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What is Community Debt?

Remember the story, The Giving Tree? A children’s book that chronicles a young boy who gradually receives and consumes the offerings of a “selfless” apple tree until nothing of the tree remains. The book romanticizes one-sided relationships and could be seen as a metaphor for what happens when a business calls an audience a community and then eventually bankrupts the community. 

Community is a feel-good word, and so it seems to be a common term used to call a group of people who engage with a business around a product. However, the difference is that many of these relationships are one-sided, where much like the apple tree story above, a company may glorify the community’s giving nature without asking an important question:

“Is what we are taking more than what we are giving?”

Image of a colorful old tree in a giant cosmic bubble with planets appearing like fruit all over the tree.

For example, marketing departments often use words like super-users and creators without considering the differences between audience, consumers, and community. They rarely demonstrate sensitivity to the different values and needs of each of these groups.

In our years of experience working with a variety of audiences, consumers, and communities, we’ve come to realize that using the terminology toxic community, (similar to imposter syndrome) puts the onus on the subject(s) to make the changes instead of redirecting attention to the larger container or system that is contributing and maybe even amplifying their problematic feelings or behaviors. 

In gaming communities, those engaging in harmful words and actions are called problem-users, trolls/bullies, or aggressors and are treated as bad apples who must be purged to prevent a community from becoming toxic. Rarely is anything other than boundaries and consequences employed to invite these users into a new relationship with the group. At VorteXR, we have realized that community debt, a concept we have encountered before but haven’t found any written definition on, serves as a precursor to what is commonly recognized as a toxic community.

Image of an old, dead tree in the middle of a town square surrounded by a ring of many people.
How Community Debt Can Look (#midjourney)

What is community debt? It’s a cycle of depletion and resentment that begins in a product community where individuals or a group of people as a whole do not feel heard, seen, or that they are getting their needs met. Community debt can arise when the boundaries and values of the community have been vaguely set. When members are expected to support the product but are not being invested in as humans who need paths and training to develop through the community. It can also be because the company has made a product that reflects the company’s  internal community debt through the programming blindspots and high turnover, especially by community management.

Signs to recognize community debt:

  1. Lack of two-way, fluid (real-time) communication between the Community Team and/or Developers and community.
  2. Community members are providing more support and value to each other and the company than what they receive with no regular contact with anyone on the team.
  3. Members bond off of what’s wrong with the product/service and use that bond to grow leaders who become their advocates.

When combinations of these behaviors are present, the community relationships increasingly polarize and conflicts break out that may or may not be related to the product that brought everyone together in the first place. The Community Team and/or Developers avoid engaging with the product community and are increasingly reactive (versus proactive) to the community’s needs. The company might notice increasing feedback from the community framing them in one of two ways: The devs are villains or the devs are gods. Toxic community is now evident and churn (abandonment of the community by the community) is on the rise. Members may be observed targeting other members expressing their frustration and confusion on each other before leaving themselves. 

What’s an example of community debt you’ve seen recently? What’s one way it could be reduced? Continue the conversation about #CommunityDebt on the official VorteXR Discord server.

This is a blog series written by the VorteXR team. New VorteXR blog every week! Join us next week for the second installment of the community debt series, focusing on addressing community debt and recognizing community bankruptcy.

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