Understanding How Communities Work

Having held the title of “Community Manager” and been directly involved in this work for a decade, you’d think I’d know more about the topic. The truth is I’ve been searching for a framework, structure or maybe a magic bullet the whole time. By many accounts and metrics, I’ve had success in this role. I can think of all the events, relationships and connections that I’ve made and fostered and feel pretty good. And yet, I still struggle with how to articulate what community really is and how it can be created, designed and how to grow and nurture it.

I suppose it’s much like teaching. Yes, there are many frameworks and strategies that can be useful ways to think about teaching but the reality is, teaching in schools is really about connecting with humans and that is something that comes with uncertainty and variables that are very difficult to control.

My current role with ALP includes a continued pursuit of building and creating community. It’s always a challenge to explain this to those inside the education world, let alone those outside it. I continually reflect on things that have worked for me and others. When I engage others in this conversation in broad terms, the way each of us thinks about community is very personal. While I know and believe there is no magic bullet, I’m trying to create enough opportunities and spaces for everyone I serve to find their community while still being able to see how they all work in concert.

It begins with the word itself. “Community” is one we toss around quite a bit. Is a classroom a community? Is the MOOC or course we take a community? Are those you interact with on Twitter a community? Yes? Maybe? No? Whether you use the word is not critical but I suppose I’m talking about someone consistent or known group of people that you feel some connection to and some sense of belonging. That to me is the key difference between networks and communities. Networks are weak ties and belonging and connection are not critical. Typically, the larger the network the better. People are nodes of information and ideas that you can access. Communities have some degree of obligation and affiliation. They can be named and identified.

As I think about online communities I’m trying to understand how platforms to support and influence communities. Sometimes communities reside in a single platform. These can be open or closed spaces. Closed spaces allow for more intimate, focused conversation that is better at creating a sense of belonging and trust. Open spaces are more inclusive and allow people more freedom to move in and out.

A great personal example for me that helps me analyze how online communities work is No Laying Up. They are a group of young golf enthusiasts who have built a large audience based on some fresh takes on the world of professional golf and golf in general. While beginning with a Twitter account, they are now mostly known for their podcasts but also have a Youtube channel where they are producing high-quality content as well as a message board and Instagram. They also host the odd in-person event and tournament which many take advantage of. My personal connections are mostly with the podcast and Twitter. The message board and forum are definitely for the hard-core members. I essentially consume the content without much interaction. Do I think of myself as a “community member”? Only in the sense that community is a word I understand and use frequently. Obviously, with their large numbers of followers/fans/members, each one would describe their associations differently.

So my wondering after all that rambling is what kinds of online community spaces, platforms and interactions work for you? Given my definition, what online communities do you belong to? Do they have an in-person component? What do you enjoy or benefit from most with those communities? I’m asking you to do a weird thing here and that is please leave a comment. Thanks.