How Do You Encourage Vulnerability in Online Communities?

How Do You Encourage Vulnerability in Online Communities?

Note: This post originally appeared in the Gather Community Consulting Newsletter. Get future newsletters by subscribing at the form below this post.

Clients often ask me, “How do we get people to participate and share in our online community?”

Often, what they are really asking is, “How do we encourage vulnerability?”

Vulnerability, both offline and online, requires a sitting-in-the-mess-of-life-and-holding-sacred-space kind of patience and fortitude, or at least an “I messed up. Where do I go from here?” humility.

In some ways, it’s easier to steward vulnerability in online communities: People may believe they’re in a gated, niche environment where they will not be judged, and they feel like they’re with people who understand them.

It’s also much harder to encourage vulnerability online: You can’t see people’s microexpressions of kindness or fear and proceed accordingly; you just can’t ever ensure absolute, unbreakable privacy (screenshots are a thing); and people have more time to consider and second-guess whether they should open up in online spaces.

But if you truly want to encourage people to share more, there is only one thing you can do.

Share of yourself.

Sure, you can create some hacks around getting people to share more. You can work closely with a group of founding members who you ask to share of themselves and their challenges openly. But, to even do this, you must be vulnerable with this founding group. You cannot skip the sharing of yourself and your fears and your inability to do things right all the time. In short, you can’t skip showing your humanity, even online.

So share of yourself.

Don’t just share the answers to questions. That is being helpful; that is not being vulnerable.

This is what being vulnerable feels like for me as I write or create something in an online community:

  • As I write a vulnerable post, I feel like I should call a friend and tell them what I'm writing and get their feedback on it privately. 

  • I’ll realize that’s the opposite of vulnerable. I’m literally creating a safety net for myself that renders it impossible for the community to be my lifeline. 

  • I will fear that no one will respond or that people will shake their heads and judge me.

  • I will write too much. I will go into philosophizing about a potential answer to my own question.

  • Then I will delete a bunch.

  • Finally, I will remind myself that I really do need help. I can't do it on my own. And that I have something worth sharing.

  • I share. 

Then I am almost always surprised by the results. And even if I get no response, the exercise of putting myself out there and articulating my needs is still deeply helpful. 

As Brené Brown says about her research studying shame and vulnerability in Braving the Wilderness, “I’m not here so my business self can talk to their business selves.” Perhaps, in your community, you do feel that is your (or your community admins’) role. I’d challenge you then to ask: how deep does this really go?

If you want people to share more, you must go deeper. If you want to encourage sharing, you can’t skip sharing yourself.

You may be able to get people to answer and ask questions in other ways, but you’ll never be able to forge actual connection. And if you want to build community (and not a mirage), there is no other way.

P.S. I wrote two posts last week that I think will be helpful for you, dear reader.

  1. The Community Campfire Principle: how to forge connection in small groups. 

  2. The ABCs of KPIs: a post on how to set community KPIs that I created for Vanilla. 

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