Content Creation

Online Communities: Dissecting the Structure of a Modern Tribe


October 2, 2013 (Updated: February 9, 2023)


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“No man is an island” – John Donne.

From the single cells that once joined to form a complex organism, to the formation of primitive groups and to the mega-society we know today, one thing is clear throughout the annuls of time: much more can be accomplished if we work together.

Today’s communities have taken an even more complex, far-reaching and technologically-reliant form. The modern tribes far transcend geographic and cultural boundaries, adding a very unique dynamic, the likes of which the world has never seen before. Be it for business or just to socialize, achieving recognition and prominence in the new social realm is as is important as it’s ever been. Let’s understand the force behind online communities and discuss ways for establishing a strong presence.

Five Mechanisms Governing the Emergence of Cooperation

Biologists and psychologists have long fretted about cooperation. Martin Nowak says we shouldn’t fight it. The urge to cooperate is already hardwired into our system, although there might be times when we choose not to tap into it.

Cooperation is a crucial factor in a community’s success. However, reasons for cooperating may vary. While some might do it with pure intentions, others use it as a means to further their own ends. The mechanisms described below show how all of these come into play.

1. Returning a Favor

I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.

Favors don’t just work in the physical world. They exist in virtual groups too. By helping somebody attain their social media goals, you also reap rewards. To put a spin on a popular Bible verse, it’s “a like for a like.”

It’s often easier to return favors online than in ‘traditional communities’ due to the lack of face. Twitter itself, as a whole, is a group. To gain followers requires a level of acceptance. It takes no time or effort at all to follow someone. The follower may have only the slightest emotional feeling toward that person, yet the person being followed will get a somewhat over-proportionate sense of belonging from this simple act. Consequently, he will gladly return the favor and follow the account of the person who followed him first. The same principle, though, also applies to the ‘unfollow’ process.

2. Uneven Distribution of Defectors and Cooperators

The number of defectors and cooperators within a group determines cooperation.

The game theory paradox called the Prisoner’s Dilemma shows that there are and will always be defectors in our midst. Some people will disagree with a plan or sell others out for personal gains. For instance, you have people who are just ‘in it for the links.’ They submit posts to sites with the sole aim of gaining backlinks. A writer who is committed to the cause will post just to contribute; to know he’s being heard, and to share insights with others.

When joining social media, it’s vital for you establish yourself as a cooperator. This means you must have the confidence to project your voice. People follow other people for the same reasons they’re friends with people in the real world. They like to be entertained, informed, stimulated, and communicated with in general.

The fact that other people have opted to join a social network means that they are probably more than willing to listen and interact themselves. Make yourself known as someone who will contribute value, and in turn promote the value of others. You will soon find other cooperators and your network will start to grow.

3. Family Comes First

Individuals make sacrifices for their kin because these people share their genes.

Individuals from the same gene pool have an instinctive need to protect each other. You’ll see such behaviour exhibited in numerous scenarios – from neighborhood brawls to social media feuds. They’ll defend one of their own, even if that means risking their own lives or dignities.

In social media, your community effectively becomes your gene pool. You’re from the same industry, or have the same interests. It’s in everyone’s interest to maintain the bond and to keep the group moving forward as one.

4. Helping Others Based on Their Reputation

I’ll scratch your back, and someone will scratch mine.

People with a reputation for doing good deeds often find themselves receiving goodness from unexpected sources. Social networks are great tools for promoting social awareness on many issues. It’s also widely used to campaign for worthy causes. If your business actively supports local organisations online, you’ll have a bigger chance of getting dozens of helping hands from that organization’s own followers. Such a technique can’t be bad for your company’s publicity either.

5. Selfless Acts for the Greater Good 

Making sacrifices and helping others for the sake of the common good.

Many businesses eagerly jump onto the social media bandwagon because it has huge profit potential. They build up their profiles to gain more followers, hoping such a tactic will gain more conversions. Not quite.

Social media marketing isn’t just about your brand or your products. The key to enhancing your communal appeal is by providing selfless relevant value to others. How? By showing that you really care about their needs and circumstances.

Member Roles

In dessert lingo, cooperation is the crust holding the community together. Meanwhile, the members are the filling. They turn that pie into something special.

Just as fillings come in different flavors, a member’s life-cycle has several phases. These are specified in the theory of Amy Jo Kim.


1. Peripheral (Lurkers)

This is an outsider or an individual with unstructured participation in the group.

Producing quality content is one of the best ways to get attention on the web. If you belong to a boring industry, it becomes even tougher.

Establishing a solid readership within your chosen niche takes plenty of time, effort and patience. You’ll have to start at the bottom of the heap. I write for a bunch of blogs catering to the SEO community, and those first few months had me sending hundreds of email requests to guest blog. I had to keep at it for a while, but persistence eventually strikes gold. If you’re also aiming to conquer a social network, don’t forget your manners, either. Etiquette figures significantly on social networks. You need to brush up on your knowledge of best and worst practices.

2. Inbound (Novice)

This is a new user who is invested in the community. Members in this phase are typically on their way to becoming fully-fledged participants.

An approved topic suggestion doesn’t guarantee anything. Sometimes, you’ll even be asked to write about something entirely different because it fits the overall blog theme. But take that as an opportunity to show what you can do. The blog editors are taking a gamble on you — the new guy. They will be critical about your piece because they don’t have a basis for gauging how good (or lousy) you are. So give them your best. Don’t just submit a rewrite, or a mish-mash of research that provides nothing new. Make it interesting and unique. Put your own spin on it. Be confident that your opinions count.

3. Insider (Regular)

This member isn’t just a community member. He’s already a fully committed participator.

Yes, you’re now a regular contributor. But that doesn’t mean you should rest on your laurels. Now, it’s time to be noticed by the rest of the community. This is the time for you to increase your visibility. Apart from producing regular top-notch articles, interact by responding to comments and engaging the readership. Also, participate in forum discussions. These venues are also great for mining topics for future posts.

4. Boundary (Leader)

When in this phase, a member already has authority over others. He influences others. He encourages tentative lurkers to join and novices to commit more fully. He also has regular interactions with other participants and other group leaders in order to sustain the community.

Participating often increases your chances of interacting with leaders, or you can track down their social media profiles and interact with them there. These people drive the community. Their opinions always count and their advice is sought after. But they can also be your biggest critics. Since they’re experts, they have the knowledge to turn your article inside out. Don’t be discouraged when they do. View the criticism as a challenge for you to become more adept at your chosen subject matter.

5. Outbound (Elder)

This person either founded the community or was among its very first members. 

If leaders drive the community, then the elders are the unseen power. I call them the latter because they aren’t that active socially, but they have clout over those who are.

The elders and leaders are your targets. They should be part of your avid readers list. Be endorsed by them and the flock will surely follow.

Becoming an Influencer

These days, a strong online presence matters. Everyone from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies seek a good foothold on the web. Influencers are considered experts in their specific niches. Other members look to them for guidance and advice. Imagine if that community had over 1.15 billion active members; its influencers will definitely have some real clout.

Other incentives for becoming an influencer include:

  • Status elevation
  • Ability to drive change
  • Impacting the decisions of others
  • Being regarded as a reliable source or reference for a certain type of information

Creating and disseminating quality content will always be the best way of attracting the attention of fellow community members. Meaningful posts increase your credibility and give people better insights into you as a person as well as your company.

Parting Words

Sincerity. If you want to be a thought leader in a distinguished online community, this is an absolute must. People are constantly bombarded with advertising ploys. They can see through the smoke. A sincere and genuine desire to interact with others goes a long way for you and your business.

Richard Eaves is a Digital Marketing Specialist for Smart Traffic, an SEO company helping business across different sectors drive web traffic and increase sales and enquiries. He oversees more than 300 campaigns for the company.

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