Trust In Communities

January 8, 2009 CollabNet VersionOne

I’m sure a lot has been written about the subject of trust within communities.  As I’ve been working through the community launch plan for forge.mil (more updates on that in a future post), I’ve been thinking quite a bit on this, and two things spring immediately to mind: ‘default to public’ and ‘own your words/contributions’.

I’ve helped counsel previous employers and others on starting communities, and inevitably, the question comes up of ‘how much of this project should be public’.  My answer is always the same: "All of it should default to public".  Fred Wilson, a Venture Capitalist in New York, recently blogged about this, and I loved his take on it, which was informed by reading a pre-release version of an upcoming Jeff Jarvis book which quotes co-founders of both Flikr and Facebook on this subject.  I encourage folks to take a look at Fred’s post, but for me, the money quote was:

"The value of public discourse and engagement around content/information/knowledge vastly outweighs most of the privacy concerns most of the time."

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of times (and reasons) for content to be access controlled from free viewing, but I would argue those cases don’t constitute a community – they are more like project or implementation groups.  If your goal is truly to create a community around something, you need to trust the members of your community, and they need to trust you.  There is no surer path to the destruction of a vibrant community than to try and hide things that don’t need to be hidden.

The other area of trust which is a big deal for me is personal responsibility by the members of the community – specifically in owning your own words and contributions to the group.  Because of this, I have a very strong belief that anonymous posting in discussion forums has no place in communities.  I do run afoul of some of my colleagues at CollabNet at times for this view, and I do grant them there may be cases within project or implementation groups where this makes sense, but in general, requiring people to own their words and contributions is a critical piece of establishing trust in a community.

I believe there is a good reason the designers of our CollabNet SourceForge Enterprise tool decided the minimum permission needed to post to discussion forums is ‘a logged in user’.  By enforcing this with tools, and a diligent community manager who works to make sure that ‘anon spam’ doesn’t start to creep in, I believe the trust level of the community (and therefore, the productivity) is increased.

Interestingly, there may be some challenges with the SoftwareForge.mil piece of the forge.mil initiative in regards to ‘default to public’, but the owning of words/contributions has been pretty well settled – the Department of Defense isn’t big on anonymous posting. 🙂  We have had some interesting discussions with DoD regarding how we also bring reputation management into the picture for the forge.mil properties, and I think that is going to be the basis for some critical trust building going forward for this project.

My bottom line (from the ‘obvious statements department’):  If you don’t trust your community, they won’t trust you, and no amount of fancy marketing or public relations will be able to fix that.  I continue to encourage companies & individuals interested in utilizing the tremendous potential of communities to heed this.

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