Community Management Is a Shareholder Capitalism Cover-Up
An online community manager explains how community management and shareholder capitalism are at odds, and that the idea of community is a facade.
When First Round Capital tweeted that “Community is the new moat,” I felt the first pang of anxiety that my work in community was finished. That coffin was sealed with the announcement of the Community Fund, a venture capital firm with the investment plan of making community-driven companies into unicorns.
For the past decade, my peers and I have consulted and built businesses around community building, the business function that cares for and engages customers with each other. Even a few years ago, we still found ourselves having to explain the difference between a community manager and a social media manager, but since then our little industry has become more noticeable. We’ve built superuser programs, online engagement strategies for presidential candidates and revenue-generating programs that fundamentally changed companies’ relationships with their customers. Work was plentiful and budgets (with larger companies, brands and national nonprofits, at least) were sufficient, if not generous.
Professional Community Management Is Dying
In 2020, community is hotter than ever. On Twitter, at least. Along with words like “belonging” and “engagement,” “community” is the new must-have checkbox that every growing company needs to fill. The hype only escalated further in wake of COVID-19, as online communities replaced in-real-life connections, and executives became reliant on their more tech-savvy, more junior community counterparts to transform conference experiences into Zoom rooms.
In reality, community managing has tanked this year. Every community consultant I know is struggling. Our in-house counterparts are desperately trying to hold onto their jobs, if they haven’t already been laid off. I used to get client inquiries for complex, monthslong $150,000 projects. Now they’re for $15,000. Sometimes they’re $1,500.
Another shift has occurred recently: We’ve lost faith in our technology. Facebook is under fire at the White House. Media darling companies are being called out left and right for racist behavior within their company policies and tokenization in their marketing. Tech employees are unionizing and staging walkouts. We’re finally seeing technology for the weapon that it can be.
My Experience as an Online Community Manager
Today, I see community as the showmanship of a technology culture that’s desperate to appear benevolent in a tide that is turning against it. Tech startups mask their fear of customer revolt—the power that consumers online have always had since the conception of social media but only fully realized in this boiling, polarized political environment—by using community. All it takes is one too-true tweet or Instagram story for the wrath of the internet to destroy carefully crafted brand reputations, customer trust and loyalty. Instead, in a game of attempted offense, companies build ambassador programs and host Slack groups in hopes of winning favor and using the positive momentum (for now) to further their growth. With the wrapper of “community,” companies can claim that they were trying to do right by their customers.
Truthfully, many of the companies I speak with about working together do want to do right by their customers. They genuinely want to build a community. But startup folklore robs them of knowing what community takes: a deep understanding of their customer needs, a willingness to address those needs, the patience to develop deep relationships, elbow grease, muscle and a lot of time. Community won’t just appear on a platform that they buy or a Facebook group that they launch.
Further, the desire to build a community is in conflict with the very system in which their company exists: shareholder capitalism. Venture capitalists and shareholders are prioritized over customers and community members. Growth and scale are prioritized at all costs to maximize financial returns. There is little left over to build a community.
Community Management and Capitalism Cannot Coexist
When VCs say that community is the new competitive advantage, or that it will lead to a $1 billion valuation (both of which benefit the company, shareholders and investors much more so than customers and community members), founders and executives are forced into community commodification. What investors like the Community Fund have overlooked is that building a community and building a unicorn are fundamentally at odds. A community-striving company that turns into a unicorn is a lucky outcome, though a unicorn-striving startup will likely never have a community. Growth at all costs is in direct conflict with what a community needs.