Thoughts on Community

One of my long-time obsessions is trying to understand community. What makes a community work? How do communities form? Why do people fit in some communities and not others?

It’s probably obvious that a large part of this obsession is me feeling like an oddly shaped Tetris piece in the social world. I try spinning around and rotating and never quite manage to fit into place. I mostly make it work, but there are always holes in comprehension and understanding.

I should preface this commentary with the note that every time I have tried to start a community, I’ve failed. So perhaps my thoughts on the subject are useless. I think there are a variety of reasons why they have failed, though, and I’m going to explore a few of those here.

One of them is not providing a clear enough purpose. The community must provide some benefit to people, or they’ll drop out. I think this is particularly noticeable around blogs. People with tightly focused blogs gather an audience and create a community of commenters. I’m thinking of Kathy Sierra and her message of “Creating Passionate Users” as an example. One of my failures as a blogger is that I’m relentlessly self-involved and therefore provide little value here to anybody else (except perhaps my friends who want to know what I’m thinking). I’d like to create a community of people who want to talk about this sort of stuff, but I haven’t figured out how and where to have that conversation. Should it be a blog? An email list? A salon? It’s tricky.

Speaking of Kathy Sierra, passion is a key component to community as well. It has to mean something to somebody. There needs to be a person who keeps on pushing and making things happen. There are all sorts of great examples of this among my acquaintances, from Chris Heuer of BrainJams and Social Media Club, to the Squid Labs boys creating an open source hardware movement, to Charlie O’Donnell starting up nextNY because he wanted to meet more young tech-oriented folks in the city. I’ve definitely failed to provide that sort of impetus the couple times I’ve tried to start things. I get frustrated and lose interest, instead of continuing to persevere. I need to get over the idea that I have One True Calling; I should take what I’m doing today, push it as far as it can go and see what happens (this is Jofish’s theory of serial expertise). Yet another thing to work on.

Another difficulty with getting a community going is getting people to participate. It’s easy when somebody does all the work, and others just have to show up. But for a true community to develop, there needs to be input from lots of people. Charlie posts to the nextNY list every now and then reminding people that anybody can organize an event. Chris Heuer is traveling all over to get Social Media Clubs seeded, but finding local hosts for each one to keep them going without him. It takes one person or small group to get a community going with perseverance, but it only really takes off when others join in. Getting that sort of acceptance and buy-in from the participants depends on providing value and creating excitement.

As a side note, I think this is where really good workplaces stand out. They create real communities where all employees participate in the direction of the business and empowered to do what they think is necessary. Most businesses tend towards a hierarchical community, where the CEO makes a decision and it trickles down to the worker. Those tend to feel like “just a job”. I like the places where it feels like a participative community, where everybody can chime in with an opinion. Not everybody will, of course – a 90% lurker percentage is typical – but it’s nice to have the option.

Another element of community formation is that it has to matter to the community members. This is somewhat related to the first point of having a clearly defined purpose, but if the community purpose doesn’t matter to me, then I’m not going to participate. The year that I was social chair of the chamber chorale at Stanford, I tried to put together a bunch of social activities, such as weekly get-togethers at the coffee house. Each week, it was the same three grad students who showed up – the undergrads’ existing busy social lives obviated the need for chorus social activities. It mattered to us grad students as we did not have that kind of social network at Stanford, but we weren’t a large enough base to make it work.

The same holds true in a business setting, where a company may feel that it’s vital to file a TPS report, but it’s hard to convince me that it matters. But if the company has a mission that actually excites people, that’s a totally different story. And the purpose doesn’t necessarily have to be serious, either – I’ve participated in online communities such as and MUDs which were long-standing communities centered around totally inconsequential things.

I think I’ve listed some necessary ingredients to creating a community. I’m not sure they’re sufficient. But getting all these thoughts down may help me next time I try to start something up. It may not help me find communities that fit me, but that’s another problem. I’ll ponder more about that in another post.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Community

  1. I need to think about nextNY as a post about community… about all I can take credit for is doing nothing, which is probably the best thing I could have ever done.

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