Community culture is the connecting tissue between shared purpose and collective agency
You can’t have a thriving community without a strong and positive culture. But what comes first? Both often get confused in being the same thing, however they are complements in building and sustaining a positive-sum flywheel dynamic for groups of like-minded people to accomplish great things together. Culture is the invisible bond which ties community members together and guides their collective actions.
Culture isn’t a set of words, it’s a set of actions. Culture is the sum of values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations and customs that distinguishes one group of people from another. It’s about what you believe in, how you show up and what you achieve. In communities or groups with shared interests, culture is shaped by the purpose and reason for being together, as well as the rituals these collectives create, the collective knowledge they acquire, the practices they develop together, and the outcomes and impact they ultimately deliver.
A community’s cultural values serve as the founding principles, influencing the ways in which community members will interact with one another and collaborate to achieve common objectives. Culture is not static; it’s established and transmitted through language, symbols, rituals and artefacts from one member to the next, and evolves as communities go through various stages of their lifecycle. In the community formation stage, culture is initially shaped by the values and beliefs of its founders, leaders and core team. Similar to building a minimum viable community as a foundation for growth, equal effort and validation needs to be oriented at achieving minimum viable culture status.
If community (purpose, values & beliefs) addresses the WHY, i.e. the rational reason and emotional motives of being together, culture addresses the HOW: the behavioural norms and expectations members live by, and the rhythm, processes and rituals that guide how members interact and collaborate. In many ways, culture creates community, and the community, in turn, shapes the culture. Hence, while web3 puts community-market fit ahead of product-market fit, culture-market fit is equally critical in successfully addressing any given market opportunity.
Culture-market fit is that blissful intersection of an opportunity in the market with a culture that can execute on said opportunity Why Culture Eats Strategy — Napkin Math — Every
When forming a community and shaping its initial culture, start with defining your core set of values and beliefs. Establishing the core values of your community can set the tone of your community’s culture from day one. Without values, there is no culture.
Values obviously need to be aligned to the WHY of your community: your reason for existing; what you and your members stand for. It all starts with recognising and valuing the principle of mutuality: a community needs to serve the collective purpose and its individual members’ motives equally well. A common purpose and a set of shared values are a prerequisite for any community to flourish.
Clarity on purpose and values will help you to build and develop your community ‘brand’ and narrative. Your community story and supporting memes should engage and inspire prospective and like-minded members. By making it personal and relatable, your community proposition and promise becomes less of an advertising pitch, and more of a dialogue inviting community members to contribute and make it theirs.
However, your community narrative should also serve as a screening and filtering reference to attract and onboard the right members. By being clear what you stand for and what your community is for and what it’s not, new members can self-assess their culture and value fit. While you may allow new members the freedom to explore before fully committing, sometimes adding some positive friction as part of the onboarding process may help to set expectations and ensure people sign up with the right mindset.
Behavioural and interaction norms are a part of every community’s culture. Getting new members to acknowledge (and sign off on) your community rules and norms is a common onboarding practice. Beyond the usual ethical do’s and don’ts, it’s helpful to highlight community-specific expectations and standards that not only guide desired member behaviour but also contribute to the overall success and wellbeing of the community. As such, establishing minimum viable expectations (MVE) will set the bar for how you want all members to engage, participate and contribute.
Setting expectations is only half the onboarding job. Creating a personal and welcoming onboarding experience, and fostering belonging from the get-go are at least as important. Positive communities work to foster a feeling of genuine connection among members by providing plenty of intra-community connection opportunities. Ensuring new members get to know and interact with other members early on in their discovery journey will create the required comfort for taking on a more active role in the community going forward.
Having a predictable community rhythm will also be instrumental in creating recurring connection points for members to engage and interact. Establishing community rituals will provide members with recurring, anticipated prompts for involvement. They’re often performed weekly, but any regular, consistent and fairly frequent cadence will have the desired effect: weekly digests, open roundtables, monthly meet-ups, seasonal goal setting, … Sticking to a seasonal rhythm is also a way for members to recommit to a community’s purpose and culture. Working with seasons and building a consistent off-boarding and re-onboarding rhythm helps to resurface what the community really stands for and have members sign up for to the next season’s scope.
It’s throughout all these recurring rituals that you get to walk your culture talk. Any values and norms that shape your community culture will be put to the test during these interactions. They ensure members feel heard by proactively involving them and empowering them through regular input, feedback and voting cycles. And by being inclusive, open, transparent and respectful, you build critically important trust along the way. Rituals are also a perfect occasion to recognise and reward positive behaviour and valuable contributions publicly. And while any value violations or inappropriate behaviour need to be addressed promptly, these are better handled in a sensitive manner, privately and individually.
Finally, and most importantly, you need to leave sufficient room and space for culture to develop with, by and for your community. While you should be rigid and directive on the WHY (community vision and purpose), you should leave sufficient room and space for the community to steer the HOW and WHAT (community culture, scope and projects). It’s chicken and egg, remember? Culture creates community, and the community, in turn, shapes the culture.
Groups tend to develop their own culture over time, based on knowledge, beliefs, practices and behaviours their members hold in common. Awareness of shared culture builds trust, cohesion, and a sense of safety among the members, thus furthering collaboration. Group Culture | Group Works (groupworksdeck.org)
In Life After Lifestyle, Tiby Shorin makes the case that we are increasingly evolving to an era where the production of culture is valued — both subjectively and financially — on its own terms. From an era where brands are designed to sell products and build loyalty and community with product at the centre, to an era where brands are designed to be culture, to transform lives, to instil beliefs. By reversing the product-market fit sequence and putting community and culture first, products become auxiliary and supportive to the values, practices, and rituals which define a community’s essence.
When communities evolve to become branded subcultures, with a compelling narrative, shared values and distinct rituals, they become a force of gravity. Mutuality and agency drive an ever faster spinning flywheel, pulling existing members closer to the centre while attracting new like-minded members to join the party. As such, culture and community become their own asset class, and the new moat for web3 brands and projects to grow in substance, traction and impact.
Subcultures become consumerized subcultures, composed of products. In the new cultural economy, the culture is the product. And most importantly, people now opt into these designed cultures with full knowledge and awareness that these cultures might change who they are.Life After Lifestyle (subpixel.space)