Community-building tip: surprise is the opposite of engagement

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A person who looks surprised

In the interview with Chris Blizzard I posted last week, near the end of the article Chris attributes a phrase to Mozilla CEO John Lilly:

"Surprise is the opposite of engagement."

This may be one of the most simple, brilliant things I have ever heard someone say when it comes to creating engaged, active communities.

When we talk about building communities the open source way, we often mention transparency and openness as critical elements of any community strategy. But when I saw this quote, it reminded me why transparency and openness are so important.

When we are open with people, we avoid surprising them. We keep them in the loop.

Nothing kills someone's desire to be an active contributor in a community more than when they feel like they've been blindsided. By a decision. By an announcement. By the introduction of a new community member.

Few things help a community get stronger faster than simply engaging community members every step of the way. Asking them for input first. Ensuring they are "in the know."

When thinking about the community you are trying to create, maybe start asking yourself questions like:

"How can I minimize the number of (negative) surprises?"

"Will this decision surprise community members?"

"Am I maximizing the opportunities to involve the community in decisions?"

"Has the community weighed in on this?"

It's a very simple equation, and therein lies the beauty:

Surprise = less engagement

If you've seen examples of situations where a big surprise has reduced community engagement, please feel free to share them below.

And thanks John Lilly (and Chris Blizzard) for the tip!


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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)


I don't have an example of being surprised. But I can appreciate a community that takes that as a major concern in keeping the community strong and efficient. As being someone new (like me) it makes a huge difference when the community has that open arms mentality and is willing to keep people from getting that surprised feeling. It also helps when the community is willing to teach the newer people to learn more and have the risk of being surprised less likely to happen.

I think this has a lot to do with siloed workplaces -- for example where the organizational tech section works in isolation from the community administrators themselves.

Nothing as shocking to a community administrator (and members) as coming into the community and finding unexpected (and unexplained) changes in layout, formatting, functionalities or access rights -- a blatent reminder that the 'open community' ostensibly being built by members according to their own needs is in fact a controlled space completely at the whim of the tech gods.

Or as David Byrne might put it:

You may ask yourself, how do I work this?
You may ask yourself, where is that large automobile?
You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house
You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful wife


The latest example that I can think of is Oracle/Sun and OpenSolaris. The community is kept at bay, there are a lot of pieces that are internal and there is a lack of communication that's incredibly damaging to the project. It's a really sad situation giving how many technical features OpenSolaris has. A waste of good engineering and dedication.

"Surprise! Here's the iPad."

I didn't think that a super-sized iPhone is the solution to a new, super-portable netbook/laptop device, but clearly I wasn't being engaged by Apple.

Asif, I think I know exactly what you're talking about. Nothing alienates more than being led to believe you're contributing to an open community, only to come in Monday morning and find your desk has been moved, the walls repainted, and a request by the Authorities to sign a new disclosure/terms agreement.

Time and again, the Sell Side demonstrates to me that no matter where I'm being marketed to (Twitter, Facebook, e-mail contact), it's not consumer engagement, it's Marketing.

People, like children, need to know where the boundaries are. This provides a point of reference to navigate from, push off from, or a goal to push.

When something unexpected crops up, whether it is a loss, blindsided change, critical bug or forgetting your lunch, then your mind has to "recalculate" to fill that void.

People used to navigate using the stars because they were fixed, or predictable. Just because it was "fixed" doesn't mean it held back innovation and new worlds, actually the opposite. They allowed people to travel farther than ever before!

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