Trusting a community to get it right

This weekend I travelled to Las Vegas on Southwest Airlines and I noticed a very simple principle at work. If you don’t know, SWA doesn’t have assigned seating. Instead, you get a letter (A, B or C) and they board everyone with A, then everyone with B and so on. Southwest created this “competition for letters” to get people to the airport early and to ensure on-time departure. But for me, it demonstrates something else.

You might think that the SWA gates would be a madhouse, but in fact they are very orderly. People arrive and begin to lineup into three lines (A, B and C) in a quite orderly fashion. People in each row are cordial to each other asking “is this the line for B to san diego?” and exchanging niceties and often that question allows people to break into a friendly conversation. If you were to look at the gate area from above, you’d see what looks like three branches on a tree, they curve around the furniture and the walls, but they are a line.

Contrast this with what I saw at an America West Gate. A throng of people surrounded the doorway to their gate, each trying to push past each each other so they could get to their seat earlier (even though they know they are guaranteed to sit in the same seat no matter how quickly they board). If you looked down from above, it’d look like a half circle completely filled with people.

It struck me that this is a lot like community on the web, if you give people a little guidance and a benefit, they’ll actually organize themselves just fine. On SWA, the benefit of being orderly is a smoother travel experience and a good seat and the guidance is telling people where they stand — those that are in line C know that no amount of pushing will get them good seats and those in A know that they are gonna be in a seat they like no matter what. On AW, they don’t ask anything of the traveller, they don’t trust the travellers to line up, they treat travel as a solitary experience “every man for themselves”. And it shows.

On the web, we’ve seen some really interesting communities grow: flickr, delicious, craigslist. All of them give benefits to people in the community (tags make it easier to find stuff, the tools allow you to connect with friends or meet new people or sell stuff, etc) and all give a simple amount of guidance “to get those benefits, we’d like you to tag, post, rate, report bad stuff, etc”. And you know, the community organizes itself. Those communities police themselves a bit. There’s abuse (“people cutting line”), but its buried deep down in the site because the community won’t rate it or will report it. Those communities help me find where the good stuff is, because, that’s what they’d want someone to do for them. And the sites actually ask people to do it and reward people for doing it right. Really quite simple.

So if you are working on an online community, are you trusting the community to organize itself? Are you giving them a clear benefit? Are you simply asking for what you’d like to see? When you see good behaviour, do you email the person and say “thanks?”. If not, go take a flight on SWA, then re-think your answers…

9 thoughts on “Trusting a community to get it right”

  1. Nice post, scott!
    There are some strange characters appearing in your post. I wonder if i am the only one who sees them.
    anyway, I think one of the reasons you can’t cut in front of a Southwest line is because you’d get your butt kicked. On the other hand, on american or other airlines, most people are curteous enough to let someone else come in front of them and not push them out of the way.

  2. I too am getting the “strange characters.” I’m using Firefox Using the View menu to change Character Encoding to UTF-8 fixes the problem. It seems your site isn’t correctly telling Firefox to use UTF-8. This may have something to do with your blog invoking an XML DTD but not using the proper XML encoding declaration, but I’m not sure.

  3. Is see the strange characters, too. I think the problem is the following tag in the html header:

    That should really be:

    Because of this, the browser can’t tell the charset and has to resort to guessing … if it guesses wrongly, you end up with funny accented characters.

  4. “…so they could get to their seat earlier (even though they know they are guaranteed to sit in the same seat no matter how quickly they board)”

    You really can’t figure out why most people want to get on the plane ahead of others? Either you don’t fly much, or maybe you’re pretending not to understand because that makes for a better segue into your Web-community ideas.

    Anyway, the reason for the jockeying for position is the limited storage space for carry-on luggage. No one wants to get on a plane after most people have boarded, only to find that there’s no overhead storage space left and your carry-on luggage will have to be checked in (or, at best, stowed above seat no. 195 at the end of the plane, which means you’ll have to wait until everyone gets off so that you can get back there to retrieve it).

  5. Steve, of course I know that’s the reason ( I travel all the time). But the interesting thing is that the same reason should exist on SWA as well. The people at the front of B line are just the same as the AW folks. So why don’t they push and shove? I wonder if AW just asked people to line up. UA has “boarding sections”, I wonder if they asked people to lineup, would the same behaviour happen?

  6. Looks like WordPress ate the tags in my previous post. Here are the tags without angle brackets:
    meta http-equiv=”Content-Type” content=”UTF-8″ /
    should be
    meta http-equiv=”Content-Type” content=”text/html; charset=utf-8″ /

  7. You should definitely read the Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. There are numberous similar stories. My favorite so far: A school with 2 very narrow staircases saw extremely slow traffic up/down them betweeen classes. A professor suggested to 1 class that they always use 1 staircase to go up, and the other down. Soon everyone started doing the same — dramatically smoothing and thus speeding the traffic fflow.

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