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 (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?