Building Inclusive Online Communities

Community Strategy // Community managers need the lastest information to reach success. Learn more about building inclusive online communities.

Jessica Fish
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What would happen if you asked me for my email address and I told you it was [email protected]?

How might your perception of me be shaped by that one piece of information? What if I told you it was a gmail address? Would that draw any reaction at all?

If we’re honest, we all know that we routinely draw multiple, broad conclusions from a single piece of information. Like an email address, or a LinkedIn photo.

This is an example of implicit bias.

How implicit bias affects communities

An implicit bias is an unconscious assumption that we make about another person. They impact our understanding, actions, and decisions. And, since we’re each getting millions of bits of information a second but can only consciously process about 60 bits, no one is immune to snap judgements. That means our brains are excellent at creating shortcuts that allow us to make quick decisions.

But it also means we are constantly making judgments based on previous experiences and stereotypes. And, because these biases operate at the level below conscious awareness, we have to work hard to uncover the ways in which they impact our lives – personal and professional, online and off.

As a community professional, you are probably really good at reading people. You rely on your intuition a lot. And, because you’re responsible for relationship upkeep, content, facilitation, reporting, etc., you’re often running at lightning speed.

The faster we move, the harder it is to see the ways unconscious bias impacts our work and plays out in our communities. Researchers suggest that one of the main ways to limit bias is to slow down. Another is training yourself to recognize it and naming it when you do.

You’ve all probably experienced two specific types of bias during your community tenure. The first is affinity bias, which refers to cliques – members who create tight subgroups comprised of similarly minded members (who often have offline connections) and aren’t welcoming to newcomers.

The second type is perception bias, which occurs when you form an opinion about a group that makes it difficult to fairly assess an individual within that group think about how Baby Boomers view Millennials and vice versa. In this scenario, it’s not uncommon for older members to leave a community when they feel that it is catering to a younger crowd.

Moving beyond unconscious bias to build inclusive environments

We all know members without profile photos or with stock images are less likely to be engaged with – that’s an unconscious bias right there!

Here’s another example: I’ve seen questions written by people whose second language is English go largely unanswered in many communities. When investigating the root cause of this, it is usually tied to an implicit bias on the part of native English speakers – they either don’t give the post the same weight as posts that are grammatically perfect, or they feel like engaging with the poster might eat up more time than they are willing to give. I’ve encouraged community managers to address this bias by naming it, calling members’ attention to the disconnect, and making resources (question templates, access to a proofreader, etc.) available to non-native speakers.

With some implicit biases, just bringing attention to it can help you eradicate them. But sometimes, a bias is so deeply ingrained that it takes sustained and conscious practice to lessen its impact.

To build inclusive environments, it’s important to understand that even though you have five thousand people in your community who are all focused on how much they love their work in dentistry, each one of those members also has multiple other identities: gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, class, ability, etc.

Each of those identities impacts how a member participates in their personal, professional, and online lives. They are brought together by a common thread, dentistry, but they have remarkably varied identities and experiences. Failing to appreciate the dynamics and complexities of identity can potentially alienate members and keep your community from being the vibrant space it is intended to be.

It might feel overwhelming at first. But learning how to build inclusive digital spaces is an ongoing process, just like developing reporting and engagement skills.

So, how do you begin?

Recognize the impact of implicit bias – talk to your communities

Gather the community team and talk to them about implicit bias. You might share this video with them, or encourage them to take one of these implicit bias tests from Harvard. Ask yourself these questions, “What are the implicit biases that might be impacting our community?” “How can we acknowledge and mitigate them?” Once those have been answered, ask “What does a truly inclusive community look like for our members?” and, “What are the barriers and knowledge gaps to achieving that vision?”

If your organization has a Chief Diversity Officer, or someone in HR who specializes in Diversity & Inclusion, consider how they can help you examine these questions.

If you survey your members, add in a few questions about how inclusive they view the environment, whether they have experienced any biases, and how might it be improved.

Add a section to your community rules and guidelines that speaks to creating and maintaining an inclusive environment. Talk about your commitment to inclusion (in non-boilerplate language please) and how you handle exclusionary comments, posts, and attitudes. If your organization already has a diversity statement, personalize it for the online community. If you need some inspiration, this example from Moz is great.

Advocate that community managers attend trainings on diversity, equity, inclusion, and access – the ideas we’ve touched on here are just a few of the basics.

Recognizing the impact of implicit bias and implementing strategies to combat it is a natural extension of the work you do, another skillset that will enable you to create and maintain quality engagement, recruit and retain members, and drive innovation. Remember, the more diverse and inclusive communities are, the more creative solutions they generate!


Jessica Fish

Senior Consultant and Director of Operations, The Adaway Group

Jessica is a facilitator, educator and researcher with fifteen years of experience helping predominately white organizations and communities center inclusion and equity.

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