How to Build a Community Outside Social Media
4 min read

How to Build a Community Outside Social Media

How to reject social media norms and build meaningful connections in your private community.
How to Build a Community Outside Social Media

If you’re building a community that is interested in connection, it’s worth looking at how to differentiate the experience you’re building from the one your members might be getting on social media. This is extra tricky because social media is a near enemy of connection.

What are Near Enemies?

Near enemies is a concept from buddhism that I’ve heard about from Kristin Neff, Chris Germer and Brené Brown.

The idea is that when you’re going after a certain quality/feeling/outcome, there are often similar qualities that at first seem to be what we’re after, but actually undermine it.

For example, a far enemy of kindness is hostility, it’s clearly the opposite and easy to identify. A near enemy of kindness is pity. It’s much trickier because pity can seem like kindness if you squint, but it has the opposite effect. When you respond to a friend with pity, it’s actually an unkind reaction, not one that reads as kindness.

You can read more about Near and Far Enemies here. And listen to a podcast episode with Chris Germer and Brene Brown here.

I love this concept. For those of us who are interested in people, this gives us a way to get more nuanced with ourselves and how we relate to others.

A Near Enemy of Connection

When I started thinking about the near enemies of connection, the first one that came to mind for me wasn’t a feeling, it was social media.

Social media seems like a friend to connection. It’s a place where we can keep in touch with way more people than we’d be able to without it. It gives us more options for how to connect with people and it gives us a place for self-expression, joy and vulnerability. It seems like it would be a net positive for connection. And yet, on the whole, it’s not.

  • It makes us feel like we’re caught up with everyone, when we might not actually know what’s really happening.
  • It substitutes shallow interactions for connection.
  • It puts us into comparison-mode.
  • It asks us to simplify ourselves to an image that can never capture our full humanity.
  • It puts metrics on friendship.
  • It is addicting and keeps us from being present in IRL interactions.

The result of this has been an overall sense of disconnection. Even before the pandemic, as a society, our number of close friends was declining, the time we spend with friends was down and loneliness was up. Lockdowns and long periods of isolation during the pandemic have further exacerbated all of these issues.

The toxic thing about social media is its near enemy-ness. It FEELS like we’re connecting.

This feeling was built-in to the design of platforms like Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and others. They are designed to keep us coming back for more. We’re wired for connection so that’s what we’re after. They tease it and we keep clicking looking for it, only to get sucked into a cycle that keeps us addicted and disconnected. It’s empty calories that will never leave us satisfied. Making us actually feel connected and satisfied would undermine their business model.

Social media was an early guess about structuring connection on the internet. It didn’t work. But with different incentives and some creativity, I think we can use tech for connection instead of for FOMO and consumerism.

How to build community outside of social media

Social media has clearly given us what NOT to do to build connection in our small, private communities. Yet, because of its ubiquity, it’s easy to default to practices and metrics that mirror its shortcomings.

If you’re building community on private platforms like Circle, Heartbeat, Mighty Networks, etc, here are some ideas on how to bring actual connection to your members by unlearning the methods of social media:

  • Don’t define engagement by number of likes.
    Engagement is a measurement of whether your members are taking actions that help them on their growth journey. Each action you’re asking a member to take should help them on with their actual goals, not just arbitrarily make the community feel busy.
  • Make room for 1:1 connections.
    In public, even if in a private community, it can be easy to default to our social media persona instead of our nuanced selves. This persona tends to break down when members connect 1:1. Invite members to connect with each other in breakout rooms, in the DMs and in accountability groups to break down the obstacles that showing up surfaces.
  • Charge for membership.
    Social media platforms are free because they’re paid by advertisers. That means their priority is who keeps them in business, not us, the free users. When you charge for your private community, you align and simplify incentives so that the person investing in the product is the one who directly benefits from it. It breaks the Media Triangle.
  • Call in instead of calling out.
    Private communities allow for a process of addressing harm that doesn’t cause further harm. When someone does something that is against the rules or harms another person, in a smaller online space, there’s room to call them in and allow for reconciliation instead of publicly shaming and calling out. For more on the mechanics of doing this, read the work of Loretta Ross.
  • Don’t be anonymous.
    Anonymity is a barrier to building trust. On social media it becomes a tool for abuse and misinformation. When you’re able to stay anonymous you’re not accountable to what you say. The more members are invited to show themselves and who they are to each other, the more online communities can lead to real connection and friendship.

What else about social media should we flip on its head for private communities? How would that apply in the community you’re building?

Because of social media, the age of the internet has so far been a net negative for human connection.

This doesn’t mean I think everyone should reject and delete social media. It can be useful for many reasons including growing an audience and marketing a private community. And with the right boundaries in place, social media platforms can be a tool for connection.

What is important is to distinguish actual human connection from the FOMO, parasocial relationships, and the status ambition we feel on these platforms. Designing for thoughtful connection in our private communities, and elsewhere in our lives, is an important counterbalance to the power of these platforms.

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