real community

I don’t think many of us understand what a community is or how to support one.

It’s a bit ironic, given how “hot” it’s become in large companies this last decade. You need a “community manager” now, and a “community platform”, and your marketing team is either breathless or befuddled by it. Many mainstream voices have normalized the term “brand community” while most people would struggle to explain what the hell that means.

Let’s start with the obvious: We’re only 30 years removed from the advent of the Web. For most of human history, saying “community” meant the folks where you physically lived. It could be as small as a neighborhood or as large as a metropolitan area, but that was the only variance really: scope. You could sub-divide a community by interest or other commonalities, but physical space as a constraint was a given. When we talk about “online community” let me hazard a guess: You can’t explain it that succinctly. I’d say that’s normal, because not even the experts in this space communicate clearly about it.

“We’ve shed the limitations of location,” we cheered. “Everything can be a community! Everything’s a drum!” Color me deeply skeptical. What you have is probably an audience. Taking questions from your audience and letting them talk to each other doesn’t automatically transcend that reality.

What could we say were characteristics of our physical communities?

  • High barrier to entry: You have to physically move there and likely get a job, too. New barber, new mechanic, new neighbors — lots of replaced relationships with a new network of people who are already familiar with each other.
  • High barrier to exit: You have to give up a support network, including family perhaps, and physically move and perhaps change jobs.
  • Time spent matters: Someone who moved in yesterday lacks the standing of a 30-year neighbor. The group has a shared history that must be learned or assimilated.
  • Associations are known: Who a person chooses to associate with within the area is familiar to others, even if they don’t have the same associations. This could be church, clubs, the barber shop, or the scouting troop.

That’s a lot of constraints, isn’t it? Are you sure that if we remove all of them… you still have a community? I think the answer is probably ‘no’. A semi-public space with people talking is not the same thing as a community. Your Twitter feed or a tech conglomerate’s online message board probably isn’t a community unless you did the work to make it one, and not many folks can do that. The tools connect; they don’t create community.

Let’s talk about the ways we subdivided those physical communities as I alluded to earlier. The LGBT+ community. The Black community. Faith communities. The science community. These are groups that come together, often in the context of cities where physical location has extended the size of the physical community beyond the bounds of what is knowable for an individual. A tighter circle is drawn around a cause, a vocation, an identity, or a belief. Sometimes all of the above. But the barriers are again quite high: You need to be that or believe that, and you’re joining something bigger than yourself with history.

I struggled for years talking about my “online community” with folks who could not understand how a community, like the ones they lived in, could be represented on the Web. I get it now. Many folks are just taking the word “community” and slapping it on anywhere people are talking on the Web. That cheapens communities, and does deserve an eye roll.

I think communities exist online in spite of their technical constraints. Technology has connected people with tools like blogs, forums, and social media — any legitimate, passionate interest can form the spark of a potential community. But a connection alone does not a community make. Today, installing a community platform is like building a plywood stage and expecting Broadway to appear. You could make Broadway happen there. Just don’t confuse the plywood with the thing itself. It’s not even really… helping that much. It just is. Just… connecting.

In the art of building communities that work across the ether, we’re still near the starting line. We have enterprise tools that make big bucks so we think our plywood is the best plywood, because look, we got people to dance on it! No one’s figured out how to build a do-it-yourself opera house kit that helps you form a theater troupe. I’m not sure anyone’s even really trying. Not yet, anyway. That would be real community software.