Exit, voice or loyalty – what matters most in building online communities?

We’re creating a platform for people who use and provide public and voluntary services to inform better social policy. For this to be a place they want to come to, and invest time and energy in, it will have to feel like – it will have to be – their community. How can we ensure that our community becomes theirs? The answer lies in an essay published more than 40 years ago.

The Guardian has been running an interesting series of articles this week on the ‘battle for the internet‘. Wednesday’s articles considered the growth of ‘walled gardens‘ such as Facebook and iTunes. The usefulness and increasing ubiquity of these privately-owned ‘public squares’ raises important privacy, censorship and accessibility issues. These might not matter much to most of us, most of the time, but they still matter – both personally (for example, when they use our data in a way we didn’t anticipate) and politically (given the economic, social and cultural power such companies now wield). This has led some commentators to suggest that these platforms are effectively public utilities and should be regulated as such, but this (highly unlikely) proposition has only been put forward because of our lack of influence, as ordinary users, over how these platforms operate and what their policies are.

The only way we can really hope to influence how they act is to leave (with all of the obvious downsides of doing so). This is the ‘exit’ option described in Albert Hirschman’s oft-cited 1970 essay Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Facebook’s owners – which could be you if you’re intending to buy some of their shares – must at some level exist in a perpetual state of fear that their users can simply up sticks, and in this way the threat of exit is a powerful driver for improvement. It leads to new features, better services etc – indeed it’s the basis of free and competitive markets. But this doesn’t make these communities ours – quite the opposite, it distances us from them.

Exit isn’t the only ‘option’ we want in relation to the communities of which we’re part. This is why Hirschman notes that, in addition to leaving, people can try to use their ‘voice’, that is they can attempt to repair or improve matters through communicating their problem and/or proposing a solution. What’s clear, thought about in this way, is that platforms like Facebook are highly unlikely to listen to our views unless they are accompanied by the threat of exit. We can judge this because Facebook et al. have  failed (or haven’t cared) to develop mechanisms and processes by which we can effectively express our voice and influence how they operate.

Hirschman suggests there’s a third factor at play, which is loyalty. This can slow exit (for example, people feel very strongly attached to a particular brand), but perhaps only for a time. Loyalty can drive people to use their voice – to suggest changing things and improving them, so that they aren’t forced to exit. You’re more likely to use your voice if you have some degree of loyalty to a community, institution or company – otherwise why would you bother?

Hirschman’s model, though in one sense pretty simple, is the kind of idea that once you read about it sticks with you and you find yourself applying to all sorts of situations (which of the three aspects of it you think matters the most can also suggest a particular political persuasion). My own view is that exit matters – a lot. If you don’t like something, show how you feel. If you want to use a social network that doesn’t own all your data, then support the development of Diaspora. If you don’t like Microsoft’s (often tardy) programs, choose open source software (like we’ll be doing for our demo platform). If you’re tired of being prompted and pushed around by iTunes, use another music player. And if you want to support the development of a new way of creating better social policy in a community that you shape – if you want to break down the ‘walled garden’ that is most policymaking – then watch this space.

But surely a better way to build and retain a community – and so strengthen loyalty – is to enable and encourage people to exercise their voice. It’s this that ultimately determines the health and sustainability of (online) communities, because it determines the extent to which people feel that they own a community. It may be less tangible, but it’s much more meaningful, than holding a few hundred shares out of a few million. In this spirit, I’d be interested in what you think about what makes communities work – what attracts you to them, and why you stay.


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