Building Trust in Online Communities

In the second of our series of posts by the 2019 Community Engagement Fellowship cohort, Julianna Mullen walks us through her experiences building trust in an online community and sparking conversations in an authentic way. A marine biologist and writer by training, Julianna is the Communications and Community Manager for the Ocean Acidification Information Exchange at the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems (NERACOOS) working at the intersection of scientists and conversations.

It had been the first bullet point in the job description: “Increase community engagement.”

The Community Manager for The Ocean Acidification Information Exchange would be in charge of getting its member scientists, policymakers, and educators talking to one another about preparing and adapting to ocean acidification. I’d been a scientist and communicator for some time, but I’d never been a Community Manager; when I accepted the post, I knew the learning curve would be steep, but I was excited! Fast-forward into Month Two of my employment, when I’d made a series of important discoveries:

  1. The OA Information Exchange was so quiet I could almost hear the crickets when I logged on.
  2. Using the phrase “increasing engagement” to describe the breadth, scope, and complicatedness of my work was like calling the Encyclopedia Britannica “some books.”
  3. I couldn’t rely on researching myself out of the hole because there simply wasn’t much material that spoke to what I was trying to do.
  4. I’d failed to understand that an online community, even one comprised of scientists and policymakers working on something as technical as ocean acidification, needs the same kind of emotional tending as in-person communities.

In a blind panic, I reached out to some members I knew personally and asked what was going on. What was the holdup?

“I don’t want to waste anyone’s time with my stupid questions.”

“I don’t think I have anything to contribute.”

“I’m worried people will think I’m unintelligent.”

Sound familiar?

Julianna Mullen, Communications and Community Manager, NERACOOS
Julianna Mullen, Communications and Community Manager, NERACOOS

Though no one’s posts had ever been called dumb, no one had ever written an unkind word, and no flame wars had begun over the idiocy of a comment, people didn’t trust that those things couldn’t happen. In the process of setting up the site and bringing in members, we’d forgotten that to facilitate conversations and sharing we’d first need to build trust. So, all I had to do was get seven hundred people from all different parts of the world doing all sorts of different jobs to trust each other. Piece of cake.

We know that trust is the bedrock of all human relationships. What’s fascinating about trust is that unlike anger or joy or bemusement, it isn’t solely an emotion one experiences moment-by-moment; the presence or absence of trust informs current feelings and future interactions. Ulf Bernd Kassebaum, a psychologist at the University of Hamburg, developed a definition I like a lot[1]:

Interpersonal trust is an expectation about a future behavior of another person and an accompanying feeling of calmness, confidence, and security depending on the degree of trust and the extend[sic] of the associated risk. That other person shall behave as agreed, […] according to subjective expectations.[2]

In a community environment, building trust means proving to people that “we”—the Community Manager, team leaders, other members, and the space as a whole—offer a stable environment with valuable interactions. No one feels vulnerable, so getting involved isn’t scary.

After a lot of thinking, I put five must-have tools in my trust-building toolbox:

  • Have a clear purpose: Feeling lost is a state of intense vulnerability; that’s why my first step was making sure the mission and goals of our community were clearly defined and very visible, so everyone could quickly orient themselves. The benefits of joining would be obvious and member roles would be unambiguous.
  • Start small: By the time I became Community Manager, we already had several hundred members and speaking to everyone felt like I was reaching no one. I had to backtrack and spend a lot of time working with people one-on-one, demonstrating that I was available, and I cared about my members’ experiences.
  • Be authentic: Being honest, empathetic and respectful was perhaps the most obvious and important step. All my work began and ended with those three magic adjectives. I tried to always remember that members are essentially donating their time to these communities, so the least I could do was treat them with an extra dose of decency.
  • Stay transparent: I made sure my members had a way they could always submit anonymous feedback about their experiences in the community. More than anything, I used the tool as a signal of the community’s good intentions: yes, we might fail at something, but we would also work to fix it. Our members could trust that even if something wasn’t great right now, their future interactions would be better.
  • Catch people: If a member started a conversation, I always made sure to acknowledge their contribution, and if need be, I’d send a behind-the-scenes email prompting others to respond as well. I wanted to make sure that when a member put themselves out there, they didn’t fall flat on their face, and it showed everyone that no one would ever be left hanging.

Even in a trusting environment, it can still be scary to put oneself out there. If you’re still struggling to get meaningful conversations started among members, I’ve discovered some tactics that might jumpstart the process:

  • Call for backup: Recruiting a group of power users, or “plants”, is a huge help. Plants are the foot soldiers of the vulnerability mitigation force. You know you can rely on them to initiate and respond, and they ensure that if a member makes themselves vulnerable by volunteering a topic, they’re not jumping without a safety line.
  • Humanize exchanges: No one likes talking to a generic grey avatar. Humanizing exchanges can mean anything from providing a space for personal information and a photo, to making good eye contact. Conversation is about connection, and it’s much easier to have a conversation when we feel like there’s a real person on the other end listening.
  • Be inviting: Likewise, if you know there’s someone out there who could speak to the topic at hand but they either haven’t chimed in or aren’t aware of the conversation, call them over, tag them, make an introduction. It’s the most time-consuming way to start and continue conversations, but it’s also perhaps the most reliable.
  • Ask people what they know: Sometimes cliques form around specific conversations, but the subject either isn’t of broad interest, or others don’t feel empowered enough to jump in. Fight the phenomenon by lobbing a pop fly: ask a question that anyone, regardless of expertise, can answer.
  • Reward participation: Everyone likes to feel appreciated, and acknowledgement is an important part of trusting relationships. A reward can be as simple as writing someone a follow-up email to say thank you or pressing a “like” or “kudos” button on a post. When people feel their efforts are appreciated and valuable, they’re more likely to contribute in the future.
  • When no one and nothing else is available, respond: While a Community Manager’s job isn’t to insert themselves and their own expertise into conversations, relying on your own chops is a good fallback.  Like your mom saying you look nice today—“You have to say that…you’re my mother”— the impact might not be as great, but any acknowledgement is better than nothing.

How do you build trust in your communities? What are some ways you’ve found to engage people in meaningful conversation?

Resources

For more conversation about the role of trust and vulnerability in community building, read director Lou Woodley’s blog post “Why trust is a must when working together – some reflections.”

[1] Bamberger, Walter. Interpersonal Trust- Attempt of a Definition. Technische Universität München, 2010. http://www.ldv.ei.tum.de/en/research/fidens/interpersonal-trust/

[2] U.B. Kassebaum. Interpersonelles Vertrauen: Entwicklung eines Inventars zur Erfassung spezifischer Aspekte des Konstrukts. Ph.D. thesis, Universität Hamburg, Hamburg, 2004. URL http://www.sub.uni-hamburg.de/opus/volltexte/2004/2125 . Translated from German by Walter Bamberger of the Technical University of Munich