In The Art of Community, Charles Vogl lists seven principles for belonging that all genuine communities share.
This is Part 6 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 sixth principle: symbols.
The subtle power of symbols
Vogl writes, “symbols … remind us of our values, identity, and commitment in a community.”
Similar to how stories can help promote belonging and reinforce values without their intention being explicitly stated, symbols can communicate a lot to your members while saying very little.
The tricky part can be coming up with (or discovering) symbols that actually do this.
- Good symbols can serve as powerful conduits for your audience to feel and express their affinity for your community.
- But forced symbols that aren’t meaningful to your members will be ineffective at best, or in most cases an unwanted distraction.
The key is artfully blending proactive creation with opportunistic discovery to create symbols that mean something significant to your members.
How can your community incorporate tokens?
Tokens are a type of symbol given to community members that represent achievements, ideas, values, events, and milestones. They are most often physical objects and used in offline communities.
- The chips that AA members receive to commemorate milestone dates of sobriety.
- The pin that members receive upon being initiated into a fraternity.
- The rings that all members of a sports team’s organization receive upon winning a championship.
Sometimes the objects themselves are inherently valuable. Other times, the objects derive all or most of their value from the meaning they represent. This is why it’s important to have rituals built around the distribution of tokens.
The challenge for an online community builder is to consider how you might incorporate tokens into your online community.
One common method of doing this is a digital token, usually referred to as a badge. These are often awarded in educational communities when members complete certain sections.
But tokens for online communities do not have to be digital. An example from my own experience is the “ChatMob” t-shirts that we present to our most dedicated audience members at The Assembly Call.
The term “ChatMob” refers to the group of regulars who show up in the live YouTube chat during our shows. We created a t-shirt design that incorporates this term and our logo in it.
The apparel company that has sponsored our show for years makes the shirts for us, but they are not publicly available for sale. We didn’t want just anyone to be able to get them. Audience members have to “earn” the shirt by showing up consistently over time to the live events. This gives them more value.
Once an audience member is deemed ChatMob-worthy, we hold an induction ceremony of sorts in which the person is brought onto our after-show discussion and we ask them questions about their history as an IU basketball fan. Then they are sent the link where they can buy their shirt.
This was never something we anticipated doing; the opportunity grew organically over the years, which is part of the reason why the symbol has so much meaning to our audience.
Strong community symbols share these four components
So what makes for an effective community symbol? Every community will be different, but any successful symbol will have the following four attributes.
1. The symbol represents an important achievement, value, or milestone.
This is a no-brainer, because it’s built into the definition of symbols, but it’s worth restating. We can also look closer at one particular type of symbol.
It’s easy to see how a symbol can represent an achievement or milestone, but what about a value? Consider the community that Brian Clark is developing with his newsletter, Further.
The logo for Further is a phoenix, which represents rebirth, eternity, foreverness.
This fits in with Further’s stated values of “keep going” and “live your best life at midlife.” The logo is on gear that readers can purchase, which gives members of Brian’s community a chance to affirm their association with Further’s values.
2. The meaning is clear to members (and probably unclear to most non-members).
Part of what makes a symbol special to members is the knowledge that they are one of the few people who really understands what it means.
In the case of Further’s phoenix, the surface-level meaning is fairly clear to anyone who takes ten seconds to read the homepage copy. But the deeper meanings become more self-evident with each new issue. Plus, Brian is still also in the initial stages of turning his large newsletter audience into an actual community, at which the point the logo’s meaning will surely deepen even more.
The ChatMob t-shirts described above are a quintessential example of the meaning being clear to our members but probably quite obtuse to non-members. Would you have had any idea what that meant if I didn’t explain it? A general basketball fan might have had a vague idea, but that’s about it.
Inside knowledge, inside jokes, and inner rings (a subject we’ll discuss in more depth next week) are all ways to deepen the connections among community members, and symbols play a role in facilitating this.
3. The symbol has an origin story
Yes, it comes back to stories. They are so important in communicating the meaning of almost everything that happens inside of our communities.
And any meaningful symbol will have an origin story. You should strongly consider retelling or at least summarizing this origin story during the ritual when the symbol is presented.
Just as the origin story for your community reinforces your authority and commitment to the values of our community, so does the origin story for a symbol.
And finally …
4. The design is visually interesting.
Even the most visually arresting symbol will ultimately prove meaningless if it doesn’t incorporate the first three elements in this list, so design is last for a reason.
But that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. And the reason why should be fairly obvious: any symbol will capture attention and be more desirable (in the case of a token) if it has an interesting design.
Note that “interesting” here is a relative term. It needs to be interesting to your members and to the members you want to attract. If it’s not interesting to anyone else, so what?
Take our Assembly Call logo as an example (which forms the “o” in the “ChatMob” t-shirt above).
If you’re not an Indiana basketball fan, my guess is that this logo isn’t all that interesting to you. But if you are an Indiana basketball fan, then it’s full of references you’ll appreciate.
- The color is the same as Indiana’s official brand color.
- It’s in the shape of a circle to represent basketball.
- The five vertical strikes represent Indiana’s five national championship banners.
- The font is meant to resemble the famous “script Indiana” on the backs of Indiana’s shooting shirts.
- The microphone stand is in the shape of the IU trident.
So this logo provides visual symbolism of the values we’ve built our show upon: support for the program, respect for its tradition, strong production value, and a genuine love for the game of basketball and Indiana’s role in its history.
Symbols can provide real points of pride for you and your members. You should be proactive in seeking to develop them.
But the pursuit of symbols must be done with humility, and probably a healthy dose of patience. Sometimes your community needs to live, breathe, develop, and evolve for you to identify symbols and tokens that will truly be meaningful to your members.
Now here are some additional links on this topic …
Make including symbols a consistent part of what you do
I don’t agree with the author’s claim that you shouldn’t try to create symbols. You need a balanced mindset like I suggest above. But I do wholeheartedly agree that community leaders should seek to regularly incorporate symbols into the community’s activities.
Reinforce Your Online Community’s Symbols | FeverBee
Badges help you develop community and revenue
This short article is concerned more with how badges impact news websites, but it includes a few important points for online community builders as well. “In a community, the members know things about each other — their interests and experience. Badges can help one user get to know others and form ties with those who share similar interests.”
How badges help news websites build community, make money | Poynter
Symbols are an integral part of any online community
This is an excellent, comprehensive blog post about why online communities are becoming more and more popular and important in 2020. “A common trait of an active community is having unique symbols or language that mean a lot to the community members, but may not mean anything to outsiders.”
A Renaissance for Online Communities: My session from PodCamp Toronto 2020 | Andy McIlwain
Why logos matter
You may not want to invest big money in designing a logo right out of the gate, but you’ll certainly need a strong, symbolic logo at some point if you want to develop a significant following. This article provides five reasons why.
The importance of a logo—5 reasons you must have one | 99designs
By the way, I used 99Designs way back in 2015 to get our logo for The Assembly Call. It was a great experience. I haven’t used it since then, so things might have changed. But it’s worth checking out if you need to hire a designer for any of the symbols you want to create.
Thank you for reading this issue of Primility.
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Photo by Matthew Brodeur on Unsplash