Read this if you want to learn how to build a stronger-than-average community. I will be explaining how I have implemented positive and healthy features of cults with the objective of building a strong and interconnected community.
Cult — caring, understanding, loving tribe. Kidding.
You cannot avoid it. If you build a strong enough community, it will be labelled a cult. This is why I regard the word with positive connotations.
Think about some examples: The CrossFit Cult, the Soulcycle Cult, the Peloton Cult. All these companies have built amazing communities around their brands. Their customers are loyal. Their customers subscribe to their values and show them off.
As community builders, I think we should aspire to be labelled cult leaders.
Sure, there are definitely negative features to cults: the discouragement of dissent, power imbalances, groupthink, authoritarianism, lack of transparency, exploitation of members, and the degradation of members’ self-worth. To name a few. I do not advocate for these. These are manipulation tactics, not community-building tactics.
What I do advocate for is going beyond community-building. Giving members identity and unity. This is what cults succeed at.
So, what are the positive features of cults that community-builders should emulate?
- A strong life philosophy.
- An identity for members to adopt.
- A strong ritual infrastructure.
- A ceremonial onboarding procedure.
- Socially-enforced norms, such as love-bombing.
- A declarative manifesto.
- High EQ community leaders.
Ready to dive in?
- A strong life philosophy.
I have spent years and years developing the life philosophy for my community. A life philosophy defines the criteria for what a good life is. A good life, according to VYVE, is encapsulated by one sentence:
The authenticity and vibrancy of our personal relationships is the strongest indicator for a good life.
This is based on countless books I have read. Underlying VYVE’s life philosophy is a swath of research articles and historical texts. For some cults, religion is the underlying bedrock for their life philosophy. What I have done instead is based VYVE’s life philosophy on the science of human well-being.
When a philosophy declares what a good life is, it attracts people with shared values. It polarizes people. This explains why there are no hyper-capitalists within VYVE.
Cults have strong belief systems. They declare what a good life looks like, they declare behaviours and goals to live a good life, and they make a statement about how the future should be.
Stories are one way to communicate the life philosophy of a community. In my case, I share stories of spreading belonging and joy in public. The goal is to demonstrate the 5 V’s of VYVE in a visual way: vulnerability, vibrancy, venture, vibe, and vitality.
A strong life philosophy defines what a good life is, the behaviours for living a good life, and how your members should serve humanity in a way that promotes those behaviours. Cults have defined life philosophies.
2. An identity.
I came up with the word Revyver to reinforce my members’ sense of identity. I want them to identity with a movement. A movement about reviving a sense of community in western culture. I want them to regard themselves as making a huge impact in the world.
Cults create an identity around a life philosophy. They have titles for their members. They have secret terminology. They know what it means to be a part of the cult.
I have cultivated an identity for my community members by:
- Giving them a name: revyvers
- Giving them a shared mission and reminding them all the time.
- Publicly reinforcing behaviours that align with the life philosophy.
- Designing an opening ceremony with verbal affirmations.
Throughout a community’s documentation, the identity should be reinforced. The shared mission and values must be referenced in the code of conduct, in the onboarding, and in meetings. This is why I always include the mission statement slide at the beginning of my community meetings.
This deserves some emphasis. The WHY of your community is central to the identity. For VYVE, the WHY is to give more humans access to deeper forms of human contact. Humans thrive when they have a purpose. They thrive when they are serving humanity. This is why I have spent a lot of time thinking about the larger picture for VYVE.
The last thing I want is my community being regarded as ‘just a membership business.’ I want to create a movement.
3. Ritual infrastructure.
The power of ritual. It’s rarely applied. I have been to thousands of events. I have participated in hundreds of communities. Very few of them leverage the power of ritual. Cults do.
I regard rituals as pauses in an event where everyone’s attention comes together. Rituals are unifying processes. They often involve group-witnessing and structure. There is a shared intention in rituals. Participants are doing the same thing to achieve the same result.
Rituals reinforce your community’s sense of belonging. They strengthen the life philosophy and identity. They cultivate psychological commitment to your values. They bond your community members.
You can design rituals to open and close events. To welcome newcomers. To recognize contributors. And to celebrate milestones.
My favourite ritual of VYVE is called vyving. My hope is that vyving becomes a normalized practice for all community facilitators. Vyving is defined as spreading joy and belonging to strangers in public. It is a radical act of vulnerability and vibrancy. Often times, it involves music, dancing, and funky outfits. The best moments of my life have been vyving.
Vyving to me represents a temporary dissolution of social distrust and demographic differences. It is the ultimate unification.
My recommendation for community builders is to develop consistent traditions in their communities. How do events begin? How do events end? How are people recognized as becoming moderators or leaders? How do you remind your community of its purpose?
And what I will leave you with is this: You can achieve a lot more emotional impact when you synchronize human effort and attention through ritual.
4. An onboarding ceremony and protocol.
Speaking of rituals. What is the most important ritual? Your first impression on your community members! The onboarding process is essential to cultivating excitement, belonging, and identity for your newcomers. With VYVE, I created an entire checklist and event for this process.
The checklist details steps on how to receive and offer value within the community. Don’t keep your members wondering how they can contribute. There should be a path that members can follow.
What’s by far more important than an onboarding checklist is the onboarding ritual. For VYVE, I designed an opening ceremony. It was structured. It involved dance. And at the end, we all signed the VYVE manifesto. Yep, over zoom.
One thing that cults excel at is their structured onboarding. More and more commitment is asked of members as they go through the process. How cults design their opening ceremony is intentional. They leverage ritual and social proof. All members do something at the same time. So, if you don’t do it, you feel left out.
Incorporate ritual and your community’s core beliefs into your onboarding process. You may just match the loyalty of a cult.
5. Social norms
Cults have codes. There is an implicit or explicit understanding of what behaviours are acceptable and what are not. One behaviour that is often socially-enforced in cults is love-bombing. This is the enthusiastic welcoming and accepting of new members into the cult.
For VYVE, I have explicitly described the social norms I wish to reinforce in my code of conduct. I want my community members to welcome one another. I want them to attend events instead of participating in messaging. And I want them to refrain from sharing anything from VYVE with the outside world, without explicit permission. These are social norms, and you bet, I have to remind people of them all the time.
I would recommend detailing a list of social norms (behaviours) explicitly and sharing it with your community for feedback. Taking the lead from cults, you can reinforce those social norms through rituals. One thing I am considering at VYVE is to start meetings with a confidentiality ritual to remind everyone that vulnerability and authenticity are possible in VYVE.
6. THE MANIFESTO
This is about values. What does your community prioritize? What does your community wish to accomplish? What are the underlying beliefs that explain these objectives?
Your manifesto should turn some people off, and turn others on. For example, the VYVE manifesto turns off people who are hyper-capitalistic and who prioritize material gain.
Cults do a great job of communicating how they see the world, how the world should be, and what a good life is. Explicitly illustrating these worldviews and life philosophies in a manifesto is a fantastic way to cultivate your following. You can also design rituals around the acknowledgement of the manifesto.
I am considering sending my member a paper copy!
7. Emotionally-intelligent Leadership
In the case of cults, leaders leverage their EQ for their gain. In the case of strong communities, leaders leverage their EQ to strengthen the bonds with their members and among their members.
Emotional intelligence is the basis for deep relationships. Emotional connection is a natural source of psychological safety. If we cannot respond consciously to our own emotions, they will tear apart our relationships. If we cannot respond supportively to others’ emotions, they won't feel heard or included. Bonds stay superficial without EQ.
High EQ leaders praise their members. They validate their members’ emotions. They do not let their emotions rule their relationships. A single bout of anger does not lead to the exiling of community members.
Cults often have very charismatic leader, too. This is a plus for community leadership, as well. When you feel fully and understand clearly someone’s devotion to a cause, you’re more likely to trust them and believe them.
We can learn a lot from cults. They have advanced community infrastructure, including rituals, social norms, belief systems, and onboarding. We can learn a lot about what not to do as well. Don’t hide information from your community. Don't repress dissent. Don’t shame people. Don’t foster elitism. Don't isolate your community from the outside world.
A lot of people are going to be alarmed that I wrote this. It’s perhaps a little provocative, but I hope you go out and become an aspiring “culty leader.”
And with that exit, join me and 1750+ facilitators at my Lab, The Party Scientist’s Lab 🧪
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— The Party Scientist