Trusting a community to get it right

This weekend I travelled to Las Vegas on Southwest Airlines and I noticed a very simple principle at work. If you don’t know, SWA doesn’t have assigned seating. Instead, you get a letter (A, B or C) and they board everyone with A, then everyone with B and so on. Southwest created this “competition for letters” to get people to the airport early and to ensure on-time departure. But for me, it demonstrates something else.

You might think that the SWA gates would be a madhouse, but in fact they are very orderly. People arrive and begin to lineup into three lines (A, B and C) in a quite orderly fashion. People in each row are cordial to each other asking “is this the line for B to san diego?” and exchanging niceties and often that question allows people to break into a friendly conversation. If you were to look at the gate area from above, you’d see what looks like three branches on a tree, they curve around the furniture and the walls, but they are a line.

Contrast this with what I saw at an America West Gate. A throng of people surrounded the doorway to their gate, each trying to push past each each other so they could get to their seat earlier (even though they know they are guaranteed to sit in the same seat no matter how quickly they board). If you looked down from above, it’d look like a half circle completely filled with people.

It struck me that this is a lot like community on the web, if you give people a little guidance and a benefit, they’ll actually organize themselves just fine. On SWA, the benefit of being orderly is a smoother travel experience and a good seat and the guidance is telling people where they stand — those that are in line C know that no amount of pushing will get them good seats and those in A know that they are gonna be in a seat they like no matter what. On AW, they don’t ask anything of the traveller, they don’t trust the travellers to line up, they treat travel as a solitary experience “every man for themselves”. And it shows.

On the web, we’ve seen some really interesting communities grow: flickr, delicious, craigslist. All of them give benefits to people in the community (tags make it easier to find stuff, the tools allow you to connect with friends or meet new people or sell stuff, etc) and all give a simple amount of guidance “to get those benefits, we’d like you to tag, post, rate, report bad stuff, etc”. And you know, the community organizes itself. Those communities police themselves a bit. There’s abuse (“people cutting line”), but its buried deep down in the site because the community won’t rate it or will report it. Those communities help me find where the good stuff is, because, that’s what they’d want someone to do for them. And the sites actually ask people to do it and reward people for doing it right. Really quite simple.

So if you are working on an online community, are you trusting the community to organize itself? Are you giving them a clear benefit? Are you simply asking for what you’d like to see? When you see good behaviour, do you email the person and say “thanks?”. If not, go take a flight on SWA, then re-think your answers…