A Perspective on Community
This post is a narrative on thoughts about community in and around the on-line world. It’s not complete, possibly not coherent, and is long. However, it does represents the output of a fascinating and thought provoking roundtable discussion convened by Bernie Mitchell, in the company of Misae Richwoods, Simon Darling, Filip Matous, Julie Hall at the Moo Grill. Use it for reflection and debate. Tear it apart, support it or add to it – that is what it is here for! These reflections are driven from my perspective that all business are communities that operate within communities, and the experience of a few years of running local community meet ups, both digital (TVSMC) and non-digital (as a former Toastmasters International president). It also draws on my recent talks at Techmap and the Berkshire Social Media Conference (Paul Allen’s blog on it here). Consider it a kind of late Beta!
One of the recurrent themes whenever I get drawn into discussions around community, specifically the ‘on-line’ sort, is that of audience versus community. It is all too often that I hear marketing folks talk about their audience as if it was a community, and occasionally their community as if it was an audience. To my mind the two are very different things: an audience is gathered to listen; a community gathers to contribute. One is there to consume. One is there to produce. I don’t see one as any more worthy than the other – sometimes I want to be in an audience, sometimes I want to be in a community. You probably wouldn’t fancy trying to co-create with Take That or the Foo Fighters – you’re there to jump up and down and go deaf, or something like that. Conversely, if I go to a vendor’s user group event, I wouldn’t expect to get shouted at or drowned out.
What emerged from the evening’s discussions was that there are many different types of community. That might seem blindingly obvious, but you wouldn’t think so from much of the writing in the social media world. There are motivated communities – self motivated, or externally motivated (i.e. lead) – and there are unmotivated communities. Unmotivated communities rarely last, and are rarely ‘rewarding’ to be part of. Communities fundamentally exist to do something, or at least to support or preserve something.
My personal favourite minimal definition of community is ‘a group of people gathered around a purpose.’ I like it because of its simplicity, and because it is so actionable. The purpose might be to change the world (thank you to Misae Richwoods for raising the bar on that one), or it might be to exchange tips and stories about a new gadget. Another flash of the blindingly obvious was the realisation that communities are for a period in time. People join, their circumstances change, and they move on. They may stay for a long time, or they may move through swiftly. Similarly, a campaign-based community may have a relatively short life or a lifestyle-driven community a very long one.
The process of joining and leaving a community is not usually a binary one. It is a journey, and those who run communities need to be conscious of that. The moments of leaving or closing are points of difference, and potential friction (or explosion) if they aren’t handled well. That thought touches on many things, which the discussion came back too…
If you have an office without walls or desks, how would you know that you are in it? It’s the same with communities. While most on-line communities don’t have obvious rites of passage, they are there – even if they aren’t explicit. The users worked out how to get on-line, they found the site, they signed up, they managed to post a message. We’ll talk more about rites of passage and tokens of membership in a bit.
The higher the walls, the stronger the community. As the walls erode, the community weakens. Look at Usenet groups in the 90’s, and now Twitter. As the barriers come down, the community fragments, weakens, and finally is engulfed in relational noise. Of course, at the other end of the scale are communities that are [too] exclusive. Barriers to entry, i.e. exclusivity, can drive people’s desire to be in a community, as much as they keep them out. If it is hard to get in, people will stay. If it is too hard to get in, people won’t bother, and may even form their own ‘anti-communities’
Technology has radically transformed community life. The Internet has bulldozed geographic boundaries, eliminated cost and enabled even the most niche of interests to sustain sizeable communities. If you don’t believe me, go for a trawl through meetup.com (an online market place for arranging and managing community meet ups). There is something there for everyone – and I really mean everyone. Newer on-line services like Lanyrd and Plancast have made it easier to discover events and join the communities around them. See where your Twitter friends go to meet, search events in your area, or on your topic of interest. If you want a community, online or offline, you can probably find it, and if you can’t find it, you can create it for marginal cost and effort.
Social platforms like Facebook have made relationships objectively visible, and transformed ‘liking’ into more than just making a connection. They have become a means of association, and a form of visible badge. I ‘like’ Brand X says as more about my identity than just the fact that I have purchased their products. Communities have an ‘identity’ and people need to know what that identity is, so that they know what they are in, and more importantly, people need to know if they are ‘in’ the community or not. They also want to know if other people are inside or outside of the community too. It is all part of forming a group identity, and having a good sense of group identity is a key part of any thriving community. That identity might be supported by the shared stories that people tell, or by the provision of props (e.g. badges, uniforms, and so on). Having an iPad, an iPhone 4 and a MacBook identifies you as likely part of a certain community, just as having a suit and a Blackberry might identify you as part of a different one!
Some badges are ambiguous, some are not, some are conscious, some are not. All are earnt. The Flickr badge on my bag has started conversations, the WordPress badge has got me business. Those badges were obtained through relationships and through being at certain events. They have a story and meaning to them. They are explicit tokens, artefacts of being a part of something. They have a value far beyond their physical worth, they connect to memories and demonstrate participation. Most communities have some form of badges. They aren’t always as obvious as a piece of metal and paper, but they are there all the same.
Community defies our instant reward, popup culture. Communities take a LONG time to develop. Although sense of community can happen within 6 months, or even less, building a viable community, of any type, is a long hard journey. One of the things that definitely helps along the way is recognising the contributions of key community members. A big part of the evening’s discussion circled around the idea of making ‘heroes’ within the community. It works because it strengthens the identity of both the group and the individual, and also because it models the behaviours that are desired within the community. It is in our nature to copy leaders and those that we view as successful. That can be a constructive dynamic in a community, but it can also be a destructive one. An over reliance on the leader or key individuals can leave others feeling unwanted or even excluded.
There was and is much debate as to how much of community building is inductively learnt and subconsciously applied, and how much is conscious, constructed application. Many community leaders are ‘naturals’ rather than consciously constructed. It’s rare to find someone who learnt their community management skills in a classroom, and so that means passing on their skills is something best done through mentoring and working alongside, rather that in a taught course in a classroom. But you knew that already, didn’t you?
At one point there was a heated debate about WordPress versus Drupal. It was notable not for the technical content, but for how much of the debate was driven from the communities that were around each of them. There are certainly big technical differences between the platforms (I’ve built community sites using WordPress, BuddyPress, Drupal and Elgg), but the biggest difference is in the communities of users, developers, content producers and consumers around each. Products, inherently, have communities.
Looking at the ‘insides’ of a community, it becomes obvious that not all community members are equal. There are various different taxonomies that can be used to group members. I lean towards looking at levels of engagement: audience (the edglings), participants, contributors, through to co-leaders. Similarly, communication happens on a continuum from ‘top-down’ communication from leaders, to peer-to-peer discussion between members. Bernie talked about the impact of sending out weekly emails to one of his communities. The community became more active and engaged. People got more involved. Broadcast communication can be helpful, as well as harmful, in maintaining community cohesion and the energy levels within the community. It is all about striking a balance. Too little, and the community fragments and disperses, too much and it diminishes to an audience.
The spectrum for audience to community is a highly graduated one. We discussed many examples of the broadcast/performance vs community/contribution dynamic. For example, the Coke Facebook page that was started by two actors. Community or audience? Participation or entertainment? They aren’t dichotomies or dilemmas, they are characteristics of moments in the story that becomes the community. How important is the brand of the community leader? Can they be invisible, leading from the shadows, or must they be known by name? Is there a continuum from audience to community? Real world examples don’t reveal simple yes’s and no’s. In the words of Ben Goldacre, “I think you’ll find that it’s a bit more complicated than that.“
So what triggers action in a community? Conversation needs to be peer to peer, not just top down. It’s one of the defining differences between an audience and a community. People want to have meaning, and to make a difference. Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs came up quite a few times. People have a need for significance and people want to feel wanted/needed. Many community drivers are around human emotional needs.
The evening’s discussion touched on issues of mono-culture and sustainability. Consistency is important – it creates and supports identity – but difference is also one of the key drivers of community too. Communities can be long lived. Like some strange insect that can go without food for years, even if left sleeping communities can sometimes be revived. One of the stories I have heard a number of times about the Obama campaign is how it managed to bootstrap itself from the communities formed during the previous campaigns. Once a community is made, the individual relationships and connections created by it persist, long after the community has gone away.
So what is the role of a community leader? Are they leaders or are they facilitators? The answer seems to be yes and yes. The more challenging question was about the ability of community leaders to establish new leads, and the way that can lead to communities fragmenting or taking on a different path – even splitting apart. Good community ‘managers’ are passionate about the growth of the individuals within the community. The pattern is not about the growth of the community, the community only grows by the growth of the members. Good leaders establish sustainable behaviours: ‘this is how we do things around here’ – and recognise and reward those in the community who are active in supporting it. Recognition goes a long way: It supports the contributors, and it indicates desirable models of behaviour to others in the group.
Communities aren’t owned, and unlike an audience, they can’t be bought. Did technology enable niche communities, or did it actually cause the fragmentation that lead to them? On-line communities, freed from geographic restrictions, can fragment and merge more easily. As humans, we’ve been doing community since we started writing on cave walls, but technology is making (and enabling) us to look at the processes of community differently. Community is part of a cultural megatrend. In the off-line world, many places have forgotten how to do community – The motor car, the television and the privet hedge have enabled use to live socially in the most isolated of ways. In the later part of the last century we learnt to become individual actors, rather than group players. As we escape from broadcast media, and discover the Internet, we are starting to rediscover togetherness. There is a growing desire to create communities, and reintegrate society.
Of course it is all ripples against ripples… We have always been in communities, it is the new lens of social media and the rise of Twitter and Facebook that have turned the cameras, quite literally, back on to ourselves.
In a cruel form of irony, it way well be the mass data from these platforms that starting to create mass customisation/personalisation that breaks up community again. What you read in your Twitter stream or in your Facebook updates is personalised for you. No one else reads the same things in the same context. In social networks, everyone is part of a community of one. It is a scale free network that puts you at the centre of your world. Traditional communities don’t work that way. They are about shared experiences and shared stories – they are more universal than personal. It’s all about creating the shared experience, the stories that people tell about the community and that they have in common. Shared challenges, external threats and common victories bind communities together. They create emotional connections between people.
The nature of what ‘global’ means is changing. Geographic barriers are breaking down…. However ‘Global’ has come to mean a trans-country set of niches… Physical communities are still challenged by geography, but global ones are challenged by a sea of niche interests and a dwindling commonality in what people are interested in. As opposed to the universal markets that broadcast media and a global film industry created, social media creates micro-worlds with micro-celebrities and loosely bound connections.
Is community growth formulaic? There are certainly patterns. We discussed the early church, Toastmasters, the Mormons and dozens of examples of communities that have grown and persisted. Sometimes communities are for a reason, a season, occasionally for a life time. Communities and members aren’t forever. There is a time, a place and a purpose.
What does community mean to you?
Benjamin, I’m really grateful you’ve collected and archived our thoughts from what was a wonderfully cerebral conversation. In the clarity of your write up it’s much more structured than the freeflow exploration we had at the time.
I wonder how easy it might be to evolve this into a framework for community creation and management?
I mean that not in the sense of a set of rigid guides; communities are far too diverse to benefit from that. Yet even with diversity there are certain universal elements that are carried forth by our own humanity.
In the sense that we might elucidate these to give a clear sense of where the currents, rip tides and back waters lie in the stream of any community, together with a sense of the pros and cons of paddling under any of those conditions it might be interesting.
@Misae, I’m sure there was even more said! There were definitely patterns emerging during the evening – It would be nice to build into a framework, although I am sure there are quite a few more dimensions!
This is genius and its positively coherent! I love your point “an audience is gathered to listen; a community gathers to contribute.”
I’ve been writing a lot on my blog about this recently. Building a business community is about creating a group of informed people around our brands, rather than attempting to communicate with a mass of invisible people.
A business community is a group of people that congregate either online, offline or both around a common affinity and purpose; a brand. They will often share similar values, want to engage and participate in development and will, almost certainly want to share information and build things together. They are cohesive; communities do not extract value, they contribute value.
Nice one Benjamin…great food for thought! 🙂
What an absolutely brilliant post.
Bernie Mitchell linked me to this and I’m so glad he did. Consumer behaviour and how that affect user decisions (particularly in a social context) is an area I’m really interested in, so this post is something I really appreciated and enjoyed. I’d have loved to have been in on this roundtable talk.
I’ve always had this same idea about the delineation of audience and community, and in fact wrote about it on my Comms Thoughts blog a while ago: http://bit.ly/goWXDp.
I may revisit this on my next Consumer Behaviour post for the #techMAP blog.
Great post, and look forward to reading a lot more.
Bernie sent me the link too, for which I’m very grateful.
I’m in the process of creating a community (if such a thing is possible) from a bunch of people who’ve been coming to see my selection of speakers for the last six years, so encouraging them to change from an audience to fully participating in discussions before and after each event, with each other and with the speakers.
Social media has made it possible to do this so its not just me reporting on events in a blog post but people really sharing experiences and ideas with a much wider group which now includes people who don’t attend our events.
What has become apparent is that it is the shared values of the members that hold it all together. People who don’t ‘get it’ don’t participate and stay in ‘audience’ mode.
So now we have people who participate on line and face to face; people who only participate on line and people who are audience members – some only at events and some only on-line.
I’ve enjoyed reading all these comments and I’d like to ask you all; is it important to create a sense of belonging and if so, how? We have no membership fee so no members, badges etc., so how do people feel they ‘belong’?
Our discussion group on LinkedIn “The Inspired Group” is an open group so anyone can join in discussions without joining but about 250 people have opted to join anyway.
I’d appreciate your thoughts … Thanks for a great post Benjamin
@Benjamin Interesting post, very well written and argued; however there at some points I just see nicely put together words but in-depth quite meaningless in the modern days of 21st century. For example, “…an audience is gathered to listen; a community gathers to contribute.” Although further down you tried to explain this but the definition you introduced is pretty much bunch of words created a nice “quotation” but it is not necessarily a genuine and usable definition!
Further down you nicely discussed the purpose of community; I partly agree with you. The part I disagree, is that “…communities are for a period in time.” If the purpose of the community is powerful enough, and in fact genuine, the community will last for the lifetime of its members and possibly a reason for future members! – A community with an expiry date is not a community, it is just a gathering similar to tweet-ups we all attend sometimes.
You also argued that the process of joining and leaving a community is a journey; although there are some truth in it, but it is quite immature to perceive communities as such; because a journey without A destination is pointless, and in this case the destination is purpose that make everything meaningful and long-lasting. Without the meaningful purpose what’s the point of forming a community?
To my mind “If you have an office without walls or desks, how would you know that you are in it?” is a very poor analogy and “The higher the walls, the stronger the community.” is not realistic in the modern days we live in, unless you would like us to imagine what life liked in stone age. I however can understand the “wall” analogy in the context of rules and regulations, like what ASA and OfCom introduced as a result of ignoring public, whom you referred as “audience.” Therefore listening is symmetrical.
You mentioned about how having certain phones would classify one to a particular community and I give you that. But isn’t it more assumptions and “image” fabricated for commercial reasons which in fact undermines values and culture which lead to bigger issues??
I really enjoyed reading the last few paragraphs when you started talking about real stuff such as consistency and how a community can grow. But your closing sentence again became a bit debatable! “Communities and members aren’t forever.” I agree member of a community aren’t for ever due to various reasons and noise but community can be, or at least depends what you mean by “for ever”! But “there is a time, a place and a purpose” is very true and it must be talked about more often to make sure it happens in every day communications.
@Ann Hawkins don’t you think “People who don’t ‘get it’ don’t participate and stay in ‘audience’ mode” is rather an offensive statement?
@Ehsan I think you are coming at it from a strongly different perspective. Statements of purpose aren’t meaningless, they are at least assertions even if they are not fully definitional – Most 21st century arguments seem to have a lack of definitions, rather than an excess, so I’m happy to break the trend ;).
Communities are always for a period of time. I can’t think of one from two millennia ago that is still with us – even the Christian Church has become multiple communities, and probably bears little resemblance to the communities described in early church history. Things always move on and change. Members move on (or pass away), and that brings about change. Communities are rarely static.
On the comment with regard to journey, I’d like you to expand on that assertion. Given that there is a huge body of research and thinking from the marketing and service design worlds about user journeys, I’d like to hear why such thinking might deem someone to be “quite immature”?
I think you’ve missed the point about walls and image – It turns out that McMillan and Chavis touched on these in a 1986 Paper – Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory, which is worth a read.
@Benjamin – Thanks for your reply.
I may come from a different perspective but the concept is still the same.
I didn’t say statement of purpose is meaningless, I said some of the points in your post is meaningless should it be analysed in-depth, such as “…an audience is gathered to listen; a community gathers to contribute.” In 21st century everyone must listen in order to live peacefully and happily together; your post and argument around togetherness of communities failed to stand out, unfortunately. This is why I said what I said initially.
I agree when you say in 21st century arguments seem to have a lack of definitions. May I add something to this, and this is because of excessive amount of “wall” created by non-regulatory bodies. Individuals and businesses say ‘my turf my rules’. This is no longer true as we got to consider the consequences of our actions, so creating walls is not the job of anyone other than the regulators – for example the latest example is the cookies law and behavioural targeting. This wall was created very tall in fact; but now is shaking due to the concerns which have been ignored for decades!
No surprise that you can’t recall any long lasting communities, isn’t it because the members tried to be too creative and change things to benefit their own desires as opposed to the “community”? The reason why you and many other people see communities as “for a period of time” is that sense of purpose is lacking in building the community or undermining the initial values set by community founders/members in the past; hence members leaving – other than those who pass away of course. There are still many charities operating in the world for decades simply because they stick to their values and update it as the time goes by and pass it on to the right people who genuinely care about the community and not of own very personal interests.
With regards to the journey comment, everything has a reason and a purpose, without these two we just waste our time and effort; unless one literally means that and it is no one’s business. When we talk about community, everything must be around the purpose of the community, to improve and enhance what is pursued by the members of the community. And that is the destination, meeting goals and giving life to the vision of the community. Then of course the community have to continue its journey in order to remain in minds and hearts of its members. This then leads to sustainability and should it be cared about exist for ever; opposite to your opinion of communities are for a period of time”.
Hmmmm….are you thinking about an eco-system there? Perhaps when a Business has a number of communities that become dysfunctional when they don’t have enough purpose, but still affinity (they work for the same brand) are they not then silos???
Ecosystem is the traditional view point – which implies that it works as whole system. I was thinking of it being ‘many communities’ as a better way of explaining it, and why things go wrong with a business… Just a different frame on the traditional eco-system thinking, which might lead to some useful discussions…
Perhaps you are right and it does need further investigation. Ecosystem is maybe a utopian view of it. The reality is that it doesn’t actually exist in human culture because of our ‘extracting behaviour.’
Great subject for the ThinkLAB’s. I think we have our next discussion topic! 🙂
Thank you Ann (H) for the comment Ann – I enjoyed your follow on post too (“Audience and community can co-exist”). I wonder if there is mileage in thinking about a Business as a series of communities that become dysfunctional when they don’t have enough over lap – e.g. share holders, customers, employees, …
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