How to Build a Community

I’ve noticed that quite a few people are interested in fostering communities – both creating communities and improving them to make them work together. But how do we go about actually doing this? What’s there to community that we can foster and build upon? What makes a community thrive, and how do we take advantage of this to make and/or improve communities?

To answer these questions, I turned to two books:

The first is The Penguin and The Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs Over Self-Interest by Yochai Benkler. Benkler, in writing about cooperative systems (Penguins, named after the Linux Penguin) and hierarchical systems (Leviathans, named after Thomas Hobbes’s The Leviathan), studies the psychology, economics, and political science of cooperation and helps explain what makes communities stick.

The second is Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive by Bruce Schneier. Schneier studies trust and cooperation from a dizzying variety of sciences (psychology, biology, economics, anthropology, computer science, and political science). Schneier’s ultimate game is figuring out what is preventing society from falling apart, and that can be applied to building communities.

Let’s see what they got.

Communities Need Cooperation

Schneier and Benkler both paint a view of human nature that is different than what is commonly thought, but what has emerged from the sciences: People are both self-interested and other-interested, different people will have different balances of each, and within each person these two goals can often conflict. Additionally, the “other-interested” aspect can be multiple and occasionally conflicting allegiances, such as to one’s family, to one’s neighborhood, to one’s country, to one’s venture philanthropy club, etc.

What’s unique to all communities is that they involve people who have set aside some of their immediate self-interest to work together. For instance, when we work together in a group, I definitely don’t beat you over the head and steal your lunch money, and I don’t usually attempt to free ride and get you to do the group work for me, but we mutually work to solve communal problems and share in the benefits of community.

Public Goods and Free Riders

An example of how psychology has sought to simplify and simulate a community is through what’s called “The Public Goods Game”. In this game, a group of about ten participants are each sat down, and given $10 each to start with. The game is then played for several rounds, and in each round all participants get to put a certain secret amount of their money into a collective pot. The experimenters then look at the pot, double the amount of money inside it, and redistribute the result evenly to all the players. For added bonus, the experimenters inform all participants that they get to walk away with their winnings after the game is over.

If everyone went perfectly with the community, each player would see their money double each round. But the wrinkle is that if people don’t contribute at all to the pot, then they stand to gain even more money from the results of everyone else’s contributions. This is called the free rider problem: there is a tension between wanting to contribute to the pot for the good of yourself and the good of the group as a whole and refraining from contributing so that you benefit even more.

The Free Rider Problem and The Collective Action Problem

But the tension can result in further disaster, for imagine everyone decides to be a free rider and defect from the group – now, no money goes in the pot at all, and everyone ends with the $10 they start with. This gets worse when we imagine some other real-life scenarios – for instance, that of fishermen in a lake.

The fishermen can either choose to fish normally or overfish. If all the fishermen overfish, they stand to deplete the lake and all fishermen lose their jobs. However, if just a few fishermen overfish, they get the benefit of added fish to sell, and the lake can handle the slight increase in load. So this tension is to be the fisherman that wins most by personally overfishing, while not collectively depleting the entire lake. Such problems are called collective action problems – people do well individually by defecting but do worse collectively if everyone defects. The result of a collective action problem ending in disaster is called the tragedy of the commons.

The Community Solution

So what’s the solution to these problems? Benkler proposes two models for dealing with them – employing the Leviathan and placing lots of regulations on overfishing and enforcing them with strict punishments, or employing the Penguin and creating a community that deals with these problems collectively and in a self-policing way.

It turns out that certain problems are best dealt with differing combinations of Leviathan and Penguin models, but most problems need lots of community just because it can be difficult to figure out who is going against the community, and communities have more freedom for their participants. At the same time, if there are too many would-be defectors a community can never get off the ground.

Communities need cooperation to work. So how can we get this cooperation to fly?

The Four Pressures of Cooperation

Bruce Schneier notes that normally we don’t think through these free rider problems and try to scheme our way through them – we just cooperate, instinctively. We don’t assume people will rip us off, and we usually don’t rip other people off – that’s just how we are. But why? Schneier suggests that cooperation can be fostered and maintained through four different pressures, though differing kinds and amounts of pressure apply to different situations, and getting the balance of pressures right is a key part of his book:

1.) Moral Pressures: Many, but not all of us, have various moral feelings that lead us to want to cooperate. It could be as easy as feeling incredibly guilty when we defect against our friends, or as complex as subscribing to an abstract principle of justice like utilitarianism or deontology. For most of us, it’s a general feeling that cooperating is the “right thing to do” and defecting for our own personal self-interest is “wrong”, and we just don’t want to do it. Schneier and Benkler both find that moral pressures compel cooperation a surprising amount of the time.

2.) Reputational Pressures: Another part about living in a community for a long time is that you have a reputation to live by. Defect against the community and you may win a few times, but then people start to notice and start working to stop you. They might refuse you friendship or other things you want, or even kick you out of the community altogether! Benkler finds that many communities can thrive on reputation alone, like eBay, Amazon, or Reddit.

3.) Institutional Pressures: Morals and reputation aren’t the end of it though; many communities make specific, codified norms and enforce them with specific, codified punishments. These pressures are laws, and the fear of breaking the law, being caught, and getting the punishment can often further spur cooperation. Best yet, the community can often get together and agree to these norms, realizing it is in their individual benefit to force themselves and the rest of the community to play along, as to avoid tragedies of the commons.

4.) Security Pressures: Lastly, there are always going to be a few people who put morals, reputation, and laws aside and try to defect anyway. For these, we hope to stop them in their tracks or make their jobs more difficult, by using complex security systems. It can be as simple as a security camera or anti-theft radio, or as complex as Fort Knox. Security is a double plan: it first attempts to raise the costs of defection; by making it physically harder to defect, one is less tempted to do so. It then attempts to better catch and apprehend those who still try.

Your Reason for Joining; Your Reason for Staying

Remember these pressures don’t all work for the same problems – it may be proper to use security and institutional pressures to stop someone from overfishing, but not from intentionally cutting the cake so they get to eat the bigger slice. Moral and reputational pressures seem to be more encompassing, but they are also more easily defeated – people with less of a moral compass can often wander from community to community, wrecking small amounts of havoc and never getting caught or punished.

Benkler suggests another way to get people to buy into a community and not defect against it – make it clear that being part of the community is something they really want. Whether your joining a community or forced into one (family, country, etc.), the community will be more likely to thrive.

Four Ways to Bond

But why might one want to join or stay in a community? For many, the answer is the intangibles – they feel a sense of belonging, friendship, and group cohesion that creates an empathetic attachment and makes people want to play by the rules of the group. For others, the answer is the tangibles – the group may have a stated mission statement that is important to the person, or belonging in the group might confer a specific benefit. People might even belong for a mix of tangibles and intangibles, plus a natural tendency to want to join groups.

But how do we foster these bonds? Benkler has his own set of four things, suggesting that group identity can be fostered through a combination of four means:

1.) Fairness: The community needs to be fair – people need to all contribute more or less equally, or at least have genuine intentions to put in equal effort, and the benefits of the group need to be spread among all participants more or less evenly, or in a fair proportion to how much the participant puts in.

2.) Autonomy: The community needs to not demand too much, and make sure to compensate quickly and generously for special sacrifices. There are inherent costs to joining and staying with a group, and costs for cooperating with the group – one doesn’t just give up the self-interested benefits of defection, but rather must pay additional costs to maintain their group status. Being aware of and addressing these costs are important. In short, the group must respect their members as individuals.

3.) Democracy: The community also needs to accept (with fairness and autonomy) the input of all the members. Group norms should be developed by a vote, with weight given on building consensus as much as possible, and with understanding the reasons why people might not like the consensus. Not only does having input make it more likely people’s preferences will be taken into account, lowering the costs of cooperation, but having input makes people feel more group cohesion and belonging.

4.) Communication: During times when formal votes aren’t taken, the community also needs to be consistently (but not constantly) talking about how the group is doing, and checking in with members who might be feeling left out. Just like democracy, group cohesion is built through communication, and communication lowers the costs of cooperation. It’s best when resolving disputes is not dictatorial, like in a court of law, but rather cooperative, like in an arbitration.

Looking Back to the Public Goods Game

To demonstrate these four points, Benkler draws on many real-world examples, such as policies of various companies, and interactions on the internet. He also draws on returning back to our simple-community-in-the-lab, the Public Goods Game, for additional confirmation, and its worth seeing how these things play out.

In the original Public Goods game, contributions to the pot were made anonymously and no-one was allowed to talk or communicate. Typically, a fair amount of people would cooperate in the beginning (generally, people contribute about 70% of their share), but starts to drop as people see that others aren’t contributing. They start to feel like suckers, and the fairness starts to kick in.

A Different Game

However, variants of the Public Goods game offer ways out. When participants were allowed to talk to each other, contributions rose (communication). Likewise, when participants were allowed to use some of their money to punish those who didn’t contribute (say, pay $3 to prevent someone from getting their share this round if they didn’t cooperate last round), people would do so.

Even the simple act of making the contributions public increased cooperation, drawing on reputation. Sometimes small fines were imposed on those who didn’t cooperate (institutional pressures) which brought up cooperation, and these fines worked especially well when the group got to vote on how high they would be (democracy).

Lastly, helping frame the game would help – those who were told they were taking place in a “Community Game” were far more likely to contribute to the pot and keep contributing than those who were told they were taking place in a “Wall Street Game”. By reminding people they are in a community, people thought more about their community norms, and felt more group cohesion, and were more likely to trust others.


Ultimately, creating communities is all about fostering cooperation, and you foster cooperation by ensuring that there is mutual trust and some sort of way to prevent defectors from taking advantage of the system. People often naturally don’t want to defect, but will do so if they think others will take advantage of them first.

Social Pressures But how do we foster this trust? The first step is to make use of our social pressures when and to the amount that’s appropriate – relying on empathetic and moral norms, reputation, institutionalized laws, and security systems – and being sure to get the balance right. For small communities, this probably just needs to be a set of agreed norms, and ensuring that the norms are properly and responsibly enforced.

The Benefits of Joining The second part is while implementing the first step, we should keep in mind why people are joining or staying in the first place, and make sure to provide a community where the benefits of joining – both the tangibles and intangibles – are present and apparent. We should acknowledge the costs of cooperating, and make sure the benefits are there to foster group loyalty and belonging.

An Effective Community While implementing, it’s important to keep in mind that communities should also be fair, respect the autonomy and individuality of the members, give members input through democracy, and foster lots of communication about how things are going. We should also keep a keen eye to how things are framed, while not going overboard on it or lying.

The End Reward But when we accomplish communities, the rewards are pretty great – not only do we avoid free riders and the tragedy of the commons, but we ourselves get to take advantage of communities that are more productive than the individuals alone, and secure the feelings of belonging to a group we enjoy.


Author’s Note: This essay was originally posted on The Denison Venture Philanthropy Club Blog, a blog I co-write for, dedicated to discussing articles and ideas related to philanthropy and social change. It was then posted on my old blog and cross-posted to LessWrong.