Trust, Friendship and Maturity in Online Communities

Jon Husband has written a thoughtful piece commenting on Dave Snowden’s assaults this week on forum moderation arising out of the AOK debacle. He’s focusing on what happens in blogging, but I believe what he says pertains just as well to forums:

“I believe that there are few deep friendships which do not go through periods of testing and friction ... and it’s important to note as well that friendships, especially professional ones, aren’t always about blind support, loyalty and being nice, but as often are about honesty, directness, usefulness, pertinence ... but they all follow similar dynamics on the way to deep trust.  It is in the way these tests are approached and resolved (or not) that define and deepen the friendship, helping to create solid bonds that enable even deeper trust and exploration, and yield richer fruits.”

In her comments on my earlier post Trouble at the AOK Corral, Nancy White seemed to be asking how you would recognise maturity in a community, and asked whether love had anything to do with it. From the somewhat gruffy tradition I come from, love is not so easily given, and less readily admitted, especially in the context of online community participation.

Jon Husband frames the question in terms of the dynamics of friendship, and in my replies to Nancy I was starting to liken it to the dynamics of family. In both cases, maturity has the element of longevity – people simply surviving through time and crisis and still manage to relate to each other in constructive ways, sharing the same social space. That’s assuming that the longevity is a matter of free will – that you stay because you want to, that you are neither trapped nor banishable.


What else apart from longevity of personal relationships characterises maturity in online communities? I think, as I started to say in the discussion with Nancy, that there are times when the community evolves behaviours that display a group identity – when it gets into characteristic patterns of behaviour that are not consciously determined by one or a few individuals. Gary Klein calls this the “team mind”. But there was another post this week from Beverly Trayner that caught my eye in this context. She was implicitly talking about friendship too, deeply appreciated friends, but the factors she described are – to me – just as true signals of the “community mind”:

“This made me think of how much I really appreciate people in my home and worklife who:

invisibly see what needs doing, and do it;
give me clear directions about how to get to places;
write brief emails, with their contacts at the bottom;
pay attention to my Skype or MSN status;
talk to me about poetry or sex, rather than telling me that I really should take time off;
do as they say they will, without me reminding, asking, pleading or begging them to do it;
keep the action moving forward without trying to find fault or blame;
pause to check assumptions.
remind me about things I’ve forgotten;
forgive my forgetfullness – and other human failings.”

Most of Beverly’s list expresses a level of care and commitment to others that comes much more easily with familiarity over time. And her last quality, forgiveness, comes only after trespasses have occurred. Can you have maturity in a community without a sufficient density of relationships carrying familiarity, friendship and forgiveness? Without building the capacity to have conflict and survive it? I’m really not sure.

4 Comments so far

Paolina Martin

I believe that maturity encapsulates humility which goes deeper than mere understanding, more values perhaps, in believing that no one person is the strongest, smartest, wisest, etc; that individual community members have different strengths and that we need one another to bring out the best in each one. It may sound like a motherhood statement but I think the “community spirit” is so fundamental.

Sometimes, the question we should ask ourselves is not so much whether we need the community but whether the community needs us, more in the spirit of service. No one should have to ask though. The answer should be obvious.

Posted on June 27, 2007 at 07:23 PM | Comment permalink

Jon Husband

Thanks for noticing, and linking, Patrick.  I appreciate it.

I hope you may have noticed in my blog post that I referenced Virginia Satir as a final flourish, as her work and principles have important application in groups and organizations as well as in families.

Posted on June 28, 2007 at 06:11 AM | Comment permalink

Beverly Trayner

Patrick, noticing that those things are important to me have taught me to be better at doing them for others. I wonder to myself if there is something about noticing and being able to change that is also part of a mature community.

P.S: I’m intrigued that you tagged this post with “Culture”.

Posted on July 15, 2007 at 06:07 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Thanks for this Beverly. I’m coming to think that culture is at root common patterns of behaving and relating in a social group. It can be “solidified” in artefacts, rituals, symbols and stories, but relational activity, and frequently reinforced models for behaving, is at the core. So friendship, trust, forgiveness can be very powerful elements of a social group’s culture.

Posted on July 15, 2007 at 09:55 AM | Comment permalink

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