When you empower your users, online traffic jams don't stand a chanceNurture online community success through your community members

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My last post talked about how open systems teach us that we can, in fact, self-organize and find solutions, in a world that so often seems to be telling us to be passive and compliant.

In my case, the solution cleared a traffic jam... with more than half the cars already on their merry way by the time the police arrived.

But traffic jams can happen in the online world, too. And whether they get resolved quickly, or turn your community's flow of conversation into gridlock, can hinge on whether you have the kind of empowered users who are ready and able to solve problems at the first sign of trouble.

Jams happen in online communities in lots of ways: a feud between two users flares out of control, with community members picking sides or fleeing the wreckage. A user who doesn't quite understand the community starts posting reams of off-topic content. A legitimate issue with the way your community is run allows resentment to fester and participation to fall off.

And not every community traffic jam comes because of a collision. Someone has a good idea for something community could do together: an online fundraiser, say. Others agree... but nobody feels they can take the next step.

A skilled community moderator - or, the title we prefer, animator - can provide the spark of leadership that lets community members rally 'round. But like the police, an animator can't be everywhere.

The first people to know about a traffic jam are the members of your community; wouldn't it be great if they could also be your first responders?

Empowered community members feel they can propose solutions and act on them. They suggest guidelines for resolving disputes, jump in to help newcomers who are treading on the daisies, and gently turn flame wars into heated but civil conversations.

For some actions - installing a new fundraising widget, say, or changing the site's theme to support a cause, or introducing a new policy - they'll need to turn to the site animator. But you'll find there's a surprising amount they can do on their own. And if you free them to do it, you'll tap into a huge resource of community energy.

Of course, there's more to empowering people than just announcing, "Congratulations! You're empowered!" Here are a few ways to make your users the newest members of your thin blue line:

  • Be sure you have the right animator. You're looking for someone more like a facilitator than a drill sergeant.
  • Understand clearly where you will empower, and where you won't. Your users will take on greater and greater power, but chances are they won't get the keys to the server.
  • Ensure your organization understands and supports empowering users. Giving away a little power means giving up some control, too. The last thing you want is a Prague Spring, where you open the doors only to be forced to slam them shut again.
  • Don't just let go of the reins. Slacken your grip gradually; it will take your users a little time to trust that you really mean it (and maybe a little longer to learn to work with each other for more than just conversation).
  • Identify a few of your community's most positive, hard-working contributors. Encourage them to be more active in stepping in and stepping up.
  • Stop solving every problem. Unless there's a fire raging somewhere, ask your users for their advice... then follow it.
  • Find a user with a good idea, and put it into practice - consulting them and the community along the way. Give them plenty of credit.
  • Before you develop a new feature, ask users what they think. Let them know what options are and aren't on the table.
  • When a few users offer the same constructive criticism, ask them to put their heads together to propose solutions. And don't just pick one yourself; consult the community.
  • Watch for empowered users who are solving problems on the site, and find ways to tell those stories. A little modeling goes a long way in encouraging others to step forward.

You gain a healthier, more responsive, more resilient community. And your users will have a greater sense of shared ownership and trust - both for each other and for you.

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