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How to Cultivate Culture in Online Communities

Why is everyone so mean on the Internet? Well it has to do with culture.

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How to Cultivate Culture in Online Communities

By Steve Benjamins | Updated May 5 2021

In 2013, a team of researchers noticed something strange about Ted Talk videos hosted on Youtube: the Youtube comments were far more likely to include personal insults or to focus on the presenter rather than the content of the presentation (compared to the same talks hosted on

If you’ve used Youtube before I doubt this surprises you.

Youtube comments are notoriously bad.

Youtube comments are notoriously bad.

But it begs an interesting question: why are people mean and insulting on some websites and reasonable and civil on others?

It has a lot to do with the culture of a website.

A culture is a loose set of beliefs a user has about who belongs and what is appropriate to say on a website.

Culture is tricky because it isn’t something that you can design per say. Instead it’s something you can only try to cultivate.

Here’s some tactics I’ve seen websites use to to cultivate a culture.

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Signal who belongs and who doesn’t

The above photo is what you see as you enter the Le Cinq restaurant in Paris. Do you notice how everything has a gold hue? Or that the glasses and plates all seem very expensive? Or how the well-dressed waiter is holding his arm behind his back as he pours a drink?

All these details are signalling who belongs in this restaurant (and who doesn’t). And this is the power of a first impression.

That’s why when you go to Stack Overflow, you only see intelligent, nuanced development questions highlighted on their homepage:

Stack Overflow is a community for professional developers, and they are trying to signal who belongs by highlighting these questions.

Do questions about passing an AJAX request into a PHP array get you excited? That’s good. Stack Overflow wants you to say: “awesome, these are my people!”

Or do questions like this bore you? That’s also good: Stack Overflow is trying to build a community of helpful developers, and if these questions bore you, you may not be a great fit.

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Charge users a fee to join

Something strange happens after we’ve paid for something: we almost instantly become more invested in it.

That’s why people who pay cover end up staying at a bar longer (the sunk cost fallacy).

Or why you might feel guilty for failing to read books you’ve paid for.

Or why contributing to a Kickstarter project makes you feel so much more invested in its outcome.

Charging someone for something is a way to make them instantly more invested in it. I’ve seen this done in a few places:

Ask MetaFilter is a unique, laid-back community forum that charges a $5 membership fee. The people willing to pay the membership fee are generally also willing invest in the making the community civil.

The Micropreneur Academy is a forum for entrepreneurs that charges members $47 / month. The cost per month incentivizes members to frequently come back and contribute (people want to recoup their investment). It also sets up a minimum standard for membership (you should be willing to invest $47 / month).

Note: Both the Micropreneur Academy and Ask MetaFilter seed their communities from other sources. Ask MetaFilter members often come to the site through MetaFilters main site. Micropreneur members generally come to the community through the Startups for the Rest of Us podcast.

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Reward ideal behaviour

If you want to know how to incentivize ideal behaviours, ask a kindergarten teacher:

All of us respond to rewards. Even contrarians who will do the opposite of what is rewarded, are still reacting against rewards.

That’s why the NY Times highlights ideal reader comments in a section they call NYT Picks:

Highlighting ideal reader comments does two important things:

  1. It models an example of ideal behaviour for all other readers to see.
  2. It provides feedback to the commenter so that they know they are contributing in a positive way (which can feel satisfying).

Interesting note: It also subtly suggests a hierarchy in which the NyTimes editors are curators of reader comments (and thus the “experts” in the discussion).

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Don't try to gamify great content

Quora is on a mission to share the worlds knowledge. That’s why so many of their mechanics revolve around incentivizing great questions and answers (for example: suggested edits from other readers, answer upvotes etc.).

It’s also why they eschew extrinsic rewards such as leaderboards, badges or karma scores.

Instead Quora tries to attract users who enjoy sharing knowledge for the genuine intrinsic reward of content creation. That’s the culture they believe will lead to great content.

Interesting note: Unlike many social networks, Quora users can comment anonymously. This is because Quora cares more about the quality of your content than they do your identity.

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Treat your biggest contributors

One of the secrets to Yelp is their Elite Squad. Elite Squad members are handpicked by Yelp community managers for being helpful and friendly contributors.

And once you’re in the Elite Squad, Yelp does a lot to make sure you are happy.

One of the cooler ways Yelp does this is by throwing parties at local hotspots for Elite Squad members. These parties often include free alcohol, free food and other cool perks (like free massages and swag).

Anecdotally, I have a few friends who are in the Elite Squad and they speak highly of these parties.

Anecdotally, I have a few friends who are in the Elite Squad and they speak highly of these parties.

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Tirelessly close poor discussions

In my experience people are more likely to litter if they see someone else get away with it. So one way to reduce litter is to clean it up before it gets out of control.

The same is true of a culture. Every poor discussion is a signal to users that inappropriate behaviour is tolerated. Closing these discussions is a good way to remove those signals.

That’s why on Stack Overflow there are five different ways a question can be closed- they know it’s a way to cultivate a better community in the long-run.

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Culture is like a plant. It’s not something you can design or control. Instead it is something you cultivate.

Hopefully these tactics provide you some ideas on how to cultivate an ideal culture.

If this topic interests you, I’d suggest watching Joel Spolskys talk on the Cultural Anthropology of Stack Overflow. I saw this talk at Business of Software 2013 and this article owes a lot to that talk.