Friday, May 19, 2017

Building a Community Institution In Five Hours A Week

My partner and I have been co-organizing rationality meetups in two different cities for the past five years. We're still learning how to be good at this, but we've made a lot of progress over the years. Here's some of what we've learned.

1. Have a purpose

"Have a meetup" is not a terminal goal, and not a good instrumental one either. "Have a fun place to socialize with friends" is better. "Provide a fun, low-key social space where newcomers can mingle with established community members" is even better. Be specific.

There's a lot of different good ways for a thing called a "meetup" to be. Some meetups might be a central community hub, with the goal "Build a rationalist community in <place> by having a meeting place where most community members come and interact." In a place with a more established community, the goal might be "Have an established collecting place for newcomers to come and check out the community, and eventually get them to start going to other events." Or you might have a meetup with a focus on personal growth as a group.

Having a purpose helps you make coherent decisions about the meetup. If your goal is to welcome newcomers, you might focus mostly on getting people talking with structured activities. If your goal is to improve members' rationality skills, you'll moderate discussions more tightly and keep things on track as much as possible. If your goal is to have a low-key socialization space, then you'll encourage off-topic conversation. It's all a matter of your vision.

2. No one cares about topics, but you gotta have 'em anyway

Most people, when polled, say they want to come to meetups for social interaction: developing friendships and meeting new people. They say meetup topics aren't very important to them. Yet in our experience, just setting up a meetup and saying "People are coming here! This is the Schelling point for meeting new friends!" doesn't convince people to show up. Why is this?

To the people deciding whether to come to your meetup, it matters who else is coming to the meetup, and what they're talking about. Saying "this is a fun social space" doesn't answer those questions. What if they're the only one who comes? What if the other people who come are all really boring, or have no interests in common with them?

Having a planned topic or activity overcomes that initial inertia, and gives them confidence that other people with similar interests will show up.

3. Try new things and learn what works

Try new meetup topics and activities. Write down how well they went. You never know when you'll discover something good.

This is more important near the beginning of a meetup, when you're still working on getting critical mass. But it's good to revisit periodically, too.

4. Exploit what you learn

When you find a formula that works, use the hell out of it. Re-use meetup topics and activities that went well before. In fact, while you're at it, look at other meetups and plagiarize their topics and activities.

Once you get enough activities that work well and are repeatable, you can start a rotation of the same activities, which makes it easy to plan out meetup topics months in advance. This is way less stressful than coming up with new stuff every week, and you can use some of the time you saved to look for new activities and other ways to improve the meetup.

5. Be regular and reliable

Show up. Consistently.

Being a community institution is about being reliable. You don't have to have The Greatest Meetup Ever every single week. Showing up unprepared is better than not showing up. Show up. Show up. Show up.

Weekly meetups at a specific time and place work well, because the meetup becomes a part of the rhythm of people's lives. Make the default be "there is a meetup and we will announce it if it is cancelled," not "we will announce it if there is a meetup."

6. Get people committed

Help the people who show up to meetups become part of the community.

Welcome new people. Strike up conversations with them deliberately to make them feel included.

When appropriate, let people know that you value their presence and what they have to contribute. Point out interesting points or funny jokes they made. Ask them questions about things they're knowledgeable about.

Encourage people at the meetup to socialize with each other outside it. Do the same yourself.

Ask other people to help with the work of running meetups, when you can. You could ask them to help with welcoming newcomers, to give a lightning talk on a particular topic, or to have a meetup where they give a short presentation on something they're interested in.

A story about this: When we were running a meetup that had lost a lot of its regular attendees, my partner called up each of the people who used to come to meetups, and asked them why they no longer came and if we could do anything to make the meetups worth their time again. One person we called told him, "Just knowing that you missed me made me want to come back." We hadn't seen this person in months. But because of that phone call, they became one of the most valuable community members we had, and a treasured friend.

7. Get backup

Having a co-organizer is a lifesaver. Showing up every week is hard. You need someone to take over for you in off weeks. They could even help you with whatever parts of organizing you don't like, if your skill sets are complementary.

If you don't have a co-organizer, try asking people who come regularly if they'd be interested in coordinating a meetup or two when you're away. Don't send a message to everyone in the group - that rarely works. Instead, pick out specific people you think would be well-suited to it.

(We could be better at this. When the two of us go on vacation out of town, it still usually means a cancelled meetup. I think the ideal version of this is a rotation where people take turns coordinating the meetup, and just one or two folks take point on making sure the meetup as a whole continues to exist.)

Last but not least:

8. Care

You may not be the best or most qualified person to run meetups. I know I'm not. But being willing to just do it is an incomparable advantage. Just don't let the thing die, and you're way ahead of the game.

Short-term incentives are against meetups existing. Once you have a consistent meetup going, you've usually made enough friends that you don't need it anymore.

But over the long term, having a space for people to make new friends builds a better community, and that benefits everyone. That's why we've kept meetups going for so long: they helped us find community wherever we were, and we believe they can help others, too.

Further reading: Soft Skills for Running Meetups For Beginners. More focused on one-off events than running a recurring meetup.

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