From the hyper-local to the global, we can build ‘community’ when we try.

Six LESSONS on how to build COMMUNITY

Maybe it’s taken the shock of Covid-19 for us to realise the importance of human relationships, but what’s changed from such trying times in the past, is that we are able to connect with kith and kin, thanks to advances made with ubiquitous tech platforms that beam us into the homes and new workspaces of our colleagues, friends and family on a daily basis like no time before.

As someone who has always believed in the transformative power of bringing people together, increasingly, I’ve been asked as to how I build communities and networks, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on what’s worked and, importantly, what’s not worked as well as I imagined it would. But before I do, I thought I’d quote what Google suggested what a ‘community’ was, so that we anchor ourselves with the same meaning:

A community is a social unit (a group of living things) with commonality such as norms, religion, values, customs, or identity. Communities may share a sense of place situated in a given geographical area (e.g. a country, village, town, or neighbourhood) or in virtual space through communication platforms.

1. Your motives matter, make them known. Your values and reasons for creating a community need to shine through, be very transparent about these, as it’ll set the tone and the terms of engagement, both of which are critical for success.

Most people won’t have an issue with joining a community if they know what it’s core purpose is. They need to understand not only why they’re being thought of, but also how they stand to benefit, so the more upfront you are about such matters, the greater the chances of them joining and being active.

I created a community of leaders in philanthropy as a way of bringing together peers from across the world together, so we can learn from each other. As a decision maker, I often found myself in situations where I couldn’t share my thoughts with colleagues, so this group served as a forum not only to share various challenges I faced, but also one where I learnt a lot, which made me a better leader. This community continues to thrive thanks to a WhatsApp group that I set up, and is a great example of being transparent about your motives. Had I set it up with an ulterior motive, I’m pretty sure that the effort would have failed.

2. Find common ground. You need to start somewhere, so finding common ground is important to frame what folks can expect from your community. What I’ve seen happen, more so during the pandemic, is that they provide a support network for people who, often, are extremely isolated in one way or another. 

The support system such networks provide include ongoing positive reinforcement as well as constructive feedback. Where there’s common ground, it makes it easier to seek help and input and if the goal is to build strong communities, then this becomes critical to think through.

I’ve also seen people get busier and busier working from home, so the fact that such members of your community can’t attend meetings or formal sessions forces us to put in place some form of online support, where members can go at their own pace. This personalised professional development is key to great communities that are built around learning, especially.

3. Be clear what the rules are, and repeat them often. You’ll avoid so much heart-ache if you’re explicit about what’s acceptable and in the case of bad behaviour what the consequences will be for those who cross the line. 

Despite what many think of Facebook, I recently set up a few community groups for specific purposes, and what I really liked what it did was force administrators to consider what the rules for their groups are. They even provide prompts and language that you can use to create your personalised set of rules. Whether one looks at these when they join such a community is one thing, but as an organiser, I know that I have these as a way of ejecting those who misbehave. 

Having clear admission criteria for your community, as well as exit rules, is critical. As the definition above says, there have to be some commonalities in a community, and should that change, there should be an understanding of what happens next for members. 

4. Build a community with a low ‘jerk’ factor. Whilst they are a huge strength, building diverse communities is really tough. 

Often the difference in cultural norms, language, sport and religious beliefs result in differences of opinion and can trigger bad behaviour. Where I’ve seen these matters resolved effectively, have been when there’s been prompt and decisive action. 

Where there’s been a ‘fudged’ compromise, you can see the issues that arise erode the value of the network and community building becomes much tougher.

The way to build really beneficial communities is to vet those you want to enrol and take your time to get to know them. Positive references from others in the community are also valuable.

Ultimately, most networks will have ‘jerks’, your role is to minimise the number in your community. Be clear what one looks like.

5. Community management is a job. The bind we often find ourselves in is that we inadvertently create communities which deliver exceptional results, experiences, learnings but we fail to recognise that their sustenance and growth require additional investment of time, money and thought. We often bolt on the role of ‘community manager’ to a junior person in marketing or another department, who along with their own workload has to also drive engagement for this new set of people.

I understand this challenge all too well and have seen it fail every time.

Ideally, if you believe in the power of community, make it someone’s job – their focus. 

Finding someone who can perform the role is no easy matter. I would say that those who can relate to others, have great social-emotional skills, demonstrate empathy, and are adept at the use of appropriate tech tools would excel in such a role.

Many years ago, I was fortunate to have been invited to join the Forum of Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum, and the thing they do well, in relation to other such networks, is to emphasise the importance of network building by having staff who are ‘community managers’ lead their engagement with members of their organisation. This one very simple change in job title, can make the essential difference to the experience of those in the community.

6. Size matters. On Facebook, I created a group that now has, almost, 30,000 members who are interested in education, and, similarly, on my YouTube channel there’s 10,000, and on LinkedIn, there’s another 3,000 of us. I see these, not as communities but as groups of individuals with a loose affiliation that bring everyone together.

Community building requires time, money and energy. The larger your community, the more you have to commit resources to it. Whilst, tech tools make convening large groups, as above, easier,  it’s another thing altogether to moderate conversation and build shared understanding, which are all critical to building community. I would suggest the ideal size for a network is much smaller than you’d think. 

For me the true magic of communities is that they’re personal. 

Whilst I can speak about the many up-sides of building professional communities of teachers and leaders in the education sector, I’ve kept my thinking broad for this piece given the relevance of what’s said above to so many different areas of work.

Covid-19 has turned our lives upside down. Chaos has rained down on us. Many of the cherished beliefs we held have been cast aside as a result of what we’re all going through. The one really great thing that’s happened to many of us is that we’ve also connected with those around us to a far greater extent than we had before. The stand-out success for me has been the creation of a WhatsApp group for my neighbourhood, which has been a joy to see become a community.

This much is clear to me, from the hyper-local to the global, we can build ‘community’ when we try.

So, why not start today?

Tackling the epidemic of cyberbullying needs a coordinated response

This week, the Anti-Bullying Alliance is running 2018’s Anti-Bullying Week – a timely reminder that, despite our best efforts, bullying remains a serious problem for many schools, children and parents. Bullying is a major factor behind the growing mental health crisis in schools – one in three 13-15 year olds are suffering from a mental health problem according to a recent survey by charity Action for Children. It’s also linked to an increased risk of suicidal thoughts in young people, as well as a higher risk of substance abuse and alcohol problems in later life.

Although government research has found that in-person bullying within schools has lessened over the last decade overall – most likely thanks to increasing awareness of the seriousness of bullying and a no-tolerance policy in schools – bullying is increasingly migrating to online channels, primarily through the social media platforms that have become a central part of young people’s lives. The figures are alarming. In the UK, incidents of cyberbullying have grown 37% year-on-year according to a report from internet safety company Smoothwall, and one recent study by international anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label found that 17% of British children have been victims. Elsewhere in the world, the picture is very similar, with a new Pew Research Center survey finding that 59% of U.S. teens have personally experienced at least one of six types of abusive online behaviours. The US-based Cyberbullying Research Center furthermore says that the number experiencing cyberbullying has doubled since 2007.

While in-person bullying can often be effectively tackled within school premises and primarily involves students, schools and parents, cyberbullying is more pervasive and comes in more forms. Victims can be targeted anywhere, at any time, and can feel like there’s no escape from the abuse. Cyberbullying therefore presents a different challenge to in-person bullying – one that requires coordination from stakeholders across not only education, but also wider society as a whole. Tech giants such Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – whose platforms play host to the majority of cyberbullying – are now central figures in the debate. Just as UK Education Secretary Damian Hinds recently called on large tech companies to do more to drive a technological revolution in education, so to do they need to take more responsibility for the products that they produce for young people and help protect their users.

That’s not to say they are ignoring the problem. Facebook operates a bullying support hub where users can block people and report content that is then taken down if it violates Facebook’s Community Standards by intentionally degrading or shaming. Both Facebook and Instagram also use artificial intelligence to identify abusive language, and Facebook has also committed to funding anti-bullying training in schools. Nevertheless, the Ditch the Label survey found that 70% of teenagers questioned thought that social media companies do too little to prevent bullying, and both non-profits such as the NSPCC, teachers, parents, even the UK government, believe they can do more.

The issue of cyberbullying isn’t so far removed from the complex debates currently raging around hate speech and free speech, trolling and fake news on the social media sites we use. For example, the Canadian province of Nova Scotia recently introduced an anti-cyberbullying bill after a high-profile teenage suicide, but the law was later removed by the courts for violating free speech, demonstrating the difficulty in using legislation to curb the problem. We’re still grappling with our relationship to the new hyper-connected communication media available to us, and what it means to use these responsibly. This ability to use technology and media in safe, responsible and effective ways – often termed digital citizenship – is a vital competency for the 21st century, though we’re still some way from seeing the topic introduced into national curricula around the world. So far, non-profits are taking up the task. Common Sense Education, for example, offers a free K-12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum that has cyberbullying as one of six core curriculum topics, with over 500,000 teachers now using this resource worldwide. Meanwhile, The DQ Institute, an international think tank that provides solutions and policy recommendations to help nations build ethical digital ecosystems, have created a Digital Intelligence Quotient, or DQ number. Derived from eight core digital citizenship competencies – digital safety and cyberbullying management being one of them – the DQ number aims to set an international standard of digital citizenship, and I believe this level of global integration and awareness is needed if cyberbullying is to be tackled effectively.

Both teachers and parents share the same concerns about online safety. This year, a back-to-school campaign launched by UK non-profit Internet Matters revealed that 73% of Year 7 parents were anxious about their child’s ability to manage online relationships, and 80% were concerned about cyberbullying. But schools and teachers often feel ill-equipped to deal with the problem: the Smoothwall study found that 62% of teachers do not believe they are fully supported to tackle the issue, and 84% believe the government should be doing more to help train them. Tech companies once again shouldered much of the blame; 77% of teachers do not believe that they are doing enough to protect young people.

Clearly, there’s no easy answer to the growing problem of cyberbullying, the responsibility for tackling the problem falls on many shoulders. Certainly, banning social media or certain apps doesn’t work – that would be like trying to put the genie back into the bottle. Besides, social media and the internet offer extraordinary opportunities that young people should feel confident to be able to use at any time without the threat of abuse. Instead, we need a coordinated response from those across education, government and industry. Tech companies should be looking to collectively commit to tackling the problem, agree on industry standards of what constitutes abusive content, as well as provide a single source of information for users on how to address it. We need to advance the digital citizenship agenda so that both adults and children learn the digital skills necessary to navigate internet safely. As part of this,
the government must listen to schools and teachers who call for more training and resources on how to teach students to be more responsible digital citizens, as well as consider introducing more online safety related material into the curriculum.

But for any measures to be effective, different stakeholders mustn’t just point fingers of blame but rather approach the problem of cyberbullying from the same angle. Parents, educators, governments, tech companies, and of course students themselves must reach a common understanding. It’s a challenging project, and the only way forward is to foster communication and cooperation between groups who may not ordinarily find themselves talking to each other. At the Tmrw Institute – a new organisation from Tmrw Digital that curates conversations between the varied stakeholders in the EdTech industry – we have this cooperative outlook at our core. Maybe the growing problem of cyberbullying is where this approach will yield the greatest results.

Vikas Pota is group chief executive of Tmrw Digital

This article appeared on The Educator UK on 21st November 2018

It’s cyberbullying, not fake news, that social media giants should fear the most

After hearing the range of discussion sparked by Anti-Bullying Week last week, I was particularly struck by the Duke of Cambridge’s passionate speech at the BBC Broadcasting House in London where he called on tech giants such as Facebook and Google to do more to tackle the growing problem of cyberbullying. He raises an important point: no-one should duck their responsibilities on this issue.

One thing is certain, we need solutions urgently. Studies show bullying is a major risk factor for serious and long-term mental health problems in children that can last into adulthood, and although in-person bullying has lessened over the last decade, cyberbullying is on the rise. The figures are alarming. In the UK, incidents of cyberbullying have grown 37% year-on-year according to a report from internet safety company Smoothwall, and one recent study by international anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label found that 17% of British children have been victims. Elsewhere in the world, the picture is very similar. For example, a new Pew Research Center survey found that 59% of U.S. teens have personally experienced at least one of six types of abusive online behaviours.

While in-person bullying can often be effectively tackled within school premises, cyberbullying is more pervasive – victims can be targeted anywhere, at any time, and can feel like there’s no escape from the abuse. Cyberbullying, therefore, presents a different challenge that involves stakeholders across not only education, but wider society as well, not least tech giants and social media companies. Are they doing enough to help? Most agree with the Duke of Cambridge’s view. In the Ditch the Label survey, 70% of teenagers thought that social media companies do too little to prevent bullying, and, according to the Smoothwall report, 77% of teachers thought the same. Just as UK Education Secretary Damian Hinds recently called on large tech companies to do more to drive a technological revolution in education, so to do they need to take more responsibility for the products that they produce for young people.

Photo of a teenager holding a phone looking sadly out of a window

But the answer isn’t so clear-cut. The problem of cyberbullying isn’t so far removed from the complex debates currently raging around hate speech and free speech, trolling and fake news that take place on the social media sites we use. For example, the Canadian province of Nova Scotia recently introduced an anti-cyberbullying bill after a high-profile teenage suicide, but the law was later removed by the courts for violating free speech, demonstrating the difficulty in using legislation to curb the problem. We’re still grappling with our relationship to the new hyper-connected communication media available to us, and what it means to use these responsibly.

This ability to use technology and media in safe, responsible and effective ways – often termed digital citizenship – is a vital competency for the 21st century, though we’re still some way from seeing the topic introduced into national curricula. So far, non-profits are taking up the task. Common Sense Education, for example, offers a free K-12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum that has cyberbullying as one of six core curriculum topics, with over 500,000 teachers now using this resource worldwide. Meanwhile, The DQ Institute, an international think tank that provides solutions and policy recommendations to help nations build ethical digital ecosystems, have created a Digital Intelligence Quotient, or DQ number. Derived from eight core digital citizenship competencies – digital safety and cyberbullying management one of them – the DQ number aims to set an international standard of digital citizenship, and I believe this level of global integration and awareness is needed if cyberbullying is to be tackled effectively.

Both teachers and parents share the same concerns about online safety. This year, a back-to-school campaign launched by UK non-profit Internet Matters revealed that 73% of Year 7 parents were anxious about their child’s ability to manage online relationships, and 80% were concerned about cyberbullying. But schools and teachers often feel ill-equipped to deal with the problem: the Smoothwall study found that 62% of teachers do not believe they are fully supported to tackle the issue, and 84% believe the government should be doing more to help train them.

Photo of a young person's hands holding a phone

Clearly, there’s no easy answer to the growing problem of cyberbullying, the responsibility falls on many shoulders. Certainly, banning social media or certain apps doesn’t work – that would be like trying to put the genie back into the bottle. Instead, we need a coordinated response from those across education, government and industry. Tech companies should be looking to collectively commit to tackling the problem and agree on industry standards of what constitutes abusive content. We need to advance the digital citizenship agenda so that both adults and children learn the digital skills necessary to navigate internet safely. And, as part of this, the government must listen to schools and teachers who call for more training and resources on how to teach students to be more responsible digital citizens, as well as consider introducing more online safety-related material into the curriculum.

But for any measures to be effective, different stakeholders mustn’t just point fingers of blame at each other but rather approach the problem of cyberbullying from the same angle. Parents, educators, governments, tech companies, and of course students themselves must reach a common understanding. It’s a challenging project, and the only way forward is to foster communication and cooperation between groups who may not ordinarily find themselves talking to each other. Most importantly, this could scar another generation of children who are on the cusp of owning their first smartphone. But this is a defining moment for social media companies too. The daily attacks from fake news to foreign interference in elections could become a genuine existential threat. But it is cyberbullying, a threat every parent understands, that could evaporate the fragile consent the public lend to social media companies.

Vikas Pota is group chief executive of Tmrw Digital

This article appeared on Innovate My School on 23rd November 2018