What is community?

What is "community"? As a community development professional, this is a question that comes up often. I often have conversations with colleagues, industry friends, and other business people about what this means.

People often think that blogs, forums, wikis, and other tools are community. In actuality, those tools are just that – tools. They can help you to build community, but they aren’t actually "community". When we talk community, we’re simply talking about an interaction, a connection. Blogs or forums are a way to initiate and sustain that interaction.

Several years back, I was on a team at work that helped to define the community development/support strategy for the company. We needed to develop a clear, agreed upon definition of what "community" meant, at least to us. I did a ton of research to find what others in the industry and around the Web were using a definition. By far the closest thing we came to a real definition was Derek Powazek’s version from his incredible book Design for Community (which if you haven’t read, you should … today!). We tweak, poked, prod, pulled, and shaped all this new found knowledge, as well as our own brainstorming into the definition below.

What do you think?

A community is a group of people who form relationships over time by interacting regularly around shared experiences, which are of interest to all of them for varying individual reasons.

 

Group
A group can be 2 or more people.  Most, if not all, communities will change and evolve as they are subject to growth or reduction. During these processes, they may destabilize, or turn into a very different type of community. As such, the number of people involved can make a huge difference for the character of the community and the kinds of relationships and interactions that form.

 

Relationships

Relationships in this context can vary greatly depending on the community. They can be very deep, long-term relationships, or much looser relationships. Basically, some bond has to form between members of the group described above. And like any relationship, as the group evolves (and grows and shrinks) this relationship will continue to change.

 

This word "relationship" is key to any discussion of community.

 

Over time

Relationships can form over time either forward or backwards. You can form relationships in a community because of prospective reasons (I want to get involved with these people) or retrospective reasons (I have a long-standing connection to these people).

 

Interacting

The most common forms of interaction in a community involve some form of communication or expression, such as showcasing LEGO creations, dropping an email to say hi, or working together on organizing an offline event. Additionally, interaction doesn’t necessarily include the entire community all the time.

 

These interactions lead to the forming of relationship bonds, described above. They can be formed using any number of tools, including email, IM, phone, snail mail, in person meetings, blogs, WIKIs, etc. Sometimes these interactions happen for the entire community to participate in, such as a discussion board thread in a web community. But very often, these “full community” interactions are driving smaller group, more personal interactions.

 

Regularly

Community must come together in some form on a ongoing basis. Regularly doesn’t assume that this interaction is on a set schedule, but rather that there is or will be interaction at some point in the future and/or has been at some point in the past. It’s nearly impossible to form a relationship, after all, if you never see or talk to the other person/people.

 

Object

What makes community more than a simple group of people is that they are drawn together around some object. This object can be physical, virtual, theoretical, or philosophical; a political ideal, a celebrity, a musical genre, a hobby, a type of car, a neighborhood, a sport.

 

Individual (reasons)

While community members are drawn together around a single object, they are drawn there for a variety of very personal reasons. We may both love LEGO bricks, but I may love it because I love to build, while you love it because you’re a collector of old LEGO sets. Some reasons are emotional; others are more abstract or intellectual. Some have to do more with relationships that form in a community, others with the object of interest.

 

Each member of the community group has their own reason – or more likely reasons – for joining and being part of a particular community.