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Why online communities are not an open and shut case

The emergence of online communities was meant to be a ‘game-changer’ for associations, making redundant old assumptions about exclusivity, information sharing, and the value of membership.

But more than a decade after platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter came to prominence, it is still unclear how – or indeed if – membership organisations should change their modus operandi.

A common line of thought was that associations had to become flatter, more open structures, less concerned about membership than community; curators rather than gate-keepers of information.

The digital revolution was about tearing down walls, and associations, with their entry requirements and member-only access, had to adapt to the new reality or fade into obsolescence.

But times change and with them attitudes.

For one thing, Silicon Valley no longer gets a free pass.

A range of scandals involving fake news, data leaks, tax-avoidance, cyber-bullying, the spread of hate speech, and a general lack of social responsibility, have alerted people to the idea that maybe, just maybe, all that cutesy hipster talk about making the world a better place was just marketing BS.

So rather than buckling under the pressure of their Tech Uber Lords, associations are left to ponder if their model of exclusivity –  and the trust and credibility that comes with it – was right all along.

The rising tide of reputable publishers who have retreated behind a paywall or subscription model suggests people are willing to pay for something they can trust has been fact-checked.

So what about an association’s online community? Should it be open to all-comers or the reserve of members? How much of the knowledge that associations possess should be freely disseminated in order to attract potential recruits? Or is that the wrong way of looking at it? Should associations be erecting barriers to access in order to encourage membership? It’s a fiendishly difficult question to answer in an age where, even now, we still seem to be second-guessing the technology. Making it up as we go along.

The issue is explored in depth in the next edition of AMI magazine where consultant Marjorie Anderson, from Community by Association, suggests there are basically three options: open, shut, or somewhere in between.