Warning: Contains The Last Jedi spoilers!
Last weekend I went to see the latest Star Wars installment, The Last Jedi, and found myself noting frequently how many community-related themes were threaded throughout the movie. Here are 5 community take-aways from the film.
1. Get to know – and work with – your biggest advocates
As any community manager knows, your community is made up of members with different personalities and activity levels. Your job is to create and maintain a space where they can work constructively together towards a common vision.
There’s been much criticism of Poe in The Last Jedi – the headstrong hero who’s so passionate about fighting for the rebellion that he’s prepared to be increasingly rash in his actions, whatever the cost. But most facilitators of well-established communities will recognise at least one Poe in their midst – the regular contributor who reliably dives in to every single one of the discussion threads, or who happily tells you and anyone else on the Internet who’ll listen how you’ve ruined everything with your latest product update/marketing campaign/editorial the minute it disappoints him.
Poe’s really a super-user out-of-control – someone who cares so much about the community that his actions ultimately become destructive and detrimental to it. While one response to this as a community manager is to regulate and respond after the fact via the enforcement of community guidelines, an alternative response is to attempt to head off the unconstructive behavior in the first place. Getting to know your super-users via check-ins, structured advocacy programs and other channels for regular feedback can help them to feel empowered but with their energy directed towards things of benefit to the overall community.
2. Communicate clearly and often with all of your community stakeholders – not just in times of crisis
One of the most desperate moments in The Last Jedi is towards the end when the rebels are hiding out in their formerly abandoned base, waiting to hear of any offers of help from outside allies – and not a single one comes.
A big danger for those running hosted communities is getting so engrossed in the day-to-day work with community members that they neglect to keep other stakeholders up-to-date about the community plans and progress.
Just because your senior management or funder is not yet regularly active in the community, don’t forget to keep them updated about how things are going with their investment. Maybe that requires educating them about community lifecycle models and what to expect over the coming months – rather than defensively attempting to justify why communities take time to flourish. Start that dialogue before you hit a crisis when you need money for a software upgrade or when community members are giving difficult feedback that needs a meaningful response.
Likewise, while you may be in the habit of celebrating your community members and their activities within your community, don’t forget to let the outside world know about the great work your community is doing too. This can be a source of new community members, as well as building reputation for your community within its niche, maintaining it as the place to be.
Depending on the community and your wider audience you might do this through a blog, periodic press releases and news stories, industry commentaries or social media.
3. Don’t get distracted by your origin stories – leadership should evolve
Origin stories are an important part of community culture – they create a shared narrative for the community, helping to initiate new members into what the community is for and reinforcing a sense of belonging for existing members. They can essentially be shorthand for some of your community values. But they can also become the target of embellishments and/or be deployed in service of an individual’s personal goals – resulting in the creation of cult hero figures within the community and a growing sense of disenfranchisement among members.
This is one of the themes The Last Jedi tackles in multiple places – from unpicking the heroic reputation of Luke Skywalker in Jedi history (and how that contrasts to his tortured reality following failure to successfully mentor Kylo Ren) to Rey exploring whether she really needs a “royal lineage” to be worthy of contributing as a Jedi.
Related to this, the initial founders and/or leaders of a community should never assume that they’re going to stay in that role forever. A healthy community thinks about succession early, and makes way for new inputs and new leadership to arise. The Last Jedi is a pivotal point in the history of the resistance because it sees the old leadership and hero figures – Luke, Leah (and to some extent the daredevil behaviour of characters such as Poe), moving aside or being pushed aside, to make way for a necessary rebirth.
4. Use your powers with kindness – and examine your motivations regularly
One of the most striking scenes in the Last Jedi is Kylo Ren ordering the slaughter of Luke Skywalker by directing all of the Empire’s firepower onto the lone figure standing unarmed in front of the rebel base. Looking increasingly maniacal, Ren is over-run by his hatred to destroy the person he sees as his greatest enemy, prompting even his colleague, Hux, to declare “Enough!”
We’ve all seen a variant of this online – discussions that rapidly escalate without any kindness where polarization of beliefs seemingly justifies inhumane behaviour. As community managers we have the ability to create spaces where we can influence the social norms in a variety of ways – from modeling good behaviour and rewarding constructive contributions to punishing bad behaviour by implementing the consequences of our community guidelines. It’s important at every stage to examine our own motivations to ensure that we’re behaving fairly and proportionately in our responses.
The related lesson in The Last Jedi is that breaking the community guidelines doesn’t always have to result in outright expulsion from the community (although of course, in some situations that is necessary). Sometimes deploying kindness and seeking cautious forgiveness and reintegration is an appropriate response to mistakes – something that has to be decided based on the circumstances and individuals involved.
For initially disobeying orders during a mission, Poe is demoted. But desperate and dissatisfied with new leader Holdo’s seeming lack of action, Poe then leads an outright mutiny. And yet, tellingly, the response of a recovered Leah and Holdo is to restrain and restrict Poe, without outright banishing him, knowing that he still brings something to the resistance. It’s going to be very interesting to see how his role as “difficult community member” evolves in the next Star Wars installment!
5. You don’t get to define the community’s vision alone – it gets co-created by community members
One of the ways we define a community is a group of people with a shared vision and thus shared sense of belonging. The key word here is shared. It’s not up to the community manager or their organisation or even a funder to define the ultimate vision for a community – it’s something that has to be evolved as a process between members of the community, including the community manager.
What this also allows is for members to step up or step back as their circumstances require, making for a fluid set of interactions. Different people have the capacity and desire to step up at different times – and different community members will be at different stages of commitment to the community and with slightly different interests. Can you create a space that’s flexible enough to accommodate that?
This is illustrated in The Last Jedi through the continual relighting and sharing of the beacon of hope throughout the film. Faced with impending failure, Finn loses all hope and attempts to flee in an escape pod – yet later in the film he’s the one championing the fight from the rebel base. Rey persists in persuading Luke to teach her about the Force, while at the same time confused and questioning its role in her life. Even fearless Leah loses hope at the lack of response to her call for help, then the crystal foxes point out a possible exit route.
No single character is responsible for the survival of the resistance – Poe doesn’t save them all in an act of heroic violence, Holdo’s plan for escape partially fails, Rey doesn’t dissuade Kylo from his plan, Leah doesn’t draw in any external allies, Luke doesn’t physically defeat Ren in a grand showdown… It’s their collective inputs and how they play off one another that ultimately move them towards a chance of survival – the incremental tick, tick, tick of progress rather than a single, grand gesture.
And to me that’s why the final scene with the boy wearing Rose’s ring with the rebel insignia is really about the role of community in the continuation of the rebellion and all it stands for – whatever its next iteration. Yes, the child is playing with a figure of Luke, but Luke’s role as a returned hero is just the visible face of a much bigger story that any community manager knows – your community is what it is because of the contributions of everyone in it.