June 1, 2009

What Makes a Community?

community

Every day I get emails from all kinds of fun people who are getting started on the journey of building an online community. Some of them want advice, and I’m happy to help wherever I can.

I always say to take my $0.02 for whatever it’s worth, and ignore me if something works better for you. Also, I’m focusing here on online communities, but they share many of the same characteristics as offline ones.

In the 279 Days report, I wrote about the practical aspects of community building. We looked at RSS vs. email, how to create an e-book, and so on.

This post will look more closely at the underlying philosophy of a community. First of all, what makes a community? Definitions abound, but here’s mine:

A community is a group of people united through a common struggle with the same stories.

Let’s look at the definition and related features in more detail.

A group is more than two people. No man is an island, and two people can be a partnership, but you need at least three people to have community. Hopefully, over time you’ll have more than three.

A common struggle unites individuals into groups and creates a sense of urgency. The struggle can’t be too easy. It’s good to be victorious in the end, but you have to go through some hardship along the way.

The same stories help bond the group together over time. Stories can be about anything related to the community. They can be negative, positive, or descriptive.

That’s the definition – my definition, anyway. But what else does a community need?

A community needs a leader. Yes, I know we’re living in a time where everyone’s voice matters. I’ve written before about Influential Following, about how it’s perfectly fine to be a follower. But once you start building a community, you become a leader.

I’ve been a part of organic, leaderless groups and they always share two characteristics: a) they are very small, and b) they lack a collective vision. If you want to grow or take action towards a greater goal, you need a leader. A leader can recruit other leaders, help group members assume responsibilities, and so on – but someone has to be that person.

A community needs friends AND enemies. It’s easy to see why friends are needed, but defined enemies create cohesion among group members. You need a villain, a bad guy. The bad guy can be a person, group, idea, or belief.

Some might ask, why do you need an enemy? (Can’t we all just get along?) It’s kind of like asking what happens when nonconformity becomes the norm – what will we do then?

My response is that the idea of nonconformity becoming the norm is kind of like the idea of world peace arriving tomorrow. That would be wonderful; call me when it happens. Until then, having a defined enemy increases the strength of the community.

Here’s a good example of a new online community: ManvsDebt. It’s very clear what this project is all about. There’s a cause, a struggle, a leader, and a villain. Adam is a good storyteller and seems committed to seeing things through. He’s also moving from Indianapolis to Australia in just a few days. Good luck!

A (strong) community needs a long-term commitment. Make sure you know what you’re getting into when you start something up, and how long you’re willing to commit to it. A short-term commitment can produce a weak community, but a stronger group needs time to grow. The natural cycles of growth and regression are hard to shortcut.

A community needs its own language. The language can be terminology, concepts, or phrases that take on a special meaning to members of the community. Like anything else, the language can change over time, but it creates a subtle boundary between group members and outsiders. Here at AONC I write about world domination, a concept that some people “get” and others don’t.

A community needs to actively (and carefully) solicit other members. A good community reaches out to like-minded individuals and invites them to become part of something bigger than themselves. The message is:

Hey! You are not alone.

Here we are. There are other people who see the world the same way you do. Come and join us.

Just as a community welcomes the right people with open arms, a strong community will also gently turn away people who aren’t the best fit. This isn’t rude; it’s good for the community, and good for the people who don’t belong.

A community built on hope is stronger than one built on fear. Some groups can survive on negativity, but I think this is a risky gamble. I recently heard a public radio interview with a guy who runs an alternative, pro-gun rights group here in the U.S. Was he mad about Obama being elected? Hardly. “This is the best thing that could have happened to us,” he said. He sounded excited about the fact that his group had someone new to hate.

I give him credit for his honesty. If you can mobilize pissed-off people into a cause, you can go far. The only thing I worry about is, “Where do you take those people?”

Personally, I would not want to lead a group of pissed-off people. They might turn against me at some point, just as they turned against something else to unite into a group in the first place.

That’s why I believe a strong community has to be for something in addition to being against something. The leaders (and active group members) have to be able to lead the followers out of one place and into somewhere else.

Preaching to the Choir

One more thing (important): when growing a community, it’s usually better to focus on connecting with people who are naturally predisposed to your message than to try and convince hostile people to join. Evangelism is hard; recruitment is easy.

Even so, as a community grows, the leader has to begin making choices in who she targets her communication towards. The categories overlap, but roughly speaking, you have three:

Option 1: Focus on the most vocal members. This is usually a mistake. Just as a good teacher learns to look past the hands that are always raised, a community leader should try to look beyond the most vocal and active members to make sure the other people are enjoying themselves.

Option 2: Focus on the true fans. True fans are vitally important to the long-term sustainability of the community, but I also think it’s a mistake to focus exclusively on them. Since they typically represent only about 2-4% of the total group, it’s good to pay attention to what everyone else thinks too.

Option 3: Focus on the silent majority. The silent majority are the people who just hang out without ever saying anything. They don’t usually comment on blogs, you may never hear from them, but they care about what’s happening in the group. Very much.

As important as everyone else is, I think the silent majority is extremely important. Over here, I appreciate the vocal members, I rely on the true fans, but I don’t want to forget the silent majority. Sometimes they come out of hiding and I’m amazed at who they are. Wow! Look who cares about what I have to say. All this time they were there, and I had no idea.

Are you part of the silent majority here? If so, thank you for reading. I take your time and trust seriously. No pressure to do anything. Everyone else, I appreciate you too. The state of the union is strong.

Good luck with your own community building.

***

Your Turn (the not-silent group): As mentioned, take my $0.02 for what it’s worth to you. When I asked for input this morning, I received 28 different definitions of “community” in the first 5 minutes. Feel free to use the comments section to share your own thoughts about what makes a community.

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37 Responses to “What Makes a Community?”

  1. Chris, thanks for your kind words and the mention. This means a lot coming from you!

    Please keep providing inspiration for all of us to continue to foster our communities into whatever they aspire to be! You rock!

  2. @ManvsDebt,

    Of course! It’s a great project that a lot of people will be interested in. Keep it up.

  3. Hey Chris!

    I only found your blog today as a reader linked to it in a comment in my site, but I just wanted to say I love what you have done here. I have a site with a similar angle and separate myself quite a lot from the “general niche” style writing.

    I definitely agree with your definition of community, and through reading your other posts, can tell you have built one at this site.

    I’ll be back!

    Cheers,
    Glen

  4. Your definition of community is right on. I would personally add something about a shared language in the definition itself. Great post.

  5. I realize that an external enemy can be a rallying point and strengthen internal cohesion. However, often, humans being what they are, motivated by fear from the things they do not understand, the enemy is taken out literally rather than by turning him into your friend. Much effort, productivity, and ethics can be wasted in this way. I guess we can all think of recent examples of the past century involving lots of flag waving. A second problem here is when the group visible (through symbolism) distinguishes itself from others. Tattoos, shaven heads, long hair, …. special language or phrases.

    I guess what my issue is that 90% of everybody are followers and that means that the remaining 10% have a huge responsibility in terms of where they lead them. What you describe above can be used for good as well as evil and it has been. All other things being equal, I would rather there not be communities, but that’s probably just my personal risk (in)tolerance speaking.

  6. i’ve followed you for a while now – this is one of my favorite posts to date.
    thank you.

  7. Congratulations on the project so far, Adam, and good luck with the move. I’ll check in in a month or so and see how it’s going.

    Chris, regarding community: I think another thing that can be helpful is having different methods of participation available.

    I’m in the silent majority in most of the communities I’m a part of, but one thing I often do is check the “About” and “Contact” pages to see what kind of communication options are open to me. In case I DO have something to say, I’d like to know that my voice will be heard. If I just see a contact form and nothing else, I get a bit turned off, and think that it’s more of a business endeavor than a relationship.

    If I see a bunch of different ways to get in touch with the community leaders, I’m encouraged and feel like sticking around longer, knowing that if I have something to say, it won’t just be routed to some “Miscellaneous” folder somewhere.

    And for the people who may not have much to say, but still want to contribute, I always think it’s cool to be able to help out with something while remaining in the background. I do a lot of beta testing of new functionality on the sites I frequent, and I participate in polls and surveys when asked.

    For a personal example of this, one of the ways I encourage the ItStartsWith.Us folks to get involved is to design a header based on the site’s “Change the World” theme, and then I put it into permanent rotation on the site. It’s really cool to see what creativity people bring to the table when you give them a chance.

    In summary, I think that communication and participation options are important: most people don’t take advantage of it, but I think they do appreciate it.

  8. Chris,

    Thanks very much for this post! I think we’ve put about 90% of this advice into practice when growing the Freak Revolution, but the other 10% will help a lot.

    It’s cool to know I’m not the only one of your readers (well, that Kyeli and I aren’t the only two) who are building their own communities. (:

  9. I love how you described these pieces, Chris. And I think you are pretty on here.

    One more thing I would add, which is similar to some of what you’ve already said, is what I call a “semi-permeable membrane” or some kind of barrier to entry.

    A community shouldn’t be impossible to join, but it shouldn’t be easy. If someone has to take some definitive action or step to belong, they are going to feel some sense of kinship and belonging with others there.

    For example, and this is more of a commercial example, but our community The Business Oasis requires the purchase of our first product- Unveiling the Heart of Your Business. It means that everyone who joins subscribes to the same notions and beliefs, and it also means that there is some commitment and a point of reference and commonality.

    You can obviously have other steps than a purchase, but some sort of initial commitment is, I believe, an important part of joining a community. Otherwise it’s more like loitering. :)

    peace
    Mark

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  11. Good work Chris!
    Glad you put the bit in about having an enemy to defeat. Communities need a sharp edge about what they’re trying to achieve and equally what they despise.
    I highly recommend Douglas Atkin’s book “The Culting of Brands”. Whilst it’s titled ‘brand’, he’s saying the key to a brand is building a community and that’s what the book is about.
    A summary I created of this book is on Slideshare.com, look up “Brand Worship”.
    Cheers, Geoff
    PS: Australia is ready for you Chris…

  12. Good stuff here Chris. Back in 1998, my wife and I began a Christian spiritual community called Numinous (www.numinousinc.com). After 11+ years, I can attest to what you share and to the challenges to community. We use a phrase to help people understand what the experience of this shared common struggle will look like, and that is a major challenge of community—”invasive community.” We do this because, in our sphere, many people have previous definitions to “Christian church” that we are committed to changing, or at least we are living with a different definition. In their definition, a church community is more like a consumer experience where only the paid staff is really close, but most everyone else is a consumer, one who can come and go as they wish. That, to me (and I think based on what you wrote) is NOT what a community is. In a community, there is that shared sense of existence with the shared stories and the shared vision. There is a commitment to one another and to the community “common struggle.” The challenge for many, which is why so many communities fail (and I mean communities in a 1000 different varieties), is that there is a reluctance to allow for the invasion to my life. So, especially for Americans (or the ones I know and relate to, Christian and non-Christian), we desire the community experience, but we fear and refuse to really take off the masks to be real.

    Hence, our warning to others and part of our internal language is the concept of “invasive community.” Come run with us, we say, and we’ll go forward in life together, but you have to be willing to allow for the communal experience to take you deeper. In other words, there will be investment both directions and that can feel invasive. So, avoid the reaction of “what right do these people have to tell me X?” The answer is easy–these people are in your community, a community that you joined willingly with the common struggle and same stories.

    I’ve been in leadership all of my adult life in a variety of things, now over 25 years, and this, building this community, has been the most rewarding, yet the hardest thing I have ever done.

    Thanks for sharing Chris; good words as usual.

  13. Fantastic break down on what consists of a community, Chris. Community building and really conversing with my respective communities is something I cherish and have a passion for. Not only for the success of that specific community, but for the care and respect I have for the people – and I see that you do the same with your community on AONC.

    Bookmarked, saved, all of the above :)

  14. June 2, 2009

    scaringella

    What you describe in this post is called a society. Like France (yeah, i’m french :-)) for example. So what’s missing is boundaries for your society, frontiers where people know they leave the community, and are a little bit scared by all those strange people around.

  15. Chris, this is probably the best definition of community and the most concise and precise definition of what it means to lead a community. Thanks for the post.

  16. I’m a bit late commenting on this post, but I have a question about your approach with regards to the “silent majority.” What do you do to feel that you are connected with them? How are you determining the best way to engage them? By definition – given their silence – as a group they would have to be a relatively unknown.

    Cheers,
    Adam

  17. June 2, 2009

    Darrick J Lee

    “A community is a group of people united through a common struggle with the same stories. ”
    I completely understand and appreciate the last part of that… “with the same stories.” It is the definition from a writer and one who seeks to write about individuals stories.
    However, I believe that even a group of people united through a common struggle, will not have the same stories. I think that each individual person will have different stories from their own perspective that makes the community that much better. They may share the same circumstance or events, but each person tells a different story. Each person’s own background, opinions, and past experiences create a new experience in the shared event and thus create a different story. (Example would be all the different soldiers who struggled together in battle… they share the same events, but each person has a different story…)
    And as a writer it is our job to tell each individual story and draw comparisons, some similar and some vastly different.
    So I would submit that a great benefit of a community is that there are different perspectives and different stories that enhance a community and should be mentioned in the definition somehow.
    *Note: Not attacking or flaming your definition since it is your definition and thus influenced by your experiences, but it is my thought as a budding writer who has had to interview different people about the same event, only to find each person had a different story.

    Eveything else, I agree with althought I would have tried to sneak in the word groupthink somewhere in there… I remember discussing this in one of my Senior Capstone courses while discussing Toni Morrison and her use of community in her books…
    Woohoo!!! I related something I learned in class to something in real life!

  18. Chris,

    What a fantastic piece. Awhile back, I taught a sociology class and used a book called Disaster at Buffalo Creek. An entire community washed away in the blink of an eye. We don’t realize how important community is until we lose it. Thanks for your unique outlook on life!

    G.

  19. I posted a link to this article on my blog. My mastermind group is in the process of starting an online community to support offline businesses. Your words of guidance couldn’t have come at a better time. Thank you!

  20. Chris,

    I don’t know if you’ve had an opportunity to read Seth Godin’s book Tribes, but it speaks directly to your post. I think one of the things missing from your list is, when building your community, you recognize that everyone who follows you is also a leader and it’s imperative that you follow them as well. This promotes further cohesion and results in a stronger community.

    Wonderful analysis,

    J.R.

  21. Hi all, great comments! The conversation is yours.

    A couple quick replies:

    @Scaringella,

    I think a community is much more narrow than a society. The boundaries come in the form of a common vision, shared language, norms, etc.

    @Adam,

    Yes, they are silent but not entirely unknown. This is something that certainly took me a while to understand with this community. If you need to hear from them, you can draw them out through surveys or asking for help with something specific – and then you’ll often hear a different perspective than those who are already voicing their opinions.

    @Darrick (and everyone),

    Great points, thanks.

  22. Chris, thanks for this post. I am in the early stages of creating a few communities related to a couple of my passions. This post is extremely helpful in helping me plan and prepare for what I will do.

    I believe it is extremely important to not only look at your own goals, but think of the community as a whole. Yes, there needs to be a leader, but you also have to think about each of the smaller groups that make up the overall community.

  23. “A community needs friends AND enemies”

    I just can’t help but feel this perpetuates the “us-them” mentality that has caused so many problems we are trying to grapple with today. What will it take for multiple communities to co-exist without making each other wrong … especially to the point of making acts of violence against one another. Gangs fit the above definition a community.

    “defined enemies create cohesion among group members. You need a villain, a bad guy. The bad guy can be a person, group, idea, or belief.” and “A community built on hope is stronger than one built on fear.”

    Fear works well for the short term while hope takes longer to become “sticky”. As long as a “bad guy”, the common foe is the basis of community (ie. built on fear) I have a difficult time seeing how the community can move to being built on hope. At some point you have to pay less attention to where you don’t want to be so you can pay more attention in moving towards where you want to go.

  24. This is a great post, Chris, thanks! As a writer and photographer, I find community is extremely important as well — we survive because of the support from our community, but I truly believe we thrive because of the constructive criticism it provides as well. If you’re part of a community that enables both, you’re very lucky!

  25. June 2, 2009

    Dillon Ross

    Great post. I agree that a strong community is built around friends and enemies.

  26. June 3, 2009

    Daniel Mick

    Fantastic post Chris! EVERYONE should bookmark this. We all live, work, and play in a variety of communities. This is a clear guide as to why and how some work and some fail, how to improve them and how to break them. Good stuff.

  27. June 4, 2009

    Lori Johnson

    Interesting! I guess u could consider me part of the silent community at this time. I would like to hear updates on these comments.

  28. Hi Chris, I found your site through Global patriot, and just want to say that this is very very cool, the whole concept is pretty inspiring. Subscribed to your feed and looking forward to conforming to non conformity.

  29. As always, your stuff makes me think. I don’t like acknowledging that enemies are a necessary part of a community, but I think you’re probably right.

    We need to make sure that we don’t mis-define our enemies or allow them to define us.

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  31. June 5, 2009

    Andreas Kopp

    Hey Chris,

    i am also part of the silent community but i am also a true fan of your blog. I read every piece of your work and you are keeping up the good quality in all of your posts. Thank you. I also founded a community here in my home town which is bringing together social interested internet ethusiasts with ngo and new social start-ups. Let´s see where this community is heading. We are definetly a pro community!

  32. Hi Chris,
    Another great post. I am one of the people you have inspired to create a community or at least an info source, around an activity I think is cool, which is walkathons. I’d love to see an online community with forums where we could support each other. I would consider setting one up but I think you’d need to be able to watch it a bit to see what we’re talking about there. You could potentially charge for membership. Think about whether that makes sense…

    Lee
    walkathonguide

  33. I find it extremely interesting that since I’ve started a blog… started becoming part of a community… I see the same individuals posting comments on places I end up as well. That’s pretty cool.

    “Evangelism is hard; recruitment is easy.”

    Amen.

  34. Thank you, Chris.

    I’m new here (but I’m sticking around… consider me a new recruit). However, in my little corner of the world wide web, Community is something I talk about often.

    I’ve never seen a description of Community so lucidly laid out.

    This page is bookmarked.
    This site is RSS’d.
    This guy is returning soon.

    To World Domination,
    -Chase

  35. Enjoyed this post, particularly the last part about focusing on the silent majority, which I had never thought of before.

    Some things I think it is important for a leader to understand are (1) he/she needs to be passionate about and totally committed to the community and it’s beliefs, (2) it’s not really all about you, it’s about the group of people and their idea, even though you play a very big part, and (3) it’s good to take some time out for yourself every once in a while to take a deep breath and think.

    Thanks again, Chris!

  36. You mention the need for an enemy. I have seen its importance. In the 80s, I lived in Inman Park, a close Atlanta neighborhood. It had been a slum when young professionals began moving into its elegant but cheap and neglected houses, restoring them. That alone was a challenge. But we became far more cohesive due to two enemies:

    The State of Georgia wanted to divide our neighborhood with an expressway. Very powerful interests backed the plan. We resisted. The daily paper portrayed us as both privileged elite and as luddite hippies in their cartoons. It took 15 years to resolve, including some civil disobedience arrests and highly creative actions, forcing us much closer to one another.

    Also a fleet of dump-trucks tried to buy every vacant lot or derelict house for a parking lot and base of operations. Their action was stealthy and many incursions were discovered only at the last minute. The many emergency meetings we held to forestall this threat exceeded any number of feel-good activities in making our neighborhood a tight and highly effective one.

  37. I believe that participating in the common good is part of what makes a community.

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