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March 28th, 2011

Online Communities Need Community Elders

By meredithgould

Note: An earlier version of this post by Meredith Gould appeared on the #hcsm blog edited by another External Advisory Board member, Dana Lewis.  Says Meredith, "It didn't need much tweaking to make it relevant for #mccsm members and visitors." Meredith Gould is a member of our External Advisory Board.

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I did not initially join the healthcare social media community as a social scientist. At first, I simply viewed myself as a marketing communications  professional committed to enhancing health literacy.  This, by the way, is my cleaned-up version of saying I’m committed to slashing ridiculously confusing medical jargon out of health and healthcare materials.

But old habits of education and training run deep.  I’m a sociologist and within weeks of participating in healthcare community chats on Twitter, I could see a social world emerging in real time.  Enthralling!

Soon I was tweeting about the social construction of health and the healthcare industry, although a content analysis of cached data would reveal my enthusiasm for proper spelling, grammar, and syntax. I quickly realized online communities generate social structure and develop as do communities in real life (IRL).  One significant difference: community development  happens more quickly when happening online via social media.

And so does the potential for community destruction from either outside or within, which is why I'm going on about the role of elders. IRL communities, elders are vested with and take on key responsibilities that ensure community survival.

Everything I’ve observed so far persuades me this is also true for online communities.  While it may not be immediately obvious, I believe growth and survival of any online community depends, to some extent,  on the positive ongoing participation of its elders.

If you’re a long-time participant in an online community, here are three (interconnected) responsibilities:

  • Holding collective memory: Elders are those around long enough to remember the beginning. They can recall – often because they’ve recorded them – events and conversations that have created community.  Effective elders reference this information about social structure to build community.   Ineffective elders stifle community development by referencing this information to insist, “we’ve always done it this way” when facing change.
  • Providing continuity: Because they remember the beginning, elders provide the continuity needed to continue conversations and develop new ones.  In social media terms, elders curate as well as create content.  Effective elders participate during hashtag chats by offering links to new information to enhance conversations.  Ineffective elders shut down conversation by insisting, “we’ve already discussed that” when facing inevitable redundancies.
  • Guiding newcomers: Elders are not only able but willing to be generous with newcomers.  Elders recognize that each new generation will go through the same, or similar,  stages as the ones before it. Effective elders are welcoming, patient and good humored with new visitors. Ineffective elders quit participating, although I suppose you could argue that by opting out, cranky elders are, in fact, serving the greater good.

So, now consider this: Are you an elder in any online community? Are you emerging as one as the Mayo Center for Social Media and the Social Media Health Network grows? If so, how are you helping  these communities community develop and thrive? What's your commitment to doing so?

Tags: Community Development

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