The usual organizational hierarchy does not exist in an online community, giving everyone an equal opportunity to contribute.
In the typical job or association setting, there is almost always a hierarchy, or pecking order, among the variety of people involved therein. In an office environment, the pecking order is usually readily apparent to even the casual observer – and that’s fine, because in a business setting, there needs to be a clear chain of command, or necessary decisions might never get made.
But even in a non-business venue, someone is usually in charge and makes ultimate decisions for a club or organization – although often with input from members. In each case – business and non-business – there is sometimes a damper on people’s willingness to speak up or be completely critical or honest, because the boss may not like that opinion, or the club leader might frown on members that don’t agree with his or her opinion.
One of the great features of an online community is that it gives members the opportunity to be on an equal footing with each other. Everyone is much bolder, more honest in the relatively anonymous realm of the internet – which can sometimes be painful, but it’s also a good way for leadership to find out what members and employees are really thinking. In person, where we are bound by strongly entrenched parameters of acceptable behavior, members might not express themselves so openly, for fear of being, at best, judged and, at worst, fired.
The anonymity of the online community gives members a safe space to express what they’re thinking, and it’s an incredibly liberating feeling to speak without fear of repercussions about work or club topics that you feel strongly about. It benefits the CEO or leader too. He or she knows they’re more likely to get the unvarnished truth online – something they can’t be certain of getting when they meet members face to face. And the unvarnished truth, even if it smarts a bit, is invaluable knowledge to have.
Additionally, just due to the sheer volume and greater numbers of people from diverse locales in the online community, there will tend to be a greater range of opinions. When we work in the same office, with people from the same city and same region, we tend to have more similarities than differences. But an online community, which draws from a much larger pool, can offer infinitely more variety in opinions and ideas. This too is invaluable to leadership.
When you pose a question to your online community, you are asking every other reader in the thread that question. A CEO who asks a question might get a response from an entry-level employee; that’s pretty unlikely to happen in person, but that person’s point of view might be just the one the CEO needs to hear. Multiplicity and variety in an online community, if well-managed, can only elicit the growth of the community, helping to maintain the community’s all-important vitality to both leaders and members.
In a Pomona College study called “The Impact of Anonymity in Online Communities,” computer science students found that not allowing anonymous users in the online community has a tendency to limit participation. Users who are unwilling or unable to identify themselves are excluded from the conversation, and it follows that the community is smaller because of it. Lack of participation and thus engagement is the death knell to the online – or any – community. So making it easy and comfortable for members and employees to participate, in a community with much broader horizons than just their office or clubroom, is the best nourishment an online community can have.