In The Art of Community, Charles Vogl lists seven principles for belonging that all genuine communities share.
This is Part 3 of a series in which I am explaining how each principle works within the specific context of online communities.
This week, let’s discuss the third principle: rituals.
Don’t confuse routine with ritual
Vogl defines ritual as “any practice that marks a time or event as special or important.” In other words, it is meaningful.
If you ignore this distinction, you are likely to confuse routine with ritual and think you are building genuine community when you are not.
Here is an example from my own community building experience:
What turns a routine into a ritual
I lead the Unemployable Initiative, an online community for freelancers and solopreneurs who want to build successful small businesses that support intentional lifestyle choices.
Each week, I post an accountability thread where I ask some variation of this question: “What is your #1 objective for this week? How will it help you move closer to attaining a larger goal?” Sometimes I switch up the second question and ask, “What do you anticipate being an obstacle you will need overcome?”
The goal for this thread is to encourage members to recognize their most important priority for the week, and then give them a mental tool (motivation or preemptive planning) that will assist in achieving it.
Throughout the week, members post their objectives in the comments. And this weekly routine of identifying the objective and then taking a useful next mental step is helpful, independent of any additional meaning.
But if that was all that was involved, it would be merely a routine.
What makes it a ritual is that every Thursday night (or Friday morning), I follow up with each commenter by replying to their comment with a comment of my own that acknowledges their objective specifically and asks them how it’s going.
The reason why this act makes it a ritual is because the public and specific attention and interest of the community leader makes it special and important.
For example, if Jim says that his objective is to send his first curated newsletter, and he anticipates making time being the obstacle, I would reply with something like, “Jim, were you able to carve out the time to get your first newsletter sent?”
Now contrast that will simply copy-pasting a generic reply to everyone, like: “Did you complete your objective?”
One is personal and public, shows genuine care and concern, and feels like an opening for a conversation. The other feels generic and like someone just trying to check a to-do item off the list.
- The reason why being public matters is because participation needs to be shared among members for cohesion to develop.
- The reason why being specific matters is because it ensures that the member feels seen and understood. This is how we continue to build belonging in our communities.
Plus, the knowledge that I’ll follow up each week and engage in conversation adds an extra layer of motivation toward the fulfillment of the objective because they know I’ll be asking and want to have a good answer.
This is the difference between routine and ritual.
- A routine is something we do repeatedly.
- A ritual is something we do repeatedly that is special and has meaning.
And rituals are important to building a community that develops the cohesion and engagement we want.
The fundamentals for creating rituals in online communities
Vogl acknowledges, “Rituals are more challenging online than offline. However, they’re no less important.”
My experience as a community leader has taught me that this is absolutely true.
But the challenge isn’t usually one of complexity; it’s more one of your own own commitment and investment as the community leader. How much do you care? How much time are you willing to put in to make events or gatherings special and important?
Often, creating a ritual (or turning an existing routine into a ritual) simply requires you, as the community leader, to go the extra mile in terms of planning and/or follow-up.
And while I know statements like that can be intimidating because we’re all pressed for time as it is, there is no shortcut if your goal is to build an engaged community with members who will actually stick around to fulfill your goals of recurring revenue.
Vogl shares some fundamentals of ritual that can be helpful in stoking your creative thinking about how you can create more rituals in your community — especially around live online events where members gather together, like a Zoom happy hour or book club.
These fundamental elements are the Opening, Body, and Closing.
- The Opening involves a welcome, statement of intention, reference of a tradition, and then explaining the event and instructions.
- The Body involves sharing wisdom and inviting participation.
- The Closing involves acknowledgement and then sending members off to their lives, hopefully changed in some small but meaningful way.
Consider how this might work for a book club, a routine monthly Zoom meetup that we recently began in the Unemployable Initiative.
My Opening might go something like this:
Welcome, fellow unemployables, to our monthly book club gathering. This week we are going to discuss Atomic Habits by James Clear. This is now our third meeting of the book club, and I see many familiar faces who have attended one or both of our previous gatherings, where we have shared the lessons we’ve learned from some of important and influential books. We’ll get started here shortly with everyone’s “Big Idea,” and then discuss the topics I sent out earlier today. As always, your participation is encouraged but no required. If you’re ready to speak, just raise your hand and I’ll call on you — that way we avoid folks talking over each other.
This simple introduction does a lot of work:
- It reminds everyone of their shared value (being an “unemployable,” and all that entails).
- It states the intention so that everyone knows what will happen.
- It references our tradition of meeting each month, which will become more and more meaningful as the months stack up.
- It lets everyone know how to participate in then conversation and that just being a listener is part of participation.
Contrast the above statement with me just saying, “Okay, looks like everyone is here. Let’s talk about the book … “
One is introducing a routine. The other is introducing a ritual.
During the Body section of the book club, it is the leader’s job to set the example for the sharing of wisdom, be ready to fill any gaps or pauses with statements that advance the conversation, and act like an air traffic controller while members participate.
And then during the Closing, it is important to acknowledge what has taken place, offer a sense of accomplishment, and send the participants back into their regular lives.
And that concludes yet another book club gathering. We shared our Big Ideas about The Art of Community, and really came up with some great ways that we can all apply Vogl’s concepts to our own work as online community builders. Thank you all for being here and for being so generous with your insights and attention. Imagine if we all take one lesson we learned here tonight and apply them to our online communities this month. Our members will all be better off, and we’ll each be on our way to more engaged and profitable communities.
Again, contrast that with something less thoughtful: “Okay, that concludes this month’s book club. Thanks for being here. We’ll talk next month!”
One is merely closes the meeting. The other closes the meeting with meaning.
Other types of rituals for online communities
I’ve shared a few examples of rituals from my own communities, but there are many, many other types of rituals you might want to try.
In fact, thinking about and researching this edition of the Primility newsletter has given me a lot of ideas for how to turn other existing routines into rituals and for new rituals I want to try.
Some other types of rituals that work for online communities are:
- Celebrating general milestones in a member’s life (birthday, marriage, birth of a child, etc.) or membership (anniversary of joining, advancement through training, etc.)
- Celebrating milestones that are specific to the community’s values (a fitness community acknowledging weight loss achievement)
- An online chat during or after a live event (TV show, sporting event, political debate)
- A regular meetup to watch and discuss an old movie (or other form of entertainment or education)
- Recurring accountability check-ins or “campfire chats” with a small group
And on and on.
When it comes to creating rituals in your online community, you are bound only by the technology you have available, your ability to think of creative ways to use it, and your level of commitment to do the work needed to turn routines into rituals.
Most people only join communities led by people they respect. They certainly will only stick around if they respect the leader.
This means that you, as the leader, need to take pride in your role and the respect your members surely have for you.
You must recognize that you have the power to turn routines into rituals if you care enough to do so. And if you want to build an engaged community, you have an obligation to do so.
But take heed: you cannot allow your pride in your role as leader to lull you into a sense of complacency. Respect isn’t a gift that your members give to you; it’s a feeling that they have about you, and it can change in an instant or erode over time.
So you must have the humility to keep listening, keep responding, keep caring, and keep doing the ongoing and occasionally tedious work that establishes routines and turns them into rituals.
This work matters. It’s what separates mirage communities from real communities.
Now here are some additional links on this topic …
Explore how other online communities create rituals
Remember that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Your community and its values may be unique, but the activities you use to create rituals don’t have to be. This post lists a number of different rituals that other online communities use.
For example, an online community called Kids Book Cafe ends each week with #FridayFun, “a ritual where all community members sit together and share some hilarious pieces from children’s books with each other.”
The Power of Rituals: How to build stronger communities | Community Folks
Rituals help members connect socially and emotionally
A study published by the American Sociological Association looked at the importance of rituals in online games like World of Warcraft. The conclusion matches what we would expect: ” … players focused on inanimate resources are less committed than players who focus on social aspects of the ritual events inside the game. We also find that emotional investment is a good predictor of commitment to community.”
Virtual Rituals: Community, Emotion, and Ritual in Massive Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games—A Quantitative Test and Extension of Structural Ritualization Theory | American Sociological Association
Rituals provide rhythm
This post makes an important point about rituals: “They help us to create some rhythm, since they are an anchor in our daily routines.” In a world in which so much seems to be coming at us at once, and in which a constant stream of distractions can so easily throw us out of our rhythms, rituals can help us maintain a sense of normalcy and flow.
Why are rituals important in your community? | Spaceflow
Icebreaker might be a useful tool for creating rituals
I participate in the Mighty Hosts community at Mighty Networks, and this week a thoughtful member named Ali Z recommended Icebreaker.video as a tool for creating virtual campfire events. I haven’t used it yet, but it looks promising. Of course, it will be up to you as the community leader if you want to use it to create rituals instead of routines.
Thank you for reading this issue of Primility.
Please consider forwarding it to a friend who wants to be a better servant leader and build a strong online community.
Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash
Great article. I thought I might add that there is actually a part of our brain which seeks rituals and routines as a part of our survival patterns. So, our brains and bodies actually have parts which help our biological systems work better when we participate in rituals.
Thanks for that insight! It makes sense. Just like we’re biologically wired to connect with stories, I am not surprised at all that we have a similar connection to rituals.