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.

Collaboration beats competition for creating better social policy

We’re developing an online platform – and hopefully from that a community – to research and develop better social policy. Should we use an approach based on competition or collaboration? Both can be used to source new ideas, but our view is that collaboration is more appropriate than competition for social policy.

Competition is most obviously represented by innovation prize competitions or ‘challenges’. These offer a reward to whoever can meet a defined challenge first or best. The Obama Administration has shown a particular interest in what it has called ’21st Century Grand Challenges’, for example to develop renewable energy, electric cars, and for international development issues such as improving literacy and access to healthcare. As Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted in a speech yesterday (12th April):

“Incentive prizes work as one tool to address Grand Challenges because they shine a spotlight on an ambitious goal without having to predict which team or approach is most likely to succeed. Incentive prizes help us reach beyond the “usual suspects” to increase the number of minds tackling a problem, bringing out-of-discipline perspectives to bear and inspiring risk-taking by offering a level playing field.”

Despite their current fashionability, competitions have a long history – from the longitude prize to Charles Lindbergh winning $25,000 for making the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris. More recently, the X PRIZE rekindled interest in competitions, starting with the Ansari X PRIZE to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth’s surface, twice within two weeks. InnoCentive has turned hosting competitions into a business, and the UK Government also announced last year that it is supporting a fund to run prizes that spur new innovations.

Collaboration is different. Although prizes can encourage some collaboration – for example team-ups between different groups in order to try to win the competition – by their nature they are essentially uncollaborative. We’ve described what we’re doing here as developing a ‘crowdsourced think tank’. Commonly understood, crowdsourcing takes an open and more collaborative approach to solving problems and producing new things. Just as businesses increasingly recognise that the expertise and intelligence they need to develop better products and services exists beyond their employees, so we’re exploring here how think tanks could be far more effective and efficient by crowdsourcing what they do, including through much more collaboration in policy development.

One of the questions we’ve been asked by potential customers and partners is how we hope to engage and motivate public and voluntary service providers and service users to be part of our community. Since it seems to work well for other challenges, why not use a competition-based approach for this? There are three main reasons why we think, at least for our project, that collaboration beats competition.

Firstly, many of the social problems we face are complex and multifaceted. Innovation prizes were originally focused on technology, where there might be one best solution. But we’ve suggested here before what the problem is with the search for ‘magic bullets‘ when it comes to social policy. Because social problems typically derive from a range of sources, there’s no single way to reduce poverty, improve health, cut crime or improve public services. If we say there aren’t any ‘one-size-fits-all solutions’ (as we often do in social policy), then challenge prizes that are designed to find such ‘solutions’ then start to seem like a rather inappropriate mechanism. Moving away from a focus on ‘big fixes’ in social policy could open up many more possibilities, at both the level of ideas and action. It could also free us from the unrealistic expectation that ideas come fully formed, and instead support a more iterative approach to developing interesting ideas into effective (and proven) policy and practice.

Secondly, since there might be many answers, it follows that we need to include many more people in the answering. ‘Grand challenges’ and big thinking tend to exclude people. Again, as we’ve suggested here before, most of us aren’t ‘moonshot’-style big thinkers. Rather, we have lots of ‘little’ ideas, based on our own necessarily partial but nonetheless important bits of expertise and experience, that collectively might add up to something big.

Thirdly, while competition can motivate participation, we think that an ethos of collaboration and mutuality is likely to be more important in the long run to help build sustained engagement in our community. Some people in thinktankland seem to relish the battle of ideas, but we need to move beyond their often off-putting ‘winner takes all‘ approach to policymaking if we want a greater diversity of voices and perspectives to inform better policy. Further, as pointed out in Miia’s comment on a previous post, this would also better reflect the kinds of public and voluntary services that many of us say we want: “The competition paradigm in organisations and government should be replaced by the collaboration paradigm if we are to achieve services and public investment that fully delivers for the benefit of the end user and citizen.”

What’s interesting is that technology challenges may also be turning more towards collaboration, for example DARPA’s vehicleforge.mil programme to develop a ‘next gen tank’ via crowdsourced ‘evolutionary design’. From think tanks to real tanks, the future feels more collaborative than competitive. Let us know whether you agree.

Here’s our idea – let us know what you think

We’ve been working on this project for a few months now and here’s where we’ve got to. Below is something like a marketing description, but it also indicates the functionality we’re looking at for our proof-of-concept website. It’s still work-in-progress, but let us know what you think. (It won’t be called ‘New think tank’ of course, that’s just a stand-in name – suggestions for that are welcome as well).

[New think tank] connects people and organisations to improve social policy.

[New think tank] is a social network for the people and organisations who use and provide public and voluntary services. With the [New think tank] community, you can conduct policy and research work that’s credible, affordable, and timely.


The [New think tank] community is made up of people who use and provide public services. They’ll help you understand what’s happening at the frontline, and to develop practical and popular proposals. This will help to give your organisation credible answers and a stronger profile.


Because it’s online, [New think tank] is a very cost-effective way to conduct policy and research work. Through [New think tank] you can share intelligence, recruit and work with partners, and even find funding for projects.


[New think tank] enables you to conduct policy and research work quickly and easily. You can instantly test out ideas for a new research project and invite people to participate in it, invite suggestions for a policy statement or consultation response, or source relevant case studies for a report or news story.

With [New think tank], you can develop and deliver a project from start to finish – you can even commission a new project in minutes. Here’s how:

Create a profile – for you or your organisation, then connect and communicate with others. Share news and publicise events. You can import your profile from other social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, and even login using your profiles from these networks.

Test out ideas – post questions, start discussions and propose projects. The most popular ideas and projects get featured most prominently. You can also follow and comment using other social networks.

Conduct projects – start a project and invite others to participate. Create an open or invite-only forum and assemble a virtual project team. Post questions and surveys, or draft and edit reports collaboratively.

Find partners – recruit other organisations to partner with, or find funding for a project. Host forums to manage projects, store and share useful documents, and easily track project activity wherever you and your partners are.

Share findings – publish and promote your projects. Use the site as a hub to share your findings and recommendations. Automatically send updates to and from other social networks, and use the community to disseminate your work more widely.

Policy for introverts

Fairly or unfairly, a certain type of personality comes to mind when you think about think tanks. But what about the people who aren’t always the first to hold up their hands – shouldn’t they also have a voice in policy?

Susan Cain’s recent TED speech in praise of introverts reminded me that we need to create a different type of dialogue around policy and social issues generally. Susan warns against the ‘new group think’ – the assumption that creativity and innovation is necessarily dependent on (or needs to be designed around) gregariousness, which in practical terms means those with the loudest voices. She criticises what she calls “the madness for constant group work” that’s now emphasised in many sectors, from education to business. As Susan suggests: “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”

Susan’s argument is that we need to give introverts the freedom to be themselves, so that they can come up with unique solutions – and that more of us should have the “courage to speak softly.” Indeed, she notes, some of the most inspiring and transformative leaders in history have been introverts by nature.

Essentially I think of myself as an introvert (though like many people I don ‘t think the terms ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ can really capture who we are), so I’m rather bound to agree with Susan. However, I also think there’s a danger of not trying to develop new forms of collaboration because we’re concerned (or assume) that some people don’t like to collaborate or aren’t at their best in collaborations. Introversion isn’t the same thing as a desire for isolation. Rather it’s the forms of collaboration we offer – whether they are open, accessible and equitable, and how they are paced – that matters more.

As Susan notes, we face social problems that because of their scale and complexity are likely to require lots of collaboration to develop solutions and to implement these solutions. So we need introverts on the inside. And in any case, the problem with think tanks and policy discussions generally isn’t that they are too ‘collaborative’ – quite the opposite. The problem is that they’re too shouty, too ‘here’s the answer’ and ‘I win the prize’ – hence the reason that policy suffers (in my humble opinion at least) from trendism.

We want the work of think tanks to be more participatory because this could make policy and research work more practical (i.e. informed by practice), more grounded, more credible – in short, more intelligent – and we’ll only achieve this if we find ways to include the introverts. Our new think tank project is for those who aren’t the first to put their hand up – and for those who don’t assume only they have ‘the answer’ but do have lots to contribute.

From this perspective, what’s really interesting about online and social media isn’t how they can enable much lower-cost, much more immediate interactions, it’s that structured in the right way they can allow other voices to come to the fore. Here I am, publishing to the world, and I’m not asking anyone’s permission to do it. So can you. It doesn’t mean there aren’t any barriers, but it does mean that the introverts are able to find more of their own ways of entering into the world. It’s what policy needs more of, and think tanks in particular need to find ways to embrace. Only then will we begin to harness the power of introverts.

Good for charity

Here are four potential uses or scenarios for our new think tank. Remember that our approach is based on policy and research work being led by frontline public service practitioners and service users, primarily through an online community/social network. These scenarios are designed to give our potential partners and customers (starting with charities) a more tangible idea of the benefits that we think our approach could deliver. Some of the benefits derive from working much more closely with practitioners and the public, which is not something that think tanks do that often or that consistently. Other benefits stem from using an online community, social media etc to do research and policy work – and sometimes it’s a combination of the two. Let us know what you think.

Scenario #1 – A service provider charity wants to understand the gaps in provision in its sector. The charity commissions new think tank to produce a research report on unmet needs among users. Because the research is produced by and with users and practitioners, it includes genuine new insights. The research receives widespread media coverage and sparks ideas for a new service. The charity establishes a ‘virtual advisory board’ of service users to inform the development of the new service.

Scenario #2 – A campaigning charity wants to develop fresh ideas for a new strand of its policy work. The charity commissions new think tank to produce a ‘manifesto’ on what future policy should look like for its sector. The charity uses the new think tank platform to draft the manifesto collaboratively, with the participation of its operational and policy teams as well as service users and other campaigners. This provokes considerable public debate, and helps to promote the charity as a thought leader.

Scenario #3 – A charity wants to develop a response to a government consultation. The charity commissions new think tank to host a private, invite-only forum for its service users, stakeholders and peer organisations. This leads to ideas for a joint campaign. The charity is able to present itself with policymakers as a leading organisation in its sector, but also as a good collaborator.

Scenario #4 – A small charity is interested in commissioning research but lacks experience. The charity works with new think tank to scope its research project. Because it is based on ideas and suggestions from a large, knowledgeable community, the charity’s ITT is centred on a unique and interesting research question. The charity also receives suggestions for good researchers and partners for the project. The charity seeks support for the project through a crowd funding proposal on the new think tank site.

What other benefits do you think could be delivered through our approach? How else could our approach be used? Equally, what might be some of the downsides or problems of our approach – and how could we mitigate them?