Creating Alternative Realities
How to design community experiences your members will never forget
When you arrive at Burning Man, you’re welcomed by a greeter.
Their role is to transition you into the new reality you’re about to enter.
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They’ll ask, “Is this your first time at Burning Man?”
“Yes!”, you’ll reply, excited and nervous.
“Great! Get out of the car and roll around in the dust!” they’ll say with a big smile.
It’s a ritual everyone goes through at their first burn.
When it was my turn to go, I hesitated. I didn’t want to get dust all over my clothes and all over the inside of my car. Sensing my thoughts, my greeter said, “Don’t worry, the dust will be in and on everything by the time you leave.” They were very right.
It was the first of what would be several experiences of acclimatizing to the new reality of Burning Man where there’s no money exchanged, no trash left on the ground, hugs are assumed, and nude is normal.
Burning Man is a community with a different set of rules and norms.
It’s an alternate reality where people are able to express themselves in ways that aren’t accepted in the rest of society.
Most communities look and feel the same today.
99% of online communities are hosted on the same ten platforms (not real data but it feels that way doesn’t it?). Offline, the majority of events follow the same format with a lineup of speakers, cheap boxed lunches, and awkward, open networking.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
What makes communities so powerful is that they give you a chance to create new social norms. People, ideas, and actions that aren’t accepted in society can be normalized in an intentionally designed space.
I’m not saying your next networking event should look like Burning Man. Please… don’t.
But you can make your community experiences significantly more memorable and meaningful by changing even just *one* thing.
Here are five changes you can make to your next community experience…
1. Change the Rules
Rules are often seen as something limiting, but used the right way, they can open up an entirely new experience. Rules turn an experience into a sort of game by changing how members are expected to behave.
Tip: Change something that members usually use as a crutch, but that doesn’t actually serve them or the experience.
A business event where you’re not allowed to ask, "What do you do?"
A parent’s dinner where you can't mention your kids (credit to Priya Parker)
2. Change the Environment
If you think the space where you host an event doesn’t matter, just imagine Burning Man being hosted at a corporate conference center or a business meeting hosted at a dance club.
The space where people gather has a profound impact on how they feel and interact. How big is the space? What colors do they see? Is it inside or outside? Online or offline? Close to home or far away?
The surroundings you choose can completely change the energy of your community.
Tip: Choose a space that’s the total opposite of where members are used to gathering.
3. Change the People
Who you invite to the space, and who you *don’t* invite to the space, can completely redefine an experience.
What groups of people don’t usually get to come together in regular society? What group of people would make members feel safe?
Tip: Find a group of people who feel like they don’t belong in the rest of society, and design a space just for them.
An experience designed to connect people across different generations
A dinner party just for singles in their 50s
A conference with speakers from indigenous communities
4. Change the Activities
You can keep all things the same but just change what people do.
What we do together matters. The way you connect with someone by drinking coffee at a cafe will feel entirely different than how you’ll feel connecting with someone while volunteering at a food kitchen.
What’s something that you can ask members to do that they wouldn’t usually do at a community experience like this one? What activities feel novel? What activities will help members connect in a different way?
Tip: Choose an activity that pushes people out of their comfort zone just the right amount. People bond when they’re nervous.
A dinner where attendees have to cook their own food
A networking event where you go on a hike
Give everyone disposable cameras to capture the experience
5. Change the Existential State
This one can get a bit out there but it’s still fun to explore what’s possible.
Can you create spaces that change the very fabric of existence that people are used to? What’s a lifestyle or state of mind that people don’t have the chance to experience in their regular lives?
Tip: Start by keeping things simple. Consider incorporating improv games into your next event.
An event where you experience your own death (I’ve done this…it was wild)
Experience what it’s like to live as another gender
A community where you pretend to be ants
Your turn. What are some other things you could change in order to turn your communities into alternate realities? What have you changed in your community experiences to make them more meaningful and memorable?
Comment or reply and let me know what comes to mind.
The Talent Collective I’m curating is off to an incredible start. The list of over 30 super-talented community professionals includes folks from Shopify, OnDeck, Rally, Microsoft, CMX, and more.
Now I’m working to get them connected with quality companies who are legitimately hiring for community.
If you’re hiring, or you know someone who is, hit reply and I’ll shoot you the details.
Candidates are still welcome to apply as well!
I recently attended a great event with Peter Block, author of one of the OG community books titled “Community: The Structure of Belonging”. The event was hosted by Tatiana Figueiredo who’s doing awesome work with community businesses. Peter offered up a number of tips on how to facilitate group discussions, and prompts for reflection. My notes:
Ask, “Why was it important for you to be here?” instead of “What do you hope to get out of this experience?”
Ask, “What crossroads are you at?”
Put people together in groups of three as fast as you can.
Don’t give advice. “Any time I’ve given you advice I’ve colonized you.”
Be curious about each other.
What doubts do you have about what we’re doing here?
If you can’t say no, your yes means nothing.
What’s your contribution to the thing you’re complaining about?
If you do something to feed your ego, that comes at the cost of doing something that serves some other part of your life, like health, connection, or joy. Stop doing things just because they feed your ego, and start doing things that will have a real impact on your life.
There’s a concept in education I learned from my wife who’s a middle school teacher. It’s called “being a warm demander”. A warm demander has high expectations of their students (or employees, or community members), but holds those expectations with empathy and kindness. It’s a reminder that being kind doesn’t mean not holding people accountable. I think community builders should be warm demanders.
I’m seeing “Community Partnerships” roles come up more often.
I don’t know how often I want to be writing this newsletter. At first I didn’t hold myself to publishing at any regular cadence. When I finish a post, I hit publish. But I’ve been feeling pressure (self-imposed) to try to publish once per week.
That’s all for this week. It’s getting cold here in NY, but the trees are all still alight with yellows, reds, and oranges. That’s making me appreciate being here more, even though I still miss SF. I’m off to pick up Lucca from daycare and go for a walk.
Oh, and if you’re in NYC, come hang out on Nov 15. I’ll be speaking at the next CMX NYC event.
Keep the replies and comments coming. I love hearing from you all.
You read all the way to the end! I think that means you should subscribe 🤷♂️