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What is Community?

Nearly all social media activists agree that success in their field requires a sense of community.  It’s the “social”, after all, that distinguishes this kind of media from older media.  Yet that means different things to different people, colored by their different experiences in life.  What does “community” mean to you?

It’s not just an idle question.  As different communities form around the ‘net people will expect different things from them following their different visions.  I’d like to know what you think “community” means.

I’ve been asking around twitter and in real life to get some good answers to this question.  My favorite response so far comes from my neighbor Jack Boardman, who said, “It’s like pornography, I know it when I see it.”  Other responses have included an emphasis on shared work to build a strong community, a view that I definitely have in mind – as another neighbor put it, “Community comes from working side by side, shoulder to should, day after day with people you don’t even like!”

Setting aside the pithy responses for a bit, desperation can always start with a Merriam-Webster definition of community, summarized as:

1. A unified body of individuals,
2. Society at large,
3. Joint ownership or participation

That’s about as dry as you might expect, but it’s worth mentioning.  It fits with what Jillian suggested, “A place where one can (virtually) engage in never ending conversation.”  But that definition, based on conversation, is not as strong as sharing work and/or common goals.  As Bridget said, “I tend to believe real human, in-person connections are almost always going 2 b stronger (than online).”  That is probably true, which explains why so many online communities eventually try to have gatherings like the Saint Paul Tweet-Up, for one example.

I also appreciated Tarra’s view, “I think of “community” as a sort of extended chosen family.”  That fits with the idea that we have community as an inbetween layer between those immediately around us and the bigger world, encountering it in layers as we need to.

My own view is deeply colored by my work over the last 20+ years as a community activist in the West End of Saint Paul.  There is my immediate neighborhood, Irvine Park, which has had its share of threats and opportunities that come along like any other inner city neighborhood.  We band together to respond based on a common interest, one that is going to affect nearly all aspects of our life and investment in money, time, and sweat to have a good life.  We also work with the greater West End to help make that better, as well as the city of Saint Paul as a whole.  There’s always work to do.

In the 1990s there was a brief push for a more activist and academic view of community referred to as “communitarian”.  The word dates to the 1840s, but was fleshed out greatly by Amitai Etzioni and Sen. Bill Bradley, among others, as more of a moral and political view.  It never really took off to the point of having a strong influence on the real world, but it does fit as a greater vision close the one I’ve developed as a community activist.

Online communities are inherently different.  There is rarely shared work.  “Interest” becomes another sticky word, meaning both the kind of stake I described above and the more casual “I am interested in this topic” pastime.

My own work with clients who want to develop a greater social media presence always centers on community as a goal because it helps to keep them focused on the strategies of online participation rather than the day to day chatter or the allure of “shiny objects” that are new apps and systems.  But I know that community means very different things to each of them.  I can accept that as long as we have that vague sense that we’ll all at least know it when we see it.

But what does “community” mean to you?  I’d like to know what you think!

30 thoughts on “What is Community?

  1. I like the view that community is the family you choose for yourself. I think it can be anywhere both real life and online but I agree that real life is much stronger. You just do not get the body language and look in someones eyes when you are online.

  2. In the end, communities are not things but ideas. Any concrete description about community is difficult because communities change over time, people can belong to varieties of communities and so on.

    Take for instance the idea that I see Barataria as part of my community. Or that others may see me as part of the ‘old boys network.’ Or with the mixed-race person who has white skin, but identifies themselves as being black or asian. Community can be imposed on us without our even realizing it.

    So, community is a way that individual see the world. How they box some things as belonging to their sphere, and how they see others as not belonging. It’s actually a personal thing that connects [and disconnects!] people in a social way.

    The idea of ‘developing’ a community is interesting, however. To me, one develops a community by providing signals that encourage others to remove the disconnections we may have. This is why I always try and talk with the punk rocker sitting amongst the suits (or vice versa). The person who insists on belonging and/or making others feel like they belong are the most important people in our society. It’s easy to recognize yourself as a ‘tech geek.’ If you truly believe in community, you want to recognize and invite the Other into your world.

  3. I’m surprised you didn’t get into the connections routine with this one. It is all about connections one way or the other.

    I personally think that community means the people you come to rely on for one reason or another. I think you said before that it’s important to be one of the people that others rely on, that makes you the anchor of a community. Sometimes its as simple as people always being where you expect them to be or sometimes its being there when you really need them. No matter what it makes you a member of the community.

  4. Jan, I’m more and more sure all the time that online will never be the same as real life.

    Ryan & Dale: I really like how you both emphasize your own contribution to community – you defined it as an active thing, not a static. I can’t remember exactly where I first saw this line (perhaps “Bowling Alone”?) – “community isn’t something you have, like a pizza.” You also both talked about connections, which is something I wanted to tie in but felt I was getting too long-winded as it was (this piece is about getting input from others!).

    I think I see some broad agreement so far on some very interesting things. Let me go troll for more views and get back to you later. 🙂

  5. I guess my idea of community lines up with Jack’s. You know it when you see it. You also know what community isn’t when you see that. And that has been my focus lately. Community is not a popularity contest. Community is not about trying to one-up everyone else. Those things serve as a means to hide insecurities, not form a community. And I find that basic human flaw – insecurity – taking over what could be awesome communities.

    So no, I cannot define community. But I sure as hell can tell you what it is NOT.

  6. I agree, it’s easier to say what community is not. Insecurity is one thing, selfishness another, ego would be another yet. I guess they are all related.

    Community is about something outside of ourselves. I like what Ryan said that it is ideas, that works for me as well as being about people. They can be forced on us, too, like some big high school. That gets to what devilishdelish was saying again, too.

  7. Devilish: Popularity contests are a huge feature of social media, unfortunately. They do have the greatest potential for wrecking things because they are elitist and exclusionary by nature. People who are a bit different – and I count both of us in that! – are deliberately left out regardless of what we have to contribute. A real community is not so closed, and there is always strength in diversity. You raise an excellent point. I covered some of that in this post – it’s a bit harsh, and might be stronger if ti took a step back, but the point is there:

    Anna: “Something outside of ourselves” is a good way to look at it, too. You raised the “big high school” that I’ve commented on before. I do fear that there is an entire generation out there who have experienced few communities outside of High School and work, both of which can be terribly dysfunctional at times. Selfishness, insecurity, ego … I think they are all the same thing, too.

  8. Long time no see. Another great topic.

    I go with the ‘know it when I see it’ definition. Community is more than common interest or interests or whatever you want to call it. People have to be giving to it constantly but I think that has to be more than just talk. If people don’t challenge each other at least I don’t the community will last.

    I like what others have said here, this is a rich topic. I don’t think that any two people will give you the same answer to this one.

  9. To me, community isn’t a thing…or action. It’s identifying with a feeling. Whether it’s a group of people coming together over loss, laughter, or activism-I know I’m a member of a community when I feel moved to act on behalf of those involved in the idea. Being inspired is what makes it a community as opposed to a group. The feeling of being compelled. Community.
    Just my 2 cents. 🙂

  10. erica: Thanks so much! I agree that inspiration is very important, and I guess that’s what working together brings out in people more than anything. A good way to put it, indeed.

    All of these definitions of community seem to include all the things that I say are needed to have good writing – something for heart and arm and brain. I like this a lot. I feel like “community” has come back to what I’ve long said about writing generally, which is that it’s how it gets into a person’s head that counts. Dialogue and community come back together that way. Very good stuff!

    For those that don’t know, I stole my often used phrase “heart and arm and brain” from “The Mary Ellen Carter” by Stan Rogers. 🙂

  11. Erik, didn’t you write about community once before centered on your Amish roots? I remember you had an interesting takeaway on what it takes to make a community. Thanks.

  12. I think there is a difference between community and engagement…and the definitition of online community (the Golden Egg) is very much like Webster’s definition. You can have a blog and highly engaged commenters. These are people who comment and you respond and that’s the end of it. To get the Golden Egg, you have people commenting to one another, without you. You’ve started a discussion with your topic and then leave it to your readers to debate one another. That is community.

  13. I think when it comes to marketing Community excludes an actual Business or Brand 98% of the time. It is rare to have a community that revolves around a Brand. But a Brand can be part of a Community. I might love McDonald’s french fries. And they might think me talking with them on Facebook and Twitter makes a community around them. But in reality most of us would also like Five Guys for French Fries (or another Brand). Which really would make us a French Fry Community.

    Brands need to understand this really important difference. The reason is McDonald’s might hate Five Guys and trash talk them at their HQ or individual Managers at Restaurants might do the same since they are competitors. In the past we might not see this. But what if McDonald’s starts trash talking via Social thinking the people in their networks only like McDonald’s fries vs being a French Fry community. It would turn me off to not see McDonald’s admit other people make great fries and I might punish them by reducing my patronage or telling people etc.

  14. We find communities around similar interests (such as music, movies, tech etc.), so it’s sounds right to say that community is a group of people with something in-common (community members). But the current “social network era” made a change – Community members were the heart of the communities, while now they are the communities, the interest and the conversation about that interest. So today we can say that community is a product or an interest, while people are the initiators and the ones that keep the community alive.

  15. Thanks everyone, especially the new people. Barataria is all about experiments in expanding our notion of the online social world and how it can expand. The “School” of Barataria is stronger with new input – and I’d encourage you all to flip through and offer the same experience to other subjects at hand here.

    I want to take off on a tangent raised by Howie, whose comment is dense with topics that could easily be explored in a series of 800 word posts on their own. One that intrigues me the most is how each community exists in relation to other communities, something I alluded to briefly in my own post (the layers of an onion).

    Many of my clients have an existing community in real life that social media will only supplement. A yarn store, for example, has a tight community that includes people who also tweet about their own projects, share them on facebook, and have an active presence on ravelry.com (an excellent site if you want to examine online community!). How do we tie them all together? To a large extent, the social media effort that this particular business needs is nothing more than that – tying their community into the larger ones. A very different problem. The interaction, the give-and-take, the sharing, the contributions to the art all take place in real life – they just need context to reinforce them and make them stronger.

    A very different problem from creating an online community from scratch, no?

    I think I have another post on this topic. The reason I wanted to deal with community as a concept revolves around this problem, which is integrating social media to the real world. Online communities do tend to be homogeneous and distinct. I want to bring in Connections Theory to broaden the definition away from the nuts and bolts of the peculiar online advantages and problems.

    Thanks to everyone, this is good stuff!

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