The role of metaphor in building an online community

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 22, 2005
Filed in Communication

Nancy White pointed me to this excellent post by Kathy Sierra which describes how the online community, javaranch, was built on the principle of members “being nice” to one another. That probably sounds a touch idealistic but highlights the issue of whether norms should simply arise or be nurtured in a direction? My experience suggests you need to be explicit when the community is large and diverse.

What was really interesting about the post was the explicit use of a metaphor—the community as a dinner party where participants were guests—to affect member behaviour. Kathy makes it clear that the community was never a public place, rather at javaranch you were an invited guest. As a result people respected one another, great conversations ensued and people wanted to spend time there—to the tune of 500,000 unique visitors per month.

What other metaphors could we use to support community development (online of f2f)?

  • the basketball game
  • the street protest
  • progressive dinner
  • the restaurant
  • the football match
  • the gentlemen’s club (sadly I’m unable to think of a female equivalent)
  • the sports club

This could go on forever. But what would be useful?

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Matt Moore says:

    The contrasting metaphor I use with senior stakeholders is the theatre audience vs the street gang.
    Many begin by wanting to create broadcast-only groups (the theatre audience)where as creating conversations and contacts between individual members is key.
    The street gang metaphor implies a sense of closeness and connectedness and highlights that CoPs operate as much by exclusion as by inclusion. To join a street gang you have to undergo some kind of initiation ritual…

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