Why Do People Join (and Stay) In A Community?

I’ve been thinking recently about why I (and others) seek to join a community initially, and why we have different levels of involvement in those communities.

Personally, some communities I’m in, I’m very engaged. Others, I just read and pay attention (commonly called ‘lurking’) but rarely engage.

Clearly, I joined all of those communities at some point for a reason, and understanding the reason might lead me to understand better how to build new communities.

My initial assumption is that there is one key element in why people join a community, both online and offline: a shared interest.

This shared interest could be a hobby, knowledge, a political belief, a love of a particular region, survival or fandom. Sure, this seems somewhat obvious, but it occurs to me that the shared interest doesn’t fall into the same category every time. A person who wants to learn more about fly fishing is seeking advice, where a person who is a fan of BTS just wants to talk about how awesome they think the band is. Persons in both groups had a shared interest, but are seeking different rewards in joining their groups.

It seems to me that people join communities to either:

  • converse with others who have the same interest
  • learn more from others who have the same interest
  • feel a part of a ‘tribe’ - which can take on different meanings dependent on the shared interest.

I am curious about this because when seeking a community, we have to either find one that already exists or build it ourselves. I’m also not sure if people join communities to advise or teach others; this may be a blind spot for me personally.

In order to build a community, we have to understand why people would join a community - at least it seems to me that would be critical, because understanding why people would join a specific community will help a community builder work to ensure that the community was actually providing what the ‘joiners’ are seeking.

To put it another way: If I was interested in learning more about woodworking, and I joined a woodworking forum, I wouldn’t find much value if all the posts/conversations in that forum were about poker or bitcoin.

I’m also curious if there are other reasons besides ‘a shared interest’ that is common across communities. Not everyone wants to engage in conversations in a community, which is why some people join subreddits and forums but never comment. But they still join because there are interested in what others are saying about something they are interested in.

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I do think what you say is true, we need a shared interest, for example.

Ultimately though, people come to do something. To get from A to B. To seek an answer. To be transformed.

I guess in an ideal community there will be varying people at different levels or stages of their journey. We don’t all want the same thing, so to speak.

I do think most people graduate from communities, not always, context matters.

For example, local communities, if people don’t move anywhere, then they are a member for life!

We can choose to design experiences for people to stay — e.g. a more experienced person could be invited to do a podcast or a talk. Or we can choose to understand and accept that it is ok for people to move on.

One of the strongest ways to keep people staying is to create deeper connections/relationships. Those relationships will keep reappearing in their every day lives and keep them at least tapped into what the community is up to.

It does seem that some communities (probably most notably, politics) has an added piece of ‘identity’. People start attaching their membership in a community as part of their identity, which makes it harder to leave. I recall an excellent podcast by David McRaney (You Are Not So Smart) about this, where he was examining why people would stay in a group or ‘tribe’, and defend it, even when they knew the group was wrong.

But I assume, as you stated, this is different than most communities based on learning.

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This is a great thing to consider.

I’ve joined communities for a variety of different reasons, and am active at different levels in different spaces. The one thing that transcends topic and activity level, is whether I feel a sense of belonging or not.

However, it is hard to know what ‘belonging’ means for different people. I agree with Rosie about relationships being key.

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Definitely something to consider - the aspect about ‘belonging’. I can’t help of think of the ‘Cheers’ theme song ‘You want to be where everyone knows your name’…but then I think, yeah, isn’t even a group of regulars at a bar a community? Just as a group of retired seniors might gather at the same breakfast place each day.

There’s always the classic “wanting to feel useful” reason, you know the answer to someone’s problem and want to help. The classic support forum model is built around this, someone comes to it looking for an answer but ends up hanging around because they get a buzz out of helping other people in the same position. But I know that’s probably a minority reason, just from the standard stats on how many people post vs how many people lurk on forums.

I know it well as yeah that’s me :slight_smile: I’m a sucker for that.

And while I think of it, with a “sense of belonging” you’ve also got the communities where people join because no one they know understands what they’re going through, or struggling with. They simply can’t feel understood by or talk to people who don’t have their illness, disability or situation like caring for someone with a condition. They’re looking for community they can’t find locally.


That’s an aspect I hadn’t considered. I do know that people have different aspects that keep them engaged. "Sense of belonging’ definitely means different things to different members.

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You’ve identified the right 3 activities as shared in this book also:

2010 book, Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky

Also this is the episode you’re talking about: