What is community? What is it particularly in the context of the online world?
It didn't start with the Cluetrain Manifesto, but it was pushed front and center by the author's claim that "markets are conversations." Conversations are about human interaction. And the online world has prompted an explosion of human interaction. It was just a short, brief step before these conversations began to be talked about as online communities.
Frankly, I've always had a bit of difficulty thinking of online interaction as a community. A little over a year ago, I wrote a posting called "What is Community?" as a comment on a posting by Jennifer Rice where she asks the same question. I wrote,
The test of community is not what we share, but what we are willing to sacrifice to remain apart of it. There are many people I enjoy interacting with online and in person. But there is not shared commitment to one another's welfare that requires my sacrificing my resources to support them.
While I support the emphasis on relationships, my sense is that many of these relationships are ones of convenience. As long as they touch on issues that are important to me, I'll participate. When that changes, I'm moving on.
Community requires commitment that involves sanctions for violating the core values and trust of the community, as well as benefits for full participation and contribution. In traditional communities these cultural norms are understood and act as the social bond that holds the community through hard times.
In my work as a leadership development and strategic visioning specialist, I find that there is a value in community held by people, but an unwillingness to establish the social structure that supports it. Without that structure, these are not relationships so much as acquaintances.
The question of a "successful" community was raised in the comments. By what criteria do we judge a community? I used to ask clients after I had developed a comfortable level of communication with them the following question: "If you were to become a total failure in the work that you do, who would stand with you in your humiliation." More times that I care to admit, they did not have an answer. They did not know who truly cared for them. Too often not even their spouse.
Genuine community requires commitment, sacrifice and a level of intimacy that online interaction is virtually unable to provide. That doesn't mean that those relationships lack value or integrity, just that they are not the kind that constitutes community.
This continues to be a very live topic of discussion. Bill Kinnon sent me a link to a site where the question for a workshop at the CITS Digital Transitions Conference is Sustaining Engagement Online: Is Community in Tension with Collaboration.
Here's how the define the traditional view of community.
Community has traditionally been defined as a geographically bounded group of people who:
• share dense, multiplex, and intimates ties with one another that involve frequent face-to-face interactions
• have relationships that are broadly based (versus being specialized)
• share a common, or “collective” identity, which includes boundaries that define in-group and out-group membership (“us” vs. “them”) and a sense of solidarity, and
• share common cultural understandings (and perhaps even worldviews; see Wellman and Gulia 1999 for a brief discussion of the definition of community).
That is, authentic communities tend to have fixed boundaries, where people either belong or do not. Authentic communities do not rapidly expand or contract, or turn on a dime. They have identities tied to past events, places, and people. They describe common ways of life and cultural understandings.
They proceed on to note that the conception of community is changing. "when many people use the term community today, they are not referring to the classic barn-raising community, but rather looser networks of individuals who may have few, if any, direct ties to one another."
A fluid or more liquid perception of human identity and community are a apart of this testing of the boundaries of the traditional understanding of community.
The question, I suggest, that is important to answer is not whether a traditional or an emerging understanding of community accurately describes the way communiteis are. But rather, "what is the purpose of community?"
The reality is that with the advent of online communication technologies, a la Cluetrain, human relationships have the opportunity to take on new dimensions.
Look at the discussion - Markets are Miracles - that Doc Searls has first with Sayo Ajiboye, Executive Director of Mission Africa International.
Here's a portion of Doc's reflection.
Yet markets, as conversations — and as relationships that depend on conversations — cannot be fully understood in accounting terms, which always need to balance out. Markets grow. They have "positive sum outcomes." Yet "positive sum" is yet another accounting expression. Markets enlarge our knowledge, our expertise, our connoisseurship, our authority, and our humanity in the course of all those changes. You can't fully understand or express those gains in terms of exchange.
We went on to discuss the economics of altruism. Whole markets gain when one company generously gives its time and expertise to build common market infastructure. Yet if all we understand are the economics of accounting, rather than the economics of relationship, we cannot witness the obviously positive effects of generosity. We're too busy looking for the payback, for ways to balance the moral books. We have given generously, we must be compensated. So we miss or discount the effects of generosity, of mercy and forgiveness, whcih are not about accounting or accountability. In fact they have miraculous effects because they release us from the need to hold others accountable, and to hold ourselves in a state of waiting for others to pay us back somehow.
Here we see the emergence of an idea related to community to goes beyond merely the online convenience of sharing stories and information. Here we find a deepening of relationship to where generosity, of intentional giving to others is recognized and encouraged.
This, I believe, is at the heart of what Bill Kinnon is getting at with his exploration of the Generous Web meme.
Now, look at Dan Wallace's take on Doc's thought.
Then look at the Nat Torkington's posting on his conversation with Doc about Business as Morality.
What is interesting about all this is that a number of important ideas are bumping into one another here.
Each are different concepts, obviously, but each also figure into something very basic. How we as human being relate to one another. Let me try to make some distinctions here.
Community is a gathering of people who are in relationship with one another. That gathering may be because of common values, or geographical proximity, or a shared purpose. But there is something that creates an association with one another that goes beyond mere affiliation.
Conversation is how these relationships function. We talk with one other to sort through questions of boundaries and ethics. We talk to help one another think and imagine, to move forward. Here the diversity of relationships is helpful because different perspectives provide a way to establish a sense of where we belong in the wider context of beliefs and values that are fundamental to human identity and purpose.
Morality and Ethics are similar. To speak of a moral world or a moral order is to acknowledge that boundaries of what is appropriate and inappropriate are legitimate considerations for the managing of communal relationships. Ethics is the more abstract side of morality where human behavior is quanitified into what is advisable, permitted and ill advised and not permitted.
Generosity is a wonderful entry point into a dimension of community that I find has not sufficiently been exposed in most discussions of online community. Generosity is a description of character. It is a way of understanding the quality of a person. If a person is generous, courageous, or kind. We know something about them. How can a person exhibit these characteristics online? It is more difficult because we are physically removed. This is why I come back to what I submitted above. That community is not about what we share in common, but about what we are willing to sacrifice for others.
Not to over spiritualize this truth of community, but during this week that is holy to Chrisitans worldwide, the image of the person of Jesus sacrificing his life for others is an image that in many respects defines the ultimate personal investment in the lives of others. Community is not so much what I gain from others, but what I contribute to their lives. This is the potential of a generous web community.
How can this generosity be made possible through the relationship formed through the vehicle of the online world? That my friends is the challenge that those of us who value human conversations and community must continue to strive to identify. I'm grateful that Bill Kinnon has begun this exploration.
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