visitors: people without a persistent identity in the community.

  2. Novices: new members who need to learn the ropes and be introduced into community life.

  3. Regulars: established members that are comfortably participating in community life.

  4. Leaders: volunteers, contractors, and staff that keep the community running

  5. Elders: long-time regulars and leaders who share their knowledge, and pass along the culture.

To illustrate how the Life Cycle works, let’s return to the neighborhood. When someone visits an attractive yet unfamiliar neighborhood, they’re eager to explore the place, but not quite sure how things work. Visitors will arrive at your doorstep wondering where to go, what to see, and who to trust. Some will only visit once or twice—but others will return again and again and start to get involved in the local scene.

Some of the latter group will become new members, or novices. Novices are eager to fit in and make friends with the locals, but first they need to be welcomed properly and instructed about the prevailing customs.

Some novices will keep to themselves, but others will be drawn into community life and become fixtures on the scene. These regulars are the mainstays of a community; they keep the taverns and shops in business, and provide local color for everyone’s entertainment.

Regulars who have the time and energy to take on more official roles will become community leaders. Leaders help newcomers get settled in, operate the shops and taverns, volunteer for charities and committees, and run for mayor—a thriving community has many leadership roles to offer.

Over time, some leaders will tire of their day-to-day activities and step down from their official roles. Because they’re familiar with the history and inner workings of the community, they’re now elders—respected sources of cultural knowledge and insider lore. Along with other long-time residents, they’re the teachers and storytellers of the community, the people who give the place a sense of history, depth and soul.

Time Passes Quickly

At this point, you might be wondering: “Do I really need to be thinking about all these roles? I haven’t even built my community yet; why should I worry about long-time members and respected elders?”

Time passes quickly on the Net. Social dynamics that take months and years to evolve in the physical world can emerge in a matter of days and weeks on the Web—especially when a community becomes hot. You set up a gathering place, and before you know it, you’re faced with a contingent of regulars who think they own the place and are complaining loudly about the clueless newbies bumbling around and ruining their culture.

To make your community friendly for both newcomers and old-timers, think about these roles early on. Initial conditions matter; and the features, policies and programs that you put into in place at the start will profoundly shape how your community develops.

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