Achieving Critical Mass: How Lessons From The Civil Rights Movement Can Be Applied To Forum Communities

In The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg analyzes how social phenomena evolve from nothing into powerful movements. There are three phases:

  • Start. A movement starts because of the strong ties between close acquaintances.
  • Growth. A movement grows thanks to the habits of a community and weak ties that bind members of a group together.
  • Durability. A movement endures because it gives participants a sense of identity and/or a feeling of ownership.

“Usually, only when all three parts of this process are fulfilled can a movement become self-propelling and reach a critical mass,” Duhigg writes. In the book, he uses this framework to explain why Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience changed the course of history while others jailed for similar offenses prior to Ms. Parks did not lead to protests, boycotts, or sweeping social change.

Ms. Parks was unique because her friends and acquaintances spanned diverse social and economic circles. “She had what sociologists call ‘strong ties’—first hand relationships—with dozens of groups throughout Montgomery that didn’t usually come into contact with one another,” the author writes. Thus, when she was arrested many different people were upset.

As outrage over her arrest spread, peer pressure kicked in which unleashed the power of weak ties. “Peer pressure on it’s own isn’t enough to sustain a movement. But when the strong ties of friendship and the weak ties of peer pressure merge, they create incredible momentum. That’s when widespread social change can begin,” according to Duhigg.

The author goes on to explain how Dr. Martin Luther King helped convert participants in the Civil Rights movement into self-directing leaders. This created social patterns that, over time, “expanded to other places and groups of students and protesters whom King never met, but who could take on leadership of the movement simply by watching how its participants habitually behaved.” King and other leaders instilled a sense of identity and a feeling of ownership to participants in the Civil Rights movement (most notably through non-violent resistance) which strengthened the movement and helped it endure over time.

We believe this same frame work is applicable to forum communities. A successful forum often starts with a small close knit group of friends, grows into a larger and more diverse community, and eventually becomes a self-propelling “knowledge machine” that lives on its own accord, even after its earliest members move on.

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