Forum Software And The Power Of Weak Ties

Thanks to inspiration from the book, The Power of Habit, we recently examined how strong ties, weak ties, and a sense of identity can be used to understand how forum communities start from a small group, grow to achieve critical mass, and eventually become self-propelling knowledge machines. Perhaps the most interesting and surprising part of this framework is the power of weak ties.

You can think of “strong ties” as your closest circle of friends. People you see all the time and interact with most often. Weak ties are more like casual acquaintances or friends of friends. This might defy expectations but it turns out that weak ties are extraordinarily important when it comes to sharing news and novel information.

To illustrate the power of weak ties, Habit author Charles Duhigg cites research by Mark Granovetter, a pioneer in the field of social phenomena. In the 1960s, Granovetter studied how a group of 282 men found their current job. Granovetter determined that weak ties were crucial to finding employment because “weak ties give us access to social networks where we don’t otherwise belong.”

Weak ties are absolutely critical for news of job openings to spread from one clique to another. However, the power of weak ties is not limited to news about job openings. It is equally relevant to the way habits, schools of thought, and social patterns permeate through the world at large.

The power of weak ties is especially pertinent to forum communities. Forums excel at creating weak ties for many reasons. For example, forums connect people who:

  • …are likely to be friendly due to a shared interest.
  • …would otherwise never meet in real life.
  • …possess different levels of expertise.
  • …come from different social circles and parts of the world.
  • …are keen to share knowledge with one another have an eye toward self-improvement.

We know that weak ties are like bridges that shuttle novel information from one group to another. While it could be argued that forum communities are prone to isolation, more like an island in the middle of the Pacific than a diverse and well connected city-state, we believe that open platforms which foster civil discussions, even among users with unique viewpoints, allow weak ties to flourish. When weak ties abound, we like to say they bind together to create a motivational force field.

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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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Forum Software, Variable Rewards, And Serendipitous Flukes

Last week we examined how Nir Eyal’s Hooked Model applies to forum software. We acknowledge the power of the Hooked Model and argue that as more and more users make a habit of using a given forum, powerful network effects occur that strengthen existing hooks which in turn attracts new users and keeps existing users engaged.

During his presentation, Nir said, “The unknown is fascinating.” He went on to explain that variable rewards (as opposed to constant or predictable rewards) cause users to increase focus and engagement. He presented findings from various studies that prove dopamine spikes in anticipation of random rewards. And what’s more is that variable rewards can be used to instill habits in users.

Variable rewards are meaningless if they’re devoid of any real substance. Imagine, for example, “winning” a search badge but not getting the desired search results. This is not a positive outcome. However, coupling variable rewards with whatever the user is seeking is a powerful and virtually irresistible 1-2 punch.

Let’s put variable rewards in the context of forum software. Some common rewards from participating in a forum include:

  • Answer to a question
  • Humor/entertainment
  • New friends
  • Satisfaction from helping others
  • Reputation points, badges, etc.

The reason these rewards are so appealing is that they are infinitely variable. There is no shortage of knowledge that can be gained, new people to meet, or ways to impress others. When these endless possibilities result in something new and fun and positive and exciting, we call them serendipitous flukes. A serendipitous fluke is a chance encounter that results in a net gain of some kind for all parties. As a forum owner and community manager there are few things more gratifying that engineering serendipitous flukes on a daily basis.

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Forum Software And The Pixar Pitch

In his book “To Sell Is Human”, which we mentioned in a post earlier this week, author Dan Pink describes something called the “Pixar Pitch”. He states that all Pixar movies follow the same formula:

  1. Once upon a time…
  2. Every day…
  3. One day…
  4. Because of that…
  5. Because of that…
  6. Until finally…

A Pixar movie about Ninja Post would go something like this:

Once upon a time, a young woman launched a website about healthy eating. Every day she wrote a new blog post and added new pictures. One day she noticed she was getting thousands of visitors. Because of that she felt obligated to help everyone that came to her site. Because of that she started to go crazy as it became impossible to reach every user individually. Until finally, she realized that a Ninja Post forum would give her users a place to work together and build friendships and free her to focus on her site.

As a bonus, the forum helped her generate more revenue and raise the profile of her site. Then, her Ninja Post forum magically turned into a prince and they lived happily ever after.*

* DISCLAIMER: our “prince metamorphosis” feature is still in development.

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Jeff Bezos And The “Regret Minimization Framework”

The quote from this Jeff Bezos interview (see video below) is applicable to anyone but it’s especially applicable to entrepreneurs. In particular, this line stands out: “I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried.”

Ninja Post is especially keen to partner with other entrepreneurs who share this sentiment. If your company can benefit from Ninja Post, let us know.

The full quote and YouTube video follow:

I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, “Okay, now I’m looking back on my life. I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have.”

I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried.

I knew that that would haunt me every day, and so, when I thought about it that way it was an incredibly easy decision. If you can project yourself out to age 80 and sort of think, “What will I think at that time?” it gets you away from some of the daily pieces of confusion.

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