Participation is seen as the hallmark of a thriving community. There can be no community without participants and no participants without participation. This statement might sound self-evident, if not trite, but expectations about participation vary greatly and ignoring how we assess participation can lead to frustration, demotivation and even conflict. What’s more, when you try looking more closely at participation it turns out to be a rather slippery beast that doesn’t easily let itself be tamed.

Levels of participation

Let’s start with a rough and ready definition of participation: the act of contributing to a community on the part of its members. When people think of participation, whether they are the driving force of a group or just one of the many participants, they often have a level of participation in mind that they expect of themselves and other participants. If they fail to meet their expectations or feel them to be too high (or too low) for what they are prepared to invest, frustration ensues and the pleasure of participating falls away. If others don’t meet their expectations, they feel those people are not pulling their weight and tension builds up. For those who run such communities, failure of people to participate at the level they expect can lead to disappointment. They look for concrete proof of participation. In a face-to-face context that might take the form of distinct signs of attention or active participation in a discussion or a helping hand getting things done. In the online context, participation might be a written response to a message or the posting of points of view or simply ‘liking’ other people’s contributions. But would it be sufficient just to sign up for a community and to do nothing else, at least, not visibly?

Let’s look more closely at levels of participation.

  • Joining: The most basic contribution a member can make to a community is join. This may involve signing up and possibly paying a membership fee. Some might argue that signing up is not sufficient to be considered participation. And our rough definition above would seem to exclude it, as you already have to be a member to participate. However, in joining people do contribute their name to the list of members and in some cases this can be very valuable for the community.
  • Posting: Once they are members (and sometimes even before) people can provide material for the community; posts in the case of an online community. At this level, they do so without engaging in a dialogue with others. People can provide details of a book they are reading or a film they’ve seen. When this is the only form of communication in a community it resembles a set of lonely monologues and the community lacks cohesion.
  • Dialogue: The next step is engaging in a dialogue with other members. The strict minimum in such a dialogue is probably the ‘like’ function. The notion of ‘liking’, as championed by Facebook with their Like button, is a clever way of lowering the threshold to participation and making it easier for people to be seen to participate and acknowledge other people’s postings. When dialogues exist between participants, the community is seen to be built on relationships, although these relationships may exist only in smaller subgroups and not across the whole community. Note that the richness of the community will depend on the depth of the relationships.
  • Organisation: The next level of participation is to take part in the organising and workings of the community as a whole, for example in providing a report that the community has asked for.
  • Reflection and change: And finally, participation can involve the reflection about and evaluation of the running of the community and seeking to change and improve things.

So how do you get participation without using force

It is one of the paradoxes but also one of the valued aspects of many communities, especially those online, that you can belong without being obliged to participate. There are, of course, communities in professional or other contexts that are so structured that participation is an obligation, a school class, for example, but it is debatable if such activities qualify as communities. Rather likes associations, many communities do not require participation, even if it is encouraged. Participation cannot be forced. The terms of a community can limit behaviour of members, but generally do not constrain participation. So how do you get people to participate if participation is the number one criteria of the success of a community?

Amongst the more self-evident strategies employed to increase participation there is: the attractiveness of activities or services provided by the community; the value-added in terms of learning or professional or social advancement; easy-to-use technology; … But there is also the atmosphere within the community in terms of trust and sharing or, depending on the type of person interested, the willingness to innovate or, on the contrary, the desire to maintain traditions and ways of doing things. (…)

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