A few weeks ago I was at the MESH Conference in Toronto – an excellent event, well worth attending – where the term community emerged as one of the core concepts being used by many of the presenters. Other than being a bit peeved at the bastardization of the term community, it was a pleasure to connect with other social media community folks at MESH! I started reflecting on the concept after hearing many people toss the term around quite losely, and also thinking about the meaning of community in a web-enabled world.
Let’s start with the concept… a community is a sociological construct or model which means different things to different people, but at it’s core involves a group of people with identifyable commonalities. Traditionally tied by geographic proximity, in the modern digital era the meaning of community has evolved and changed radically as the degree of virtual interconnectness has increased.
There are core values which are critical to the cohesive bonding required for a group of people to identify themselves as a community. Community affiliation is dependent upon unity or connectiveness among a group of people driven by common values, ethics, and/or interests that are meaningful, identifiable, and which have a degree of commitment from the members.
Etienne Wegner, in defining a Community of Practice, describes a community as having an “identity defined by a shared domain of interest”, with a “commitment to the domain, and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people”. It’s the commitment to the domain that I think challenges the concept of community in an online world. It’s an easy process to join an online group, or be part of an online community; and to participate in that online space. It’s also easy to quickly disassociate oneself from that space and association, and the bond or commitment to that space could be neglible. While not all members of a community would necessarily know each other, they should be able to identify and connect with each other in a meaningful way.
Some companies seem to be using the concept of online communities as a marketing move in an attempt to make people feel more connected to their products, and to try to build increased brand awareness and loyalty. Does this make those groups of online people communities? I would argue that in most cases no – associating with others online around a particular brand could easily be dependent upon the satisfaction to the brand more than any bond with the group of people themselves. So if, for example, a member of the Pepsi “community” were to start drinking Coke (or better yet Green Smoothies) instead, then there is no longer an association or commitment to that group of people. It’s easy to make this brand-change, and the bonds tying people together aren’t founded on common values, ethics or interests. I can’t picture people who drink pepsi high-fiving each other in the street just because they drink pepsi (or even acknowledging that connection at all).
One of the challenges of cultivating online communities is the ease with which people can dissociate themselves, or just forget about the group of people. It takes time and commitment around a strong set of core values to build stickiness and depth that bonds and holds a group together as a community.
There are of course many examples of strong vibrant communities that either exist completely online, or are founded in a strong online presence. The social media community is a great example – with common values, interests & connections bonding people together, both virtually through various online spaces; and in person at a variety of ongoing events. The MuniGov community is another great example, which brings people together around shared areas of focus, expertise and values – yet is entirely virtual, operating through Second Life and the web. We could look to these (and many other) examples for what makes online communities work – in another post!
Of course there are many other issues defining online community – identity, privacy, access, etc, etc… I’d love to hear your opinions on the concept of community in a web-enable world.