The work of online community building may be an art, but it can still benefit from a foundation in science. There are theoretical foundations for our work, especially among research of interpersonal (one-to-one) and group communication.
Let me clarify that theories are just that: theories. They are not hard rules, or facts. They are not necessarily true in all circumstances. However, theories give us a lens through which we can view a phenomenon in our community, explain it, and design communities more thoughtfully. Knowing a handful of group and interpersonal communication theories will help you to create more member-centric online spaces.
With that in mind, here are three theories from researchers of interpersonal communication that can teach you a thing or two about building and managing online communities. For each theory, I’ll share more information about the theory, offer further reading, and give suggestions for how to apply the theory in your work.
1. Social Information Processing Theory
How do people online develop interpersonal relationships and deepen those relationships over time? Written by Joseph B. Walther of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore in 1992, this theory conceptualizes the difference between relationship formation online (in the absence of most nonverbal cues) versus offline (in face-to-face communication).
Walther argues that online relationships, though they may take longer to form in the absence of nonverbal communication, can grow just as strong as offline relationships. They can even grow deeper and more intimate than offline relationships, in the case where geographic boundaries or social anxiety/shyness may otherwise stop individuals from meeting their social needs. In the absence of nonverbal cues, people may take more time to participate, disclose information about themselves, and trust others. However, because people in online communities (especially those not mediated by real-identity platforms like Facebook) can meet in a relatively private, relatively more anonymous, and well-defined space, they will often share more intimately than they might face-to-face. Of course, this theory was developed before video and images, GIFs, and a wide range of emoticons made their way into the vernacular of online communities, and all of these non-textual communication methods can help increase the depth of relationships online too.
Further Reading: Though most of the reading on this subject is behind academic paywalls, you can find some basic information via:
Griffin, E. (2006). A First Look at Communication Theory. 6th ed. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.
A helpful overview of the theory: https://www.slideshare.net/joshcandish/it6201-assignment4-joshuacandish21102588.
How to Design Your Community with Social Information Processing Theory in Mind
Even though the Internet has sped up our sense of time, building relationships purely online generally takes longer than offline. There are a few things you can do to work with this theory in mind:
Plan offline events: Want to speed up relationship development in your community? It has to be done face-to-face. Next best thing? Online video events where people can see one another’s faces.
Set expectations with your team: When planning your community launch or engagement campaign, make sure your expectations of participation are realistic for an online community. You can educate your team about SIP to let them know this will take longer or to get the resources you need to plan an offline event.
Go slow with asks of members and build in lots of asks for passive contribution (e.g. reading other posts, onboarding guides, and viewing past event videos) before expecting them to contribute actively: Asking for too much all at once is a recipe for disaster.
2. Social Penetration Theory and the Norm of Reciprocity
Social penetration theory explains how face-to-face relationships draw closer. Relationships begin at the surface-level and then progress in closeness over time. Though not always linear, the theory does argue that generally relationships move toward more depth over time so long as certain conditions are met. In addition, when one person shares a private or personal detail about themselves, we expect to be met with reciprocal disclosure. If this is interrupted, the progression of the relationship may be interrupted as well.
In an online community context, this becomes far more complex because relationships are not all one-to-one (and organizational dynamics may actually weaken the norm reciprocity), but the grounding ideas of the theory still apply. It is important to note that the process of closeness is not always linear, and often reflects tensions between perceived rewards and benefits of the relationship (by everyone involved), the costs of vulnerability, satisfaction in the relationship, and stability and security.
You can start by reading publicly accessible articles, like these: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275714097_Dialectic_Conceptions_In_Social_Psychology_An_Application_To_Social_Penetration_And_Privacy_Regulation.
Give and Take by Adam Grant
How to Design Your Community with Social Penetration Theory in Mind
Here’s what you can do in your online community to design around this theory:
If you expect others to disclose information about themselves, they need to see models of leaders in the community doing the same. That means you, community manager, need to share vulnerably, just as you ask members to do.
Understand that no relationship develops in a perfectly linear fashion. There are tensions between costs and benefits, risk and reward, stability and serendipity. Your data will likely mirror this, with ebbs and flows in engagement. When looking at your engagement, think about how disclosure has impacted engagement. Are things staying on the surface? Are rewards unclear? Are members not reciprocating one anothers’ disclosure?
Make peace with the fact that you can’t be close with everyone, just as members cannot be close with every other member. In every community, there are nodes of influence and leadership. Your best bet is to focus in on those who take the time to participate and demonstrate commitment.
3. Uncertainty Management Theory
Uncertainty management theory explains that people have a desire to gain more information about someone before actively building a relationship with them in order to reduce uncertainty. When people reduce uncertainty, they then use that information to try to help build mental scripts and models that allow them to predict future behavior. This theory is a critical one to understand for relationship development online, given the enormous amount of uncertainty inherent in an online interaction with limited nonverbal cues.
There are three ways people try to reduce uncertainty. Below, I’ve broken down how they might occur online. Though the original theory was obviously not geared toward online communities and online relationship formation, Social Processing Theory allows us to extend the theory into this context :
Active: People may actively set up a situation in which they can observe someone they want to form a relationship with, like joining an event they person is leading, or reading one another’s profiles.
Passive: People may observe a person from afar. We often see this in online communities, where people hold back from interaction until they are more certain that their behavior will match with community norms and with the people they’ve been observing.
Interactive: People may actually reach out to the other person to talk further, by DMing them, replying to a thread, or introducing themselves to that person at an online event.
Further Reading: You can read more about Uncertainty Reduction Theory here: https://oregonstate.edu/instruct/theory/ur.html.
How to Design Your Community with Uncertainty Management Theory in Mind
When members first come into contact with one another, if they want to form a community, most will attempt to observe for a while before they communicate directly. Give members plenty of routes to observe, ask questions, read about the community and the best ways to get involved, and then to self-present accordingly.
Ask them to fill out their profile after they’ve read several documents and even been able to view a few others’ profiles and participations.
Provide ample opportunities to passively observe other members as well as programs that allow new members to interact with existing members.
Remember, these theories are not hard-and-fast rules, and countless other theories exist that might explain and help you design better online communities. These theories are tools that allow you to make sense of some of the chaos of community building.
For more about communication theories in interpersonal relationships, check out this guide (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3297682/) for healthcare practitioners, which contains information relevant to any profession.