If You Build It, Will They Come?

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“Community” is a term that gets tossed around so much these days, but how often do we stop to consider its fundamental meaning? It can evoke feelings of belonging, warmth, unity, and goodwill. It can be a source of identity. Community is how we have survived for thousands of years, sharing knowledge, resources, and basic necessities.

Community sure is a wonderful thing. But the nature of communities has changed much in recent years. They’ve become more distributed and virtual, with the web as their home and devices as conduits for connection, interaction, expression, and creation. Social networks have fundamentally reshaped the idea of community, for better and worse. We have the capability to connect with one another in so many ways across time and distance, and we can discover and associate with a wider range of communities than ever, but how does that change our role within those communities?

Co-organizing the recent Information Design NYC Meetup (described here) got me thinking about what building community means when the idea of being “connected” means different things and manifests in different ways.

Getting off the ground

Planning the first event after a four-year dormancy was challenging. Without the benefit of a long track record of events or knowledge of who our members really were, we didn’t have much to go from. All we knew was that we had over 300 members with some type of interest in information design (few member profiles include background information, but most list membership in other groups and additional interests), and we needed to get them engaged in the group again — to feel like there was something there worth being actively a part of. It wasn’t simply a matter of finding a speaker, locking in a venue, and putting out some snacks.

We needed to come back strong.

Our grand idea: a not-your-average Meetup that would breathe life into subject of information design for both newcomers and pros alike. The goal was to get people moving, thinking, talking, connecting, and above all, exchanging different points of view. The dynamism and energy we hoped to spark in this first event, we thought, would light a fire within the group.

Finding the right name for the event was key. By calling it Information Design: Who, What & Why?, we intended to open up possibilities for discussion within the subject and among attendees. Each question alludes to both the historical figures and milestones in information design as well as to the people in the room.

Making it fun and functional

Naturally, we had to apply some information design thinking to the event experience. We tried to create an event that we ourselves would want to go to, so we designed activities that celebrated the past and present of information design, invited diverse perspectives, poked fun at some serious aspects of the field, and got people thinking about clarity and understanding a little more.

Interactive Posters (part 1): From the start of the event, we wanted to prompt people to share their thoughts and spark conversation with others. We created six posters, each posing a different open-response or quiz-style question to be answered with hand-written post-its or chosen with colored sticky dots. We placed each poster around the room so that people could walk around, post an answer, see other people’s answers, and strike up conversation about them.

Overview presentation: We chose to present something ourselves for this first event to set the right tone and focus for our group going forward, as well as set the right context to feed into discussion. Instead of a typical show-and-tell or didactic lecture, we provided a 30-minute high-level overview of information design across eight dimensions, with occasional questions to the group, and we then transitioned to a brief Q&A before networking.

Networking cards: To make networking a bit more interesting, we created a matching game featuring six key figures in information design (chosen from among many, many others, of course): John Snow, Edward Tufte, Richard Saul Wurman, Ladislav Sutnar, Otto Neurath, and Massimo Vignelli. (In case you’re wondering, we featured four female information designers on one of our interactive posters: Florence Nightingale, Sylvia Harris, Margaret Calvert, and Deborah Adler.) If you had a John Snow card, you had to pair up with someone else who had a John Snow card. Then you each would take turns asking each other the networking questions on the back (who’s, what’s, and why’s). After 15 minutes, you’d look for another person with your card and repeat. We also included a very short bio of each pioneer on the back.

Interactive Posters (part 2): For the final networking activity, we added a twist: everyone with the same color information design pioneer card had to gather around the poster with the matching color and discuss the responses on the poster (i.e., everyone with an orange card went to the poster with the orange sign). We designed this so that no two people who already networked would be in the same group: each key figure of information design came in six different colors.

Photos of how it all came together are here.

The outcome

Overall, the event was a success, despite the fact that attendance was way lower than expected (as a number of event organizers point out, when it comes to free events, many people often don’t show). People seemed to enjoy the posters and were not shy in sharing their thoughts. The presentation was a bit bumpy and microphone issues got in the way, but for the most part, the group was tracking along and had good questions afterwards. Networking went well, even with a smaller group, but the cards weren’t exactly intuitive for everyone. The walk-through of poster responses and reveal of the correct answers at the very end was a hit. We were fortunate to receive some glowing reviews by a few people afterwards and ample interest in the next event.

What did we learn?

Despite all our enthusiasm for the activities and for getting people together, we knew this wasn’t magically going to jump start the group. It was a learning experience that would help us understand our members, what they’re interested in, and how we could move the group forward. Here are some lessons learned, in five broad buckets:

  1. Purpose: To us co-organizers, the Meetup group had a focused purpose as a hub for people with an active interest in information design and a desire to engage with others who do it or know a lot about it. We thought it was mainly supposed to be a learning and networking resource. But for many people, the reality is that Meetup is just a place where you can find cool stuff to do and sample something new. The smorgasbord of topics and causes available on the Meetup platform is vast, encouraging many to pile their plates high with group memberships (sometimes hundreds), then sit back and wait for news of any interesting happenings. As we steer the course of the group, we’ll need to find and attract people who share the same purpose — the two-way knowledge sharing and the professional contact — while welcoming the curious who want a casual glimpse into the world of information design. It would be too difficult to make the group all things to all people while trying to build a core community.
  2. People: We didn’t really know enough about our members, given the thin information on Meetup. Doing a poll or survey didn’t seem too appealing because, as we all know, asking for any kind of substantive feedback is near impossible these days. As it turned out, we had many more newcomers, enthusiasts, and related professionals than actual die-hard information designers (some people came through our event partner, General Assembly, whose audience comes from tech, design, and business). As mentioned above, the serious information designers should be the backbone of the group, but where are they? Do they even know our Meetup group exists? If they do, what’s stopping them from joining? Is Meetup’s cool factor now on par with Myspace and Friendster? To get a better grip on our membership, we need to find ways to learn more about who’s in the group, and we need to start getting more information designers involved in driving the community.
  3. Pulse: It’s unfortunate that the group fell silent for so long. The prolonged inactivity and lack of updates on the Meetup page really set us back. The regular rhythm of events and member engagement evident in more lively Meetup groups is a sign of good health and great encouragement to get involved. Looking ahead, our group will need a steady, manageable pace for event planning and variable time/energy investment so that we and member volunteers don’t burn out. Intermediate updates, Q&A discussions online, smaller spinoff events, and other forms of activity could help sustain momentum between bigger organized gatherings.
  4. Participation: Social networks and platforms like Meetup make it easier than ever to join “communities,” but being in one of those communities requires hardly any effort. Participation ranges in every group, from passive lurker to active supporter, but when more people are passive than active, or when there’s more expectation for things to happen than people mobilized to make those things happen and ensure they succeed, there’s a big problem. That’s not what I’d consider a real community. It’s still early for us, but we need to see how best to stimulate participation with a few tactful nudges rather than an onslaught of pushy messaging and persistent, nagging e-mails. Maybe after establishing a pulse and building a track record of events, we might see participation grow naturally and people share some sense of ownership for the group.
  5. Promotion: Meetup is its own promotion platform, and there are opportunities to cross-promote with other groups. We relied on the usual suspects to get the word out — Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn — wrote blog posts to provide more detail, and sent members reminder e-mails. General Assembly posted the event on their calendar and sent out their weekly newsletter the day before our event. For sure, plenty of people saw something about the event, but the message didn’t seem to ripple out: there was an occasional retweet and a few likes here and there, but no real surge of promotional support. Perhaps if we featured a well-known information designer or had a bit more clout as a group, the buzz would have been louder. Nevertheless, we still managed to drum up a considerable number of RSVP’s.

Online or offline, virtual or physical, what every community boils down to is one word: care. Communities are groups of people who care about the same thing and take great care to protect it, preserve it, share it, teach it, study it, or just enjoy it, whatever it may be. When everyone cares and shows they care by contributing in some form to the community with time, knowledge, or some other resources, the community survives and thrives. But when few people or nobody cares, community disintegrates. Community organizers can do their part to lead and manage their group, but the group itself decides its own fate, either by clicking buttons and waiting for something to happen or by showing up and making things happen.

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