25 February 2010 ~ 1 Comment

7 common traits of cults that you need to implement to manage a successful online community

spy vs sciCults have always been a bit of an obsession of mine, so much so that I spent a year studying the workings of one from the inside a few years ago. Whilst many of their recruitment, assimilation and retention techniques are steeped in mind-control and mental abuse, the core psychological principles are similar to good salesmanship, and have been applied in varying depth in several industries.

Here I will cover 7 common traits of cults that cult leaders promote in order to essentially build and manage a community of disciples, and what you can learn and apply when building or managing an online community.

Disclaimer: this article is written with tongue firmly in cheek, and in no way do I wish to diminish the harrowing experience of those who are or have been in the grips of a cult.

1. Display Charismatic Leadership

Cult leaders will state they possess special knowledge and skills, building a tight-knit team of leaders around them to promote their omnipotence and enforce unquestioning obedience from disciples. Outwardly though, they demonstrate impeccable integrity and charm, and are consistently precise and congruent in their delivery.

Skip the head-bashing and clique building, but exhibit all the positive traits listed above. Remain fair, impartial and consistent in your handling of moderation and community hosting to build trust and respect from your online community participants. They will love you for it!

2. Deception Through Effective Communication Channels

Cults set up recruitment drives hidden within front groups and business opportunities, or simply wellness courses. These pathways into the cult are sometimes presented as charities, or benevolent organisations, allowing the cult to suggest an aura of integrity and goodwill.  Promises of money, favours or everlasting life are made verbally, using the concept of the “handbashake contract”.

The lessons to take away from this is the value of good presentation and clear communication. Publish your mission statement prominently, make your Frequently Asked Questions easily accessbile and consider how you recruit your future community participants. Spamming and tricking people to join up won’t build a healthy community, whereas engaging in positive and open recruitment initiatives will attract positive and enthusiastic members.

3. Promote Exclusivity

Cult leaders maintain as much vagueness about their activities and beliefs, promoting secrecy at all costs to avoid scrutiny. They will regularly tell each follower in turn that they are special and due a promotion, causing lack of intimacy and boundary issues amongst their disciples.

As community managers, we don’t want to treat our participants in such a devious way, but promoting a sense of exclusivity will often benefit the community. If members feel they are part of a special club and have the desire to work hard at raising themselves through perceived or real ranks (such as posting ladders or responsibility levels), you will have a vibrant community on your hands.

4. Exploitation Through Activity

Cults are often designed to take a lot and give little back, whether financially, psychologically or physically. The cult leader and his closest leaders will pile on pressure to hand over money, dedicate time to projects that benefit the cult or individuals higher up the ladder, and devote every waking moment to cult activities.

While we don’t want to oppress and control our community members, organising activities for them to take part in helps build community spirit and shared experiences. Have you tried running a webchat or creative competitions? What about asking them to submit captions for a funny photo? You could also give them regular themes to write about and publish the best efforts. Maintain a good schedule of activities for people to take part in and they will keep coming back for more.

5. Love Bombing & Group Pressure

Cult leaders discourage doubt through regular trance-inducing activities that are child-like in nature, and designed to create a sensory dependency on the group. Love bombing can take the form of flattery, hugging, singing or other endorphin-generating processes. This reinforces the disciple’s desire to remain within the cult through association – where else will they get all this positive attention?

We can learn a lot from this concept of making people feel good about being around us. Ensuring you have a positive welcome committee, regularly checking up on members’ feelings about the community and commending positive behaviour will all help build a great vibe.  Set up a team of hosts to promote the type of behaviour you would like people to follow, and set a standard. Encourage positive initiatives members engage in, ignore or demote those that damage your community.

6. Sensory Overload Promoting Oneness

To keep new disciples in the cult, leaders need to replace all of their existing set of values with new doctrine, goals and definitions. This is generally done forcibly, by aggressively encouraging the disciple to attend regular learning courses and exclusively associating with well-indoctrinated cult members. Speed is also of the essence, to minimise opportunity to examine this new information critically.

Your mission statement is one of the most important reasons you will attract and maintain a strong community. Define what your community is about and what the common goal is, and publish this prominently. Write up some behavioural  guidelines to help members know how to interact with each other, and link to these on all content submission pages. Identify heavily-engaged participants who display these characteristics and believe in the mission, and promote them to your hosting committee. All of this will help guide your fledgling community towards your shared goals.

7. Regular Meetings Promote Stickiness

Cult recruits are required to attend weekly or bi-weekly meetings (minimum!) to talk about their personal, intimate and professional difficulties with other disciples. The cult leader will then be able to absolve them of wrongdoing, and require penance to be payed, thus further tying them into the cult.

There are two aspects to this point we can take learnings from. The first one is that organising real life meetings or supporting efforts on the part of your community to do so are generally beneficial. Attend them, and ensure they remain a positive experience for all, taking your community management skills into the real world. Find those who are on the fringes, and engage them; introduce people you think would have common ground to discuss.

The second point is something your community will probably progress to of its own accord; as members get to know each other, they will start talking about personal issues. Encourage this by setting up a space for them to do so, as this will strengthen their bonds with each other.

Cult leaders build highly engaged communities for bad – these tips will help you build highly engaged communities for good. Can you think of any other similarities?

Photo by Henk de Vries

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  • taxpay28

    Is this not the norm in gov’t education?