An elementary school in Saskatoon, Canada has a green bench in their playground. They call it the buddy bench.

If you can’t find a friend or a group to join, or you’re feeling lonely, you can just sit on the bench. At which point, other kids will see you, and you’ll be talking to someone or playing a game in no time.

“If you can’t find your best friends, and you don’t know where to go play, sit on a buddy bench and somebody will come find you, and they’ll include you in their game,” said six-year-old Matthew to CBC’s Leisha Grebinski.

There are buddy benches at many schools throughout the world. The Washington Post just did a story with Christian Bucks of Christian’s Buddy Bench, an effort that has helped promote their use in the United States. Bucks says that he first heard of the concept at a school in Germany.

What a wonderful idea. How can we apply this to online communities?

What Makes it Work

It’s powerful because it takes away the awkwardness of having to interrupt people or verbally communicate that you are lonely or you’d like to join in. Instead, it’s as simple as sitting down. Which is still an admission and a commitment, because they have to sit. But it is far less daunting than going up to random groups. Meanwhile, the bench is in a visible area where people can see it, and everyone knows what it’s there for. When they see someone sitting, they know that there is a person who needs a friend.

Speaking offline is comparable to typing online. A natural comparison to sitting would be clicking, something we do very easily online, but it’s still an action we have to choose to make. If you think about some sort of situation-specific prompt, where a member can click and be connected to another member who is ready to help them find a discussion or community effort to participate in, you are achieving a buddy bench-like effect on the web.

The Virtual Buddy Bench

What are the circumstances where someone might be shown the “buddy bench”? Maybe they’re a new member who has visited a few times, but hasn’t posted yet. Maybe they see a message pop up, asking if they have any questions or would like some help finding an interesting area of the community to dive into. You don’t have to call it the buddy bench, obviously. You could invent your own vernacular, or even make it look more like a live chat box. Bonus points if you can connect it to actual members online and willing to help, so you can say, “Hi, I’m <actual username of an actual person ready to help>, another member in this community.”

The buddy bench is a great concept to think through as you try to find ways to make new community members, or even those who have been away for a while, feel more comfortable.

Thank you to Chris Moody for putting this on my radar.